Report From Spain: On the May 15th Movement

Report from Spain:
On the May 15
th Movement

note: The following is a brief account of the culmination of the “May
15th movement” in Barcelona. The movement had begun in
Madrid with the occupation of the central Plaza del Sol by tens of
thousands of young people, on the model of Tahrir Square in Cairo and
other similar mass gatherings of the past six months. After an early
(and failed) attempt to clear the Plaza del Sol by police, the
movement spread, with occupations of public space in 50 other Spanish
cities. The account (and critique) that follow applies generally to
the Spanish movement as a whole.

Two problems of
translation presented themselves. The first was of the Spanish word
“ciudadano”, or “citizen”, with the overtones of the ideology
of the affirmation of “civil society” that spread over the
previous three decades with the collapse of the older paradigm based
on variants of Marxian, or pseudo-Marxian, class struggle. The use of
this term of self-identification by the movement went hand in hand
with its initial overwhelming rejection of political parties, unions,
violence and explicit politics of any kind, as well as its
affirmation of a “real” democracy with, presumably, everyone as
“citizens”. The word “citizen” in English does not carry
quite the same set of associations (outside of similarly ideological
and largely academic circles), but nothing better presented itself.

The second translation
difficulty was the account’s play on the words “indignos”,
(i.e. contemptible), identifying the political class as a whole, and
“indignados” (angry, enraged), as the rank-and-file of the
movement called themselves. Since no comparable play on words
presents itself in English, the Spanish words are indicated in
parentheses where they occur).

To the Editors:

The meeting called at
the Barcelona encampment, intending to block access of the
professional politicians to the Catalan Parliament, showed two
distinct aspects in the course of the morning and early afternoon of
Wednesday June 15th, and seemed to mark the beginning of the end of
the movement, which had begun a month earlier.

June 15th was chosen
for protest because, on that day, the Catalan parliament was
scheduled to approve budgets with radical cuts in health care and
education, and was also scheduled to implement mechanisms of
privatization and to make shifts from public to private firms
(insurance companies, private clinics, etc..), the effects of which
had already been felt in previous months in (among other things) the
elimination of services and ever-longer waiting lists in hospitals.

Various neighborhood
assemblies converged on the park of the Ciutadella. The camp was set
up during the night, around the fence of the park where the
Parliament is located, and starting at 7 AM on the 15th,
it was swelling with people arriving at every park entrance. On
neither the 14th nor the 15th, however, did the
crowd reach the numbers seen on Friday May 27th… Were
the much-touted “alternative” media not working? Were the very
people who had called the demo themselves frightened, since
disrupting parliamentary activity is a felony, with prison sentences
of several years?

Whatever the case, the
demonstrators (3,000?) were numerous enough to force the MPs to enter
the park, huddled behind lines of police and jeered by the crowd,
while the President of the Generalitat, the Minister of Interior, and
more than thirty MPs had to arrive by a makeshift helicopter airlift.

Naturally, this made
this contemptible grouping (“ los indignos”) indignant in turn.
After all, people accustomed to making their own personal use of
public assets and to making instrumental use of democracy in the
defense of their caste interests, could not swallow this humiliation.
On this point, there was unanimity among fascists, xenophobes,
apologists for the central government in Madrid, Catalan nationalists
of different shades, leftists, environmentalists and parvenus of
every stripe, ensconced one and all in Parliament. The unanimous
statement they issued showed democracy to be explicitly the alibi of
people who are conscious accomplices of the ongoing kleptocratic
degeneration of the administration of public life. The MPs showed the
same consensus in their shameful passivity when faced with the
offensive presence of Felix Millet, well-known swindler of public
funds and generous benefactor of the Catalan cultural and political
elite, who appeared before this same parliament with a haughty
silence and a smile of contempt.

The media of mass
intoxication set aside their condescending paternalism in portraying,
to that point, the May 15 movement, and thereafter set about their
task of misrepresenting and criminalizing. Starting at noon that very
same Wednesday, they tried to sow division among the demonstrators,
resorting to their usual stratagems, distinguishing between “violent”
and “peaceful” people, and spreading messages against
violent people on twitter, etc; they did all this with the aim of
diverting– and distorting- attention to the well-worn topic of
violence. One spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior, in a
further demonstration of his ineptitude and crass bad faith,
characterized the gathering at the park as “urban guerrilla

Nonetheless, that
Wednesday morning indeed threatened to draw a red line, (as the
indignant (indignado) president of the Generalitat put it). That was
the red line separating the representatives of the kleptocratic
system, protected by thugs with privileged labor contracts, from the
people literally thrown into the street, homeless, diminished in
their rights (health, education, employment, pensions) and having no
other recourse than to throw their bodies against the armed violence
of the state; it was a red line, finally, showing the isolation of a
political caste more and more deeply entrenched in its own inanity.

Did the “Citizens”

Although the morning
passed without incident, apart from those organized by the Ministry
of the Interior and by the media of intimidation, the threats by
President Mas at noon on Wednesday, announcing that he would unleash
his guards against the protesters, seem to have had their effect on
the self-described “pacifists.” The meeting of the
afternoon, where unions, neighborhood organizations (also present in
the morning, but without much enthusiasm) and other associations of
so-called civil society had promised to attend, was notably short of
people. Where were the health care workers, who had been in the
streets a few weeks earlier, and who had been so active against the
cuts? Where were the “combative” trade unionists, now that the
central government, the previous week, had approved new rules
severely undermining the framework of industrial relations? It is
difficult to escape the feeling that the “enraged”
(indignados) had played politics and had, again, left in the lurch
those people really expressing their outrage (indignacion) in front
of Parliament.

One does not have to
fall into conspiratorial paranoia to suspect that there was a sotto
voce “disassembly” underfoot to isolate the supposedly “violent”
people from the pacifists. Although the mass meeting in front of
Parliament was supposed to be an all-day affair, the
self-proclaimed “pacifists” called a meeting at noon on
Wednesday, with very few people in attendance, canceling the
afternoon part of the demo, and in a clear maneuver aimed at sowing
, urged the people in the Ciutadella to head for the la
Placa Sant Jaume. Was this some incoherence of the spontaneous
movement, or was it a maneuver of those “citizen” ideologues
embedded in the movement itself, trying to abort it at a time when
the May 15 movement was showing more and more outrage (indignacion)?
Whatever the case, it amounted to capitulating to the blackmail of
the criminalization being touted by the government-media apparatus.

It would not,
therefore, be off the mark to conclude that the dominant component of
the mobilization beginning on May 15 was, as intimated previously, a
symptom of the proletarianization of the middle class, as well as an
accurate expression of its political dimension and its limited
capacity to counter that trend. It showed the political inconsistency
of a social movement based on a wrong-headed pacifism which fell into
the trap of the media’s spectacular dichotomy between violence and
pacifism, and whose no less ambiguous talk of democratic regeneration
was recuperated by those same representative bodies the movement
initially seemed to denounce. When things reached this point, the
riff-raff of the political class (los indignos) had defeated the
enraged people in the movement (los indignados).

The May 15 movement
will, therefore, go down as one more episode in the process of social
decomposition, an episode whose massive presence on the streets
rattled the cages of those who administer the increasingly fragile
capitalist socioeconomic order. We must therefore focus our attention
on what happens in the street and not on the TV or computer screen
(the solidarity movements of residents against evictions and
resistance occurring at the grassroots level of society are some

The lived experience of
the past month suggests that the experience of political conflict of
the people who unleashed the May 15 mobilization is predominantly
intellectual, academic, ethical, and ideological, i.e. an experience
specific to those generations who lived with the illusion of economic
expansion under the hegemony of finance capital over the last two
decades, and who are puzzled by its collapse. These generations had
benefited from a certain accumulation of family resources and from
public spending (a social peace subsidized with scholarships,
employment and training schemes, NGOs, etc.)., which ran parallel to
the consolidation of the democracy elaborated at the time of Franco’s
death, and whose social and political experience is not based on
confrontation. This would explain why the May 15 movement, at least
initially, did not call for a break with the “system”, but
rather for its cleansing.

Nonetheless, the
“system” continues. During the week prior to the
mobilization at the Catalan Parliament, the central government in
Madrid, given the absence of any agreement between employers and the
unions, enacted new laws amounting to a further hollowing out of the
guidelines for labor relations, just as it was launching a new debt
issue (at twice the interest on German debt). Thus the combined
forces of capitalist order, without much difficulty, managed to
criminalize the movement of May, but will they be able to criminalize
an unstoppable reality?

C. V. Barcelona, ​​June
21, 2011

PS-On Sunday June 19th,
a great sea of ​​humanity filled the streets of Barcelona (more
than 100,000 people, this time with “all” those missing in
action on Wednesday) with a predominantly playful, festive
atmosphere, one touting the actions of the previous month, and in
which the political machines of the institutional opposition were
trying to claim their share of the credit. What will come of this
remains to be seen. The movement will have at least served the
purpose of showing the practical limitations of mass mobilizations of
a “citizen” (cuidadano) character, which seek to regenerate
institutions in a context defined by the rampant degradation of the
material conditions of life and by democratic totalitarianism.


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