The New Democratic Upsurges
The mainstream Western media that celebrated the democracy movements in the Arab world not very long back, is relatively silent now. For, then it was the Arab youth’s striving for the ‘western values’ of democracy that it was celebrating. Now that the cry of ‘democracy’ is arising from its very midst, it does not seem to quite know what to do. From May 15 on, for almost two weeks Madrid and other Spanish cities have been witnessing some of the largest demonstrations in recent memory. Protesters have thronged the Puerta del Sol, virtually camping there. As government forces started cracking down, demonstrations began to grow in an ever expanding scale spreading to many other Spanish cities. When the government moved to ban demonstrations on May 20, in the run up to the regional and municipal elections, the protests acquired an even more militant form. A ‘snapshot’ of the rallies in defiance of the ban:
The initial protests against the planned multibillion euro bailout plan for banks, austerity measures and against high unemployment almost 45 percent among the youth), according to reports, were not very large but when the government responded by arresting several activists and demonstrators, things started going out of hand. That was the ‘spark that lit the prairie fire’. As Ryan Gallagher’s report in the New Statesmanput it:
A demonstration against the arrests was organised in the city’s main square, Puerta del Sol, and numbers soon snowballed when word got out over the internet. What began as a group of fewer than a hundred activists reached an estimated 50,000 within less than six days.
The protesters whose arrests had sparked the initial demonstration were released and immediately returned to the square. By the time they arrived, the demonstration was no longer just about their treatment at the hands of the police. It was about government corruption, lack of media freedom, bank bailouts, unemployment, austerity measures and privatisation.
Here is another video of a fierce battle being fought on the streets of Madrid:
According to a report in Der Speigel,
The protesters have occupied the square for days now, with some comparing the gatherings to those that took place on Cairo’s Tahrir Square earlier this year, and demonstrations also continued for the fifth day in a row on Thursday in Barcelona, Valencia, Bilbao and Santiago de Compostela. Spaniards living abroad have also set up protest camps outside the country’s embassies in Berlin, Paris, London and Amsterdam. Most of the events have been organized online. After organizing demonstrations in around 50 cities last Sunday, the Real Democracy Now (the name of the movement that coordinates the Spanish struggle – AN) movement became a household name virtually overnight.
By the end of May, the movement had now spread to Greece where, for the fifth consecutive day yesterday, an estimated 100, 000 people were demonstrating at the Syntagma square in Athens. Below the parliament building they stood, chanting ‘thieves’, ‘thieves’ and carrying placards that said ‘Poverty is the greatest abuse’. Initially calling themselves the ‘indignants’, the protesters in both Spain and Greece gradually coalesced into this loose federation with a website and a Facebook page by the name of Real Democracy Now (see their Manifesto in English translation here) that rapidly had over three and a half lakh members signing up. And virtually in tandem with the Spanish movement’s call for ‘real democracy’, the Greek movement too has transformed the struggle against austerity and bailout measures into a struggle for a changing the political system itself, into a struggle for radicalizing democracy.
The Question of ‘Politics’
This mutation of the essentially ‘economic’ struggle against the bailout plans and austerity measures into a political struggle for the transformation of the very terrain of democracy tells us something serious about the relationship of traditional forms and institutions of politics and their growing conflict with popular aspirations. The call for ‘real democracy’ comes in a context where the political parties and the formal political domain is being seen as highly corrupt and deeply implicated in the politics of predatory corporations and banks. By and large, not only political parties but often, even the unions have been bypassed by the mass mobilizations – an index of the relative redundancy of these structures of formal democratic politics. A report in the l’Humanité put it:
No trade union, let alone a political party. The workings of traditional dispute are outmoded, and even deliberately excluded. Internet, through the exchange in real time via social networks and chats, has allowed the emergence of a spontaneous free and radical protest movement by a generation that’s had enough…
The Internet has become a structural element of the movement. What is expressed is anger, a desire for radical change and a rejection of all traditional forms of politics. Which explains the refusal to be co-opted by any political party or trade union and calls to spoil ballot cards or vote blank. Confidence in the Spanish democratic system is broken; the indignants have the impression that their voices are never heard. The descent into the street came naturally, as an extension. The street is also where they want to be heard.
Many observers see the protests in Spain as a continuation of the May Day demonstration earlier this year. Interestingly, the May Day demonstration itself, according to Gemma Galdon Clavell of the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, was organized independently of the mainstream political parties and trade unions and was ignored by the media. The point is itself worth some serious thought for it clearly indicates that even those formally bearing the legacy of the Left and the workers’ movement, were clearly quite out of sync with large sections of the youth who also aligned themselves to the legacy of the Left through the May Day demonstration. That is why the entire atmosphere in these protests was said to be permeated by an anti-politics sentiment and with a contempt for all political parties. Once the movement acquired the form of a huge mass movement, obviously things must have changed further. No longer would the movement have consisted only of left-wing supporters of the workers’ struggles. People with different political/ ideological inclinations, people with no particular political preferences, all started joining into this mass of ‘the indignant’. The manifesto of Real Democracy Now emphasized this apparently nonpolitical character of the movement when it underlined something to the effect that ‘we are believers and nonbelievers, we have different political convictions but the thing that unites us is that we are angry at economic the state of affairs’.
The Arab Virus
What we see playing out here in Spain and Greece is not simply an aberration. The resonances of the struggles in the Arab world are very obvious and widely acknowledged. Activist-organizer Beatriz Pérez, 29, underlines: ‘Egypt and Tunisia was a very important catalyst for the movement in Spain’, which constituted an inspiration and a trigger, apart from inspiration of the recent student demonstrations in the UK. A report in Hurriyat Daily News, recently recalled its own speculations sometime ago, about the possibility of the North African and Middle Eastern revolution engulfing Europe – a possibility that it now saw becoming a reality. The resonances however, are not simply limited to the fact that the Internet and Facebook etc became the major vehicles of organizing the protests. These similarities are in fact linked to some other quite significant issues – those that pertain to the ‘implosion of the political’. Throughout the Arab world, this was in a very different context, precisely the situation of the formal domain of politics. Political parties lay at the feet of the establishment or had reduced themselves to complete inefficacy. In country after country across North Africa and West Asia, we have seen people in their hundreds of thousands march at the head and parties follow. The vanguards – Leninist and non-Leninist – all reduced to the ultimate pathos of ineffective, closed sects in some cases; or to political instruments in service of bankers and corporations. In earlier times, there was no way of communicating without the mediation of these organizations and their leaders. Things have changed now and direct communication and discussion has become possible through the Internet. A lot of discussion now happens there. But the Arab revolutions also have a ‘spiritual’ effect over these movements insofar as they are equally invested in the values of democracy.
Thus Dick Nichols of the Green Left Weekly, reports from Barcelona:
The central plazas of dozens of cities and towns across Spain bear an uncanny resemblance to Tahrir Square in Cairo. They have been taken over by thousands of demonstrators demanding a “new system”. As of May 29, dozens of other central plazas in Spanish cities and towns look the same — taken over by thousands of ordinary people demanding “a new system.
As speculations mount about Greece defaulting on its loan repayment from the IMF, the pressure has been building up on the government from international financial and corporate circles. In earlier times, such pressure would have worked and all political parties, seduced by the logic of neo-liberalism would have fallen in line. Not any more. It is clear here, to ordinary people as well, that if austerity measures a put in place after the debt is repaid, that will lead to further cuts in salaries and pension and result in further increase in unemployment and homelessness. That is no longer acceptable. And as the Hurriyat report underlines, if Greece defaults, that will not be the end of the story; it will most certainly be followed by Portugal, Ireland and Spain – with Italy not very far behind.
Here too, the link with the Arab revolts is quite obvious – though the issues may not be quite the same. But whatever the differences between the European and the Arab situation, one thing is quite clear: the question of livelihoods is central here and the fact that increasingly decisions about peoples’ lives are being taken away from their hands and manipulated in the name of some abstract notions of well-being which ultimately amount to the enrichment of some at the cost of vast majorities of populations.
Democracy in Practice
There is no doubt that none of the great movements sweeping the world in this part of the twenty-first century has any attachment to or any fixation with a programme. On the contrary, it cares two hoots about those who have. For those who have made programmes behind closed doors and do not want them to be discussed democratically, there is nothing but contempt in these movements. Yes, they do want to transform things but the critical question here is, rather than capture power and start mimicking the erstwhile powerful, one of creating new ground rules. The critical thing is to enunciate a different political practice so that whoever comes to power – the bourgeois or his Leninist mimic – will all have to be governed by those new ground rules. Not revolutionary? So be it. That is the fantasy of revolutionaries, not of the masses. It never was. Meanwhile, Puerta del Sol has been converted into a huge popular assembly where policies are being debated. Different commissions are drawing out policy proposals that are then discussed in the assembly, which has itself become a huge training camp, in between fighting street battles with government forces. Here is a glimpse from the New Statesman report:
The protesters at Puerta del Sol are interested only in action, not rhetoric. In the square, they built a makeshift campsite, including everything from a children’s nursery and a library to a kitchen offering free food donated by local businesses.
In the space of a few days they had created separate working commissions to form proposals for change to current government policy. A social and migration commission would look at immigration policy, the health commission would focus on how to deprivatise health-care services. Other commissions were formed to handle politics, education, the economy and the environment.
Among the camp’s immediate demands were calls for electoral reform, the dissolution of the Spanish parliament’s second chamber, and an end to a much-despised policy of “salaries for life” for politicians.
The movement itself has no single leader or figurehead; all decisions are made by consensus at general assemblies, held twice daily. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, attend the meetings, and no decision is taken until every single person is in agreement.
The meetings are long and laborious – occasionally lasting more than four hours at a time – but seem so far to have been successful.
Do you get a whiff of anti-Leninist, anti-vanguardist, anarchism? How can the people ever discuss and decide! They can and they do. Maybe that is where the twenty-first century will reverse the perversions of the twentieth.