Whatever happened to 15-M Movement? Atharva Pandit

Guest post by ATHARVA PANDIT

[Against the background of Spain’s recent criminalizing of public protests and the first ever hologram demonstration (see Kafila post by Geeta Seshu) against it, this article revisits the major eruption in 2011, that eventually laid the ground for the emergence of a new political force in Spanish politics]

15M, image courtesy El Tecolote
15M, image courtesy El Tecolote

Spain, seems to be a country that is still shaping itself. Somewhat like a nation that wants to come to terms with its past, unlike many other countries that have gone through a traumatic history and have finally emerged through the political passions – admittedly misdirected – of their distant past. Spain seems like it is yet to come to terms with a civil war that forged its legacy in millions of Spanish minds and the future generations of the country. The fascist forces that staged a coup, and consequently, went on to purge about 150,000 of its citizens in summary executions, far surpassed some of the worst dictatorships that the world has witnessed, including that of Pinochet’s in Chile and of Videla’s in Argentina.

Forgetting, of course, doesn’t come cheaply for the people of Spain. The transition of Spain from a dictatorship to democracy after Franco’s death saw it pass through a tumultuous period that one could describe as a somewhat unusual civil war – one that was invisible and yet unsettling, leading to the emergence on the streets of Spanish towns and cities, of young criminal gangs dealing in narcotics and street crime, delinquents that were fearful of what democracy meant for their prospects and hopeful that it would lead them towards something positive and meaningful. It was in such traumatic times that are still registered in recent histories, did Spain achieve what can be called its political maturity – but not, of course, before another upheaval greeted its people.

The images of February 23rd, 1981 are marked in the pages of history, perhaps because it was the first such coup attempt caught live on camera, but most likely because what it symbolized for the people of Spain was the fact that the society of Spain was still uncomfortable with the prospect of a democratic institution. Of course, democracy was better than everything else, but, as Javier Cercas – one of the best writers from Spain, and one who can tap on the collective thoughts of Spanish society, on their history and legacy, and put them down in words – once remarked in an interview, democracy was not a paradise but the best political instrument that they had got. To come to terms with this institution after 36 years of suppression was akin to a political and psychological shock, which is why, Cercas says, when the coup did happen, he was one of the only few that took to streets to defend democracy. Many others remained in their houses, fearful of the consequences and dreading a repeat of 1936. One would have liked to imagine the Spanish people taking to the streets for the defense of their liberty, but, unfortunately, that didn’t seem to be the case – no barricades were put up, nobody ever marched on to the parliament seeking to secure their society’s liberty. Sure, the coup, failed as it was, was an assault on the newly-gained liberty for Spanish people but it also did something positive: it gained Spain three unlikely heroes that have an enigmatic significance in the Spanish minds – the prime minister Adolfo Suarez, the deputy, General Gutierrez Mellado and the head of the Communist Party, Santiago Carrillo. They were heroes because, when Lieutenant Colonel Antonio Tejero and his men stormed into the parliament and began shooting, these were the only three who remained standing while others ducked for cover. Its a significant moment in Spanish history, and one that was caught on camera. They remained standing and they risked their lives for – Spanish society would like to think – the defense of their liberty.

It might be said that, in times marked by terrorism and separatist insurgencies, the Spanish people compensated, in a way, for their reluctance to take to the streets on February 23rd by marching in protest against the political class that had been usurping the Spanish society in the name of free thinking democracy. Spanish society challenged its actually existing democracy with the notion of real democracy, asking whether, indeed, their nation was democratic at all or whether it was being colonized by the political parties claiming to be working for the betterment of the people but were only seen indulging in corruption. Inspired by the Occupy Movement and in large parts by the Arab Spring, the 15-M movement of the Spanish people, so called because it was started on 15th of May 2011, was an interesting experiment in political protest that had started by both online as well as offline, grass-root activism. What started in Madrid soon fireballed over to other towns and cities, with demonstrations and marches held against an established political class, a reaction, many argued that stemmed not only from the economic crisis that the Spanish people were being subjected to but also towards the reigning system that sought to govern over the Spanish society.

In many ways, the protest was similar to the anti-corruption movement that was launched and that gained momentum here in India – while the anti-corruption movement had a specific agenda, so to speak, it did not really swear fealty to any ideological faculty, remaining studiously independent and people-centric, ditto 15-M. Another similarity worth noting is the emergence of a new party from the movement of 2011 that was staunchly against the mainstream, conventional and corrupt political institutions that apparently govern this nation. The Aam Aadmi Party, whatever its fate today, was launched with a noble motto, one that sought to bring governance and political discourse down to the common man instead of letting it remain within the confinements of the Parliament or TV channels or intellectual circles. The off-shoot of 15-M was something similar- the launch of the left-leaning political party Podemos (We can). Regarded as “anti-national” by many right-wingers within the media while disregarded by the left for dividing its unity, Podemos lies somewhere in between, trying to bring out a certain transparency within the Spanish political class – something that was, one would say, long due. Its a party with a lot of hope, for it doesn’t have any ideology in theoretical terms. In fact, Podemos condemns the stances that political parties have opted, and believes in letting people decide their governance through a developmental model, and not an ideological one.

The movement, four years on, has changed the way the Spanish society looks at political participation and governmental control over society, culture and economy. The generation that launched 15-M is not ready to indulge for long in the past and memories – they want to forget and they want to move on to what is beyond history and legacy. Not unlike AAP, Podemos managed to surprise the traditionally established political factions of Spain when they secured 1.25 million votes and 5 seats in the European Parliament, not bad at all for a party this young. What the movement was most successful in doing was to bring about people’s participation in political protest without giving any attention to the ideological division. While many reportedly took to streets because they felt that the capitalist economy had failed them, the movement wasn’t leftist in strict terms, as was being initially projected.

In the midst of the movement, however, things had taken a somewhat negative turn when the various groups that had occupied the squares in their neighborhood as a smaller thrust to the larger force began to voice their own demands as against those set up by the larger movement itself. These personalized demands led to different groups being split into various sub-groups that demanded different solutions. Moreover, people without any particular belief joined in the sit-in protests and meetings, causing disruptions and leading the media to tag the meetings to be “anarchist” in nature. This, however, did not lead to a perpetual breakdown, since many from the 15-M then joined the 25-S, led forth in September and having a set of common goals and rejecting the government as well as the constitution to pave way for a fresh outlook towards democracy.

The movement goes on. It, however, doesn’t build on, as it was expected to. Only a month ago, thousands “marched for dignity” in Madrid, demanding bread and jobs along with a dignity in life. A similar demonstration about an year ago had turned violent, with hundreds being injured. The 15-M movement, noble as its intentions were, seems to have dwindled. The demonstrators are talking of a general strike in October this year, and several events have been lined up, but none that seems to be of the weight that the initial days of the movement in 2011 proclaimed. The enthusiasm might have fallen short, but the demands that mark this movement still remain largely unfulfilled and unattended. Moreover, 15-M’s influence over the world movements in general and the Spanish social and political stage can never be ignored. In more ways than one, the movement has opened up a democracy that needed to be opened up, and has encouraged a discourse that needed to be made. The most important change that the movement seems to have engineered is the Spanish society’s coming to terms with its democracy, and how it has been besieged by traditional political factions in recent years. Democracy might not be a paradise, the movement seems to have taught, but one can always strive to make it the best political instrument – to repeat Cercas’ remark.

Atharva Pandit is a college student in Mumbai

4 thoughts on “Whatever happened to 15-M Movement? Atharva Pandit

  1. Aditya G

    I really don’t think podemos is ideology free like beppe grillos five star movement. Just take a look at their official position on various issues. Their politics is much more solid than AAP. All this talk of ‘ neither left nor right ‘ is a joke. I bet they laugh amongst themselves at people who actually believe this. :-)

  2. Aditya Nigam

    Aditya G,
    Just for your reference, here is an extract from an article in OpenDemocracy by Cristina Flesher Fominaya:

    If one wants to look for ideological points of reference for the team behind Podemos probably Gramsci and Subcomandante Marcos would be the logical place to start. But it is precisely an anti-ideological stance, a refusal to self-define in terms of political ideologies, typical of autonomous social movements and 15-M that has marked an important element of the effective Podemos strategy.

    It is here that Podemos has distinguished itself from it’s closest political rival, leftist coalition formation Izquierda Unida (IU). If many of their positions are the same, the language and framing has been very different. To many, IU seems old, tired and stuck in the past, and has for quite some time. By contrast, Podemos has understood that if people are not willing to think in terms of anti-capitalism, they are very open to criticisms of fraudulent bankers and corrupt politicians.

    Podemos has presented itself as a party of “decent ordinary people”, who understand the needs of ordinary citizens and are open to taking their lead from them through the participatory process (as opposed to positioning themselves as the intellectual vanguard). They want to go “beyond acronyms” (again a very typical stance of progressive autonomous social movements in Spain).

    The real joke is that some Leftists have it both ways. They celebrate a distant Podemos in Spain as being Leftist but cringe when someone draws any connections and parallels. The point really is not whether being “neither Left nor Right” is something to be celebrated (by self appointed Leftists); it is simply about registering something new that is taking place in many 21st century movements across the globe. It is about recognizing what is emerging on the ground instead of rushing to label it – a favourite pastime of Leftists of different hues.

    1. Aditya G

      True. Recognising and critiquing. It is true what you say about old fashioned left wing parties. But we have to ask why are the people supporting the group they are supporting. Would they have supported something like this 40 years ago? Perhaps it is that people dislike being classified along rigid class and ideological lines nowadays. And perhaps this distaste for classification arises out of existing material and social conditions?

      But the truth remains that these populist parties with their ideology of no ideology display a certain intellectual flabbiness and shy away from concrete political positions. Just look at fsm in Italy and our very own Aap. Moral and intellectual unity is a prerequisite for wholesome politics.

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