Real Democracy Now: the Spanish Uprisings
The Spanish Uprising is amazing, there is no doubt about that. The decision to stay put at the end of a protest of 200 would, by most people’s judgement, be somewhere between ambitious and stupid. The speed with which that developed to provide a 60,000-strong cross country turnout, 28,000 in Madrid alone, and followed by a 35,000 turnout in Barcelona less than a week later is just breathtaking. As movements go, this is as dynamic as it gets.
One aspect that has been commented on is the nature of the movement – mimetic as opposed to decentralised. Decentralised doesn’t just mean that it happens in lots of places, it means that there is a centre pushing things out. But this was mimetic – simply an idea that has been taken and reshaped to suit many different places. No one announced a day of action – each camp took its own decisions. There was no devolutionary process, because no central command was ever thought necessary. People didn’t ask the folks in Madrid if they could nick the idea, they just got out and did it.
Another is the chain reaction that appears to be occurring. Like the next few years in Britain, the last few years in Spain have been characterised by thousands of young people leaving the country out of frustration. We face exactly the same dynamic here in Britain: two friends are heading to Dutch Universities alone, one for an MA and the other for a post-doc this summer. So it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that the Spanish themselves have been at the forefront of so many protests around Europe, and that many have chosen Spanish embassy’s as the target.
The snag has been the limited expansion of the movement. Yes, its spread through out Spain – no small feat. Yes, its brought 700 to the Spanish embassy in London, as well as dozens of other cities worldwide. But the protests in Britain have not yet moved wider. In Greece, first the Spanish went to their embassy to protest, then the Greek’s went to their own Parliament to protest.
There is something about protests that are residential that makes them so much more powerful. The input for some is clearly higher – and the challenge of balancing the needs of day visitors with the needs of longer term residents is clear. In Egypt, part of the success of the encampment at Tahrir Square was the impermanence – many young people with part time jobs were spending their spare days in the square, but heading home for sleeps, showers and to earn what money they could. Its the existence of this educated, underemployed and relatively young layer of society that has enabled these camps to take hold, but others have become part of the protest. The same is true in the Spanish camps. This is a key lesson that comes from both camps, perhaps the key lesson given the differences between the two situations.
Their are many templates for styles of action, and many are reused around the world. Right now, making a protest permanent through camping and through deliberative, rather than pre-decided, forms of protest is clearly a rich vein of possibilities. The question will be the extent to which such protests become commonplace across the rest of Europe. What is likely is that similar uprisings will take place throughout the PIGS – Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. France also looks promising. But these are policies and democratic deficits affecting the whole of Europe, and a situation which should not be split along national frontiers – the European Union demands austerity, why should we act only as citizens of member states?
The question of spontaneity, especially when a copy-cat movement is clearly underway, is complex. It takes some preparation to put on a camp that isn’t launched from a march of at least hundreds, and it can be difficult to pitch a camp that contains no immediately obvious answer. Perhaps things will simply come to a natural point at which to carry out such a protest. The trouble is, the situation within the PIGS economies, and to which the youth of Spain are reacting, is notably worse than Britain has yet reached. If anything is going to be achieved in moving people to the streets for extended periods of time during this summer (and summer it will need to be) it will require enough preparation to pull it out of the can, enough quietness not to be a surprise and a very careful weaving together of narratives, local and national, youth-focused and all-encompassing and both present and future-tense. Its a tall order.