After the turbulent events of the other night, 15-M movement protesters re-appropriated the Puerta del Sol the other night, as you can see in this video:
Clearly this is something of a victory for the movement, but how far will this movement go?
Below is a translation of a piece by Alberto Garzón Espinosa, an economist and member of ATTAC Spain, thinking about the political future of the 15-M movement. It discusses how this movement stepped into a space vacated by a trade union movement that had failed to stand up to the austerity programme adopted by a PSOE government that had turned turtle on its electoral promises once the financial markets came a-knocking. It charts the limitations and the practical difficulties of the movement, its successes to date, and the scenarios it has no choice but to confront urgently.
(Translator’s note: in the original the author frequently uses the word ‘formación‘, which can mean either education or training, as well as the literal translation of formation. Where I have used ‘education’ in this translation it is as a translation of ‘formación’‘, however the original does not carry the same connotations of instruction (i.e. one person telling another what to think) that education so often, lamentably, carries in English.)
THE POLITICAL STRATEGY OF 15-M
The following text is a wide reflection about the political strategy that, in my opinion, the 15M movement and the groups it comprises ought to follow. It is my opinion and as such is as subjective as that of any other. One may be in agreemenet or not, but I am putting it out to point out elements that I consider indispensables as well as to make public the vision that I have of a process that is so complex but so necessary at the same time.
Quick timeline of a mobilisation
In 2007 the crisis in the United States exploded and we critical economists set about the task of explaining to ordinary people what was happening in the world of international finance. It soon became clear that this crisis was going to be of exceptional importance comparable only with that of the Great Depression of the 1930s and that no country was going to be safe from what at that time was already being called the Great Recession. In the summer of 2008 the crisis shifted dramatically to the third world and killed millions of people of hunger due to speculation in the futures markets for raw materials. In that moment we started in ATTAC to write our first freely distributed book about the crisis (The financial crisis – a guide for understanding and explaining), hoping that people would understand that the crisis had guilty parties of flesh and blood who had to be held to account. Toward the end of 2008 the crisis deepened and the Spanish economy started to unravel definitively. During the whole of 2009 the crisis spread strongly and began to affect more and more sectors of the population. And when that year ended, many of us, left activists and militants from different political organisations, publicly asked the trade unions to organise a general strike.
At that time we thought in very classical terms. Until then all the political mobilisations had been organised by social movements (the precarious, those seeking decent accommodation, ecologists, feminists, etc) and with relatively little success in terms of the number of participants. There was a tense calm that those who watch economic phenomena could not figure out. We thought that we were living through a crisis whose resolution (more or less social) would depend on the relation between forces. And we trusted the unions to put their cards on the table in order to face down the economic power that was already thinking about sharpening its neoliberal line. But they didn’t do so.
The unions organised a general strike many months later, on the 29th of September 2010, and in the middle of a brutal right-wing attack against worker organisations. Some months previous the Madrid regional government had unceremonially attacked the combative Metro union, throwing all fuel to the fire and using the media to turn public opinion against them. I lived through that battle in Madrid, and I thought it was the beginning of our end as an organised working class. The right wing was ready to flatten any -already weak- organised left movement. The strike on the 29th was a breather, but it came late and we knew that many people were not willing to get onto that boat that was drifting away.
The signing of the pensions pact by the unions, at the start of 2011 was the last straw. The unions caved in to a process of social regression that was already more than clear, and by doing so they did away with all possibilities that remained for coming together and becoming a principal actor in the battle against neoliberalism.
Luckily, in parallel, the social movements had been getting together around the platform Democracia Real Ya (DRY) (Real Democracy Now), and other combative organisations, as was the case with Juventud sin Futuro (Youth Without Future), joined them. It was Juventud sin Futuro that was the first to take the step of organising a demonstration against the crisis that was worthy of the name, getting a reasonable amount of media coverage and substantial support. These were times in which we were insisting time and time again on the urgency of a widespread uprising, which objectively was more needed than ever. It was a forest of dry leaves and a spark was needed so that the fire would spread. And that was precisely what happened on the 15th of May, when DRY brought thousands and thousands of people out onto the streets demanding a social exit to the crisis. Its political programme was as far to the left or even more than that of Izquierda Unida, ATTAC, the more militant unions or any social movement with a long history of progressive struggle. But they were the ones who got it right and managed to attract the attention of many disenchanted people who, although conscious of the need to mobilise, had not found spaces in which to do so until then.
And out of that success the assemblies of 15M were born, which in turn gave birth to the sectoral and neighbourhood commissions and to a new type of political activism which in reality was very old but which now seemed to work (but not without obstacles). Since then there have been mobilising experiences (15M, DRY, Mesas de Convergencia, etc) in coexistence and which unite forces and work in conjunction to continue to build something alternative.
The weight of revolution
With the 15M one suddenly had to be everywhere at once and participate in all the debates, even though these could take hours and hours and sap our vital energy. It was a moral imperative to make the most of this wave that had arrived at last and which now one had to figure out how to channel so that it did not end up neutralised or demobilised by the actions of economic power and dominant politics. But that was at the same time a pressure that was in many cases unbearable.
Effectively we have had, and we continue to do so, to participate in commissions that last hours and hours, we have had to send hundreds of e-mails to explain concepts and help people to understand what it is we are debating, and to educate ourselves; we have had to get rid of many saboteurs who by taking advantage of the open democratic spaces have sought to neutralise the movement, or, at least, put limits on what could be discussed and what not; we have, in sum, dedicated all our efforts to costly processes of political education, in the broadest sense of the term.
And in our sketchiness, I believe we thought that we had to organise the revolution in a couple of days. On the way we have met many people of different political traditions and we have tried to integrate the best of each in very little time. We have been too self-critical withourselves because we have demanded the best at all times. We have tried to respond in a few months to the hegemony that neo-liberalism has taken thirty years to cement. And this is a herculean task that we in no way can achieve in that time frame, since not only are we up against an economic domination but also one of culture and values. It is maginificent that we have wakened up, but we cannot demand of ourselves that we build a consistent and coherent social base in four months.
We need a social base
It is true that 15M is acting like a sort of political university. People go to the commissions to learn and to pick up the tools to understand how the world works and how they can change it. And this is a slow process of political education that we must continue without doubt. We are building a social base, that is, a collective of people with common political interests that can sustain and support an alternative political project. Without a social base we have already seen what happens to revolutionary parties and unions: nothing. The construction of the social base is, therefore, the overriding task of the 15M movement.
We must politicize people once again. Politics has to return to everyday debate. We must ensure that everyone knows what is happening and how it affects the majority of us citizens, because it is precisely on this indifference and individualism that neoliberalism nourishes itself. We must build this social base, which should be constituted by people who are prepared and have a common identity, that is, who see themselves as the victims of the same process which must be responded to collectively.
Economic processes have a far slower velocity than political processes and the processes of living. We are in a crisis and we will still be in a crisis for a long time. We economists have to be able to predict the possible scenarios in which political action will take place. And on this there is a general consensus. The adjusgment plans that are being applied (and which will continue to be applied) will sharpen the crisis and will provoke new, even more drastic scenarios of social regression. And for this we have to be prepared, even more given the fact that the new government will be even more radical in the application of neoliberal measures.
The short term: a social shield
To be conscious that the scenarios for the future are even darker allows us to proceed with intelligence and a definite strategy. Because we know where the next blow is going to strike, and it is there where we have to be. Undoubtedly this does not mean that we forget the reality that there are people in an urgent economic situation. There are millions of people unemployed, hundreds of thousands of people losing their homes, thousands of families falling ito poverty and so many millions more moving into labour regimes of semi-slavery. This is why we need a short term emergency plan, a social shield to protect all these people.
The social base cannot limit itself to preparing a revolution, as if it were a question of a classic vanguard, rather, in reality it has to be in the street showing its face and defending the rights of its fellow citizens. The social base is not created from the offices of academics or in meetings but in the street, and this means having to act in concrete situations. We must go to protect people who are losing their homes, we must help those who have been swindled by the banking sector and we must go to employment offices to nourish the social base by letting those who are unemployed see that we are they and they are us. And all this should be done in an organised way and in line with a defined strategy that bears in mind that there are limits of time and energy.
The political programme
They tell us there are no alternatives to the adjustment plans, but this is false. And in this blog we have pointed this out many times. There are concrete measures that can be carried out to resolve the crisis from a social point of view that allows us to build a different economic system. We have a lot to debate about which measures should be the priority and how the coming system must be, but there can be no doubt that there are alternative projects on the table. In ATTAC we humbly assist in educating people so that debates begin and people can put forward their own options, but economists in particular have already put forward feasible alternatives that could be applied immediately if political will were to exist. Other options, logically, require in turn a sufficiently broad social base so that they can be set in gear.
This is why a key element is the education of this social base. Education has been left to one side by left political parties and union organisations. And without education there can be no theoretical reference points and without these people allow themselves to be carried along by political inertia or they place themselves in a strictly defensive position. And what we have to do is precisely move to the attack. We have to put a political programme on the table that allows us to go on the attack immediately.
The long term: future responses
Yes, the Partido Popular will almost certainly win the next elections. And their targets will be public services, which they will either privatise or run down unceremoniously. Our advantage is that we know this, and we must make the right moves. It is urgent for the social base of 15M, DRY, the Mesas de Convergencia, and other projects of this type to reach out to primary schools, high schools, hospitals etc. and put forward the need to join forces. Many people are going to suffer in their own lives a crisis that until now seems to be passing them by. People will begin to perceive deterioration in public services, there will be job losses and the anger will rise. The hotbed of insurgency will spread and the forest of dried leaves we were talking about before will grow exponentially. At the end of the day we are not talking about anything other than combining forces in order to be able to defeat an enemy, and this is as old as humanity.
And this brings with it, whether people like it or not, in bringing on board the forces of the unions and their affiliates too. One must forget whatever old grudges that might exist, however reasonable these might be, and join everyone else in the project. By any other means we will be divided and we will not successfully confront the avalanche that is approaching from above. Moreover, the system can tolerate sporadic demonstrations without losing too much legitimacy and without being all that bothered, but it cannot bear the paralysis of productivity for much time. In other words, without a sufficiently broad social base whose action strikes at the heart of the economic world (productive activity), the system will hold all the cards for victory.
Is it possible to mitigate the harmful effect of the processes on the way? Yes, and I believe we must do it. I will vote in the next elections, and I will vote for Izquierda Unida. But I will not do it because I trust that in this way something sufficiently important can be changed, since in reality I oppose the system in its totality, but because I use the tools at my disposal even though I know that they are insufficient. I do not plan to pass on an opportunity to throw a spanner in the works of neoliberalism, in other owrds. Even though I know that the struggle is elsewhere and to limit oneself to the political system is to jump through hoops.
All this said I believe it is right to be self-critical, but within reason. And above all we must be tolerant with other people who come from different political traditions and who perceive phenomena in other ways but who at the same time share our political interests. First of all I believe we should move on to the stage of defining political strategies and contextualising the phenomena underway, in order to avoid being always on the defensive and reacting against every step taken by neoliberalism. Rather, we should build our political programme, which doesn’t have to be a document of 100 pages but a declaration of alternative intentions, which are practical, feasible and radical, and use this to move to the attack.