The Shadow of 15-M

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Yesterday, two years on from the initial demonstrations that marked the beginning of what has come to be known as 15-M, the streets and squares of the Spanish State were full of demonstrators once again. But what is this 15-M? In today’s El País, Guillem Martínez traces its dimensions. I have translated the piece below, and added some footnotes for context.

The shadow of the object

In 2011, the press took weeks to describe and put a name to the 15-M. It must be pointed out that before the name of indignados [1] – a name now in disuse; it is only those recently incorporated to the movement who are in the outrage phase- other, less lucid ones were tried, such as radicales, antisistema, and los violentos, the semantic pit that once you fell into it, boom, not even Dyno-Rod could get you out[2]. Such slow reflexes indicate how difficult it is to describe the phenomenon. To describe the phenomenon, then, you had to move away from –or even destroy- the cultural frames of Spanish democracy, which are designed to brand as pathological –that is, as radical, anti-system, violent, or thick-as-a-post- any criticism of its functioning. Two years later, and following a striking cultural rupture, descriptions of the 15-M are more agile. But they still suffer from a severe vice: the hope that the 15-M might start to fit the description of a party. Something that is very unlikely to happen.

The 15-M is, thus, a sentimental, intellectual and political trademark [3], one that is variable, is not homogenous, and lacks a centre, and hence cannot be easily described by a culture accustomed to describe reality through the declarations made by its elites into a microphone, from the centre. Perhaps it is easier to describe it through its shadow, which is growing so long that it marks out a historic phenomenon. Its shadow is that aforementioned cultural rupture, which has distanced journalistic language from that of government, such that the institutions have been stripped of their halo. Thus, broad layers of society have been able to read the Bárcenas case [4], the Urdangarin case and the Corinna affair [5] as a structural problem. It has also deprived the institutions of their domination of agendas: their shadow is a Prime Minister who speaks from a plasma screen [6], or a president of the Generalitat [7] who talks about a process of Independence but who cannot set foot in large areas of his country, such as every school and public hospital. Its shadow is the non-existence in the peninsula’s societies of an authoritarian option, as in France and Greece, countries in which Pakistanis, Moroccans and pale faces have not had the chance to prevent the eviction of an Ecuadorean woman. Its shadow is the existence of a horizontal programme –the defence of democracy and welfare against a State that has prioritised, above these two objects, the payment of Debt and determining who must pay it- that has united different citizen target groups [8] with disparate interests, as is the case with a doctor with a second home, the cleaning staff of a hospital, and its patients. Its shadow is how, in hospitals, in colleges, in nursing homes abandoned by the state, and in which services are still being offered that are not covered by budgets, a distinction is being drawn between what is of the state [lo estatal] and what is public [lo público], thus prefiguring a new idea: the common [lo común]. Its shadow is the PAH’s [9] Obra Social[10] -and that of other groups-, which has taken on functions of the State, such as the development of broad areas of Welfare, in what is –and I’m afraid no politician has understood it- a constituent process. Its shadow is the leadership of Bankia, that is, the financial and political leadership of Spain- being taken to court, something unheard of in a political culture founded upon the opposite direction. Its shadow is the visualisation of a stagnant political system, which cannot even accept a tepid, moderate ILP.[11] Its shadow is the rise of co-operatives, and of new forms of credit, which are also co-operative. Its shadow is the experimentation with new technologies, which has broadened the possibilities for democracy, against a Regime that can no longer offer differentiated programmes, and hence offers only representation.

Its shadow determines many things of everyday life, and indicates a strange object to see and to be described. But it must be enormous, since it weighs on the mind of politicians more than they wished.


[1] The English cognate is ‘indignant’, but the meaning in Spanish is far closer to ‘outraged’

[2] In the original, ‘el señor Roca’, a term for the major manufacturer of toilets and other bathroom products. I have taken the liberty of a localised translation.

[3] The English word is used in the original

[4] Luís Bárcenas, politician and former head accountant for the governing Partido Popular who was revealed to have a Swiss bank account containing €22m, and to have used accounting manoeuvres to make clandestine payments to key figures in the Partido Popular, including the current Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy

[5] Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, former wife of a German aristocrat who has had a close relationship with the king, organising the now infamous hunting trip on which the Franco-appointed Head of State shot an elephant.

[6] Mariano Rajoy’s press conferences now offer the bizarre spectacle of journalists sitting watching the head of government make announcements not from a podium, but from broadcast images on a plasma screen

[7] Artur Mas, president of the Government of Catalonia

[8] In the original, the English word target is used

[9] Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca: variously translated as Mortgage Holders’ Platform and Mortgage Victims’ Platform. See previous posts on the subject here, here, here and here. Also see Provisional University series of posts here.

[10] Obra Social, literally, ‘Social Work’. Name of campaign dedicated to citizen re-appropriation of empty housing blocks currently in the hands of financial entities, in order to re-house families evicted by the Spanish State’s draconian evictions regime.

[11] Iniciativa legislativa popular, literally, ‘popular legislative initiative’, referring to a provision in the Spanish Constitution whereby 500,000 signatures can force the Congress to consider a legislative proposal. In the specific case alluded to, the PAH’s initial proposal, which achieved 1,500,000 signatures, entailed dación en pago for mortgage holders unable to repay their mortgage. Dación en pago basically means that you are no longer saddled with the outstanding mortgage debt once you hand back the keys of the house to the bank. This element of the proposal was removed by the Partido Popular, as was the provision for an end to evictions from principal residences and social housing. The PAH characterised what remained as a ‘joke’.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Shadow of 15-M

  1. Guillem

    Thank you very much for your interest. Is something similar happening in Ireland? Nobody hears about Ireland.

  2. karen

    No there isn’t a similar phenomenon in Ireland. There was a 15M-inspired ‘group’ or certanly a small mass of people who had assemblies in Dublin for about a year after May 2011. The origins were in a gathering/protest in Dublin organised by Spanish people. Following on from that there was an occupation/camp at the Central Bank in Dublin lasting 5 months. But it became hampered by the practicalities of camping in adverse weather, conflict between the campers and established left-wing groups as to the direction it was taking and probably a growing incoherence coming from the camp itself which really couldn’t develop under these conditions beyond being a camp. It was violently evicted from the Bank to ‘sanitise’ the streets as to make way for the St. Patrick’s day parade. The authorities did not want the camp to be visible to the world media , situated as it was right in the heart of the parade route. Every so often there are small bursts of activity which are evidence tghat the shadow of 15M has reached as far as Dublin. It’s always in response to what’s happening in Spain and a group of Spanish emigrants gather at the bank and have an assembly. The most recent was last Sunday in freezing cold with driving wind and rain. There were only about 20 people, I think the majority were women, and almost all were Spanish. The idea survives and keeps re-emerging. They had an assembly at the begining of April there as well with maybe 80-100 attending. They want to continue and to link in with other initiatives in Ireland.
    As for what’s happening in Ireland generally there have been protests organised by campaigns focusing on a particular aspect of ‘austerity’ for instance a campaign against water and property taxes. The way it seems to happen here is that already existing small left groupings or parties on the Left organise things. This can lead to problems which such as accusations about using these campaigns for recruitment to these groups. The idea of ‘direct democracy’ is not that well understood here and there is a ‘love affair’ with representative democracy which doesn’t seem to recognise that for the most part it’s unrequited.

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