“The reasons and ways that make a city wise, at the same time wizen the citizen.”
“We are done with transition, here comes democracy.”
Poster at the Puerta del Sol.
Venus in the Sun
On Sunday, May 15th, thousands of people went out on the streets throughout sixty-Spanish cities —thanks to the incidence of the social networks— appealing in favor of a Real Democracy-Now Platform, outraged as a result of the social consequences of the policies and behavior of the government and of the European Union, the political parties, the trade unions, the financial entities, the enterprises, the markets and the IMF. In Madrid, some fifteen demonstrators gathered downtown and, at the end of the mobilization, close to one hundred participants from some of the “collectives” such as Futureless Youth or Mortgage Casualties, decided to hang the night out at the Puerta del Sol Plaza; nonetheless, they were disbanded by the police in the early morning hours and some of them wound up in prison. From then on, a great number of people showed up at the site in order to give their support to the demonstrators, transforming the site into an immense mural with a great array of posters that offered a display of the protest and its issues, while dozens of camp-outs sprouted in all of the country’s main cities; international solidarity, in addition, compounded massive gatherings in Brussels, Berlin, Florence, Paris, Bogota, Mexico and Buenos Aires. The Puerta del Sol –the Door to the Sun— thus became the epicenter of the May 15th Movement, acknowledged throughout the world as the Spanish Revolution.
The Puerta del Sol Plaza occupies a surface equal to approximately ten thousand square meters and has been considered “kilometer zero” for Spanish highways ever since 1950. During the XVth C. it was one of the doors to the Medieval quarters encircling the old wall built during the XIIth C; the gate was marked by the figure of a sun because of its easterly orientation. It has always been a place for gatherings and for great collective celebrations, including the proclamation of the Second Spanish Republic on April 14, 1931. At the present time, business centers, bars, restaurants and tourist boutiques surround the old Post Office which is the present site for the Presidency of the Autonomous Community of Madrid whose XIXth C clock greets the New Year, bells tolling. These symbols, furthermore, grant it its identity: the beautiful figure of goddess Venus, popularly known as Mariblanca [White-marie], a replica of the original Italian image carved in white marble and a witness to Madrid’s history ever since 1625.
“My flag is each person in this town square”
The growing and continuous flow of people, the assemblies that were taking place every day and the camp-outs and wide media coverage – national and international — spurred by the impending city elections, were the main factors contributing to the vertiginous growth of the 15-M Movement. Over a four week period, the campers at the Puerta del Sol developed a fresh and creative organizational structure which included the participation of many volunteers and the distribution of donations, something that guaranteed its resilience and ability to function in view of the elimination of transactions involving money. An equally significant factor was the consensus reached in relation to the elimination of flags and other signs of ideological identity, a point of departure towards defining the movement politically as both anti-party and anti-trade-union. On the other hand, the absence of pre-conceived rules and formulas allowed for the channeling of practice and reflection with the creation of commissions and workshops fueled by the reception of a multiplicity of proposals. Managing to substitute ideologies with ideas, decisions were made through democratic participation in assemblies that gave full swing to the exercise of constitutional rights to freedom of gathering and expression. The commissions invested themselves in resolving matters of a technical nature and of an organizational import, whereas the workgroups were charged with the task of theorizing and formulating the concrete proposals in order to attempt to pinpoint the principles and objectives of the Movement from a political, economic and social standpoint but also from an ethical and moral vantage.1
The internal decisions in each workgroup were reached through consensus, even though in order to be carried out they also required the approval of the General Assembly. Among the commissions operating at the Puerta del Sol encampment were those having to do with infrastructure, information, feminisms, migration, food, thought, respect, internal coordination, legal matters, spiritual matters, animal protection, outreach, library, childhood, art, activities, assembly dynamics, communications and sanitation. The Infrastructure Commission, which, furthermore, had a team of volunteer firefighters working for it, distributed the space, took in the donations, maintained the encampment physically and managed the clean-up. The Commission of Respect’s functions involved guaranteeing the peaceful nature of internal cohabitation and with the neighbors in the areas close to the Square, safeguarding the exercise of freedom of speech and preventing the use of alcohol or drugs within the camping area. The Coordinating Commission, in turn, registered and distributed assignments to the volunteer personnel made up of physicians, psychologists, lawyers, engineers, information personnel, teachers, cooks and artists, among others. The Legal Commission, made up of approximately 200 lawyers, had as its responsibility the task of dealing with the police and offering counsel to the other encampments throughout the country and the neighborhoods and towns that joined the Movement. The Library Commission managed the donations of newspapers and books and supervised the reading room open to the public. The Food Commission, with the motto “we are what we eat”, looked after the daily availability of healthy food, including food specifically geared to vegetarians, vegans, diabetics and to people suffering from intestinal anomalies. The Outreach Commission maintained relations and dialogue going with the more than one hundred neighborhoods, towns and districts that are a part of the Community, with the aim of organizing a network of autonomous or self-regulating assemblies. The Art Commission included the areas of literature, music, theater, audiovisual and graphic arts. The Childhood Commission had under its care a children´s library and the encampment´s nursery. The Spirituality Commission, on its part, brought together a group of persons linked to different religions and world views, including a representative of the original peoples of North America as well as Yoga, Tai Chi and Sufi meditation participants; however, this Commission, at the beginning encountered many detractors in the media and in the social networks which considered it unnecessary or out of place, perhaps not understandin its true meaning in relation to the inspiration that knowledge can –and should—receive from the past and from cultural diversity. The Commission for Animal Protection also became a matter for debate, primarily due to its posture in relation to the abolition of festivities in which animals are mistreated and to vivisection, a practice that usually covers up business interests with arguments that supposedly justify humanitarian and scientific objectives. Another point of media debate was the small garden planted around one of the fountains for growing tomatoes, lettuce and eggplants; it became, nonetheless, a symbol of the protest against GMOs, vs. food insecurity and industrial architecture —where, however, it was not possible to include sacred plants such as mistletoe, amaranth, coca plants, peyote and ayahuasca, protectors of the planet and of the physical and spiritual well-being of millions of people throughout the world.
The workshop groups, for their part, concentrated on five important lines of thought: economics, long and short-term politics, society, environment, education and culture. The work of the economics group included areas concerned with employment, housing, financial systems and the impoverished countries; the one dealing with the environment, on the other hand, was the one charged with garbage and recycling at the encampment, besides channeling proposals coming from the rural area. Notably, also, energy production was added to the communal or collectivity’s self-supporting infrastructure with the installment of electric generators and solar panels to satisfy the demand. Also a protocol to be activated in case of police evacuation of the premises was designed and advertised whose instructions involved maintaining a stance of peaceful resistance at all times.
The general assemblies, where anyone was allowed to participate who came into the Square (la Plaza) adopted a rotation system in order to avoid the emergence of leaders and at first were held around noontime but later on were shifted to the late afternoon hours. The spokesmen for the commissions and workshops would share the information concerning their specific activities and then submit their proposals previously agreed upon to the general consensus of everyone present. The debate transpired in an orderly fashion established by means of dialogue that took place in a mood detached from all edginess in verbal or body language.
The Movement’s legitimacy was strengthened as popular support increased, according to a number of sources, up to seventy-seven percent of the population —resisting, besides, the pressure from the elections to be held on Sunday May 22nd. Fearing that such support might directly affect the voting results and harm the political parties’ stakes, the Election Committee banned a demonstration that had been called for the day before the elections, traditionally known as “the day of reflection.” Nevertheless, the following massive concentration at the Puerta del Sol became a historical act of civil disobedience that consolidated the Movement even further. The elections, however, did not reflect the trial against democracy taking place in the streets from May 15th onward; the results foreseen yielded, in fact, a participation equal to 66%, a level of abstention equal to thirty-three percent with barely five percent of the votes annulled and blank, so that the right wing Popular Party became the winner and the PSOE, the governing Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party, was severely punished. Another shift-point that significantly affected the Movement´s development took place on the morning of May 27th when the Catalonian government’s Delegation authorized the removal of the campers at the Plaza Cataluña of Barcelona with the excuse of ensuring the peaceful celebration of an eventual victory next day by the Barcelona Football Club as a result of the Champions’ end-game; this evacuation turned into a violent event that managed to yield over one hundred wounded with the images getting sent across the world by the international media. Its immediate effect, however, was to reactivate the demonstrations throughout the entire country.
“We are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers.”
In terms of the 15-M Movement documents published through the internet, its over-all objective is the regeneration of the economic and political system as an unavoidable condition for improving the quality of public life. In this sense, they consider mobilization of the citizenship indispensible, its direct participation in the decision making process and in the full exercise of our freedoms thus far curtailed by the political parties and the trade-unions.2 Hence, during the general assembly held on May 20th at the Puerta del Sol an initial set of proposals was agreed upon, a synthesis of initiatives previously decided in the commissions and workshops including those that had been received from campers through feedback boxes in the preceding days.3 In part, these proposals address the matter of changing the measures imposed by the European Union and the IMF, which have resulted in the social crisis generated by the financial system, and doing so in such a way as to attenuate their consequences; complementarily, they are geared at producing changes in the political system that will allow for the direct participation of individuals in the decision making process.
Among the main proposals to be found: reforms in the Electoral Law in order to ensure a representative and well proportioned system that will not betray the social will in any way; eliminate the privileges of the political class and a prohibition against allowing on the ballot anyone who has been charged with corruption or with embezzlement of public funds; a lowering of the levels of unemployment down to five percent through the reduction of the number of hours in a work-day, maintaining 65 years as the age for retirement, rewards to enterprises that maintain low level of temporary employment, control over collective firing and the reestablishment of the 426 euro subsidy for long-term unemployment; the expropriation of unsold housing to be offered for rental at controlled rates; housing subsidies for young people and persons of meager resources; cancellation of mortgages in exchange for the return of the properties to the credit entities; higher employment in the public sphere of health and education; a reduction of the high costs of university tuition; public financing for scientific investigation and its independence; abolition of the European Space for Higher Education; sustainability and lowering of the costs of transportation; re-establishment of trains presently in process of being substituted by high-speed systems; restrictions to the flow of private traffic throughout the downtown areas; installing bike-paths; development of networks that bring together and strengthen citizenship participation; increase in the coverage offered by social legislation; prohibition of the transfer of public capital with the aim of helping out banking institutions and a return to the State of funds it has granted to that effect; nationalization of all failed banks; a tax increase on banking capital and sanctions against its speculative operations; prohibition to Spanish banks investing in fiscal paradises; an increase of the kind of tax applied to great fortunes; control of fiscal fraud and the capital flight; application of the Tobin rate to the international circulation of capital; free access to the internet and its use; abolition of the Sinde Law concerning copyrights in the internet; protection of the right to freedom of information; obligatory and binding referendums concerning the enforcement of policies that directly affect the citizen’s standard of living; real independence of the judicial branch; reduction of military expenses and closing of arms factories; elimination of the Senate and of the life-long pensions for legislators; reduction of the diplomatic corps; separation of Church and State; closing of all nuclear plants and financing for the investigation and development of renewable and free energy sources. Measures, in general –they claim-, that would allow for savings equal approximately to 45 billion Euros and, consequently, for the suspension of adjustments foreseen in the areas of public investment, salaries and pensions.
“Another kind of politics is possible”
The success obtained by the 15-M Movement can undoubtedly be gauged, from various vantage points. In the first place, it has demonstrated the mobilization potential that people can muster when they overcome the barriers that traditional organizations represent, mostly where political parties and trade-unions are concerned; a mobilization, besides, able to question antidemocratic decisions and to generate alternatives, using media associated with the full exercise of rights and freedoms. That is to say, refusing the limits that restrict democracy when it is entirely defined as an end-in-itself, in order to investigate its true possibilities as an instrument for attaining the common good. At the Puerta del Sol –and in the other encampments throughout the remaining cities of the Spanish state-, the possibility of building a new way of living politically within a community has been demonstrated. Beyond mistakes and difficulties, the Movement managed to activate and develop the principles of horizontality, of justice and equality, within a framework of reflection directed towards organizing ideas in order to generate effective changes throughout the system. It has left with us, equally so, the historical experience of wresting from the powerful political parties the attention of the communications media right in the midst of the election campaign agenda, managing to introduce within the national and international debate issues concerning the creation of an alternative society, the need to reflect upon the role that these organizations play within our democracies and the place that might be right for them. It has also clarified, right in the midst of the popular uprisings that are taking place right now in the Arab countries, the decisive importance of the new modes of communication and the need to defend freedom of expression and of thought in the social networks. It contributes, in addition, the practice of an unprecedented exercise in peaceful civil disobedience, played out by a great number of people who went to the streets the day before the municipal elections in order to display their disapproval of, and unhappiness with, the way the political system works.
Equally, it is important to stress the achievement as well of being able to incorporate into the popular assembly, thousands of people traditionally demobilized, bringing strength to the social movements that had been incapable of organizing a massive and cohesive response to the official management of the crisis. The Legal Commission, in fact, participated directly in its definition, with the object of demonstrating the legitimate character of these encampments and the constitutional right of holding reunions while not altering public order and allowing citizens to exercise their right to freedom of expression and thought.4 Seeking to build the real and future base for the 15-M Movement, in effect, the encampment at the Puerta del Sol gave a push to the calling for assemblies on Saturday May 29 at the plazas or main squares of the 41 neighborhoods and 81 towns and municipalities of the Madrid Community; in neighborhoods, in fact, with a labor population for the most part as well as immigrants, such as Aluche, Vallecas, Carabanchel, Lavapiés, Tetuán, Arganzuela, Getafe and Hortaleza; the latter had more than 600 participants; in other areas such as Móstoles, Paseo de Extremadura, Alcorcón, Algete, the neighborhood of Salamanca and that of el Pilar, attendance was as high as 300 people. Finally, a day later, on Sunday May 30th , all the delegates from these assemblies installed together at the Puerta del Sol what they called the General Assembly of Madrid.5
“Take leave, go. You are unworthy representatives”
The reflection concerning the revocation or suppression of political parties was set forth in Europe by the young French philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943) at the time when she was working in London, within the team of investigators of General Charles de Gaulle’s government in exile, on the project of what the future reconstruction of France should be all about. Her ideas –ignored at the time—were spelled out in an essay written between December,1942, and April, 1943, published after her death under the title “Note about the Suppression of Political Parties”;6 a text reflecting, on the whole, her profound meditation concerning the significance and objectives of democracy.
The problem with parties –she wrote early on— is to know whether their nature and behavior justify their existence; that is to say, whether they are linked as a vehicle or medium with the end-purpose of a true democracy –of the will expressed by the people— which consists in truth, justice and the public good. For Simone, rightly, democracy (real and legitimate) demands, in the first place, that the people will not limit the expression of their judgment on the city’s problems to elections and, much less, to the election of “irresponsible collectivities”; a statement that allowed her, in turn, to assert that no nation has ever known an authentic democracy. To obtain it –she said—, people should have the opportunity of expressing their opinion concerning the great problems of social life without any “collective passion” entering their minds such as is bound to surface as a result of the existence and activity of political parties.
Following her argument, there are three basic characteristics that prevent parties from acting as a means towards an end and that transform them instead into ends in themselves at the service of their own interests; characteristics –she held—that communist parties developed to perfection during the XXth C. In the first place, a political party is a machine built in order to spur “collective passion,” expressed through propaganda; in the second place, it is “collective passion” that dominates its members’ thoughts; lastly, the only objective that political parties have is their own unlimited growth for the sake of power. Thus, the party never has sufficient members, sufficient voters, sufficient money: evident characteristics –she declared—that allow us to see in them totalitarian organizations as much in “germination” as in “aspirations,” even when they define themselves as instruments at the service of a specific idea of what constitutes the public good, something hardly more than fiction. “Collective passion” thus germinates because no level of growth and power can satisfy them, factors to which they always attribute their errors, weaknesses and failures. The unquenchable ambition for power then substitutes the search for truth, justice and the public good; “something that should horrify us –she warned—if it were not because habit has so hardened us (…). If we were to entrust to the very devil the organization of public life, he would hardly be able to come up with anything more ingenious.” Simone Weil, nonetheless, was convinced that her recommendation that political parties be eliminated as a necessary measure towards the development of a democracy would have few chances of being implemented before several generations had gone by. The XXIrst C, nonetheless, is now taking the relay —reaching for that torch.
1 Information obtained during the General Assembly of May 24 at Noon, Puerta del Sol. Madrid, 2011.
2 Real Democracy Now!. Proposals. At: http://www.democraciarealya.es/?page_id=234
3 15-M official list of proposals. At: http://www.rtve.es/contenidos/documentos/propuestas_movimiento_15M.pdf
4 Legal Commission’s Position in relation to the neighborhoods and town assemblies: at http://madrid.tomalosbarrios.net/2011/05/27/comision-legal-taller-de-mediacion-con-la-policia/
5 About the development of the assemblies movement in the neighborhoods, towns and municipallities of the Madrid Community, see: http://madrid.tomalosbarrios.net/
6 Simone Weil. “Note Concerning the Supression of Political Parties” in Spanish, Profesión de fe. Edited and translated by Sylvia María Valls, México, 1990, 2006. At: http://www.institutosimoneweil.net/images/weil-book%20dumi%20july.pdf