Interview on Spain’s “Indignados”

On May 15, 125,000 people filled city squares across Spain in opposition to proposed economic austerity measures. Four weeks later, 250,000 people took to the streets. Since then the "indignado" movement in Spain has grown and evolved. Stephen Roblin from Baltimore's Indypendent Reader interviews David Marty, an activist who has written several articles analyzing the movement and his experience as a participant.


Explain to our readers Spain's "indignado" movement. What inspired it? When did it begin?

There was no explicit inspiration, it was a rather spontaneous movement, although everyone had in mind the events in Tunisia, Egypt and the Arab countries in general.

“Indignado” means “indignant”. The movement and its success was a clear consequence of an economic situation: Spain was in a fragile situation, having relied too heavily on its housing sector, which created a bubble in an unregulated (or deregulated if one compares it with the 80’s) environment. The housing sector, represented by large family run businesses, became more and more influent and managed to obtain favourable regulations, in spite of the public interests. On top of that there were a new and globalized financial model, one that US citizens are familiar with, where an even bigger and even more influent sector managed to deregulate financial markets, creating a perverse incentive system. Banks were lending the equivalent of US subprimes and then sold their obligations to other financial institutions. Spanish households were indebted at unbearable levels and the slightest increase of their interests rates meant near bankruptcy for many.

Every bubble bursts at some point and when it did in 2008 here in Spain, this fragile economic system based on debt collapsed and thousands of Spanish citizens found themselves completely bankrupted. Evictions since 2008 have increased ten times and as always, the first victims of the crisis were the usual: women, immigrants and elder people. Unemployment hit the economy very hard and reached unmanageable levels: 20% of all Spanish workers could not find a job. But most strikingly, 45% of people under 25 were unemployed.

At that time, anger was palpable in the streets, in the air. I could personally feel the cynicism rampant among most of my friends and acquaintances. My own impression, by listening to people speaking about the economy and their own situation, was that they felt alone in holding their view. They didn’t feel understood and their conclusion was that people are stupid and passive for putting up with this situation. Big corporations, especially big banks, were given billions of taxpayer money and yet the industry was laying off people by the thousands. Those who could not pay their mortgage were being evicted in total disregard of their situation: an 84 year old man had to give up the house he had bought when he was young; a mother of two, single and unemployed, living with a disabled son had to leave her house and still owes 200,000 euros to the bank. An amount she will have to pay from her meager 700 euros income she gets every month.

People felt cheated, they had voted for a left-wing party because they felt they would defend the welfare state and workers’ rights at a moment when it was most needed. But what happened was that Zapatero’s government implemented neoliberal policies and made the poor pay the bill so that the rich could maintain their way of life.

On May 15th, the platform Democracia Real Ya called Spanish people to march in protest for what was happening under the slogan “we are not merchandise in the hands of bankers and politicians”. The main thrust was that “they don’t represent us”, another slogan for the movement. Indeed, people for the first realized, not that they were not represented by either parties, but rather that they were not the only ones who felt that way.

After the march on the 15th, some of the younger protesters decided to stay in the Puerta del Sol, the main square in Madrid. Their goal was to continue the protest by camping outside. The weather was nice, we were in the middle of one of the warmest springtime ever and the article 21 of the 1978 Constitution was there to protect our right to be there. However, the authorities felt differently and ordered the eviction of this group of a hundred people on the night of the 16th to the 17th. 24 of them were arrested and charges were pressed on 19 of them.

The day after, 25,000 people showed up in Sol in protest for the police repression and what was meant to be a one-time march became a encampment and a real movement with real political implications.

What is the composition of the movement — only leftists and progressives or has it inspired conservatives and others as well? Also, you describe in your article, "Indignant and Organized," that the movement has undermined deep-seated feelings of cynicism among its participants. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Well, there are two aspects of the movement: first there is the support in general for the movement. In that respect conservatives make an important part of the support groups. During the days of the encampment (the encampment in Madrid was dismantled on June 12th by consensual decision) and as it was growing by the hour, adding a new committee or activity, it would have been impossible to survive without the supplies provided by the neighbors and the small shops around Sol. So in the first days we could already see how people from conservative neighborhoods and from the business community were showing support by supplying incredible amounts of food, medicine, material, water, transport, etc. It was quite impressive.

Three weeks after the encampment began, a polling agency called Metroscopia (like Gallup in the US) published how much support there was from both sides of the political spectrum: it turned out that 46% of right wing voters had sympathies for the movement, and that 90% of all Spaniards felt that the political system needed to reform in order to be more receptive the general public’s needs. Some of the most conservative institutions and parties are actually starting, as we speak, to offer proposals based on the demands of the movement. In Brussels, the capital of the European Union, there are now talks about implementing a tax on financial transactions, sort of a Tobin tax. There are also other conservative parties (this includes now the PSOE, the left wing party in Spain) who propose all sorts of measures, some that are purely rhetoric but others that are really progressive. This is a clear sign that raising social cost by protesting works, and that it does even on the conservative fringe. It also shows that the Left does not have a monopoly on indignation and that foreclosures affect thousands of people regardless of their political stripes.

This movement has yet to accomplish a lot and we all hope and work for the best. However, there are certain things that have already been accomplished and that need to be acknowledged: for instance, the movement, through its assemblies and its peaceful philosophy, has broken the invisible wall that existed between conservatives and leftists. It has shown to both sides that we are all just one and that the other person, in spite of his discrepancies, is a decent human being with a legitimate claim in politics. Never in the history of this country has it been clearer that the powerful were so few and that we were so many.

I understand that the movement has developed "people's assemblies." Could you explain what they are and explain how the movement has evolved organizationally overall?

The assemblies are an initiative which is different from that of Democracia Real Ya (DRY). DRY initially called the march and has ever since supported the assemblies and the encampment. However the assemblies were the response to an organizational issue for the encampments.

Few days after the first march on May 15th, there were already hundreds of encampments all over Spain: Bilbao, Sevilla, Valencia, Barcelona and many other smaller cities. As the encampment grew exponentially and as people asked more and more what it was we wanted, decisions needed to me made. Therefore the assemblies were the natural response to decision making needs and the only one in accordance with the claim that the movement was “horizontal” and self-managed.

Having said that things were more complicated than they seem from here. In fact, there were many questions that needed to be dealt with: how were we to adopt decisions? Where would we hold debates and what was the most democratic way to organize a meeting. Indeed, one can not claim to be democratic unless inclusiveness is a priority. A 2 hour assembly is not the same as a 5 hour one. Deaf people need to be able to attend the meetings just as any body else, same thing with the disabled or the geographically distant.

I will not go into details about how these issues were addressed, but by and large the assembly has been dealing with those issues rather successfully in the past two months. That is not to say that it is above criticism nor that every city or neighborhood in Spain has evolved similarly, but simply that in just 10 weeks what was a march of protest has become the most encouraging movement this country has ever known in its history since Franco’s regime ended in 1975.

You mention in the above-cited article that the people's assemblies had to drop decision-making by consensus. Can you explain why?

Well, it wasn’t entirely dropped, it was just allowed to be more flexibility. The reason why this has happened is not new to those who have experienced assembly movement such as the one in Argentina after 2001.

The reason why this rule was relaxed was simple: certain decisions that needed a clear answer in the short term, like whether or not we should dismantle the encampment in Sol, were systematically blocked by a minority of people whose agenda still is unclear. There were far more people affected by the decision than those who were blocking it and in this case consensus did not make much sense.

Nevertheless, consensus is still the preferred decision making process and is still the most controversial feature of the movement, including for myself.

What have been some of the other key obstacles the movement has faced? What attempts have been made to overcome these obstacles? How successful have they been?

There are plenty of obstacles to deal with every day, but the main one is to face an entire establishment. The state apparatus works as an artificial intelligence programmed to learn from its mistakes and adapts its tactics on a daily base. So we face this machine that thinks and acts fast and must address issues that other organizations deal with only after years of practice. So I guess that the number one difficulty is time.

The only successful measure that has been able to overcome the state tactics of violence, intimidation and propaganda is non-violence. The movement has been infiltrated by the secret police in order to create a violent environment. They may have gained some momentum during a day or two, but the fact that the movement is so attached to its non-violence philosophy has made it easier to identify intruders and deal with them.

My reaction to the violence shown by the authorities was one of shock, I must confess. I come from a family of policemen (in France) and I have never imagined that this institution which has always been dedicated to the protection of its citizens could act so violently toward innocent people. I may be naive, but that was the picture I had. Watching the footage from Barcelona, where the police simply attacked and beat peaceful people sitting down filled my heart with rage and indignation. I had to send the footage to my father. His reaction was the same: “these people do not deserve to wear their uniform!” were his words…

As far as propaganda is concerned, there just aren’t good enough measures against it other than trying to communicate better. So far the fact that there is an assembly wherever you are helps to show that we are not what some media have tried to portray us. The most ridiculous accusations, coming from the right-wing press, have tried to link us with ETA, the terrorist basques organization. The liberal media, on the other hand, constantly try to announce the end of us. There is no easy solution to these attacks.

In your article, you say that the movement has not taken an anti-capitalist stance and that some of the anti-capitalist members of the movement, including yourself, are hesitant to do so. Can you explain why?

Well, you must respect the initial call of the movement and why it had so much strength. The 90% figure I mentioned earlier was not for a radical program. If we are to take a more radical stance we cannot do it in the name of the same people who supported us at the beginning.

Having said that, I must say that this is not the main reason for not taking a more anti-capitalist stance. The truth is that people in the mainstream are very critical and sick of capitalism. Their description is not that different from that of a radical person. The only difference between a truly anti-capitalist stance and where they are now, which is a more social-democratic reformist program, is that they don’t have an alternative to capitalism to offer. Most people have only heard of capitalism or centrally planned economies like in the USSR. No one has ever heard of participatory economics.

But the movement is still radical in some of its aspects: for instance, it demands a more direct participation of the citizens in important matters. Important matters are defined as those that would gather a certain number of signatures. There are, in this regards, interesting proposals that rely on computer voting systems that will be tried for the first time in October during a referendum that is being taken by the 15-M movement.

Where does the movement go from here? Do you think it has the potential for longevity and to create radical social change in Spain?

That is very much up to us. Things are on a break for the month of August. We are celebrating this week end the beginning of this break by receiving in Madrid thousands of people who will be coming from all over the country by car, by bus, by train and even some of them by foot (they started earlier this month). After that the movement plansto reach Brussels and to have some influence at the European level.

More than that no one can know, but it definitely has the potential to change everything and has already left an imprint on our democratic culture that changed our expectations forever.

What lessons do you think activists from other countries, like the U.S., can learn from the movement?

Well, they can just look at it and wonder how different this is from their own country. In the case of the US, my answer would be that there is not much of a difference. The same people who are being seduced by the Tea Party are decent people with real concerns who need to be given a chance to express their views in the most participatory way. If we refuse this and see them in the most caricatural and antagonistic way, we must not hope much for the future.  

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