One step up for the Angry Ones

In having accepted to reopen the debate on transparency and property held by those in public office, it looks as if Spain's politicians are responding to some of the demands made by the Angry Ones movement. But if they're to build on these first successes, protestors must elaborate a coherent politcal project.

Published on 29 June 2011 at 15:09
Protestors outside the Spanish parliament in Madrid, 8 June 2011

Are they a fleeting phenomenon or have they revolutionised the system to the point of forcing a profound reflection on the pillars that keep it in place? A month and a half on, the social movement that started one Sunday afternoon in cities across Spain to demand Real Democracy Now is already beginning to take hold in institutions.

Anti-establishment street-dwellers, or thousands of angry citizens with solid reasons for breaking the silence of discontent? Parliament has heard some of the claims flying around the encampments in the Puerta del Sol and echoed by thousands of young people camped out in the centres of large cities and marching in mass protests.

The Transparency Law, a project that has been deep-frozen for several legislative sessions, seems finally to have been brought out to thaw. On Friday June 24, Deputy Prime Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba announced that it will be submitted to Parliament. The lack of transparency in governance, lack of information about national and regional accounts and the lacklustre performance of the machinery of the parties have been instrumental in stirring up public anger.

The protestors are also demanding curbs on the economic privileges of the politicians and their opportunistic pension plans. And the political class has been sensitive to the outrage. On Wednesday June 22, Congress approved a proposal that the Chambers publish the assets of deputies and senators and harden the conflict-of-interest rules.

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"15-M can end up integrating into the system"

Politicians have also listened to the complaints from the campers in the squares about the difficult housing market, and a congressional subcommittee will now look into improving the mortgage system to control abuses. The 15-M Movement is no stranger to the proliferation of citizen patrols that prevent the eviction of families and that have loudly criticised the banking clause that obliges those who cannot cope with the letters from the lenders to return the keys of the dwelling and yet keep paying off the debt on properties they no longer own.

For José Felix Tezanos, Professor of Sociology at the UNED, “the 15-M can end up integrating into the system, or by creating their own party or any other form of participation that involves a real alternative. Or they can end up in a burst of violence similar to that in Greece.” Tezanos, linked to the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers Party) through the magazine Temas, can see a light at the end of the tunnel – if the political class puts consensus ahead of divisions and, based on unity, “overhauls the economic model from head to toe”. With the permission of the Community authorities? “Or without it,” Tezanos answers.

Changing the structures of the financial system and putting a stop to banking excesses has been one of the proclaimed pillars of the movement. However, most experts reject “maximalist and unfeasible outcomes,” such as the nationalisation of the banking sector or the takeover of companies. This is the main criticism from Isabel de la Torre, Professor of Sociology at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, who stands up for capitalism by recalling that it is capitalism that has made possible an improvement in social welfare over the past two centuries like never before.

"It’s not a critique of democracy or the institutions in a general sense"

De la Torre believes the 15-M has confirmed, on one hand, the power of social networks and the Internet. And, secondly, that there can arise mass movements that are horizontal, without hierarchies or structures. “It’s very well to denounce the abuse of institutions, as these young people have done, but they have to offer viable alternatives,” she says.

The 15-M Movement, however, has no portfolio of proposals. It’s still in the making, says Emmanuel Rodríguez, Professor of Sociology at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. While the movement lacks a range of alternatives for political parties, banks, housing or the electoral system, what it remains clear on is that “the crisis is being paid for by the weakest,” while “the benefits remain in the hands of a small clique of financiers.” Unemployment is the most visible face of the crisis (30 million unemployed in the EU), yet the states are injecting large amounts of public money into the banks. “Both the EU and Spain have set financial interests above the interests of the people,” Rodríguez laments.

The demands of 15-M are mixed and many. “There are a lot of discussion groups. Real Democracy Now is one of them, but it doesn’t bring together all the aspirations,” emphasizes Germain Cano, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Alcala de Henares, who works in the subgroup created to analyse outside media. “What motivates the angry ones is the feeling of unease and frustration. And the 15-M is in a position to channel that anger. It’s not a critique of democracy or the institutions in a general sense, but rather of the logic of the game.” Will the protestors turn into a political party? Cano is pessimistic: “It’s not a request that the majority likes to hear. Not so much because of political indifference but more so because of a radical resistance to mediation.”

Translated from the Spanish by Anton Baer

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