The occupation of Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square, the Plaça de Catalunya, Barcelona, and those of other cities across Spain has lasted for nearly two weeks now. After an attempt to drive them out on the first night and the ruling by the electoral commission that they must quit the square before the regional and local elections on 22 May, the authorities proved too unconfident to enforce this.
The occupation in Madrid – with numbers varying from between 3,000 to 28,000 – has gripped the attention, not just of Spain, but of Europe and beyond. Tens of thousands of young people, unemployed and students, as well as supporters from amongst trade unionists and pensioners have made the issue of youth unemployment and the effects of the government’s austerity visible.
Spain’s 21.3 per cent unemployment rate is the highest in the EU – a record 4.9 million are jobless – but the rate soars to over 43 per cent for young people. And those who have jobs are mainly in low paid, insecure and often only part-time positions. Even the IMF, whose policies promote unemployment and low wages, has called them “the lost generation.” Ignored by government and opposition parties and to a large degree shamefully by the trade unions too, they have finally found a voice.
Self consciously modelled on the mass occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo they have also shown the widespread disillusion of young people with all the major political parties. This is hardly surprising since both have governed for years as youth unemployment and insecure jobs rose remorselessly- as the government bailed out the banks but demanded savage austerity from the mass of the people.
The government of the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero
is imposing 15 billion Euros of spending cuts, up to 15 per cent cuts in civil servants’ salaries, raising the retirement age from 65 to 67, and “freeing up the labour market” by reforming labour law to weaken workplace protection and workers’ rights. Big cuts in education and healthcare are being driven through by the regional governments; in Catalonia, some 10 per cent of the budget. The opposition People’s Party (Partido Popular-PP) led by Mariano Rajoy, totally supports these cuts and is an even bigger fan of privatisation and slashing labour rights. In addition the PP is mired in a corruption scandal in Valencia where they were found to be selling government contracts to private companies in exchange for campaign contributions. Examples like this show the class orientation of the PP and who it will serve in government.
Youth rise up!
The occupations have attracted large scale support, especially on 18 May when 130,000 people demonstrated across Spain. An estimated 50,000 protested in Madrid, 15,000 in Barcelona and 10,000 in Seville. Smaller demonstrations took place in another 57 cities and towns across the country.
The protests, variously referred to as the 15-M Movement, or as the #spanishrevolution (named after the twitter hashtag) has as its main slogan “real democracy now!” (Democracia real YA!). It was an initiative by a series of anti-neoliberal groups and NGOs like Attac, Intermon Oxfam, Ecologists in Action or Youth without Future (Spanish: Juventud Sin Futuro). Using Twitter and Facebook they issued and appeal to “the unemployed poorly paid, the subcontracted workers, the precarious, young people…” to occupy the main squares on May 15. Young people responded massively and magnificently – calling themselves Los Indignados – the outraged.
Like the revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt the demonstrators used social media to put over the message at a time when the broadcast and print media, public as well as private, first ignored them, then ridiculed them and finally threatened them with the courts, the police and outright repression. Thousands of individual participants were thus able to counter the lies of the right-wing journalists and politicians instantaneously.
Allies or enemies?
Their hostility of the to the main parties is very understandable since both are pledged to the austerity measure which will make the already bad condition for workers and youth unendurable. They have rejected attempts by PSOE politicians to come and address them. But the occupiers in Madrid have also made it clear that the trade unions were not welcome. Though a seriously wrong move this too is understandable. The major union federations – the Sindicato Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT) and Confederación Sindical de las Comisiones Obreras (CCOO) – hardly present an attractive alternative to the young unemployed whose cause they have not actively championed.
Though the CCOO and UGT did organise a general strike against the government plans on 29 September 2010 this was not the prelude to a campaign of mass action but a one-off show of protest before a state of total inaction. Then in the new year the unions began to threaten another one day general strike over the raising of the pension age. But this time it all ended in negotiations. The result was that on 4 February they signed an agreement with the government and the employers on reforms to the pensions system, wage bargaining and “reforms” to the Labour market. Young people – future workers – are being sold out by the unions.
This hostility to the trade unions is not universal however. Other camps in the more radical left cities like Barcelona have been organised along with local trade unions who have been pro-active in the working class communities and workplaces.
It is a good sign that the May Day demonstrations were large this year and demonstrators loudly condemned the cuts but the union leaders have said little during the current youth radicalisation and indeed have done nothing to bring workers into action alongside them. This gap between the workers – some 2.7 million of whom are represented in the unions (15-16 per cent of the workforce) and the youth mobilised in the May 15 movement – is enormously damaging to the interests of both.
The programme of the movement
Though the actions of the 15 May Movement are inspiring – quite literary since they have been copied or will be copied in other countries the political message put out by the representatives in Puertoa del Sol are weak and in some cases wrong and must be challenged.
The Manifesto of the Puerto del Sol, for example, includes sharp condemnations of the present system. The Puerta del Sol assembly also adopted a list of 16 demands, including the democratisation of the election process and abolition of discriminatory laws, such as the European Space for Higher Education, the Immigration Law. It demanded a proclamation of basic rights, for housing, health care and education; greater government control over banks and businesses; reduced military spending; and the renationalisation of privatised public enterprises. But these demands are vague about the democracy it calls for and totally inadequate and when it comes to economic demands. It does not even demand the total abandonment of the austerity programme, concrete measures to make the rich pay or take over the banks, or jobs for the millions of unemployed. Instead we get empty rhetoric such as;
“Lust for power and its accumulation in only a few; create inequality, tension and injustice, which leads to violence, which we reject. The obsolete and unnatural economic model fuels the social machinery in a growing spiral that consumes itself by enriching a few and sends into poverty the rest. Until the collapse.”
The Manifesto does not dare to name the system which causes the social misery and denies “real democracy” nor to name what is the alternative to it – socialism. Still less does it say what social classes can bring it about. Instead it descends into “democratic” and populist phrasemongering.
“Some of us consider ourselves progressive, others conservative. Some of us are believers, some not. Some of us have clearly defined ideologies, others are apolitical, but we are all concerned and angry about the political, economic, and social outlook which we see around us: corruption among politicians, businessmen, bankers, leaving us helpless, without a voice.
This situation has become normal, a daily suffering, without hope. But if we join forces, we can change it. It’s time to change things, time to build a better society together.”
“We need an ethical revolution. Instead of placing money above human beings, we shall put it back to our service. We are people, not products. I am not a product of what I buy, why I buy and who I buy from. For all of the above, I am outraged. I think I can change it. I think I can help. I know that together we can. I think I can help. I know that together we can.”
So if the NGO and libertarian organisers in Puerta del Sol have no programme or strategy to offer beyond protest and the building of ad hoc, temporary utopias what has the Spanish left to offer?
The United Left (Izquierda Unida or IU) has supported the demonstration but confesses to have little connection with the youth there. It has, officially, around 50,000 members and nearly 2,700 local councillors It was formed by smaller left groups around the core of the old Communist Party of Spain (PCE) in the mid-1980s after the latter’s electoral débâcle in 1982 ( when its vote fell from 10 to 3 per cent). The PCE and its associated union federation the CCOO had betrayed the revolutionary situation which developed after the death of Franco, signing the infamous Moncloa Pact with the King and the “reformed” Falangists (of whom the Partido Popular is the lineal descendent). The IU election results reached a peak of 11 per cent in 1996 (2,600,000 votes) but it experienced a collapse to 5% in the 2000 general elections because of its a pact with the PSOE. Though its elections results show a modest increase the IU, despite its opposition to the austerity programme is a thoroughly reformist party not a fighting organisation.
How to win
The demonstrators will hold an assembly on Sunday to see if the protest will continue. Obviously the tactic of staying till the government resigns – cannot easily be applied in “democratic Spain” as it was in Mubarak’s Egypt. Indeed the municipal and regional elections on 22 May – where the ruling PSOE suffered a heavy defeat – underlined that if Prime Minister Luis José Luis Zapatero were forced to call early elections he would likely be replaced by the leader of the right wing Partido Popular of José María Aznar. Indeed as things stand a PP victory in the 2012 general elections seems certain. Under the PP austerity would continue – probably carried out with greater enthusiasm. The PP vociferously called on the government to send in the police to clear the squares of demonstrators before the local and regional polls.
At the same time the small vote of the United left (Izquierda Unida-IU), 6.3 per cent, despite its support for the protests, indicates there is no viable parliamentary alternative to the parties of austerity. The elections show the dilemma the young demonstrators are in: how to bring about the change, the real democracy their placards proclaim. Calling for real democracy in a country with a functioning liberal democratic regime has little purchase, unless it can be linked to a more systematic critique of the dictatorship of capital which runs politics behind the façade of parliament. Such a criticism must point to the methods and tasks in overthrowing the system – otherwise it simply poses reforms, reforms which will no doubt be supportable and progressive but will fail to get to the root of the problem.
It is clear that the youth in Spain are in the advanced fighting forces of the resistance to the effects of capitalism, no matter how confused they are. It is a damning indictment of the failures of the trade union leaders to reach out to such people and bring them into the workers movement. But the youth must not reject trade unions out of hand, and open hostility to trade unions being involved in the protests will have reactionary consequences, not just to divide the resistance, but to alienate the youth from the working class, the very force in society that can deliver the changes that they so desperately want.
With the right strategy capitalism can be overthrown in Spain – as it must be across the world. A determined fight by the working class against the government can crush the PSOE’s austerity programme. This needs to be a general strike, not a one hit wonder 24 strike, but all out and stay out until they all win. To organise the strike, co-ordinations are needed, strike committees, people’s assemblies, workers defence teams to guard the picket lines. This would open up a direct revolutionary assault on the government and the capitalist class itself and show the world that the cuts can be stopped and capitalism confronted. This is why a struggle for socialism is so central to the resistance movement – we must take power out of the hands of the rich and their puppets in parliament.