The uprising over Spain’s future

May 26, 2011

Zach Zill explains how a devastating economic crisis and the discrediting of the political system have given rise to a powerful movement for change in Spain.

THE FORCES behind the protest movement that erupted in Spain on May 15 go by various names: 15-M, Los Indignados (The Indignant), the Lost Generation, Youth Without a Future, Real Democracy Now!

But by any name, the rallies and around-the-clock occupations in central plazas across Spain have shaken the country's political system and shown a glimpse of an alternative to austerity, unemployment and political corruption. In so doing, they are providing inspiration and an example to workers around the world who face similar conditions.

Mainstream media reports on Spain's May 22 local and municipal elections focused on the huge losses for the ruling center-left party, the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE)--whose share of the national vote dropped to the lowest point since end of the fascist dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco in the 1970s--and successes for the main conservative party, the People's Party (PP).

But the real story was in the streets, as the protest movement against both major parties entered its second week, gaining momentum with every passing day. Taking inspiration from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, protesters have occupied central squares in cities and towns all over Spain.

Protesters occupy the Puerta del Sol in Madrid
Protesters occupy the Puerta del Sol in Madrid (Olmo González)

Largely without connection to Spain's traditional left organizations or unions--which have been complicit in the drive for austerity--the encampments have relied on new organizations, online social networks and mass assemblies to mobilize, organize and make decisions.

The movement originated on May 15, when protests called via Facebook for Madrid and 60 cities around Spain coalesced around the demand for "Real democracy now! We are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers." The turnout far exceeded expectations, with up to 50,000 people coming together in Madrid's central plaza, Puerta del Sol, and even more in the 60 other cities.

Hundreds of protesters decided to camp out in the plaza, in imitation of the mobilizations in Tahrir Square in Cairo. After Madrid police attempted to violently evict the encampment in the early morning hours of May 17, the movement blossomed as thousands returned to the plaza to show their solidarity.

Since then, the movement has continued to spread, with the number of demonstrators in Madrid growing by the day and encampments initiated in over 150 cities and towns across the country. The size and confidence of the protests ensured that police could do nothing to crack down when the movement defied the government and refused to disperse for the "day of reflection" ban on political demonstrations the day before the election.

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Hear Zach Zill at Socialism 2011 in Chicago, speaking on the panel, "The kids aren't alright: The global youth revolt." Check out the Socialism 2011 website for more details.

The demands emerging from the "Acampada de Sol" are numerous and wide-ranging, but the main sentiment is a rejection of austerity policies imposed by the center-left government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of the PSOE.

Spain's unemployment rate, now at 21 percent according to official figures and still rising, is the highest among the developed countries. Youth unemployment is 43 percent, and even those young people with jobs usually make less than 1,000 euros per month, earning them the nickname "mileuristas"--or "thousand euro-er."

Closely connected to their economic grievances is the massive disgust people in Spain feel toward what is broadly viewed as a corrupt and unaccountable two-party system, in which the PSOE and PP, in spite of their rhetorical differences, are united in their defense of bankers and big business. Both parties are facing major scandals, with over 100 candidates who ran on May 22 currently under investigation for corruption or fraud.

Especially as the economic crisis has taken its toll, the widespread sense is that Spain's political rulers, whichever party they are from, are totally disconnected from the realities faced by working-class people. Neither the PSOE nor the PP have put forward any proposals to help working people. Instead, they both call for austerity, blindly obeying the commands of international financial markets and the economic leadership of the European Union (EU).

Thus, the simple protest slogan: "Real Democracy Now!"

SPAIN'S ECONOMY was hit hard in the global economic crisis of 2008. After riding high for over a decade, attracting waves of foreign investment and absorbing new immigrants to feed its labor market, the Spanish economy crashed hard.

With the deflation of an enormous housing bubble on a scale similar to the U.S., Spain's gross domestic product shrank by almost 4 percent in 2009. The construction and real estate industries, which accounted for a fifth of all growth in 2007, quickly shed 2 million jobs.

Spain went from creating half of all new jobs in Europe from 2000 to 2005 to having its unemployment rate double from 2008 to 2010. The employment situation has become so grim that the country, which only a few years ago was experiencing record levels of immigration, is now exporting tens of thousands of workers looking for employment elsewhere in Europe and beyond.

With the economy shrinking and tax revenues drying up, Spain's government at first engaged in temporary stimulus spending that brought the deficit up to 11.2 percent of GDP in 2009. Like other governments in the advanced world, including the U.S., Spain's "stimulus" was largely directed at saving the banking system. The Zapatero government spared no expense in propping up the financial sector, bailing out multiple regional banks, or cajas, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.

Now, the Spanish government's massive debts have driven its borrowing costs sky-high--and struck fear into the hearts of Eurozone ruling classes that are struggling to contain the continent's financial crisis.

The same dynamic has played out in smaller European economies first. With international lenders refusing to provide more funding to the heavily indebted governments of Greece, Ireland and Portugal, the EU and IMF stepped in with bailouts. With those bailouts came harsh austerity programs that will destroy lives and permanently lower working-class living standards.

Spain is considered the Eurozone's "biggest weak link," with a population and an economy roughly twice as big as Greece, Ireland and Portugal combined. A similar bailout of Spain would be far more difficult to undertake--and potentially much more damaging to the European and world banking systems. Thus, bankers and capitalists in Spain and beyond are demanding one of the most severe austerity programs on the continent--to force the Spanish working class to bear the costs of nursing the banks back to health.

Zapatero has passed several austerity packages, implementing the deepest budget reductions in three decades. Tens of billions are being slashed in order to get the government deficit down to 3 percent of GDP by 2013.

Zapatero's measures so far have made it easier and cheaper for private employers to fire workers; taken at least 5 percent from the pay of public-sector workers; frozen pensions for government workers; raised the retirement age from 65 to 67; and downsized the government workforce by not replacing retirees. In addition, public funding for education, housing, unemployment and maternity programs have all been scaled back.

The state has also begun privatizing and selling off assets, including several airports and a share of the national lottery business. While passing a minimal, token tax increase on the wealthiest Spaniards, Zapatero has also cut taxes for medium-size businesses.

Yet even as Zapatero imposes pay cuts on workers and downsizes social programs, the government has kept the spigots open for the bankers, as it oversees a consolidation of the banking industry from 45 cajas to 17, capitalized by $75 billion in government money.

This represents a sharp U-turn from the earlier record of the PSOE, which administered several progressive reforms after coming to power in 2004. In addition to ending Spain's involvement in the Iraq war and implementing progressive changes around abortion and transgender rights, the early Zapatero government used the country's economic clout to strengthen the welfare state, raising the minimum wage, extending health care coverage and expanding rent subsidies.

All that is gone now. Zapatero has adopted a cut-at-all-costs approach, even using a Franco-era law to call in the military to smash a strike of air traffic controllers. Actions like this from the so-called "socialist" government have drawn praise from the country's leading business group, the Spanish Confederation of Business Organizations.

This background helps explain the deep wells of anger and bitterness that led to the PSOE's historic losses to the PP in the May 22 elections. Support for Zapatero's party collapsed. The PSOE even lost in strongholds--like the region of Castilla-La Mancha and the city halls of Barcelona and Seville--where it has ruled since the end of the Franco era.

"It is a Socialist government," Fernando Lezcano, a labor spokesperson, told the Washington Post, "but they are implementing the same policies as Sarkozy in France, Merkel in Germany and Cameron in Britain."

These election results are widely expected to be repeated in next year's parliamentary elections. With Zapatero having previously announced that he won't seek reelection, the PP is already tasting victory. But conservatives, led by Mariano Rajoy, will come to power representing essentially the same policies as the PSOE--only they want to add a tax cut for the rich on top of the austerity measures.

The May 22 vote didn't represent a conservative shift on the part of Spain's voters, but instead shows the limitations of an electoral system that has been dominated by only two parties since the end of the dictatorship. As the Guardian reported, "Politicians have rarely been held in such disregard, with the prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and opposition leader, Mariano Rajoy, of the conservative People's party, rating lowest."

This thirst for an alternative to the two mainstream parties was reflected to some extent at the polls. The largest Left alternative to the PSOE, the United Left (UI), anchored by the Communist Party, made gains after seeing its support dwindle in recent years. Furthermore, both the pro-Basque-independence Bildu party and the Catalonian CUP, a left nationalist party, made large electoral gains. There were also a historically high number of blank ballots in the May 22 vote.

BUT THE movement in the street has set its sights much higher than election outcomes. Young people unconnected to Spain's traditional parties have led the way. As protester Javier Perez told the Associated Press: "This protest never had an electoral goal. In the end, the results are another example of Spain's two-party system and how it fails to resolve the anger, the indignation and our problems."

Another protester, 24-year-old Ines Bajo, said: "We the unemployed, the badly paid, the subcontracted in precarious jobs, the youth of Spain, want change and a future with dignity."

Across Spain, there is a growing realization that such a future will only come through expanding the protests. The demonstrators have consciously drawn inspiration from the mass protests in other European countries like Greece and Portugal--and, of course, from the popular revolutions in the Arab world.

Much of the media coverage of the plaza encampments has focused on the "spontaneous" nature of the protests--and repeated the now well-worn line that they owe their existence to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. While it is clear that social media have become an important mobilizing tool for struggles like the one in Spain, other reports show how the May 15 protests were the product of months of organizing.

Some of the important developments of the past year include: A 24-hour general strike that shut down the country last September, a widespread campaign against an anti-Internet neutrality law, a nationwide campaign calling for decent housing for all, strikes of health care workers in Catalonia and of air traffic controllers, May Day demonstrations organized independently of the mainstream unions and political parties, and the explosion of a new movement calling itself "Youth Without a Future."

The M-15 protests have brought together the strands of all these different struggles. The Youth Without a Future slogan of "Sin Miedo" or "No Fear" found its way onto signs and banners in Puerta del Sol--along with chants of "They call it democracy, but it isn't," and explicitly anti-capitalist and pro-revolution slogans.

The encampment in Madrid's Plaza del Sol, which has continued since the May 22 elections, with no end in sight, shares many features of the occupation of Tahrir Square in Cairo--and, at a different level of struggle, the takeover of the Wisconsin state Capitol building in Madison. The energy and creativity of protesters is being channeled into self-organized, democratic committees that look after the daily needs of the movement and allow all those involved to have a say in the future of the struggle.

Committees have been set up to organize cleanup, child care, food distribution, first aid and even a library. The movement has spread across Spain and beyond its borders to Spanish embassies in Buenos Aires, Vienna, London and Brussels. As Sofia de Roa, a spokesperson for the protesters, told CNN: "People want to participate. This is a fiesta of democracy. We're not leaving until there's a change."

Many questions now face the thousands who have participated in the movement. If the protests are to continue to grow in size and social power, there will need to be a strategy to draw in larger numbers of unionized workers, even if their union leaderships are largely discredited for their connections to the PSOE. Many workers have already participated in the protests, though the major unions have not. One important next step will be protests called for June 15 in Barcelona, Spain's second-largest city and historically a labor stronghold.

The protesters will also have to take up demands around protecting immigrants, who have become the scapegoat of choice for a ruling class looking to pin the blame for the crisis elsewhere.

AT THE broadest level, the movement in Spain represents the latest phase of a growing international rebellion against economic crisis and the ruling-class drive for austerity.

In country after country, genuine popular movements with significant anti-capitalist elements are being reborn, with an international scope not seen in generations. Political systems and ruling institutions that have become unaccountable and unresponsive to people's needs are facing intense challenges from below as masses of people enter the first stage of a struggle over how the crisis will be resolved.

As Miguel Martínez, a sociologist who teaches at Madrid's Complutense University, said in an interview with the major Spanish newspaper El País:

We have seen how quickly things can fall apart. But the imbalance originates among the political elites, who have been tightening the screws steadily. Our governments have implemented very aggressive policies that have hit many people hard. There had to be a release of pressure. People feel as though their lives have been turned upside down. And now people are angry--they won't take it any longer.

The movement in Spain is saying "Enough!" to austerity and crisis. Now, in order to stop the ruling class drive to make workers pay, that movement will have to grow--and spread internationally.

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