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Rebellion of the Indignant: Notes from Barcelona’s Tahrir Square

There is no doubt about it.  The wind that has electrified the Arab world in recent months, the spirit of the repeated protests in Greece, the student struggles in Britain and Italy, the mobilizations against Sarkozy in France . . . has come to Spain.

These are not days of “business as usual.”  The comfortable routines of our “market democracy” and its electoral and media rituals have been abruptly altered by the unforeseen emergence in the street and public space of citizen mobilization.  This “rebellion of the indignant” worries the political elites, who are always discomfited when the people take democracy seriously . . . and decide to start practicing it for themselves.

Two years ago, when the crisis which broke out in September 2008 took on historic proportions, the “masters of the world” experienced a brief moment of panic, alarmed by the magnitude of a crisis they had not anticipated, due to their lack of theoretical instruments with which to understand it, and feared a strong social reaction.  Then came the empty claims of a “refoundation of capitalism” and false mea culpas that little by little evaporated, once the financial system was shored up, in the absence of a social explosion.

The social reaction has been slow in coming.  Since the outbreak of the crisis, social resistance has been weak.  There has been a very large gap between the discrediting of the current economic model and its translation into collective action.  Several factors explain this: in particular, fear, resignation, scepticism about trade unions, the absence of political and social reference points, and the penetration among wage earners of individualistic and consumerist values.

The current outbreak did not, however, start from scratch.  Years of work on a small scale of alternative networks and movements, initiatives and resistance of more limited impact, had kept the flame of contestation alive in this difficult period.  The general strike of September 29, 2010 also opened a first breach, although the CCOO and UGT leaderships’ subsequent demobilization and their unconscionable signing of the social pact closed the path of trade union mobilisation and further discredited and lowered the prestige of the biggest unions among combative youth and those who have launched the Real Democracy Now camps.

Indignant!

“Indignation,” very much the fashion thanks to the pamphlet by former French resistance fighter Stéphane Hessel, is one of the ideas that define the ongoing protests.  Here reappears, in another form, the “Ya Basta!” of the Zapatistas in their uprising of January 1, 1994, then the first revolt against the “new world order” proclaimed by George Bush Senior after the first Gulf War, the fall of the Berlin wall, and the disintegration of the USSR.

“Indignation is a start.  You are outraged, you rise up, and then you see,” said Daniel Bensaïd.  Gradually, we have passed from unease to outrage and from that to this mobilization.  We have a true “mobilized indignation.”  From the earthquake of crisis, the tsunami of social mobilization is developing.

To fight, more than unease and indignation is required; we must also believe in the usefulness of collective action: that it is possible to overcome and that all that has gone before is not lost.  For years the social movements in Spain have essentially known only defeats.  The lack of victories which show the usefulness of social mobilization and raise the expectations of the possible weighed like a heavy slab on the slow initial reaction to the crisis.

Hence the great contribution of the revolutions in the Arab world to the ongoing protests.  They show that collective action is useful, that “Yes We Can.”  That is why they, as well as the less covered victory against the bankers and the political class in Iceland, have been a reference point from the beginning for the protesters and activists.

Along with the belief that “this is possible,” that things can be changed, the loss of fear, in a time of crisis and difficulties, is another key factor.  “Without fear” is precisely one of the slogans most heard these days.  Fear still grips a large majority of workers and popular sectors, leading to passivity or xenophobic reactions lacking in solidarity.  But the 15M mobilization and the camps expanding like an oil slick are a powerful antidote to fear, threatening to dismantle the schemes of a ruling elite in charge of an increasingly delegitimized system.

The 15M movement and the camps have an important generational component.  Each time a new cycle of struggles breaks out, a new generation of activists emerges, and the “youth” as such acquire visibility and prominence.  While this generational, youth component is essential, and is also expressed in some of the organized movements that have been visible lately like “Youth without Future,” it must be noted that the ongoing protest is not a generational movement.  It is a movement of criticism of the current economic model and of the attempts to make workers, especially youth, pay for the crisis.  The point is precisely that, as on so many occasions, the youth protest acts as a trigger and catalyst for a broader cycle of social struggles.

The Spirit of Anti-Globalization Returns

The dynamism, the spontaneity, and the thrust of the current protests are the strongest since the emergence of the anti-globalization movement more than a decade ago.  Emerging internationally in November 1999 at the protests in Seattle during the WTO summit (although its antecedents go back to the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas), the anti-globalization wave quickly came to Spain.  The referendum on the abolition of the foreign debt in March 2000 (held the same day as the general elections and banned in several cities by the Electoral Board) and the big mobilization against the September 2000 IMF/World Bank summit in Prague were the first signs of this, particularly in Catalonia.  But the mass movement really arrived with the demonstrations against the World Bank summit in Barcelona on June 22-24, 2001.  Just ten years later we are witnessing the birth of a movement whose energy, enthusiasm, and collective strength has not been seen since then.  It will not, therefore, be a nostalgic tenth anniversary.  Quite the contrary.  We are going to celebrate it with the birth of a new movement.

The assemblies now in Plaza Catalunya (and, indeed, all the camps across the country beginning with that at Sol in Madrid) have given us priceless moments.  15M and the camps are authentic “foundational struggles” and clear signs that we are witnessing a turning point and that the wind of rebellion is blowing again.  Finally.  A true “Tahrir generation” is emerging, as a “Seattle generation” and a “Genoa generation” did before.

Through the “anti-globalization” impulse across the planet, following the official summits in Washington, Prague, Quebec, Goteborg, Genoa, and Barcelona, thousands of people identified with these protests, and a wide range of groups from around the globe got the feeling of being part of a movement, of the same “people,” the “people of Seattle” and “Genoa,” sharing common objectives and feeling part of the same struggle.

The current movement is also inspired by the most recent and important international reference points of struggle and victory.  It comes in the wake of movements as diverse as the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and the victory in Iceland, thus part of a general struggle against global capitalism and the servile political elite.  In Spain, the 15M demonstrations and now the camps — an example of simultaneous decentralization and coordination — are creating a shared identity and symbolic membership of a community.

The anti-globalization movement had the international institutions — WTO, WB, and IMF — and multinational companies in its line of fire.  Later, with the start of the “global war on terror” proclaimed by Bush Junior, criticism of war and imperialist domination acquired centrality.  The axis of the current movement is the criticism of a political class whose complicity in and servitude to the economic powers has been more exposed than ever.  “We are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers,” reads one of the main 15M slogans.  The criticism of the political class and professional politics is linked to a criticism, albeit not always well articulated and consistent, of the current economic model and financial powers.  “Capitalism?  Game Over.”

Towards the Future

The future of the movement initiated on the 15th of May is unpredictable.  In the short term the first challenge is to continue to build on the existing camps, set them up in cities where they do not yet exist, and ensure they will continue at least until Sunday, May 22.  May 21, the day of reflection, and May 22, election day, will be decisive.  In these two days, building the camps at a mass level is essential.

It is necessary to also consider new dates for mobilization, in the wake of 15M, to maintain the rhythm.  The main challenge is to maintain this dynamic of simultaneous expansion and radicalization of the protest which we have experienced in the last few days.  And in the case of Catalonia, look for synergies between the radicalism and desire for a systemic change expressed in 15M and the camps and the struggles against public expenditure cuts, particularly in health and education.  The camp in Plaza Catalunya has already become a meeting point, a powerful magnet, for all the more dynamic sectors in struggle.  It has become a meeting point for resistance and struggle, for building bridges, facilitating dialogue, and propelling future demonstrations.  Establishing alliances between the protests under way among unorganized activists, and alternative trade unionism, local movements, neighbourhood groups, and so on, is the great challenge of the next few days.

“The revolution starts here . . . ” was the claim yesterday at Plaza Catalunya.  Well, at least a new cycle of struggles is beginning.  So there is no doubt already that, more than a decade after the rise of the anti-globalization movement and two years after the outbreak of the crisis, social protest has come back to stay.


Josep Maria Antentas is a member of the editorial board of the magazine Viento Sur, and a professor of sociology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.  Esther Vivas is a member of the Centre for Studies on Social Movements (CEMS) at Universitat Pompeu Fabra.  She is also a member of the editorial board of Viento Sur.  En español.




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