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Losing strength? An alternative vision of Spain’s Indignados movement

Is the 15-M movement going invisible? Or is it rather gaining strength in the ‘underground’? The mainstream media keep claiming that the indignados have lost support since last year, that its only success is its ability to bring people together on special dates. Spanish newspaper El País concluded in May 2012 that, one year after the birth of the movement, popular support and sympathy for the indignados had decreased around 13% among the Spanish population, despite the massive mobilizations that took place from the 12th until the 15th of May, commemorating the anniversary of the movement. ABC opened its edition of May 15 stating that “the indignados movement shows less strength on their anniversary.” But the media misses the point. In reality, rather than losing strength, the movement has become stronger, more organized, better coordinated, and supported by the commitment of hundreds of people.

The decentralization of the movement

When May 2011 came to an end, the recently born 15-M movement had to find out how to survive beyond the camp at Puerta del Sol (acampadasol). Thus arose the idea of decentralizing the movement towards the neighborhoods: the ‘toma los barrios‘, or take the neighborhoods, initiative supported and encouraged the creation of assemblies in every neighborhood of Madrid. In this way, the movement went local: since the creation of the neighborhood assemblies on May 28, 2011, around 120 assemblies have been set up, and they coordinate through the Asamblea Popular de Madrid, the popular assembly of Madrid, also known as Asamblea Interbarrios (the inter-neighborhood assembly). As there were many thematic working groups in the original Sol camp, working groups with similar interests were created in most of the neighborhood assemblies, which since then collaborate and coordinate with the general groups from acampadasol.

The objectives of such decentralization aimed, in the first place, to promote direct and participatory democracy in the local sphere, based on an understanding of politics as the art of collectively creating an alternative pattern of social relations, thereby bringing people out of isolation and into a community. A second objective aimed to retake the public sphere, as defined by Habermas, as a place in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk, the space in which citizens deliberate about their common affairs, hence, an arena of discursive interaction. This interaction is structured through assemblies, which constitute the greatest expression of horizontal organization and democracy from below. The combination of both objectives shows the movement’s efforts in fighting for a ‘real democracy now’ (Democracia Real Ya), which goes in the direction of Daniel Barber’s concept of ‘strong democracy‘, a “normative alternative where citizens are engaged at the local and national levels in a variety of political activities and regard discourse, debate and deliberation as essential conditions for reaching common ground.”

The emergence of new social initiatives

The neighborhood assemblies usually meet once a week and they constitute public spaces for debate, where neighbors exchange ideas and visions about general topics (the economy, unemployment, housing, the financial system, education, social security), but also about local problems that particularly affect their neighborhood. A large number of activities have been organised within these assemblies, one of the most interesting of which is the creation of so-called ‘time banks’, or bancos de tiempo. Time banking is a pattern of non-monetary reciprocal service, which seeks to address requirements outside of the market sphere. As an alternative to the monetary system, the unit of currency used is one hour of any person’s labor. In this way, time banks seek to provide incentives and rewards for work usually done on a volunteer basis. The assembly of the La Concepción neighborhood, in the northeast of Madrid, has one of the biggest and better organised bancos de tiempo, which is coordinated through the internet. The neighbors can create an online profile where they share information about the services they can provide, and they can get in touch with people who offer services they are interested in. They conclude the transaction between one another, and a mediation commission is planned in case any problem come up.

Other initiatives that originated within the assemblies include the creation of organic vegetable gardens in empty neighborhood spaces, aiming to reduce food dependency, and the constitution of co-operatives of agro-ecological consumption, which seek to shorten the commercialization circuits and establish closer relationships to producers. The latter is a very clear materialization of the movement’s critique of the conventional models of production and consumption of the capitalist system, claiming that they are neither sustainable, fair, healthy, nor tasty. In this way, the assemblies are encouraging the emergence of alternative lifestyles and consumption habits.

One of the most successful actions of the 15-M movement that the neighborhoods have helped to coordinate is the ‘stop forced evictions’ campaign (stop desahucios). Around 200 evictions have been stopped since last year. Since the beginning, a working group on housing rights was constituted inside of the indignados movement, which formed the housing office (oficina de vivienda). When the neighborhood assemblies were created, they served as a means to channel the desahucios initiative. Only last year, 58.241 evictions were processed in the country, a rise of 22 percent compared to 2010. The Platform of Those Affected by a Mortgage (PAH: Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca), an association that was created in 2009 to try to find a solution to the drama of forced evictions, tightly connected to the 15-M movement, was able to provide its people-gathering strength and visibility to the stop evictions. The neighborhoods were a key actor in this process: they started collecting information of the evictions planned in their area, and organized the mobilization of activists on eviction dates. Through the celebration of mutual assemblies and the sharing of information through social networks, housing has become one of the main targets for the neighborhood assemblies to work on and mobilize around.

The truth is that the 15-M movement has marked a turning point in Spain’s social climate: it has opened up a whole new sphere of public debate. It has shown that it is possible to think differently, to feel differently, and to act differently. It has proved that it is possible to set up alternatives to the current system, and it has gathered together a large number of people who are now showing that there is more beyond the movement than only sporadic massive mobilizations.

Under the slogan ‘No human being is illegal’, the Neighborhood Brigades for Human Rights Monitoring (Brigadas Vecinales de Observación de los Derechos Humanos) have been formed within some popular assemblies in Madrid, mostly in those neighborhoods with big immigrant collectives, with the goal of rendering visible the police raids on the immigrant population, as well as denouncing the xenophobic and racist bias that they usually display. The neighborhood assemblies, with their Human Rights Monitoring Brigades, have also been the cradle of protest against immigration detention centres (CIEs: Centro de Internamiento de Extranjeros), advocating for their closure and the improvement of detainee’s human rights guarantees.

The indignados have revitalized the neighborhood movement: new forms of cooperation coexist with the old neighborhood associations, and they are coordinating and sharing a large number of initiatives and joint actions. The neighborhood associations, which appeared in Madrid in the late sixties, had gradually moderated their demands and plunged into a light sleep. The 15-M movement has reawakened local politics and boosted community-based mobilization: we are witnessing how old and new forms of neighborhood organization are coexisting, coordinating and mutually learning from one another.

A new social climate

The media has emphasized lately that the 15-M movement still has a powerful people-gathering effect, but that, apart from the massive mobilizations, it is losing its influence in day-to-day life. But the 15-M movement has in fact created a new social climate. As the popular assembly of Algete expressed on its Twitter account, “we were sleeping, we woke up, and now we have chronic insomnia” (dormíamos, despertamos, y ahora tenemos insomnio crónico). Philosopher Amador Fernández-Savater goes beyond that and claims that the 15-M movement has opened a “new state of mind”. The truth is that the 15-M movement has marked a turning point in Spain’s social climate: it has opened up a whole new sphere of public debate. It has shown that it is possible to think differently, to feel differently, and to act differently. It has proved that it is possible to set up alternatives to the current system, and it has gathered together a large number of people who are now showing that there is more beyond the movement than only sporadic massive mobilizations.

In more than one hundred neighborhoods of Madrid, every single week, popular assemblies are held, working groups are created, and new initiatives are taking shape. Once a week, the Popular Assembly of Madrid (Asamblea Popular de Madrid, or Comisión Interbarrios), the inter-neighborhood coordination instance, meets to analyze, discuss and adopt proposals coming from the different neighborhood assemblies. A silent interconnection of minds takes place on a weekly basis all over the city, in the squares and on the internet. Yet the media keeps insisting that the movement is losing strength. We are witnessing the appearance of a parallel, alternative, underground economy. Yet those in power remain blind to it. As political scientist Carlos Taibo expresses it, “we constantly see how the media declares that the 15-M movement is dead. And I have realized that it is better not to reply back: the less they know about the reality of the movement, the more surprised they will be by what emerges from the invisible.”

“The 15-M movement was an explosion in the streets, but it has spread seeds of work all over the neighborhoods,” says Lola Díaz, from Ágora Sol. One year after its birth, we can conclude that the 15-M movement is more vibrant than ever before. It has raised a world awareness on the importance of being united for change. As activist and researcher Esther Vivas remarks, “with individual single actions we are not going to change the world, the change of paradigm will come only from collective action; if we don’t fight, if we are not proactive, if we don’t take the streets, we have lost before starting.”

The 15-M movement has gone beyond protest: it has succeeded in altering the collective imagination and the political atmosphere at its very roots. It has generated a process of re-politicization of society. The agenda of actions has expanded and been radicalized: now we do not only occupy the squares, but we are taking back the public spaces in our own neighborhoods. We stop evictions. We crowd-fund our initiatives. We bring legal actions against bankers. We build our own parallel networks of social support. Does this show a weakened movement, running out of strength? Or does it rather show a dynamic movement, working in the underground on a silent revolution? The 15-M movement, armed with a ‘slow impatience’, as philosopher Daniel Bensaïd pointed out, is putting its efforts in rebuilding the correlation of forces between the 1 percent in power and the vast majority of society, the other 99 percent. And stay sharp: this is only just the beginning.

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