Occupy Blog: Spain
| Marianne Maeckelbergh |
La Nostra Elecció: L’ Acció
Barcelona, Spain, November 2011
The streets of Barcelona appear deceptively calm at first sight. Fashionable people stroll the streets, shopping bags in hand, while others stop to drink a glass of wine at a sidewalk cafe. These luxurious images project a sense of prosperity onto the streets of Barcelona, but underneath the surface, a struggle rages. The 15 May Movement that captured the global imaginary just six months ago and encouraged people all across the world to occupy public space and hold massive democratic assemblies is no longer limited to the central square. Now, they are everywhere.
Across the city less complacent images abound. Everywhere there are posters and banners that declare: “Democracy is a farce”; “Democracy is Hypocrisy”; “No One Represents Us”; “Active Abstention”; “All Power to the People: Don’t Vote!”; “Democracy is a Grand Circus”; and “Our Elections: Actions”. Two growing trends are visible here in Barcelona that certainly resonate elsewhere. First, people seem to take for granted the idea that voting and electoral politics actually bears little relationship to democracy. Second, there is an evolution in the tactic of occupation – expanding from public squares to buildings, hospitals and universities.
Elections are not Democracy
Many of those involved in the 15 May movement have been election campaigning for months. But they are not campaigning for a left-wing political party, they are campaigning against the vote entirely. They have been encouraging people to submit a “voto nulo” – an invalid vote – which is a vote for no actual candidate, but which, by law, needs to be counted in the electoral results. The idea was that if everyone who regularly abstains from the elections in Spain were to vote “nulo”, then “nulo” would win the elections. And it is true. If you tally all the abstentions, the blank votes, and the nulo votes in last Sunday’s election, then the votes outnumber the winning conservative “Popular Party” by 323,650.
Despite the ‘campaigning’, it was striking how irrelevant the elections seemed to everyone I spoke with. Part of this irrelevance stemmed from the fact that it was clear that the conservative party would win long before the election took place and part of the irrelevance stemmed from a total loss of faith in all political parties. But the irrelevance of the election ran much deeper that mere resignation to a frightening or meaningless result. The word ‘democracy’ has become a joke – at least in as far as it refers to representative democracy. Democracy here is either rejected entirely as the “farce” that governments and corporations play to fool you into thinking that you have a choice, or it is the mechanism through which devastating policy measures are given ‘legitimacy’.
Here in Barcelona, this understanding of representative democracy as at best a dangerous legitimating mechanism and at worst a manipulative farce, is not a radical fringe idea. Quite the contrary, if anything, this point is considered obvious. Although not everyone, perhaps not even most people, linked to the 15M movement rejects representative democracy entirely, many do, and those who do have grown influential thanks to the 15 M movement. In any case, those who criticize representative democracy are politically the most interesting, especially when we consider these criticisms are not limited to Spain, but can be found in most sites of the Occupy Movement and have been dominant within the alterglobalization movement for over ten years.
This rejection of representative democracy has to be understood as part of a growing popular skepticism that raises some of the most fundamental questions about the future of society. People everywhere are starting to share and propagate the idea that democracy is not about voting or about elections, but about ‘the people’ having real power over the decisions that determine whether they will have a place to live, the ability to feed their families, or a basic education. More importantly, this shift in meaning is being backed up with large-scale decentralized general assemblies that are building the inclusive structures necessary to enact these new forms of democracy.
How much worse it will still get in Spain now that the conservative party is in power remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: things are already on the brink. The “emergency situation” in housing in Spain has already led to over 300,000 evictions, representing between 1 and 2 million people thrown out on the streets (exact estimates are hard to come by because evictions are counted in housing units not people). Similar to the situation in the US, banks had been practicing predatory lending throughout the construction boom from ~1997-2007. Those most heavily affected are the immigrants who came to Spain to work in the construction sector. When it was believed that the construction sector would expand forever workers in this sector received mortgages for the full price of a house, sometimes with monthly payments as high as 80% of their salary. Now that the construction sector has collapsed, these worker’s are among those that make up the 22% unemployment rate in Spain. The worst for these evicted families, however, is that in Spain, even after families are evicted from their homes and the bank repossesses the house, the family still has to pay monthly payments to the bank as well as all legal expenses associated with the eviction. When someone is evicted, the bank freezes the person’s bank accounts and reclaims expenses first. This usually means instant financial ruin.
But the 15M Movement has been organizing to house those that are evicted. The anti-eviction campaign that helped to build the 15M movement has grown exponentially due to the new structures of mobilization created. On 15 October 2011, as part of the international ‘day of rage’ the housing movement in Barcelona occupied a large new building owned by a bank that had been empty for over 5 years. In the run up to the elections, on 18 November, they took another building. Each time thousands of people marched through the city to accompany the homeless families to their new homes under the slogan “never alone again”. People also feel justified in taking the buildings, “the banks that own these buildings were bailed out with public money. That’s our money. So these are our buildings.”
Actions not Demands
Over the past six months, the media everywhere has criticized the occupy movement for having no demands and for having no clear message. But having no demands is not the same as having no clear message. If one thing is clear from the struggles in Spain, it is that it is entirely possible to have a clear message without making any demands. In Spain, the actions are clear and the message is getting across – to the public and to those in power. With the physical ‘re-appropriation’ of housing, hospitals and universities, the tactic of occupation in Spain has evolved from a political statement into concrete community projects that combine helping people directly with the longer term project of redesigning the way power operates in society. Actions that directly provide housing, health care and education to those who need it, communicate very clearly not only what the problems are, but also the solutions. Occupation is not just a media stunt – it is the necessary first step in rebuilding social relations of mutual support.
A new short film from Brandon Jourdan – Occupied Barcelona: The Spanish Election Rejection
Marianne Maeckelbergh is lecturer in Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University, Netherlands. She has 15 years experience as an activist, organising and facilitating exactly the decision-making processes that lie at the heart of her study. Her book The Will of Many is available from Pluto Press.