This is a translation of a piece from Juan Carlos Monedero, who recently published a superb book titled The Transition as told to our parents, which I’m reading at the minute. The book is a great account of how and why Spanish democracy finds itself in its current state.
Notes on the “Commune” in Madrid (The Marseillaise in Puerta del Sol)
We knew it had to come, but we didn’t know when. All the indicators were saying so: there are too many people who have no reason to maintain political obedience. But the formula for predicting what will make the ice start to crack and where it will break did not exist nor does it exist.
Suddenly, almost unexpectedly, all the constellations came together and a section of the millions of those condemned by the neoliberal model decided that it would be worth the while to do something with their anger. The call for a gathering in the centre of Madrid, the traditional bridgehead for all demonstrations in the capital, held, moreover, two advantages from the outset, especially for a group of people who have more than simply lost faith with the political system: neither trade unions nor parties were making the call, but rather citizen groups that had been building up their outrage. In the atmosphere, furthermore, there was something like a need, intuitively understood, that one had to get out on the street or voicelessness would become chronic. And Madrid woke up and many people realised that they had built up a desire to give opinions, to participate, to be listened to. The Madrid Commune was underway.
The principal effect of the protests in the Puerta del Sol is the rupture of the routine that has allowed liberal democracy to glide along. If neo-liberalism has sustained itself based on the lie, about the impossibility of an alternative, as cheerled by Margaret Thatcher, the democratic model has held because it boiled down to a game for the upper echelons, effectively bipartite, televisual, ideologically decaffeinated, privately financed (or with privatised public money) and at a remove from a constantly diminishing militancy. This project ended up building a cartel with rules so severe that it excluded those who did not accept them.
Political power, economic power and media power, mixed together, became sturdy guardians of their own privilege. As happens with cartels, the discipline got applied with gradually greater authoritarian bias, in such a way that those who were not on the inside inhabited the outside as a matter of course. Disaffection has been the inevitable result of this contempt. When the disaffected populace allows things to be done, even democratic doctrine celebrates it (Everything works without the need to even vote!). But the sketchy legitimacy of the system weakens and that most perfect machine for producing obedience known as the State begins to break down like a fairground rifle whenever people say “enough”.
Zapatero, even though he was told right from the first moment of his mandate “don’t fail us” ended up failing. Remorsefully so, The gatherings for decent accomodation were repressed and “we want a little pad, like the one the prince has” was seared like a monarchical brand into the consciousness of those who had to keep living at home with their parents. Someone said that web surfers were “pirates like the terrorists” and despite the fact that the PP tried to step aside, it was clear that “Don’t Vote For Them” affected all those who aligned themselves with business. Out onto the street, in massive numbers, came demands for a democratic historical memory that will restore public dignity -they have always had it in private- to those 150,000 republicans buried in ditches and trenches for defending a democracy that deserved the name, and to whom the government responded with miserliness and the right wing responded with jokes and contempt. And for wanting to punish the guilty for the civil war, the magistrate who dared ended up in the dock. The university suffered in its august chambers the curse signalled by Boaventura de Sousa Santos: “every reform is carried out to cut away rights”, and to earn less than 1000 euro a month, which had previously been a stigma, became the privilege of a caste of people whom fortune had struck. The Wikileaks cables made clear that outsiders are in control inside, the contracting party offering the contract knew very well that people had to accept whatever they were offered so they kept driving further down what was on offer. Torrente, the stupid arm of the law, was no longer a concept but a point of reference [Torrente is a fictional extreme right-wing racist police officer and title character in a series of Spanish films - HG] and television producers were convinced that people were dying to hear about Penelope Cruz’s pregnancy, the dung on Big Brother or the dresses worn at royal weddings. Where the devil, wonders Amador Fernández-Savater, did the people in Puerta del Sol get that capacity for self-organization? Because they don’t explain that stuff on television.
The elections of the 22nd of March have come along marked by tedium: a resigned Socialist Party which, after having their photo taken with businesspeople in the Moncloa [seat of Government - HG], have hardly managed to babble: “the PP is going to hit you harder than us”; a PP buoyed, despite its corruption, on the wave of polls, playing at saying as little as possible so as not to arouse suspicion; a United Left with difficulties in understanding why, if the language of the gatherings is so similar to its own, it has not benefited from that discontent; a right-wing nationalism still enjoying the passive benefits of having been out of power; and a left-wing nationalism that, in the case of Catalonia, still has not understood it has been cut loose, and which in the Basque Country has been lucky that institutions still anchored in the old regime did the campaigning for them. With this scenario, the idea that elections could solve the great problems of the country -which in the end comes down to peoples and cities- remained far out of focus.
The outrage in the Puerta del Sol is a point of bifurcation that is opening after many disappointments: the social cutbacks and the resigned acceptance by the government of the dictatorship of the markets; the five million unemployed (of whom one in two is a young person); the Sinde law and the cuts to internet downloading, which has affected the only certainty enjoyed by young people which is the freedom to surf the web; the growing threats to apply the same logic to Spain that is looming over Greece, Ireland or Portugal; the foretold electoral growth of the PP, despite the corruption and the arrogance of their corrupt members, the traumatic application of the Bolonia Plan; the hundreds of thousands of evictions; the imbalances in the electoral law; the renewed threats of sackings; the growing profits of businesses; the persistence of fiscal paradises; bank bailouts and the bloodsucking salaries of bankers and top executives. That’s without counting more abstract ones such as the usurpation of historical memory, the failure to carry out electoral promises or the suspected bias of the judiciary along with others more concrete such as police mistreatment of demonstrators and the prohibition of mass meetings by the courts (Where were they when two turncoats robbed the elections in Madrid in 2003? And don’t the courts have anything to say about people under criminal investigation appearing on electoral lists?). Let’s add, of course, the example of Sahara, Tunisia, of Tahrir Square in Egypt and before that insurgent Latin America: those peoples have risen up. What are we waiting for?
The people united at Sol do not seek an immediate transformation, through the electoral process, for our political system. A movement with these characteristics is born because it has already discounted the possibility of changing things electorally. One only need look at the demands of Democracia Real Ya, put together in recent days by an anonymous multitude, to understand that the debate is aimed at the future and at the heart of the system. If this were not the case, it would sink back into melancholy on the Monday morning of the 23rd May. Despite being overcome by nervousness and its memory of the 13-M (curiously, they do not remember, for instance, the victims of 11-M) [13-M refers to the text messages circulating and the eventual protests that materialised on the streets after it became clear that the Partido Popular had been lying about the authors of the attacks of the 11th March 2004 bombs at the Atocha railway station in Madrid, trying to convince the population that it had been ETA - HG], Sunday will not see any brakes put on the PP’s path to the Moncloa. It would be an error to think that what is happening is going to radically change, from night to day, the comfort of our democracies. But the point of inflection has taken place. No-one will be able to govern as if nothing had happened. Two years ago they said that capitalism was going to be humanised, and when the people left the street, they went off and inflicted structural adjustment plans on European citizens. If they fool you twice, it’s your fault. It remains a terrible metaphor that while the managing director of the IMF was allegedly trying to rape a maid, the people of Madrid came onto the streets to say “enough”.
The Democracia Real Ya! gatherings has given itself an assembly-based organisation, and it is through the assembly proposals are made to address their ledger of complaints. All these proposals aim at greater democracy and a greater popular participation, such as the radical demand for equality, which has been punctured by the sordid greed that the financial exit from the crisis is putting in place. An end to the privileges of politicians (several jobs, several salaries, conflicts of interest, lavish salaries, privileged retirement packages), an end to fiscal paradises and bank bailouts, banker bonuses, changes to the electoral law that put an end to the disproportionality and the bipartidism, and the democratization of communications media. The proposals that were abandoned by the syndicates about job sharing are being recovered, as is a demand not to raise retirement age, so that neither old people have to work so much nor do young people remain out of work. Since mortgage loans are impossible, they are demanding a public market with rents that allow them to leave the parental home, in the same way that they are demanding a change to the law that allows banks, whenever the mortgage can’t be paid, to repossess the flat, and on top of that keep demanding loan payments (something that, they also declare, a public banking system would solve). Among the proposals is also long term benefit for unemployment, and the need for those who have the most to pay the most, because if rich people are still not paying taxes, it is not possible to have redistributive public policies. None of this would be possible in the absence of truthful, free, and diverse news coverage (where the journalists themselves, who are also victims of their bosses -the big media owners- can also recover some dignity). In a clear manner, they know, and they demand, that without an independent judicial power that makes a reality of the separation of powers, justice will continue to be a joke in the hands of political powers welded to economic powers.
The main result of the Madrid Commune has been to break the primordial objective of elections: the authorization of political power to govern legitimately. That complacency of self-satisfied democracies has been broken under the improvised tents of the Puerta del Sol. After the 15-M, as they learned in Ecuador, Argentina or Iceland, winning an election is not going to automatically mean being authorized to keep doing the same thing. The movement of indignados has installed a peaceful virtual guillotine in the Puerta del Sol. This is how democracy is made virtuous. This does not bring us into misleading democratizing illusions. Many people who are passing through the square are witnessing a phenomenon that is already media-borne. Just as they could witness the Windsor wedding or the Pope’s funeral. But when they walk about down there, they realise that what is being sought at kilometre zero in Madrid has a lot more to do with their own lives.
Complaints always come from the place that one departs. This is why comparisons don’t quite work. When a young person says that banker bonuses are neither left- nor right-wing, (s)he is saying: ‘I am not politicised like you, but I have something very clear: in my idea of democracy, there are some things that should be beyond political dispute. And just as stamping out paedophilia should be beyond left or right, that some have so much and others so little is outside my understanding of democracy. The idea of equality is very strongly engrained among young people. They have not had to fight for it, but they understand perfectly when they are missing it. That is why no slogan that they read out is indifferent: “hands up, this is a robbery”; “Spongebob seeks a decent job”; “Your loot, my crisis”, “Violence is getting paid 600 Euro”, “We are not paying for this crisis”.And as if stepping onto this square were like taking the red pill in the Matrix, bringing about a change in their consciousness. They came for one thing, but they leave with their head spinning. A routine has been broken. And they say “I’m here because I don’t agree with what’s happening”.
The Paris Commune of 1871 recovered a democratic element demonised by representative democracy: the revoking of mandates, that enemy of the liberal “vote and don’t get involved in politics”. This is the message that the Puerta del Sol is recovering: if the system continues to be anti-us, Mr President, Madam Deputy, Madam Judge, Mr Banker or Madam Police Officer, it means, for the sake of survival, to think about another system. Of course the comparison is excessive. We are in the 21st Century. But there are elements of real democracy that bring us directly to that which brought the Communards to the barricades. The same thing that brought Spanish republicans to defend in the trenches the values of a Republic that fought off fascism for three years. Madrid resisted and then it was razed. Madrid is asserting itself again. Those nostalgic about themselves talk about May 68 – what they did not apply whenever they held the reins. But, luckily, the creaky “isms” do not count for the new Communards. There they demand, above all, freedom. In Puerta del Sol, the 15-M Movement demands equality and participation. And it does it peacefully. It reminds us that many things have to be reinvented.
Below the tents that kept the rain off us in the Puerta del Sol, an old man with a long coat and a battered harmonica started to play the Marseillaise. The full moon made old reflections. Little by little, people began to listen to him attentively. When the applause stopped, he made his way slowly to the corner where, from the floor, some young women had listened to him with smiles on their faces. He prepared the harmonica, striking it gently against the palm of his hand, cleared his throat and, in the midst of a great silence, he asked: “Let’s see if you know this one. It’s like the Marseillaise but from here”. And he started to play the Himno del Riego.*
*Anthem of the Spanish republic.