Spanish protests: Viva, err… what, exactly?

The sit-in protests in Madrid and elsewhere are more a symbol of the problems of European radicalism than an offshoot of the Arab spring.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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It is flagrant self-flattery for the young people who have been camping out in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square in the run-up to Spain’s municipal election to compare their protests to the angry revolts that have swept across the Arab world. Placards that bluster such slogans as ‘From Tahrir Square [in Cairo] to Madrid, World Revolution’ call to mind the deluded black British Labour politician of the 1980s who tried to put his election as MP for South Brent on a par with the Soweto uprisings against apartheid. Yet these lazy parallels have been echoed in reports of the Spanish protests from the BBC and other serious news outlets.

What do events in Europe and the Arab world have in common? It is certainly true that both political situations illustrate a yawning chasm between the ruling elites and large sections of the ruled. It is also unfortunately true that the protests of the ‘Arab spring’ and those in Spain and elsewhere are each characterised in different ways by an absence of clear political leadership or coherently radical demands.

But the contexts and the consequences of these protests are very different. While the Arab peoples’ alienation from discredited dictatorial regimes has inspired them to rise up and demand more democracy in a real and often-bloody struggle for power, the Spanish protestors’ disaffection with their own bankrupt political Euro-class so far appears to have led to little more than a collective emotional wail of anguish and abstention from the old politics. And where the absence of political principles and leadership risks holding back a far-reaching democratic revolution in the Arab world, on the quieter streets of Spain and elsewhere in Europe it means there appears little prospect of the movement for democracy making it out of those laid-back city square campsites and storming any palaces just yet.

The sit-in protests began in Madrid last week and spread to other Spanish towns and cities as the municipal elections approached, in defiance of a rule barring political demonstrations on the eve of elections – albeit a rule which the insecure authorities made little or no attempt to enforce before polling day. They quickly became the focal point for those seeking a public expression of anger about Spain’s dire economic and financial crisis, which has pushed the official unemployment rate above 21 per cent – more than double that for young people – while the Socialist government imposes public-sector wage cuts and tax rises to appease the financial markets.

Much of the world’s media has been so taken by these nice, well-behaved protestors that reports have even credited them with embodying a new national spirit of political change and helping to inflict the unprecedented defeat suffered by the ruling Socialist Party (PSOE) in Spain’s weekend elections; the Socialists were hammered in cities and regions across the country and even lost control of such strongholds as Barcelona, Seville and Estremadura.

Yet what exactly have these ‘historic’ protests been about? What the protestors appear to share is an emotional loathing of the powers that be and a visceral alienation from the old politics. What substantial criticisms they might have of what has been done in the name of austerity, and what political ideas they might put forward as an alternative, are rather less obvious. If the Madrid protests offered any clear view on the elections, it was that people should not vote at all. That demand seemingly went unheeded by the 65 per cent of Spanish voters – a relatively high figure for municipal elections – who turned out to give the government a kicking at the polls.

From outside, the sit-ins look more like an emotional spasm, a quiet scream of frustration, than a political demonstration in pursuit of principles and well-formulated demands. Apparently, there is a list of around 40 proposals somewhere, ranging from measures to combat absenteeism by MPs to a cut in defence spending. That in itself is a sign of the political incoherence of the protests. But how many of the thousands who have turned up could even say what those proposals are? Most seem to be there essentially as individuals (with a number of well-photographed canoodling couples), who have come along to express their personal unhappiness at their own situation, some with personalised banners and placards.

This looks like the latest incarnation of ‘Not in My Name’ protest, where people join in more to make a personal statement of political alienation in their own tents than as part of an organised political movement. Indeed, it appears debatable exactly how many of them went to the square before the election to make any demands at all – a good number seemed to have turned up to watch others doing something, tourists and spectators at a piece of performance art or a festival, everybody taking pictures of one another to show that they were there. To borrow an old English football chant, perhaps the slogan of many protestors could be ‘We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here’.

In that sense these Spanish sit-ins could be seen not only as a new step in protests, but also as symbolic of the problems of opposition politics in Europe today. They are at root another manifestation of the sort of diffuse, going-through-the-motions, almost politics-free demonstrations we have seen elsewhere – including the student protests and TUC anti-cuts march in the UK. For all the dramatic news coverage from Puerta del Sol, the elections confirmed that there is no radical political alternative in Spain today, any more than there is in Britain or Germany. Thus, those registering their protests against the Socialist government turned in large numbers to the conservative Popular Party, which offers them the promise of austerity in another guise. There seemed nowhere else for most of the politically disenfranchised electorate to turn, other than for a quiet night out in the square, with its crèche and library and antipathy to alcohol. Viva La Revolución? More like Viva, err, what, exactly?

The media cheerleaders of the Madrid protests have tried to hail them as a major breakthrough in radical politics, an orderly demonstration of ‘people power’ – like the Arab revolts, only more polite and middle class. In terms not only of numbers but, more importantly, of a coherent political challenge to the status quo, however, these sit-ins could so far just as readily be seen as symbols of popular impotence.

One liberal British newspaper report could hardly contain its excitement in describing the debate among the Madrid campers that followed the elections, about what they should do next: ‘Speaker after speaker insisted they did not want to leave the square yet. “We must not go until we have firm plans and proposals,” said the representative of one of the sub-committees and working groups that have sprung up as part of a sophisticated exercise in open democracy.”’

Now, call me an old-fashioned Marxist, but I found that somewhat disheartening. The fact that, at the end of several days, the ‘representatives’ had no firm plans or proposals seemed to illustrate the protest-without-politics attitude of the sit-in. As for working groups and sub-committees, history would suggest these often have less to do with open democracy and clarity than with bureaucracy and befuddlement. Of course, political clarity comes through debating ideas in democratic meetings. But that works when you have a clash between perspectives that have been properly formulated beforehand – not by setting up a working group that represents nothing more than its members and expecting it to come up with ‘clear plans and proposals’ from scratch. Perhaps they have never heard of the cynical old English expression, ‘That looks like it was designed by a (sub-) committee’. The Reuters news agency has been quoting one protestor who apparently spoke for many when she told them ‘I have no political direction and that is what I want to change’. It is hard to imagine her finding one among the unhappy campers.

What makes this political hole in the heart of European radicalism seem particularly poignant is that this year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the start of the Spanish civil war – a truly historic struggle over the future between the twentieth-century forces of left and right, at the centre of which was the bloody three-year siege of Madrid by Franco’s fascist forces. The streets of the city were home to a very different order of political debates and battles back then. The civil war is now a distant history to the young protestors of today. Yet the story of those who fought against fascism in Spain has a tale to tell them about the importance of political clarity and courage. (spiked will be covering the anniversary of the Spanish civil war in due course.)

Today, the protestors look for inspiration not to the history of Spain itself or Europe, but to recent events in the Arab world. Despite its so far limited political goals, the Arab spring is indeed an inspiring demonstration of democracy in action – but that is no excuse for trying to hide behind it rather than forging your own politics of radical change. One camping trip will not make a ‘European summer’.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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