!Indignate!: The 2011 Popular Protests and the Limits to Democracy in Spain

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Introduction

The indignados movement in Spain was born out of the action of !Democracia real YA!, an internet-based social movement platform created by activists involved in the free culture movement and the struggle over a new Spanish law on intellectual property rights. (2) Through this new media network and small local platforms, demonstrations were planned to take place in many of Spain's cities on 15 May 2011. Hundreds of the '15-M' protestors took the initiative to occupy and set up encampments in major urban squares, such as Madrid's Puerta del Sol and Barcelona's Placa de Catalunya, attracting the attention of the world's media. Days later, tens of thousands joined the 15-M movement in protest marches across Spain against austerity cuts, a high unemployment rate (with youth unemployment then at 41 per cent), and the predicted dominance of the main Spanish political parties in upcoming regional and municipal elections on 19 May (Tremlett, 21 May 2011).

As in Greece, the course of events has sometimes taken a violent turn, despite the pacifist intentions of the vast majority of the movements. In Barcelona, for instance, the Catalonian police were widely criticised for the disproportionate use of force in evicting camping protestors from the Placa de Catalunya on 27 May, while a small number of los indignados were also denounced by the wider movements for attacks against members of the regional parliament (Generalitat de Catalunya) on 15 June. In Madrid, on 27 July, the police forcibly removed a group of indignados that had descended on the Spanish parliament to deliver a list of demands. (3) Clashes between los indignados and the police have since been a regular occurrence. (4) Tensions were again high on 15 October 2011, when a further day of mass marches took place across Spain to protest against the 'Euro Plus Pact' (aka 'Pact for the Euro')--a series of crisis management measures that commits all seventeen members of the Euro zone to meeting 'specific deficit, revenue and expenditure targets', and to several areas of 'structural reform' such as labour markets (aimed at lowering unit labour costs and standardising so-called 'flexicurity' in all signatory countries) and pension reforms, including raising the standard age of retirement (European Council, 24-25 March 2011). (5)

Making sense of Spanish indignation

As encapsulated by the sloganeering of one of the groups behind the 15-M movement, 'Juventud SIN Futuro', a significant proportion of young people in Spain are living 'WITHOUT A HOUSE, WITHOUT WORK, WITHOUT A PENSION', and therefore, 'WITHOUT FEAR'. (6) In order to address the dire situation of a generation, several of the activist platforms at the heart of the movement of the indignant are demanding 'real democracy' and are rejecting the institutions of state which they feel are dominated by a corrupt and self-aggrandising political elite (la clase politica). The elite is accused of being at the beck and call of bankers, with the shared goal of accumulating money at the expense of the 'welfare of society'. (7) Significantly, then, many within the 15-M and wider indignados movement are demanding some form of systemic change. (8) But what kind of change? While noting that the 15-M movement was not simply a knee-jerk reaction to austerity cuts, one Spanish journalist writing for The Guardian surmises,

For all its far-reaching rhetoric, [the movement] addresses solely the left. It ultimately represents the frustration of those who see that it doesn't matter which way you vote, the economic policies are dictated by the markets; hence the critique of 'the system' and the demands of accountability and transparency. Most of the protesters seem to be the people who voted Socialist in 2008 only to prevent a win for the People's Party. They don't want their vote to be taken for granted yet again ... They may not change Spanish politics forever, but they have succeeded in something difficult enough: in putting all politicians to shame at least for a few days. …