Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Whose Square Is It Anyway?

To stay or not? This is the issue which is dominating much of the discussion about the protest camp in Madrid's Puerta del Sol. After 3 weeks the camp looks a much more solid and permanent construction after successive changes, but its role as as a focal point for what has become known in the press as the 15M movement has undoubtedly declined. It seems clear that there are those within the camp who feel that the time has come to move on to other tactics, yet there are also those who are determined to keep it going.

What makes the decision harder to take is the participatory democracy that has also been one of the factors making the camp so successful. This idea that anyone can participate in any assembly, and that consensus rather than a simple majority is needed to take a decision. This system has been criticised for failing to produce the set of concrete proposals that so many critics of the movement demand, presumably as a homage to their own lack of ideas. But it has undoubtedly helped to make more cohesive a movement that, despite media stereotyping, is simply not composed of people who all think the same way about everything.

The problem now is that the determination of a few can mean that no decision on the future of the camp can be made, and there are claims that some of those who have joined the protest have done so more for lifestyle reasons than any interest in participating in the movement itself. Friendly voices have pinpointed this issue, which may well just lead to those who are tired and have had enough packing their tents and walking away. This, I think, is a pity. A decision, perhaps also involving the camps in other cities, to move on voluntarily and with the possibility of mobilising again many of those who initially supported the camp seems a much better way to go than just hanging on grimly until the police are sent in.

That latter option is certainly what Madrid's city and regional administrations would love to see. The calls got louder on the very day of the hugely violent, and terribly misjudged, attempt by the Catalan government to evict the camp in Barcelona. The desire of Esperanza Aguirre's administration to see similar treatment meted out in Madrid was evident as wild accusations were launched about "chabolismo" in the Puerta del Sol. A strong campaign has also been launched by those representing businesses in the area with equally exaggerated claims about the effect of the camp on the nearby shops combined with nonsense about the danger to hygiene represented by a supposedly filthy camp.

In reality it is probably these same organisations that have done the most damage to the local shops in Sol by making untrue claims. The camp already cooperated with shopowners a couple of weeks ago by clearing the posters and banners from the shops and the simple fact is there are no obstacles of any kind preventing people from shopping in the zone or circulating around the square. The camp has always been clean, which given the state of some of the streets in the centre since the ayuntamiento got difficult about paying for rubbish collection is something of a contrast. It's cleaner than my street. For some the Puerta del Sol will always be much better as a haven for pickpockets than as a place where citizens can freely express their discontent.

It's funny, the city authorities constantly hire out the squares of Madrid for all sorts of mercadillos and events sponsored by any company prepared to pay to do a bit of advertising. All of this fine to the city's rulers, despite the way in which such events obstruct the use of this space by ordinary citizens. Meanwhile the sacred "right to shop" is added near to the top of the post-modern charter of human rights, just behind the right to travel anywhere you want on a puente.

Those responsible for the assault on the camp in Barcelona have continued to lie freely about the events on that day, despite the vast amount of audiovisual evidence available. False claims of violence against the police have been launched, just as there were lies on the day itself about the use of extreme tactics such as rubber bullets. Lies are told about an image that has become famous of a man in a wheelchair caught in the midst of a police charge, with laughable claims made that the police were just trying to help him. The fact that the police broke their own regulations by not displaying any visible identification (a common practice by those claiming to uphold the law) is almost an incidental detail compared to everything else that happened. A criminal case has been presented against those responsible, test the democratic health of the society by seeing how far it gets.
Regardless of what happens in Sol or other acampadas the campaign has already spread beyond this tactic. Successful assemblies have been held in many barrios of Madrid, the intention being to build local campaign bases with initiatives that combine neighbourhood activities together with support for national action. Another national protest has been organised for the 19th June, and it promises to be a significantly bigger one than 15th May. There will also be protests in several places where newly elected city administrations take power this week. Many people outside of the traditional parties or structures are now involved around Spain in activities calling for change and the momentum is still there. It's not over yet.


ejh said...

I confess I'm not much of a one for the particular form of participatory democracy that the camps employ: I rather like agendas, motions, time-limited speeches and votes. Otherwise things just drag on and on forever.

It's not so important though. The important thing is that people take what they've experienced and go and do something with it. I think this will happen, by and large.

Graeme said...

I think as last night's assembly passed the 4 hour mark there were probably a few people thinking about revising the rules in favour of majority voting. But then they have been refining the process bit by bit, and there are agendas and some limits on speakers. What else do you do in a situation where there is no formal leadership or structure imposing rules?

I just came back from Sol a short while ago, and the Plaza de Callao has been mostly fenced off and filled with lots of very messy bales of wheat. But it's ok because it's for a private biscuit promotion so no complaints from the authorities about that.

ejh said...

Well quite. I was in Segovia a couple of weeks back and although thre camp was still there in a corner, the square itself had been taken over - for several days - by some massive, and massively noisy youth song-and-dance show organised by the Russian Foreign Ministry (don't ask, I don't understand myself).

But that was OK, even the point that La Reina turned up. Which wasn't disruptive to trafic or the public at all (albeit compared to what happens when ours is on the road, it probably wasn't).

Yes, the four-hour mark, I can imagine. I saw a brief clip on a news channel (not Spanish) a few nights ago and somebody in the square put their head in their hands when another speaker started talking, which amused me a bit. To my mind you can keep this stuff up for only a while anyway.

But hopefully people are proud of what they did, and they will of course draw different conclusions as to what it meant and where to go from here. Which is how it should be.

Graeme said...

I think they're entitled to feel very proud of what they've done. The camps in Sol and elsewhere have extended the movement in a way which the 15M demonstration couldn't do on its own.

skeen said...

If you are talking about the way TM have moaned about the obstruction to shopping, you could have also mentioned that for much of the last decade the pavements in these central areas were ripped apart by endless inefficient sub contract ditch digging. "When are they going to find the treasure?!" was the refrain at the time.

Tumbit said...

The camp may well be in the process of being dismantled, but the full effects that it has had on Spanish politics probably won't be seen for a while yet.

skeen said...

And the effects are voter apathy amongst the left and solid absolute majority for PP? Please tell me I'm wrong.

Graeme said...

I think you are wrong. In the first place because it seems to be more disillusionment than apathy that is leading to abstention amongst left voters, and secondly because this is the situation in which 15M has emerged rather than having caused. A campaign like this will only induce apathy if those participating run into a dead end where nobody can see a way forward for it. Obviously the PP vote is less disturbed because these are the people who generally don't want to change anything and as we've recently seen questions of ethics are not high on the list of the average PP voter. It won't be this campaign that gives the PP their majority, it will be the failure of the parties on the left to mobilise their voters.

Anonymous said...

I am wonderous at your ability to read the minds of 40+% of spanish voters. "ethics are not high on the list of the average PP voter" - Many PP voters I know are very ethical, some want to bring back Franco, others think Zappy is a waste of space, others vote for local mafioso reasons but many simply want a change. I have no evidence as to how this breaks down - perhaps you could enlighten me?
p.s I didn't vote for PP but for a local independent. Our local PSOE is the local mafia!

Graeme said...

I didn't read anybody's mind Andrew, I just took a look at the election results in Madrid and Valencia.

Anonymous said...

Andalucia and Extramadura?? As I thought, a remark made without real evidence.
The serious point is two party system that builds local power bases, looks after its own, is biased towards others, and does not, when in power, represent all the people. Thank god Spain no longer has a one party system!
An indepth study of voting behaviour would be instructive.

Graeme said...

Well I don't see why my examples are lacking evidence and yours are somehow good. The vote for the PP in Valencia and Madrid suggests that their support is only slightly eroded by involvement in serious corruption cases. The core PP vote tends to be more loyal than that of the PSOE, which is how the PP managed to get an absolute majority in 2000. That doesn't mean that there are not places where some PSOE voters will support corrupt candidates.

Anonymous said...

I can't understand why the people of Valencia didn't dump the bums! (Though the bums have yet to be proved guilty!!). So why did they get the vote?
I presume there are psephologists in Spain.
One of my theories (based on local government) is that loyalty is the wrong word. It is fear of being on the wrong side of the local mafia. I have heard locals saying they don't want to vote for A but have to because he will 'know' I voted against.
You may have a point that PP voters are more 'loyal' but I doubt it. Any party in power during the second worse economic crisis of the last 100 years will get hammered. Anti-democratic forces may also prosper.
If there is no choice for a party with liberal social policies and rational economic policies who do you vote for.
Spain is essentially corporatist in nature, with too much power in the hands of employer bodies and unions. The insiders don't really care about the outsiders.
The indignant are one voice of the outsiders but no one is listening to the more muted voices.

ejh said...


ejh said...

Sorry, that should have been

If there is no choice for a party with liberal social policies and rational economic policies


Glad to clear that up.