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Democracy in an age of viral reality (2)

November 2, 2011

Continued from Democracy in an age of viral reality (1)

A peaceful protest

Barcelona, 15 May 2011. I arrive at Plaça de Catalunya at around five thirty, half an hour before the scheduled start of the pro-democracy march. It is a beautiful spring afternoon. On approaching the square on foot I notice the leading open-top truck parked by a row of coaches. I make my way to the truck and recognise the demo organisers by their yellow T-shirts bearing the slogan ‘Toma la Calle’ (‘Take the Street’). I greet one of them, Arnau, 30, with whom I have often talked about the build-up towards this day – a process he has experienced firsthand as an active participant in Real Democracy Now! (DRY), the platform responsible for today’s protests across Spain. He is busy with the onboard laptop, so I say goodbye and head for the square.

As I wander through the centre of the square I see the odd familiar (inter)face, mostly people I have met over the past year while conducting research into activism and social media. After a short while I bump into Carlos, a lawyer who specialises in internet cases, and some of his co-marchers, including Joan. Carlos is optimistic about today’s protests which he sees as another milestone in the struggle against a corrupt political class. A few months earlier Carlos and three others launched the platform No Les Votes (‘Don’t Vote For Them’) that called on the Spanish electorate not to vote for any of the three major parties. Joan, a former trade union leader, is not as enthusiastic as Carlos about today’s march, and cannot understand the indignados’ hostility towards the trade union movement.

As we march towards Ciutadella Park I join in the chanting: ‘None of them represent us’, ‘Yes, it can be done’, ‘There’s not enough bread for all these chorizos (thieves)’.  Ahead of us, a noisy batucada ensemble works the crowd into a mood of joyful indignation. On either side of Via Laietana a bemused motley of locals and tourists watch us pass by; some of them take pictures. Carlos is glued to his smartphone and every now and again updates us on the progress of the protests in Madrid and other major cities. The reports are encouraging, although the mainstream media still refuse to cover the event.

After a couple of hours we reach our destination. Carlos tells me that the protest hashtag is now Twitter’s second most popular topic worldwide. We walk round the truck and convey this information to Arnau who is delighted to hear the good news.  A fittingly ‘social media’ way to end my Barcelona fieldwork, I think to myself on the way home to nearby Poblenou. I have no inkling that this is just the preamble to a much larger historical drama.

The Big Bang

In the early hours of 16 May something unexpected happened. A group of some forty protesters decided to set camp at Madrid’s main square, Puerta del Sol, instead of returning to their homes. One of them, a member of the hacker group Isaac Hacksimov, explained later: ‘All we did was a gesture that broke the collective mental block’ (quoted in Sánchez 2011). Fearing that the authorities may evict them, they sent out calls for support via the internet.  The first person to join them learned about their action on Twitter.

By the following day their numbers had swollen to 200 and by 20 May there were nearly 30,000 people at the square. This demographic explosion was mirrored online (see traffic figures below). Other cities around Spain followed suit, and the 15-M movement was now a global media event. The encampments rapidly evolved into ‘cities within cities’ governed through popular assemblies and committees. The committees were created around practical needs such as cooking, cleaning, communicating and carrying out actions. Decisions were made through both majority rules vote and consensus. The structure was horizontal, with rotating spokespersons in lieu of leaders. Tens of thousands of citizens were thus experimenting with participatory, direct and inclusive forms of democracy at odds with the dominant logic of political representation. Displaying a thorough admixture of utopianism and pragmatism, the new movement drew up a list of concrete demands, including the removal of corrupt politicians from electoral lists, while pursuing revolutionary goals such as giving ‘All power to the People’ (European Revolution 2011).

By mid-June 2011 most encampments were dismantled following arduous consensus-seeking assemblies. The evolving strategy was to take the movement from the central squares and streets to the neighbourhoods (barrios), but not without first warning the authorities that protesters ‘knew the way back’. Neighbourhood assemblies were created in many localities across Spain, albeit with uneven levels of participation and at times highly localised concerns, a trend that some saw as a threat to the movement’s cohesion and sustainability. Contrary to expectations, the movement continued to gain momentum throughout the summer – traditionally a period of political quietism in Spain – with a series of high-profile actions in defence of vulnerable collectives such as foreign immigrants and victims of evictions. Tongue in cheek, the author Juan Jose Millás describes these ongoing actions as those of a ‘collective superhero’ who

…materialises wherever an injustice is about to be committed. It has already prevented dozens of evictions …. It arrives before Spiderman because it doesn’t even need to wear a hood to conceal its identity. 15-M has a strange collective and protean identity that allows it to attain remarkable feats such as bilocation, for it can manifest itself simultaneously in cities that are far apart (Millás 2011, my translation*).

Other actions have included protests against a controversial visit by the Pope and against a joint plan by PSOE and PP to amend the Spanish Constitution in order to set a national debt ceiling – a move widely seen as kow-towing to Germany and France. As I revise these lines on 2 November 2011, the movement has spread to New York, London, Frankfurt and many other cities around the world following a global day of action on 15 October in which the planet’s outraged were called upon ‘to occupy public spaces and create spaces for debate, assembly and reflection’ (European Revolution 2011).

Spanish activists and observers alike are agreed that the 15 May protests were long overdue. The collapse of the housing market in 2008 had left the Spanish economy in a feeble state, with an overall unemployment rate of around 20% and a staggering figure of 45% among young people, with millions more having to survive on low-paid or seasonal jobs. The combination of a political class discredited by a string of corruption cases, an electoral law that perpetuates a two-party system, and the precedent of pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, set the scene for a spring of discontent in Spain (López and Rodríguez 2011).  

The key role played in the inception and coordination of the movement by hackers, bloggers, micro-bloggers, technopreneurs and online activists is hard to overestimate. The most direct precursor to the 15-M protests was the campaign against the so-called ‘Sinde law’ (Ley Sinde), a bill purportedly aimed at curtailing copyright infringement by Spain’s internet users. The proposed bill was seen by digital freedom campaigners as favouring powerful media interests both domestically and in the United States. This suspicion was confirmed in November 2010 with the publication by Wikileaks of US embassy cables detailing the extent of the collusion between Spain’s politicians and the US media lobbies. In late December, millions of Spaniards found themselves without access to their favourite free films and TV series owing to a voluntary shutdown by the country’s main link-sharing sites in protest at the proposed bill. This led to huge online mobilisations against the three main parties (PSOE, PP and CiU) that helped to delay the passing of the bill. A mass audience had become an outraged public.

On 25 January 2011 the main parties decided to ignore the outcry and take forward the bill. Almost immediately, the Don’t Vote For Them campaign was launched via Twitter.   A number of other citizens’ platforms emerged around this time, including Youth Without a Future, (Juventud Sin Futuro) and Real Democracy Now! (Democracia Real Ya! or DRY). The former was made up mostly of university students and managed to stage a protest in Madrid that attracted considerable media attention. But it was DRY volunteers – both veteran activists and new recruits – who planned and coordinated the 15 May protests.

As can be gathered from the ethnographic vignette, the 15 May demonstrations were reasonably successful but not spectacularly so. Although it is true that mobilising tens of thousands of people across Spain without the support of either a political party or a trade union was a remarkable feat, the mainstream media largely ignored the marches.

Continued here…

* All translations from the Spanish and Catalan in this series of blog posts are mine.

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