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14. Field theory, media change and the new citizen movements

March 5, 2015

This draft article is the fourteenth post in the freedom technologists series.

It is also part of the media and change series.

Field theory, media change and the new citizen movements: the case of Spain’s ‘real democracy turn’, 2011-2014. Forthcoming (see PDF or join the lively discussion of this paper via till 26 March 2015).

Dr John Postill
RMIT University
Melbourne, Australia
23 December 2014

See Update 1 below, 17 Jan 2016 on chess vs. contentious politics (Koopmans 2004)

Introduction – Citizenship, ICTs and social movements – A field-theoretical approach – The 15M field of civic action: “March the streets!” – The 17M field of civic action: “Yes we camp!” – Reverting to unorganised civic space – The 25M subfield of civic action: “Yes we can!” – Discussion – Conclusion.


Field theory can help to produce more nuanced analyses of the relationship between media change and the rise of new citizen movements. In turn, this can be of invaluable assistance in our comparative understanding of the world’s current ‘crises of citizenship’. Taking as my example Spain’s indignados (15M) movement and its recent political offshoots, I explore the potential uses of a range of field concepts, including a pair of contrasting notions introduced here for the first time: ‘field of civic action’ vs. ‘unorganised civic space’. I argue that Spain’s 15M movement is best understood not as a continuous flow of events but rather as a series of discrete, ephemeral fields of civic action separated by a long hiatus of unorganised civic space. These transient, complexly mediated fields can be regarded as socio-political games of a certain kind, namely as contests in which civic ‘players’ with unique sets of skills, including ‘freedom technologists’ (Postill 2014a), enter into relationships with other individual and collective players in pursuit of common goals and rewards. Of particular salience in the Spanish case is the emergence of citizen-led initiatives (e.g. PAH, Podemos, Barcelona en Comú) that have learned how to bridge the civic vs. establishment media divide to great effect. Together, these initiatives – and their forerunners – have mobilised hundreds of thousands of Spanish citizens, imbuing them with a new agonistic vocabulary (‘us’ vs. ‘them’, ‘the citizenry’ vs. the caste’) and with a heightened awareness of their social rights, an awareness that many have already put into practice.


field theory, citizenship, citizen movements, social movements, activism, freedom technologists, media, democracy, political change, Spain, 15M, indignados

The end of the Franco regime (1939-1975) ushered in a period of democratisation but also a protracted crisis of citizenship in Spain. Writing thirty years after the dictator’s death, the sociologist Jorge Benedicto (2006) argued that civic rights took precedence over social rights in Spain during the transition years and beyond. Coming at a time of economic crisis, when northern Europe’s post-War ‘redistributive revolution’ had already come to an end (Rosanvallon 2013), democratic Spain’s efforts to create a welfare state were subordinated to the macroeconomic demands of global competition and a neoliberal ideology (Benedicto 2006: 112).

Out of Franco’s military regime emerged a ‘transition culture’ (cultura de la transición) whose institutional foundations were laid in October 1977 through the Moncloa Pact – an agreement signed by leading formations across the political spectrum (from Communists to ex-Francoists) and by the major trade unions. The emphasis was on national unity, political stability and social cohesion. To be allowed into this new order, Spain’s left agreed to ‘deactivate’ its two key assets: culture and social mobilisation. In exchange for not undermining the state, the state rewarded the leftist cultural sector with funding and awards. It also promised to save Spain from the army, the church and Basque terrorism (VV.AA. 2012).

Although officially encouraged to exercise their democratic rights by the regime’s political elites, Spanish citizens were in practice assigned the role of audience in the new political spectacle. Benedicto (2006: 128) describes this situation as ‘a chronic deficit of civic practices’. Writing in the mid-2000s, this author did, however, see a ray of hope in Spaniards’ penchant for protesting – second only to Luxembourg in Europe:

[Spain has] a model of citizenship that is not entirely clear, where the high degree of institutionalisation of civic rights contrasts sharply with a scarcity of civic practices, although there are interesting signs that this situation could be changing (Benedicto 2006: 128, my translation).

These were prescient words, for half a decade later, in May 2011, unprecedented numbers of Spaniards took to the streets and squares – as well as to the internet – to demand ‘real democracy now’, giving rise to a new citizen movement known today as 15M or indignados. In turn, the new movement brought about an explosive growth and diversification of civic practices, ranging from ‘monitory democracy’ (Keane 2009) practices seeking to bring corrupt politicians and financiers to justice to new citizen parties contesting European and local elections.

In this article I explore the impact, if any, of these new developments on the reconceptualisation and practice of citizenship in Spain at a time of rapid technological change. I ask to what extent the 15M movement, including its political offshoots, has contributed to the emergence of a new language and praxis of citizenship in Spain. If so, with what political consequences?

The article is organised as follows. I first review the fledgling literature on ‘digital citizenship’ and find that our understanding of the relationship between citizenship, digital media and new social movements is still poor. I then propose field theory as a highly promising approach to advance in this area, debunking the common misperception that field theory is unsuited to the study of change. This is followed by a field-theoretical analysis of the 15M movement and by a discussion section. My argument is that 15M has indeed transformed the language and practice of citizenship in Spain, but it has done so in stages. From an earlier movement phase (or field ‘game’) in which ‘the citizenry’ (la ciudadanía) was conceived of, and mobilised, as an extra-institutional formation demanding ‘real democracy now’ through a middle phase of ‘monitory citizenship’ we eventually arrived, in 2014, at a phase where new citizen parties entered the electoral arena determined to take power. In doing so, they added a new twist to the ongoing reinvention of citizenship in Spain by breaking with the country’s autonomous tradition of extra-institutional civic action. The article ends with a recapitulation and with suggestions for future comparative research.

Digital citizenship?

In a special issue of Citizenship Studies published some years ago, Peter Nyers (2007: 1) reviewed a range of scholarly efforts to study ‘the context and spaces in which citizenship is enacted (and where it is absent or repressed’). Nyers noted a ‘proliferation of adjectives’ that sought to qualify the noun ‘citizenship’ (‘ecological, global, cosmopolitan, lived, intimate, sexual…’). To this growing list we can now add the term ‘digital citizenship’. Couldry et al (2014: 616) use this term as ‘a heuristic concept for examining how uses of digital infrastructures – understood […] not simply as a set of technical tools but as constituted through social relations and practices – contribute to broader civic culture’. Their work is inspired by Dahlgren’s (2009) notion of a ‘circuit of civic culture’ consisting of six interrelated processes: values, trust, knowledge, practices, identities and spaces. For Dahlgren, new digital media ‘make possible new kinds of civic practices’ (2009: 5). These authors are interested in the ‘breaks’ in the circuit of civic culture, i.e. the disconnects that hinder its development. Drawing from qualitative research into digital civic initiatives in the north of England, their aim is to uncover ‘the interlinking preconditions for new acts of citizenship’ (Couldry et al 2014: 615, see also Isin 2008).

Whilst not citing Dahlgren, Marichal (2013: 13) surveys political Facebook groups from 32 countries, similarly arguing that ‘from a citizenship perspective, having more spaces to perform political identity helps bind politics to everyday life’. With its stress on expressivity over deliberation, Facebook may not be an ideal space for the emergence of Habermasian public spheres but it nevertheless plays a part in politicising young citizens. There is more to politics and citizenship than formality, Marichal concludes, citizenship being ‘not only about right but … also about action [and] about involvement in the polity’. Similarly, Abbott (2012) tracks the rise of a new online ‘space’ in East Asia, a space ‘where citizens can exchange views on matters of importance to the common good’. In contrast to Marichal, this researcher does find Habermasian traits such as disregarding status, a realm of shared concern and inclusivity (2012: 334).

Despite these recent advances, we still know little about the links between citizenship, ICTs and social movements. For Papa and Milioni (2013), the relationship between social movements and citizenship is dialectical: civic identities ‘not only serve as a precondition or a drive for participating in social movements, but are also conducted or transformed by this activity’ (2013: 28). They, too, take Dahlgren (2009) as their starting point. However, they find that transplanting this theorist’s model to the study of new social movements would be problematic. First, its methodological individualism would play down the collective agency of movements. Second, Dahlgren, who was writing before Tahrir and its spin-offs, disregards offline practices and actions such as occupying physical space – the hallmark of the new protest movements (see Gerbaudo 2012). Third, they find that this author’s approach is technocentric. To overcome these problems, Papa and Milioni (2013: 29) call for non-technocentric empirical research into the new kinds of citizenship, if any, that are being constructed within the new movements, and the role played by ICTs in such processes. This contrasts with the approach taken by the anthropologist Constanza-Chock (2012) who argues that we must look at the whole media repertoire of the new movements, and not merely at ICTs or social media.

Though I am sympathetic to this latter stance, I would go one step further and suggest the need to expand our holism from the media repertory of social movements to the entire media landscape, ranging from alternative, collective and interpersonal media at one end of the spectrum to corporate and establishment media at the other. Chadwick’s (2012) simple but powerful notion of ‘hybrid media systems’ is helpful here. This is the idea that new media systems are a combination of old and new media technologies, practices and actors interacting in complex, non-teleological ways.

Chadwick’s concept shifts the focus from a recurrent media studies concern with ‘What is new about “new” media?’ (Silverstone 1999) to the holistic question of ‘What is new about new media systems?’ His position, which I share, is that the newness of any media system – and indeed of any other social universe – is inevitably the emergent result of a combination of old and new artefacts, ideas and actors. Thus, as we shall see shortly, Spain’s present-day media system, like that of all other coeval nation-states, is a dynamic totality largely made up of a combination of twentieth century (e.g. radio, TV, newspapers) and twenty-first century (blogs, social media, smartphones) media technologies, producers and users. The question is not whether media environments in the 2010s are new – they clearly are – but rather what the main continuities and changes are with regard to earlier historical periods.

A field-theoretical approach

One further trap to avoid in the study of citizen movements and media change, besides the ‘newness’ polemics, is what we could call ‘networkism’. This is the ubiquity of the metaphor of ‘networks’ in connection to contemporary social movements, which some authors regard as ‘network-movements’, most famously Manuel Castells (2001, 2007, 2013). A related trend is the proliferation of social network analyses (SNA) of social movements (Conover et al 2013). Although SNA has its uses as a quantitative methodological tool, it should not be thought of as a theoretical approach. It can tell us precious little, for instance, about the qualitative differences that exist among competing civic initiatives (Postill 2008, 2012a), or about shifting power relations within such initiatives (Fligstein and McAdam 2011).

An alternative approach is therefore required. Field theory can be of great value to the development of more nuanced analyses of the relationship between media change and the rise of new citizen movements. Taking as my example Spain’s indignados (15M) movement and its recent political offshoots, in the following sections I explore the potential uses of a range of field concepts, including two new coinages introduced here for the first time: ‘field of civic action’ and ‘unorganised civic space’. I argue that Spain’s 15M movement is best understood not as a continuous flow of events but rather as a series of discrete, ephemeral fields of civic action separated by a long hiatus of unorganised civic space. These transient, complexly mediated fields can be regarded as socio-political games of a certain kind, namely as contests in which civic ‘players’ with unique sets of skills, including ‘freedom technologists’ (defined below, see also Postill 2014a), enter into relationships with other players (both individual and collective) in pursuit of common public rewards or prizes. Of particular salience in the Spanish case is the emergence of citizen-led initiatives (e.g. PAH, Podemos, Barcelona en Comú) that have learned how to bridge the civic vs. establishment media divide to great effect. These transmedia actors demonstrate the need for holistic analyses of the dynamic hybrid media systems in which today’s civic initiatives

A field-theoretical approach furthers our understanding of new forms of citizenship because it allows us to study their emergence and evolution both diachronically and in a differentiated manner, rather than assuming a single transformative event such as the square occupations or the sudden rise of the new political party Podemos. With its reputation for emphasising social reproduction at the expense of social change (Born 2010, Butler 1999, Gledhill 2000), field theory may seem a strange choice to make in this context. However, this popular association of field theory with stasis is a misconception based on a superficial reading of its most renowned exponent, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1990, 1993, 1996). In fact, field theory is equipped to handle both continuity and change (Fligstein and McAdam 2011, 2012, Postill 2011, 2015). It offers a rich, supple conceptual vocabulary with which to explore the elusive relationship between media change and the new citizen movements. In this section I briefly introduce this vocabulary through existing concepts such as field, capital, incumbents, challengers, internal governance units, exogenous shocks, practices, arenas, and stations (Fligstein and McAdam 2011, Postill 2011) as well as new coinages, including the conceptual pairings ‘field of civic action’ vs. ‘unorganised civic space’ and ‘civic media practices’ vs. ‘hybrid media practices’.

Let us start with two related variants of the concept of field. The American sociologists Fligstein and McAdam (2011, 2012) define ‘strategic action fields’ (SAFs) as

the fundamental units of collective action in society. A strategic action field is a meso-level social order where actors (who can be individual or collective) interact with knowledge of one another under a set of common understandings about the purposes of the field, the relationships in the field (including who has power and why), and the field’s rules (Fligstein and McAdam 2011: 3).

Modifying this definition, I will define ‘field of civic action’ as a game-like domain of social action entangled in a web of other domains in which differently positioned citizens and civic initiatives compete and cooperate over the same issues, goals and rewards – often via digital media. Field actors interact with knowledge of one another under a set of common understandings about the purposes of the field, the relationships in the field (including who has power and why), and the field’s rules.

The introduction of this new concept is justified on two grounds. First, it refers specifically to the topic that occupies us here, namely the new citizen movements. Second, not all actions are strategic, not even within a highly competitive field in which the stakes are high. That is to say, not all ‘players’ will be equally invested in the illusio of the game. Some will play for the sake of playing, others by mistake, or out of obligation, boredom, or any other number of reasons. That does not mean, pace Warde (2004: 21), that the analogy of fields as games is not apt. Although fields of civic action clearly are not games like chess, tennis or Minecraft, they nonetheless resemble games. Additionally, fields are ‘space[s] of competition, the analogy being a game of chess where players enter the game and position themselves according to the powers and moves available to them’. Yet in contrast to a game of chess with its well-defined, unchanging rules, powerful field players will also struggle over the definition of what counts as ‘the stakes in the field’ (Prior 2008: 305). [see Update 1 below]

Fields of civic action tend to be much more mercurial, unpredictable and short-lived than the more institutionalised fields we associate with the work of Bourdieu (1993, 1996), e.g. the fields of art, sociology or journalism. This low institutionalisation means that field agents (both individual and collective) must work much harder at anticipating and interpreting other agents’ actions, seeking and maintaining alliances, finding useful ways of exploiting the field affordances of new technologies, and so forth.

Social fields are never fully insulated from their environment. They are always part of a much larger web of fields – some proximate, others more distant; some powerful, others weak. The following observation about the shifting boundaries of strategic action fields (SAFs) applies equally well to fields of civic action:

The boundaries of SAFs are not fixed, but shift depending on the definition of the situation and the issues at stake. So, for instance, imagine if [the US] Congress were to take up a sweeping reform bill that threatened to change the tax status of all institutions of higher education. [This] conflict would define a new field, comprised of all 2,500 colleges and universities [in the United States], which would probably unite and oppose such legislation. So fields are constructed on a situational basis, as shifting collections of actors come to define new issues and concerns as salient (Fligstein and McAdam 2011: 4).

Another common feature of contemporary fields is that they have go by universal clock-and-calendar time (Postill 2002, 2006). A crucial distinction to make in this regard is whether or not the fields of civic action being analysed come with an ‘expiry date’. We shall see shortly the significance of this seemingly banal distinction in the context of Spain’s indignados (15M) movement.

Individuals and groups bring to a field of civic action uneven amounts of social, technical and political capital. They also join the field at different times and places. This strongly influences – but never entirely determines – their position within the field. As a result, a broad division between ‘incumbents’ and ‘challengers’ always emerges (Fligstein and McAdam 2011: 5-7). Incumbents have an obvious interest in retaining their position of strength vis-a-vis challengers, and will seek alliances with other individual and group players to achieve this end.

Fields of civic action are always on the move, steered through ‘internal governance units’ that are distinct from external units, such as those of local or national government (Fligstein and McAdam 2011: 6). Spanish examples would include popular assemblies, working committees, Facebook groups or Twitter accounts. These units are where we can expect to find the field’s core practices, i.e. those essential practices that define a field at a given point in time, without which it would lose its raison d’être and cease to function (see Postill 2015 for the changing core practices of American journalism). It is at these field ‘stations’ where the field is routinely reproduced that we are likely to observe the field’s incumbents busily holding onto their power, with varying degrees of success (Postill 2011: 7). It is also here that the ‘aim and name of the game’ are discussed, reinforced, contested, and sometimes modified. During periods of turbulence or crisis within a field, stations can mutate into ‘arenas’ in which incumbents and challengers are forced to take sides on an internal dispute. Arenas are where ‘social dramas’ pitting field actors against each other are played out in public view (Turner 1974: 132-133) – nowadays usually via digital/viral media platforms (Postill 2011: 8).

Contingent on the specific dynamics of a situation, field agents will sometimes clash and sometimes cooperate with other agents over the same issues, goals and rewards, with conflict usually gaining the upper hand. As the anthropologist Victor Turner perceptively put it forty years ago, political fields are constituted by ‘purposive, goal-directed group action, and though it contains both conflict and coalition, collaborative action is often made to serve the purposes of contentious action’ (1974: 128). Whereas some rewards will be intrinsic to the field, others are extrinsic (Warde 2005), e.g. prizes or recognition awarded by the state or the private sector. Some fields of civic action will be constituted around a single issue (see the US higher education example above), whereas in others a set of issues will compete for players’ attention and dedication. It follows that the larger the number of issues at stake, the greater the risk of field fragmentation and dispersal. When a field of civic action ceases to operate effectively, i.e. when there is no single shared game being played, and there are no internal governance units, no central stations, and so on, the field reverts to a state of fallow. After this period, the field may or may not regenerate itself through a new shared game. To adapt Fligstein and McAdam’s (2011) notion of ‘unorganised social space’ to the case of citizen movements I shall refer to this state as ‘unorganised civic space’.

Like all other societal fields, fields of civic action are embedded in hybrid media systems (as defined above) that are largely not of their own making. However, tech-minded players will still strive to develop practices that will allow them to win hearts and minds under these new media conditions, in the process gradually changing the very infrastructures on which civic publics are sustained (Kelty 2008). Here we can distinguish between ‘civic media practices’ (i.e. those practices that take place largely or entirely within ‘circuits of civic culture’, Dahlgren 2009, Couldry et al 2014) and ‘hybrid media practices’ (those that straddle the establishment vs. civic media divide). For example, regularly organising protests through digital mapping, Facebook announcements and other techniques is a civic media practice (see Boler et al 2014). By contrast, joining civic and non-civic actors (e.g. journalists, politicians, celebrities) via Twitter hashtags to comment on live TV broadcasts is clearly a hybrid media practice located directly on an unstable discursive and political fault line.

The 15M field of civic action: “March the streets!”

How does this extended family of field and media concepts help us understand Spain’s 15M (indignados) movement? Is this protest movement a field of civic action? The answer to these questions is surprising: rather than a single ‘movement-field’ (Juris 2008), as I have described it elsewhere (Postill 2015), 15M is better understood as a series of distinct fields separated by a long period of unorganised civic space.

Let us start with the 15 May 2011 marches, before briefly considering later phases of the movement. The 15 May demonstrations around Spain were not the result of a single ‘exogenous shock’ (Fligstein and McAdam 2011: 8-9) to Spain’s civil society but rather of several domestic and international shocks, most notably the collapse of the Spanish economy in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008.

Spain’s domestic restlessness […] was boosted by a chain of international factors. Among them were the Arab Spring mobilizations for political reforms and civil liberties, Iceland’s ‘silent revolution’ against neoliberal adjustment policies, and the mobilizations of the Portuguese ‘Desperate Generation’ […] The disclosure of WikiLeaks documents showing Spanish government officials to be less than forthright, and Stéphane Hessel’s book Time for Outrage! (Indignez-vous!) also collaborated in inflaming Spanish passions. Seemingly, there was not a single or final straw breaking the camel’s back; this conjuncture of uncoordinated domestic and international events worked in a synergic fashion, prompting a collective outburst of indignation. In this combustible context, the call issued by the digital platform Real Democracy Now! (DRY, ¡Democracia Real Ya!) to take to the streets was ‘just’ the spark that ignited the so-called ‘indignado’ mobilizations (Perugorría and Tejerina 2013: 428).

This vivid portrayal is helpful as an introduction to the 15M marches and what me might call Spain’s ‘real democracy turn’. However, from a field-theoretical perspective we must still ask questions about the making of this new field/game, about its individual and group players, about its implicit and explicit ‘rules’ and who got to write them, about its expiry date (if any), its freedom technologists, and so on.

First, let us consider the aim and name of the game. Here we must be aware of an old anthropological problem with folk (or emic) categories. Whilst these can sometimes be illuminating, at times they can also be obfuscating. For example, if we took popular 15M slogans such as ‘Real democracy now!’ or ‘Take the street!’ (¡Toma la calle!) at face value, we would be missing out on what the game was actually about, namely getting as many citizens as possible to peacefully march the streets of Spain on 15 May 2011 and then go home. The aim of the game was not to ‘take’ or to ‘occupy’ the streets – or indeed, any other public space. Occupying Madrid’s main square, Puerta del Sol, was never part of the game. ‘Take the street!’ is therefore a misnomer. A more fitting slogan for this game, admittedly a less compelling one, would be: ‘March the streets!’.

One fundamental component of the ‘March the streets!’ game, yet one easily overlooked given how fully naturalised clock-and-calendar time has become (Postill 2002), is that it came with a firm, undisputed expiry date. Indeed the very name of the game was the date of both its doing and undoing: 15M! Beyond that date, it was game over. Contrary to much of the visual imagery about Spain’s ‘indignados’, this was no spontaneous wave of youthful protest, but rather a carefully choreographed public performance of outrage (Gerbaudo 2012) that followed months of intense preparation by activists and others from a wide age range (in my experience, most people actively involved in the preparations were aged from 20 to 50).

Even though its members made sophisticated use of a rich suite of digital technologies, Real Democracy Now! (DRY) was more than merely a ‘digital platform’, as described in the quote above. DRY was physically headquartered in venues long associated with Spain’s thriving free culture movement, such as Patio Maravillas in Madrid and Conservas in Barcelona (Postill 2014a). Free culture activists struggle to liberate digital culture from the tight grip of large governments and corporations. These brick-and-mortar sites (along with online sites such as Facebook, Twitter, n-1, etc.) were the stations where the game was rehearsed in the months and weeks prior to the big day – places of planning, organising and training. They were also the field’s internal governance units. It was here that a broad coalition of civic platforms formed by DRY, Juventud Sin Futuro (translations), No Les Votes, Anonymous, ATTAC, and others, was coordinated and led. Put differently, the 15M field was a DRY-led coalition of citizen initiatives, with DRY successfully positioning itself as primus inter pares, a first among equals.

This was a truly civic field of action and media practice in that non-civic entities such as trade unions or political parties were barred from . This significant exclusion could be explained partly as a legacy from the country’s strong autonomous movement tradition (Flesher Fominaya 2014a) and partly as a rejection of Spain’s ‘transition culture’, as defined above. At any rate, members of such organisations were welcome to participate, but only on a personal capacity, as individual citizens. A firsthand experience from my 2010-2011 fieldwork in Barcelona will illustrate this point about field exclusions. As the preparations for the 15 May demonstrations gathered pace, I joined an ad-hoc group of DRY volunteers who were compiling an online directory of citizens’ groups likely to support the event. In keeping with the free-culture ideals of this civic initiative, we were using the collaborative site Pirate Pad, a free-software tool developed by Sweden’s Pirate Party. When I pasted onto the pad the name and URL of a local political party from my own directory – published on my research blog – one of the informal leaders pointed out that only citizen groups were to be listed, not trade unions or political parties. I quickly erased this entry, which ironically linked to Catalonia’s Pirate Party (Postill 2012b).

‘Freedom technologists’ – those geeks, hackers, digital rights lawyers, online journalists and other tech-minded citizens who use digital media to pursue democratic freedoms (Postill 2014a) – made a fundamental contribution to the 15M field of civic action. For a start, the leading partner in the 15M coalition, DRY, was strongly rooted in the free culture scenes of Madrid and Barcelona. Free culture activists (see above) played key roles in the conceptualisation, organisation and dissemination of the new game from their Barcelona home base, as did their counterparts in Madrid and other cities. Other strong free culture partners included No Les Votes (‘Don’t Vote for Them’, derived from earlier digital rights mobilisations) and Anonymous. These technology specialists also trained less tech-minded citizens – many of them new to activism – in the use of both proprietary and free software tools for activism through workshops and other means.

The 17M field of civic action: “Yes we camp!”

On the night of 15 May, the practical totality of demonstrators followed the DRY script and went home, myself included (Postill 2014b). Yet as retold by the free software activist Dani Vazquez, some forty demonstrators decided to stay on at Puerta del Sol, a large square in the heart of Madrid. The sit-in started slowly but on 17 May, after the shock of being evicted by the police, Sol was suddenly transformed into both a mass occupation and a global media event. So it makes field-theoretical sense to call this new game not ‘15M’ but rather ‘17M’.

From its very inception, the aim of the game was not to march the streets but to ‘occupy the square’ (¡Toma la Plaza!). This is wittily encapsulated in the slogan: “Yes we camp!”. The young independent journalist Juanlu Sánchez witnessed the following scene:

Another special moment, now forever etched in my mind, was when people started laying cardboard across Puerta del Sol square to spend the night there. Then came the blue tarpaulins, the formation of commissions, the fire brigade lending a hand – in a word, the building of the Medina! But it was the cardboard lain across the floor that truly defined that moment for me. The cardboard meant that people, a lot of people, were staying[1].

In clear contrast to the now abandoned 15M game, the 17M game came without an expiry date, as explained by Dani Vazquez when recounting the first few hours of the encampment:

I decided that the first task was to communicate what had already happened, even if nobody read it at first. After all, we had no [Twitter] followers yet. The first tweet said something along the lines of: “We’ve camped at Puerta del Sol and are not leaving until we reach an agreement”. With hindsight, this may look as if it referred to an agreement with the town hall or the government but in fact I was aiming lower. The idea was to agree amongst ourselves whether we should stay or go, as people were saying all sorts of things like “Let’s stay till the elections”, “Let’s stay for good”, “Let’s stay until we win”, “Let’s stay a year if we have to”. So it was more a case of saying: “OK, we’re not going to agree on how long we’re staying, but do we agree that we’re staying? Yes? Well that’s what we’re going to say. We’re staying put until we reach an agreement”[2].

The encampments soon became ‘cities within cities’ whose internal governance units were commissions, working groups and assemblies. It was here that the field’s core practices and stations were located during the month-long occupations. Although DRY and the other 15M players continued to exist, they were always peripheral to the new incumbents born in Sol and other squares across Spain. The commissions were charged with the everyday running of the camps, concentrating on cooking and cleaning, civil disobedience actions, artistic productions and communication. Meanwhile the working groups busied themselves with thematic issues such as the environment, the economy, and politics. There were also assemblies for campers as well as general assemblies that brought together campers and non-campers (Perugorría and Tejerina 2013: 428, Postill 2014b).

The media landscape, too, was transformed beyond recognition. Although the 15M marches became a global trending topic on Twitter (Postill 2014b), they attracted scant attention from TV networks and other mainstream media. By contrast, 17M was a phenomenal success both in its mainstream and social media output. This boom included ‘web forums, blogs, collaborative documents, pedagogical materials (e.g. on Spain’s electoral system), analogic versions of digital forms (e.g. post-it tweets displayed publicly), print and online cartoons, citizen photography, radio phone-ins, live streaming from mobile phones, videoclips, and a huge range of social media texts, visual and audiovisual materials’ (Monterde and Postill 2014). Unlike their 15M predecessors, 17M players exploited to great effect Spain’s hybrid media regions, with a virtuous circle of mainstream and alternative viral ‘sharing’ of protest-related digital contents co-shaping the news cycle – an exemplary case of ‘viral reality’ (Postill 2014b). If 15M was all about civic media practices, 17M excelled at both civic and hybrid media practices (for a Tunisian parallel, see Lim 2013).

Once again, freedom technologists played a crucial role in this field game, albeit under radically altered circumstances. These political actors were very well represented among the first forty occupiers of Puerta del Sol. They included the aforementioned free software specialist and activist Dani Vazquez who created the camp’s highly influential Twitter handle (@acampadasol) and main portal (Take The Square), as well as a prominent copyleft lawyer, a member of Anonymous who had previously broken into the Goya awards ceremony, and the hacktivist group Isaac Hacksimov for whom the occupation was ‘a gesture that broke the collective mental block’ (Sánchez 2011). Crucially, political actors working right across the media landscape were also highly active – something which did not happen during the 15M marches[3]. These tech-savvy actors worked across fields such as journalism, documentary film-making, law, academia and entertainment, creating multiple bridges between the campers and other publics in Spain and abroad. In addition, freedom technologists worked at the top of the field’s hierarchy of practices, for example, through digital practices that ‘mapped’ the new movement’s conceptual genealogy, as we can see in a Puerta del Sol story told by the hacker and activist Marga Padilla (see also Perugorría and Tejerina 2013: 429):

In my job as an IT specialist I sometimes draw maps to conceptualise a website or a product. So I thought I would do something visual, something that people could actually see. I soon got working on a conceptual map of the Sol encampment with some of the digital tools at my disposal. I put the map on the blog and soon other contributions started to stream in. We accepted them all. There was no point in arguing over whether this or that event was a 15M precursor. If somebody said it was, then it was[4].

Reverting to unorganised civic space

One of the more intriguing questions arising from a field-theoretical retelling of the indignados story is what to make of the long interval that took place between the end of the square occupations in mid-June 2011 and the irruption of new ‘citizen parties’ onto the public scene in early 2014, in preparation for the European elections of May 2014. How do we account for these two-and-a-half years given that they can hardly be conceptualised as ‘a field of civic action’? And what is its political significance?

After the square occupiers vacated the squares following arduous deliberations on the matter, the movement devolved to myriad physical and online sites. This was a period of great experimentation with old and new initiatives or civic ‘prototypes’ (Estalella & Corsín Jiménez 2013, Postill 2014a), some of which attained a great deal of media visibility and popular support, notably the anti-eviction platform PAH (Romanos 2014), the crowd funded law suit against a corrupt banker 15MPaRato (led by former DRY participants) and the various ‘citizen tides’ (mareas ciudadanas) that challenged Spain’s ruling Popular Party’s ‘austerocracy’.

These various initiatives marked a ‘monitory citizenship’ phase in the movement, that is, a mode of governance whereby public figures and institutions are subject to increased levels of scrutiny by the citizens, a trend fuelled by the explosive growth of social and mobile media in recent times (see Deuze 2001, Keane 2009). For example, Feenstra and Keane (2014: 1273) argue that PAH ‘successfully scrutinised and denounced Spanish mortgage laws, the banking system and the lack of response by elected representatives’. Nevertheless, during this phase there was no shared game among the countless civic initiatives, no internal governance units, no central stations or dramatic arenas. That is to say, there was no field of civic action. According to Fligstein and McAdam (2011: 12):

[Strategic action fields] are stable when they have role structures that are based on either hierarchical incumbent/challenger structures or political coalitions. Unorganized social space, on the contrary, is characterized by the frequent entry and exit of organizations, no stable social relationships, and no agreement on means and ends. This kind of drift or conflict can go on for long periods of time.

To coin a more specific variant of this concept, I would suggest that unorganised civic space is a phase in the life course of a social movement in which a wide range of civic agents and agencies, including freedom technologists, experiment with new civic prototypes (and their constituent practices, actions and technologies), yet without coalescing into a web of socio-technical relationships, i.e. into a shared field of civic action built around a common issue (or small set of issues). This can be a period of confusion and disorientation, but it can also yield techno-political innovations and provide a training ground for new political actors who may go on to play active roles in a future field of civic

At this juncture we may wonder why this protracted period of unorganised space occurred in the first place and why the 15M movement did not die out. The answer to the first question is relatively straightforward: as we have seen, fields of civic action are necessarily time- and energy-intensive. After devoting themselves to two fields in rapid succession, most participants were exhausted, particularly following the month-long square occupations. The second question is more difficult and would require a separate discussion in its own right. Among the various factors that could account for the movement’s survival it is reasonable to include the continued economic crisis – particularly the extremely high levels of unemployment – , the harsh ‘austerity’ policies pursued by the ruling Popular Party, as well as the remarkable resilience of leading activists from monitory initiatives such as PAH, 15MPaRato or the citizen tides. It is also worth bearing in mind that the movement always retained very high approval rates among the Spanish population, as regularly reported in the mainstream media.

The 25M subfield of civic action: “Yes we can!”

In early 2014 a number of new political parties in Spain announced their intention to campaign in the European elections of 25 May 2014. The pioneer was Partido X, a ‘citizen network’ (red ciudadana) created in early 2013 by the same Barcelona freedom technologists behind DRY and 15MPaRato. Partido X is no ordinary party, for it draws on hacker/free culture principles and practices and regards itself as a ‘methodology’ for political change that be freely borrowed and remixed by other parties – so long as the borrowing is publicly acknowledged.

Indeed, soon after the new political party Podemos (“We Can”) was founded in early 2014, its leaders announced that they would borrow some of Partido X’s techno-political methods (Público 2014). Podemos was one the biggest surprises in the European elections, obtaining 8 per cent of the vote in Spain and five seats in the European Parliament. Podemos is a leftist formation rooted in the indignados (15M) movement and led by the charismatic political scientist Pablo Iglesias, 35. The following passage (my translation) is from a post-mortem of the elections published by Partido X. It contains an intriguing reference to Podemos’ successful ‘transmedia’ approach worthy of further research and reflection within a field-theoretical framework:

[…] Podemos have done a masterful, strategic job. They have doubtless conducted the most intelligent and effective electoral campaign amongst all of us [new] contenders. They managed to anticipate and lay the groundwork thanks to the efforts of Pablo Iglesias and colleagues, with whom he created La Tuerka [a successful TV programme shown via YouTube] showing great self-reliance and skill.

With this independent, original programme […] they first carved out a sizeable niche audience. There followed a space sustained by more resource- and infrastructure-rich media organisations such as HispanTV or [the online newspaper] Público. It was the latter media outlet that eventually became their headquarters – an outlet whose information flow they were able to directly shape, practically turning it into their campaign’s main communication media. Pablo Iglesias then participated as a skilful counterpoint in the political debates broadcast by the [conservative TV network] Intereconomía, from which he made the leap into the [mainstream channels] Cuatro and la Sexta as a twice-weekly current affairs panelist, thereby creating a highly recognisable persona in his claims and demands.

It was only after all this groundwork was laid that Podemos attacked the electoral front, achieving a highly effective combination of TV work and a “transmedia” use of social media in order to feed back and replicate its message[5].

How can we conceptualise in field-theoretical terms the irruption of Podemos, Partido X, and other new civic parties onto the electoral scene in early 2014? First of all, we find an interesting contrast with regard to the 15M and 17M ‘games’. Because the 2014 initiatives joined non-citizen parties like Partido Popular (PP) or PSOE in this contest, thereby entering a shared field of civic and non-civic action, it is more appropriate to speak of a subfield of civic action in which Podemos, Partido X and other citizen parties were the challengers and parties like PP or PSOE were the incumbents of a neighbouring subfield.

What part did freedom technologists, as defined earlier, play in this new subfield of civic Here further research is needed, but the quote above (along with a growing body of evidence) suggests that Podemos carried out a successful hybrid media (or transmedia) strategy right across the establishment vs. civic media divide by banking on its telegenic leader, Pablo Iglesias. It would be interesting to investigate the part played by Podemos members fluent in both these communicative modes, starting with the media- and internet-savvy Iglesias himself and with his campaign manager Iñigo Errejón (Flesher Fominaya 2014b). In contrast, Partido X relied heavily on social media and opted for not playing the charismatic leader ‘game’, paying for it at the ballot box, for they did not win any European seats.

We also need to know more about the main stations routinely used by Podemos, Partido X and the other civic contenders during the 25M campaign/game. In the case of Podemos, these included both alternative and mainstream TV studios, with Iglesias becoming a masterful practitioner of Spain’s tertulia genre. Tertulias are popular TV and radio panel shows devoted to discussing current affairs. These media sites would often become arenas in which Iglesias and his more conservative opponents (many seasoned TV personalities) had no choice but to state baldly their position on a given issue, with Iglesias often emerging victorious. This privileged position at the heart of the hybrid media system allowed Podemos to shape the system’s viral reality propensities through the ‘viral’ sharing and commenting of Iglesias’ memorable TV moments via social media and their subsequent recirculation by mainstream media organisations.

Like the 15M marches (but not the open-ended square occupations), the 25M field came with a clear expiry date: 25 May 2014. As I write these lines in late December 2014, a new time-bounded subfield, which we could call the 24M subfield, is forming around the forthcoming municipal elections of 24 May 2015, with yet another new citizen party, Barcelona en Comú (formerly Guanyem), also derived from a non-political platform (the earlier mentioned PAH), being touted as a favourite.


As argued at the outset, Spain’s top-down ‘transition culture’ assigned citizens the role of passive spectators to the citizenry in exchange for economic and political stability. Furthermore, in the new Spanish Constitution civic rights trumped social rights. The welfare state expanded in the 1980s and 1990s, but it did so patchily, just at the time when it was in deep crisis elsewhere in Europe. Consequently, most Spaniards had no choice but to continue to depend on their families as their safety nets. By the mid-2000s the country had accumulated a substantial ‘civic deficit’ marked by political quietism and low levels of citizen engagement with the country’s democratic institutions, the exception being a propensity for staging protests (Benedicto 2006).

It is against this historical backdrop that we must set the momentous events of 2011-2014, which constituted not only a ‘real democracy’ turn, but also a new twist in the country’s prolonged crisis of citizenship in the post-Franco age. Having reviewed the main stages of development of the 15M movement to date, we can now turn to this movement’s impact, if any, on notions and practices of citizenship in Spain. To what extent has the movement, including its recent political offshoots, contributed to the making of a new language and praxis of citizenship in Spain? How did this process of change unfold over time and space?

Reviewing the available evidence, it is clear that the movement has indeed created a new language and praxis of citizenship in Spain. The first stage in this process overlaps with the 15M (street marches) and 17M (square occupations) fields of civic action analysed earlier. This stage started via the offline and online generation of countless slogans by activists and ordinary citizens, widely ‘shared’ via social media prior to the 15 May demonstrations (Postill 2014b). The double slogan ‘Real democracy now! We are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers’ became the ‘official’ statement of the marches and remained highly visible during the square phase. Although this is a negative formulation of collective identity, for it tells us what the protesters are not rather than who (or what) they are, the shared understanding was that the ‘we’ referred to ordinary citizens – as we saw in the exclusion of political parties and trade unions from the original list of invited participants in the marches. The long weeks of assemblary and group work undertaken in the squares allowed protesters to reinforce the idea of a movement of citizens, of unique persons who represented no one but themselves (Perugorría and Tejerina 2013).

The second stage of this language shift coincides with the movement’s relatively unorganised phase of monitory citizenship following the dismantling of the tent cities in mid-June 2011. This was a linguistically less innovative phase, although it still produced imaginative formulations such as the idea and praxis of ‘citizen tides’ (mareas ciudadanas) or the introduction by the anti-eviction platform PAH of the Argentinian notion of ‘escraches’ whereby citizens unable to pay their mortgages gathered loudly in front of politicians’ homes to pressurise them into resolving this issue (Artistic Activism 2013). Through these and other widely reported practices, PAH succeeded in transforming the ‘victims’ of the mortgage fiasco into citizen-activists fighting for their social rights. Similarly, the monitory platform 15MPaRato activated thousands of ordinary citizens against a corrupt banker through novel digital means such as crowdsourcing and crowdfunding under the slogan ‘Only the citizenry can stop them’ (Solo la ciudadanía puede pararlos), an effort amplified by some sectors of the mainstream media.

Finally, the current stage of the movement, dominated by the new citizen party Podemos (‘We Can’), has seen the introduction of a carefully crafted set of new and old political terms around the themes of social justice, corruption and empowerment, with the country’s derided establishment now referred to as ‘the caste’ (la casta) and its citizens variously invoked as ‘the citizenry’ (la ciudadanía), ‘the people’ (el pueblo), ‘people’ (la gente), and suchlike. Another notable feature of Podemos is its recycling of the 15M assemblary model through local ‘circles’ open to any citizen – a strategy that has fanned the party’s rapid growth but also exposed it to infiltration by opportunists with differing agendas.


I have argued that field theory can provide us with sharp conceptual tools to unlock the elusive relationship between media change and the new citizen movements in Spain and elsewhere. To this end, two overlapping totalities must be understood holistically: (1) the total ephemeral fields formed by civic actors at specific conjunctures in the historical course of their countries, and (2) the hybrid media systems that shape and are shaped by these and other fields of action, including the fields of establishment media, party politics and policing. The result of this two-pronged analytical strategy was a retelling of the 15M/indignados story from a field-theoretical angle.

When we look back today at the protest events of 2011 in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, Malaysia or the United States, we see linear processes, sequences of events that followed one another in rapid succession to form ‘emergent’ protest movements that eventually peaked and then seemed to fizzle out. Yet seen through the lens of field theory a very different pattern appears. In the case of Spain’s indignados (15M) movement, instead of a continuous flow of events we find four distinct (sub)fields of civic action (15M, 17M, 25M and 24M) interrupted by a long period of unorganised civic space. These fields can be regarded as games of a kind. They are not games like chess, football or online poker, but instead contests in which civic ‘players’ with unique skills and trajectories enter into relationships with other players (both individual and collective) in pursuit of the same rewards.

Considered together, these diverse notions and practices have doubtless reinvigorated Spain’s civic and political system, helping to mobilise hundreds of thousands of people and imbuing them with sense of purpose and a clear set of antinomies (‘us’ vs. ‘them’, ‘the citizenry’ vs. ‘the caste’). In diachronic terms, a shift from an initial rejection of institutional politics to a current will to power is clearly discernible – a shift from ‘Yes we camp’ (a favourite chant with square occupiers) to ‘Yes we can’ (Podemos’ leitmotif). As a result, Spanish citizens are today more aware than ever of their social rights – the right to a home, to public health, to a free education, and so on. Moreover, many of them have learned to transform this awareness into civic and/or political action. This stands in sharp contrast to the pre-15M situation of civic quietism described by Benedicto (2006) and other students of Spain’s democratic transition. It follows that Spain’s crisis of citizenship is now far more than an object of academic curiosity – it is now integral to the national conversation and to the political calculations of the ruling elites.

Freedom technologists bring to the multiple field sites in which civic contention currently takes place in Spain – its streets, squares, TV studios, newsrooms, social media sites, political rallies, etc. – a unique experience and passion for exploring the limits and possibilities of mixing technology with politics, a capacity for civic experimentation and a tendency to share its fruits through free-culture mechanisms. They also contribute a growing realisation (which came as a shock to many in late May 2014) that we now live in hybrid media systems in which we dismiss ‘old’ media such as TV at our own peril.

Further research is needed to test these ideas in other cultural and historical contexts, both in the Mediterranean region and beyond. For instance, preliminary reports suggest that the successful electoral campaigns of Indonesia’s new president, Joko Widodo, can be reconceptualised as subfields of civic action in which freedom technologists from across Indonesia’s hybrid media system played a decisive role (see Yasih & Alamsyah 2014). As a consequence, and for the first time in that nation’s modern history, an ordinary citizen of modest means was able to reach his country’s highest office.

Read freedom technologists series


This work was supported by the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3), Open University of Catalonia, in Barcelona, and by a Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellowship, RMIT University, Melbourne.


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Update 1

“Consider the difficulty and unpredictability of chess, a game with only two players, each of whom moves (always one at a time and in strict alternation between the players) 16 pieces (each with limited capabilities) around a board with 64 fields. Compared to contentious politics, this game is laughably simple. Even if a ‘‘game’’ of contention starts with only two players, any number of players may join over its course, players may split in two or join forces, new pieces and playing fields may be introduced, and perhaps, most
importantly, the rules of the game are themselves subject to contestation and therefore subject to change along the way.” (Koopmans 2004)


[1] See ‘Journalists and indignados: the importance of being there’, media/anthropology, 8 October 2014,

[2] See ‘How Spain’s indignados movement was born’, media/anthropology, 1 August 2014,

[3] These include the documentary filmmaker Stephane Grueso, the independent journalists Lali Sandiumenge, Juanlu Sánchez, Julio Alonso and Leila Nachawati, and many others like El Pais journalist Joseba Elola, the digital lawyer and El Mundo contributor Carlos Sanchez Almeida, the sociologist and La Vanguardia columnist Manuel Castells, popular TV presenters such as Jordi Evole, and others.

[4] See ‘We don’t know how to participate’, media/anthropology, 6 August 2014,

[5] Source:


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