Reports from anarchists in two different cities in Spain about the assemblies movement there. From late May/Early June 2011. Translated for The Commune.
Indignados in Seville
I find it difficult to write about the movement of indignados in Seville and maybe that’s because I’ve been an activist for many years in this city. So I’m writing while aware that my opinions aren’t very representative of the movement as a whole.
For the people with more experience of militancy, this movement, largely spontaneous, caught us totally by surprise. This has had palpable consequences. On the one hand most of the people involved are very depoliticised (in a certain meaning of the word) and have very little experience of organising, which means organisation has been from the beginning very chaotic. On the other hand, amongst the more ideological collectives, the supposedly depoliticised character and the extreme moderation of the demands has caused a certain rejection of the movement. The camp in Seville has taken on a character which I think is fairly similar to the other cities in Spain. There is a ferocious rejection of any type of organisation or political symbols, starting with parties and unions, but also a rejection of ideologies, ignoring the fact that the movement itself is being formed with a body of very defined and clear ideas. The reformist nature of the demands is also generating a notable rejection on the part of a lot of comrades.
However, there are aspects of the movement (and its underlying ideas) which should be especially interesting for libertarians and autonomists. There is a total consensus about decision making through the mass assembly, rejection of hierarchical structures and vigilance regarding the creation of unnecessary leaders. The ferocity of the non-party nature of the movement comes from the fear of the co-option by political organisations which could try to impose their agenda, which should seem laudable. On the other hand, in the development of the occupation of the plazas there is a clear eagerness to generate forums for discussion, take a public space and an eagerness for autonomy and self organisation which moves to the commissions which are trying to extend into the barrios.
The demands have come to a large extent from outside the movement, from Madrid or from other spaces, and although they have been accepted in Seville, they are in great measure an excuse or one of the least important elements in what is an expression of generalised discontent, disorganised and without a real political agenda. The main idea that moves people is the discredited nature of representative democracy and two-party politics, and the subordination of politics to the interests of large capital. Apart from this the movement is extremely heterogeneous and none of its parts should be taken for the whole.
The movement in Seville currently finds itself in a critical moment and is facing some far reaching problems. Firstly, internal disorganisation; secondly, doubts about whether to continue with the camp or not and how to go about it; and lastly doubts about how to continue the movement beyond the camps. The internal organisation has improved substantially in the last week while the demonstrations have progressively lost numbers, which leads to the second problem. The camp cannot continue indefinitely and runs the risk of becoming marginal if it carries on much longer, but at the same time it is the principal contact space and place of mass organising, which means it would be risky to abandon it without having the third point clearly thought through. There are proposals to continue the movement, with suggestions of organisation through commissions, decentralisation into committees in the barrios and a calendar of mobilisations. In any case the path taken by the movement in Seville is yet to be seen and, without a doubt, will largely depend on what happens in other parts of Spain.
Comments about the movement of the 15th of May in Barcelona
Firstly it is necessary to bear in mind that this movement in the city didn’t spring up out of nowhere. There has been a latent bad feeling for months, which has greatly surpassed the expectations and actions of the social movements. This hadn’t become visible up till now, with people carrying on with their lives as if nothing was happening.
Barcelona is a city with about 20% unemployment, and with youth affected up to 30%, but up till now they were still sleeping, hardly complaining about the effects of the crisis. So much so that journalists and politicians were complaining about the passivity of society in general and the youth in particular.
The facts are that since the general strike of 29th of September 2010, the atmosphere in Barcelona has been heating up day by day.
The strike in itself wasn’t successful in its objective, which was to stop the labour reform. The reform was passed, as the strike called by the mainstream trade unions UGT and CCOO didn’t manage to mobilise more than a part of the working class. Years of betrayals of the workers by these unions have meant that now they don’t respond to the calls by these unions and they are submerged in a very worrying passivity and defeatism.
Who did manage to capitalise on part of the latent social discontent were the base unions of the city (especially the CGT and to a lesser part the CNT, which are now in a process of fusion) and the social movements. The social movements started the Assembly of Barcelona which in practice acts as a co-ordinator for different social struggles in the city and of the different assemblies in the barrios which have appeared in the last few years. Workplaces in struggle (TMB, Parques y Jardines, etc) sent delegates to participate in the assemblies, and other workers participated on an individual level.
As we said, although the general strike on a national level wasn’t successful, on the local level it managed to massively raise the morale of the Barcelona activists. Demos of more than 10,000 people, police charges, symbolic occupations of capitalist buildings in the centre of the city, confrontations with the police in which for once they had to retreat, etc. And above all a new practice which almost immediately was integrated into this new movement, that of the pickets in the barrios, which all converged in the centre of the city forming a body of thousands of workplace and neighbourhood activists.
So after the strike, although the working class suffered another defeat, the activists achieved a raising of morale and experience of struggle. Assemblies were formed in new barrios, new mobilisations were tried, but the passivity of society was almost total. A new general strike was called for the 27th of January against the pension reform, called in the Basque country by the nationalist unions which are the majority there (ELA, LAB, ESK, HIRU, STEE, EHNE) and in Galicia where the nationalist unions are not such a majority but are still pretty big (CIG and to a lesser extent the CUT)
In Catalonia the nationalist unions are minimal, and in the end the callout came from the social movements (the Assembly of Barcelona) the Catalan independence movement of the left through their union (COS) the anarchists (CNT) and the CGT, which in this case was the only “real” union that called for the strike (the others are union action groups). The strike wasn’t a success except for various demos which blocked up the city centre. Here we lost part of the morale which we had won a few months previously.
Time went by until Mayday when there was a large new anticapitalist demo which went from the centre to rich neighbourhoods, ending in confrontations with the police and arrests. It was the most combatative Mayday for a decade and left people feeling good.
So now we get to the 15th of May. It was a callout from a group of people organised through Facebook and Twitter that nobody had heard of. However in Madrid it was very successful, bringing together thousands of people who took to the streets that day surpassing the expectations of the organisers. They chose that particular date as it was a week before the local and regional elections in Spain. And there were demos in all the cities and large towns of Spain. In the case of Barcelona there were some 5000 people, above all new people, who weren’t politicised.
In Madrid after the demo finished there were police charges and 15 arrests in a totally peaceful demo. This completely unjustified repression angered thousands of people who a day later occupied the Puerta del Sol, right in the centre of Madrid. It’s the place where they ring the bells on New Years Eve. In Barcelona and other cities they copied the example of Madrid and occupied the most important squares. In the case of Barcelona this was the Placa Catalunya.
By pure evolution the assemblies arose. They were assemblies of thousands and thousands of people. The square was occupied all night. Quickly someone bought tents, and later wood, people made tables, they bought chairs, tools, sound equipment, etc. The movement turned into an indefinite camp. The organisers of Real Democracy Now distanced themselves from these camps and assemblies, although they said they supported them. To organise them we used the handsignals from the antiglobalisation movement. It was an assembly with a lot of depoliticised people, very lost ideologically. The only thing they asked for was “more democracy”, “less corrupt” politicians and that the crisis should finish. But you also heard clearly anticapitalist speeches. However, the points that were agreed on were very superficial and non- confrontational. It was insisted that it was a movement “nonparty, nonunion and pacifist.”
In the beginning the anarchists present were out of the game. It wasn’t our fight. It was clearly a fight for representative democracy. People wanted to live eactly the same as they had four years ago before the crisis started. Our arguments seemed from another planet in this environment. Anyway a lot of us stayed.
With every day that passed more people turned up. People wanted to speak, everybody spoke to everybody else. It was an agora in the ancient sense of the word. A place to communicate, to express a thousand frustrations which before had never been heard and now took on real meaning. The square was made into a place of brotherhood. The political content was less important. Having a programme stopped being important and speaking and speaking became more so. It has to be said that in Barcelona the political content of the camps has been more to the “left” than in Madrid. In the days just before the elections (20th and 21st of May) the assemblies overflowed the square. Bit by bit, some barrios and villages outside Barcelona called their own camps and the movement grew.
The elections arrived, bringing bad news for most people: the right swept to victory. They won in all regions and in the main cities. This happened because the Socialist Party was sunk in the whole of Spain. The punishment vote was so strong it put the local governments in the hands of the right. During the two days before the elections there was a fear that the politicians would dominate the turns of speaking in the assemblies. The people didn´t let them. There was also a lot of fear of the political discourses that could come up. The way was quickly closed for the extreme right and the populist parties. The anarchists were always alert for the posibility of the left wing groups “capturing” new people, and we spoke with a pretty effective anti- politico argument.
However the effect of the camps on the elections was an enormous increase in spoilt and blank ballots, and the abstention by some left voters. There was a fear that after the elections the camps would get smaller. This didn´t happen. On the contrary, they spread out to other barrios and villages. The camps turned into popular assemblies of the barrios, connected to the workplace and social problems of the area. The central camp was more politicised with each passing day towards more radical positions. A lot of people had been in the central camp for a week and a half and had learned more about politics than you could read in the whole of Marx or Bakunin. They had passed dozens of hours debating politics and had arrived at conclusions similar to ours.
When the police tried to evict the square, people reacted quickly and with determination. They made sure the police couldn´t achieve their objectives. This was largely due to the capacity of the activists of the city, but also that once the news of the eviction reached the non politicised population, they didn´t want to lose this symbol of the movement. Despite the police violence, looking for that photo of the “violent hooded youth” (which they didn´t get, as the response was completely pacifist) thousands of people went to the aid of the Plaza,refusing to leave, and recovering the square when the Mossos (Catalan police) had left under media pressure. This produced a wave of solidarity to the movement, which was unexpectedly reinforced.
The positive thing is that the anarchists have not separated ourselves from the movement, as we did with the antiglobalisation movement, leaving it free for the politicos. We were in the assemblies, in the comissions, and work groups, now we are in the assemblies in the barrios and in the population, extending them, talking to groups of workers so that they unite with the movement and it doesn´t die.
To conclude, I want to say that although the movement could die in the next few days, the crisis continues and the disgust for the politicians as well. And that this is a constitutive process for the struggles of the future, which will definitely return to take the squares for assemblies, instead of trying to mobilise the workers in their factories. There is talk of a new general strike in September or October, this time called by the people and supported by some unions, not the other way round like usual. We´ll see what happens.