News from the debt crisis in Spain and the rise of a global response
A Year of Small and Big Achievements From the Plazas
Por DIAGONAL English

By Marta G. Franco (DIAGONAL editorial) / Translated by Robert Dyas

The 15th May 2011 was the start of the increase in activity within social movements that we have witnessed in recent months. The governing parties have yet to pick up on the atmosphere in the street. Contempt for them grows as initiatives of self-organisation abound.

A year on from the protests of 15th May 2011, it might appear as though none of the demands have been met. However, a closer look reveals real changes that the 15M movement has achieved in several areas.


Housing: Repossessions and Occupations

The most constant, visible and successful actions carried out by the 15M activists have been the repossession blockades. Although the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH)  (Platform For Those Affected by Mortgages) existed before, their activity has grown in the past 11 months and, with the assistance of the popular assemblies, they have been able to impede 230 repossession orders across the country. Using popular pressure and legal advice, the PAH lends effective support to those affected so they are able to renegotiate debt and find affordable rentals.

The platform concentrates specifically on mortgaged homes but other groups also act to prevent repossessions. The Associació 500x20 in Barcelona for example, "In the neighbourhood of Ciudad Meridiana, the indignants and neighbours have succeeded in preventing all repossessions in March", says Antoni from the association. His colleague Salva explains that the "15M has found in the home a more practical means (of struggle) than on other fronts. Prevention of repossessions are small triumphs that help ordinary people".

Some of those subject to repossession are choosing to squat homes. The 15M has facilitated this with initiatives such as Edifici 15O in Barcelona and the Hotel Madrid. Although the latter was evicted, in its time it contributed to the improvement of the public perception of squatting and generated a network that continues to make flats available. In addition, the assemblies founded in the plazas have been occupying empty buildings since autumn from where they operate. In Madrid there are 7 new social centres and at least 8 assemblies from other cities have done the same.

Support Networks: Neighbourhoods Out in the Street

Upon the lifting of the campsites, the 15M wanted to expand its assemblies into the neighbourhoods. Carmen Espinar, from the Madrid neighbours association La Flor (the Flower) and expert in neighbourhood participation, commented that in some areas the "life of the neighbourhood has been revitalised". From the packed assemblies of the first weeks, "that served as a reminder that the plazas are not simply places of transit", have evolved more operational meetings; "they are working in small affinity groups and there are more activists that a year ago although you may not notice them". For Espinar the associative fabric of the community was dormant and "the 15M was the injection that has led to different things now happening, more dynamic and beautiful things".

One of the collectives that felt that push was the Brigadas de Observación de Derechos Humanos (the Human Rights Observation Brigade). For 2 years they have been documenting racist police controls and are now seeing more interest in their work. "It would be unusual now to find someone in Madrid who doesn’t know about the racist raids", confirms Ana, a brigade member. They have given workshops at many neighbourhood assemblies and alerted them to the task of sending out warnings about raids.

The 15M has also turned its gaze upon the Centros de Internamiento de Extranjeros (CIE) (Foreign National Internment Centres). They have set up condemnation campaigns and, in Malaga, set up camp infront of one of the centres. In this way the expulsion of Sid Ahmed Bouziane was impeded; a young man from Algeria whose life was in danger following an attack by a violent gang in his native country.

Social Economy: It’s not the crisis, it’s the system.

Encouraged by the questioning of the economic model itself in assemblies, new alternatives of consumption are being sought and social economy projects are being formed. For example, the Cooperativa Integral Catalana that provides for all economic needs (products, services and social currency) in the form of self-management (autogestion). The cooperative had been going for a year when 15M began but has really picked up in recent months. Its model is being reproduced in Madrid, Andalucía, Valencia, Cabo de Gata, La Rioja, Valencia and Aragón.

Criticism of the financial system has resulted in a good year for ethical banking which, at least, meets the principal of transparency. Triodos has doubled its profits in 2011, increasing its client base by 24%. The network Fiare, that operates in Spain as the agent of Banca Pololare Etica (from Italy), and the cooperative of financial services Coop57, have also increased their deposits and credits substantially. The latter speaks of "an incessant demand for talks, workshops and seminars" from the 15M collectives.

On a smaller scale, the popular assemblies are recreating consumer forms: banks of time, barter markets, self-managed learning workshops and pastimes, etc. The assembly of Carabanchel for example takes leftover food from Mercamadrid [biggest food retail market in Madrid] and gives it out in the neighbourhood.

Party Politics: The limits of democracy.

The 15M has never massively supported any voting option. It has however had an influence in the 2 elections while it has been in existence. According to the CIS, 18.8% of voters took it into consideration on 22nd May and the minority parties saw increased support; in other words, the movement contributed to the reduction in the bipartisan vote. A study by Manuel Jiménez Sánchez, of the University Pablo de Olavide, identified that it resulted in the greatest number of spoiled and blank votes since 1987, with higher incidences in towns where there was an encampment set up.

In the general elections of November these votes continued to increase and the total votes for the PP and the PSOE [the two major parties in Spain] carried on falling. The 15M has not contributed to abstention, according to Carolina Galais of the University Autonoma Barcelona. On the contrary, their contribution has given a protest angle to the vote: "Democracia Real Ya, #nolesvotes, #aritmetica20N and other related camps have energised the vote with initiatives such as apartisanism, recommending a critical vote as an expression of non-accordance with the current system".

To try and stop the drain of support, the PSOE and PP have paid lip service to the demands of the 15M. In June, Rubalcaba announced the Transparency Law which, after years of silence, will reach Parliament. It was not until April that the project was published. Organisations such as have identified many deficiencies but at least the debate has been opened. Along similar lines, the subject of the debt swap (dación en pago – where a mortgaged property is surrendered in return for cancelation of the debt) has reached Parliament on several occasions (although the PP’s code of good practice has meant that few cases have actually been resolved). At least there has been a small legislative advance: the upper limit of a balance that could not be reclaimed due to unpayments on a mortgage was increased. It remains to be seen how successful will be the Popular Legislative Initiative (ILP) for retroactive debt swaps, the moratorium on repossessions and affordable rents, for which the process of collecting signatures has just begun.

The 15M has already had experience in this field: an ILP was registered in the Parliament of Andaluzia precisely to modify the process of these laws (ILPs) and help them to succeed. The government of the PSOE remixed the proposal and it was eventually approved with votes from all parties. The proposal was for a law reducing the number of signatures required for an ILP but it was "too light" in the end and, in the opinion of 15M, did not really promote participation as originally intended.

Meanwhile, the political class continue to be discredited and the response continues in the streets. The CIS has confirmed the perception of the political parties and the government as being one of the principal problems and specificies that there has been an increase of 4.7% in participation in protests since May. According to information published in 20 Minutos, 2012 is on its way to becoming a record breaker with 60 protests to date. In Valencia in January and February, 5 times more protests were recorded than in the same period the previous year.

Cultural Change: Disrepute and collaboration.

Disrepute is splashed across the means of communication. The use of social networking sites is often cited (as well as free networks: has increased user numbers from 3,600 to 40,500 since May) along with a proliferation in alternative mediums. Some media show the influence of 15M, such as Mas Público, a group of ex workers of Público [second-largest left-wing newspaper in Spain, recently folded its print edition because of financial losses] that want to recover the project as a workers’ co-operative.

Away from the internet, the periodical Madrid15M, edited by its own assemblies, is now onto its third edition, reaching 40,000 copies distributed, Rebelaos, a publication for self-management (autogestión) has printed 500,000 copies. Collaborative cultural projects are appearing that use the same structures as the 15M, such as the documentary, the musical project Fundación Robo or the online library Bookcamping.

Luis Moreno-Caballud, professor at the University de Penn and participator in Occupy Wall Street, describes 15M as a "a knowledge diffusion machine" and lauds its capacity for "collective and anonymous production of sense; usable discourse, inclusive and powerful due to being so difficult to pigeon-hole". The contribution of the 15M, in his opinion, relates to a cultural change: "the primary victory is precisely in having found a way of life in which the victories and defeats are not important. It has given new force to a means of existence based in collaboration and not in competition".

[This article was originally published in Spanish on May 12th 2012]





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