Heavy Swells in the Mediterranean

By Lorenzo Bosi and Eduardo Romanos

Madrid, 2033. A citizen’s movement has succeeded in creating a set of support and subsistence networks that manage many of the resources of the city, beyond the reach of the political class and financial sector. This is the scene set out in La Carta de los Comunes, a book recently published by a group of Spanish activists.[i] In order for the protests that began at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid in May, 2011 to become a revolution capable of bringing about changes like this a lot of things would have to happen but in the world of future possibilities everything is conceivable. Even, shorter range predictions, like those that will be made here, will remain in the realm of fiction, in many cases molded by the hopes and fears of those that make them.

Interest in social movements is largely motivated by the assumption that collective action mobilization can have important intended and unintended consequences. What are the potential results of the (south) European indignados movement? Before offering any answers to this question, a series of disclaimers. In the first place, it is always difficult to speak of “results”. A series of theoretical and methodological obstacles make it so, among them the question of causal attribution. [ii] This means that the action of a movement will always be one factor among many and thus we will never be able to be sure whether the change attributed to the activities of that movement would not have occurred anyway without its participation. To talk of “potential” results makes matters even more uncertain. Finally, it may not perhaps make much sense to talk of a “European” (or “South European”) movement of indignados. It would seem that the movements concerned are fairly different from each other (in terms of size, density, frames, resources, social support, repertoires adopted, visibility, etc.) even if solidarity and certain innovations circulate among them and they coordinate certain protest actions, through direct and indirect channels. These differences partly have to do with the fact that their first efforts are directed toward national governments charged with implementing the austerity policies set out by the intergovernmental and supra-national organizations. It seems reasonable to predict, therefore, that the results they produce will also be different. Will the indignados be able to stop the austerity policies adopted by their governments? They have not been able to do so up to now and they will not find it easy to do so in the future. This is possibly the point where the divergent experiences of the different national movements converge most clearly. In Greece the protests of the Aganaktismenoi have not impeded the implementation of austerity measures. The same has happened in Italy. In both countries new “technocratic” governments in power nowadays are implementing the same, if not more drastic, measures and their political systems have not developed toward more participation from below, but from a crises of representative democracy. In Spain, some professional groups such as the school teachers of the Madrid region reacted with strikes to the announcement and implementation of staffing cuts but the authorities offered no concessions in response. So far so bad. However, the apparent remoteness of this goal does not mean that the (south) European indignados movement mobilizations have not mattered at all. For example, in July, the Spanish government adopted some measures related to one of the main problems raised by the 15M movement: access to housing. Faced with rising mortgage foreclosures, the government did not yield to the demand for the introduction of a legal mechanism for payment in kind (non-existent in Spain), but it did increase the percentage of the value of a dwelling payable by the lender in order to acquire it in the case of an unsuccessful, post-foreclosure public auction (from 50% to 60% of the appraised value), and it increased the minimum salary the lender may seek to make attachable to secure payment of outstanding debts (from 600 to 900 Euros). In a different area, in December the government left a new law in administrative limbo, which the indignados said would have limited the neutrality of the Internet. One of the motivations for this decision was, according to Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, “the opposition that appeared on the web”.[iii] These decisions were made in Spain by the outgoing, center-left government whose leaders have shown themselves more receptive to the demands of the protestors than those of the incoming, center-right government.[iv] With the legitimacy it enjoys arising from the absolute majority in parliament it won at the general election, it is to be expected that, faced with the continuation or increase in the protests, the new government will increase the level of police activity dealing with them. Some activists fear this change might have a radicalizing effect on a movement which has, up to now, been fairly moderate in comparison to other countries in the region. The diffusion of new values and attitudes (e.g., inclusiveness, transparency, deliberation, horizontality, active participation, anti-privatization, global justice) among the public seems to us surely one of the most important results attributable to the (south) European indignados movement. In Spain the call for a demonstration on the 15th of May originally arose from the Democracia Real Ya [Real Democracy Now] platform. Among other things, this demand for “real” democracy took the form of a requirement for a reform of the electoral law which, as it currently stands, encourages the two party system and is considered to be unjust on the basis that it gives varying weight to votes depending on where they are cast and for which party.[v] The demand for this reform is not new but what is new is the weight of social support for it and public debate generated by it, all of which will probably have some effect in the near future. In Italy a national referendum on whether water should remain public or become private has seen a strong mobilization and finally won the majority of the electorate in favor of the anti-privatization front. In the south of Europe as well as around the globe, and especially in the USA with the OWS mobilization, it seems to us that this movement is able, through its impact on the “new” and “old” media, to give a voice to anti-corporate anger (in relation to both the economic and the political realm), offering a sort of “counter-hegemonic” discourse as Jeff Goodwin has recently suggested.[vi] The previously mentioned potential results make reference to the political system or the attitudes of the population as a whole. Research into social movements, however, has shown that the most significant changes often take place within such movements and the activists themselves. On this basis a series of possible future scenarios will now be presented. Firstly, the heterogeneous nature of the movement (based on the value of inclusiveness) could, over time lead to a diversification and “particularization” of the initiatives contained within it and even to some form of competition between each other over the support base and the sectors of public opinion that the movement wishes to represent. This in turn could lead to a distancing of the activists in the movement from each other and from the original movement, with some strands that might follow an institutionalization path, others that might radicalize and the majority that demobilize. Something like this is happening today with varying degrees in Greece, as well as in Italy and Spain. Furthermore, many of the people who became involved in the indignados movement without previous or recent experience in other social movements will have come across democratic practices and concepts (related to the model of empowered deliberative democracy) which will surely have an impact on their daily lives, perhaps helping this model to extend its influence on society as a whole. It, also, seems necessary to envision additional development of a fundamental tool for the indignados movement, the Internet. As indicated by one of the activists interviewed by TIME in its issue dedicated to the protesters as the personality of the year, the new wave of protests may serve to strengthen the capacities of the Internet in decision making processes not restricted to the interior of the movement itself; “I doubt if we’ll be able to create a minimum planetary consensus, but why not? We have ICTs and in the same way that we can set up a forum and discussion group here with anyone, which is just a mailing list of 30 people, why can’t we do something similar with 6,000 million people and try to reach a minimum global consensus”.[vii] On a darker note, when we analyze the outcomes of social movement mobilization, we are mostly interested in explaining the positive effects of such phenomenon. However, as we know, protest movements can also have negative impacts. The establishment’s responses to social movements, for example, can take the form of physical repression, and cultural backlash is also around the corner. If the indignados have been able to give voice to anti-corporate anger, less clear is how such voice will be used in 2033. It seems too early to know as it depends very much on the strength of the movement as well as on the response of the powers that be. Our strongest fear is that reactionary forces (i.e. Tea Party), as in the early phase of the last century on this side of the Atlantic, would capitalize on such mobilization for their antidemocratic scopes. This would obviously be the worst scenario, but let’s get ready to oppose this possible development as much as we can in the streets as in the academia.

[i] Madrilonia.org, 2011 (November): La Carta de los Comunes. Para el cuidado y disfrute de lo que de todos es. Madrid: Traficantes de sueños.
[ii] Lorenzo Bosi and Katrin Uba, 2009: “The Outcomes of Social Movements”, Mobilization 14 (4): 405-411.
[iii] El País, 12/12/2011, “La presión en la Red contribuyó a tumbar la ‘ley Sinde’”.
[iv] On 30/12/2011, the new Spanish cabinet adopted the law on Internet designed but not developed by previous Zapatero’s cabinet along with a package of tax increases and spending cuts “really big, large, as probably it has not ever been in the recent history of Spanish Treasury” (the budget minister dixit).
[v] See Robert Liñeira, 18/11/2011: “Un motor de la indignación: La ley electoral en España”, Books and Ideas. Available at www.booksandideas.net/Un-motor-de-la-indignacion.html. French version at www.laviedesidees.fr/Un-moteur-de-l-indignation.html
[vi] Jeff Goodwin, 6/11/2011: “Coalition of the disenchanted”, Le Monde Diplomatique.
[vii] E. Romanos’ interview with Stéphane M. Grueso, 17/10/2011, Madrid.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Outcomes of OWS

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