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La debolezza degli indignados


Branko Milanovic, who contributed a recent guest post on Inequality and the Global Crisis, spent the last month in Madrid, living at a stone’s throw from La Puerta del Sol. He contributed this guest post on the current rebellion by Los Indignados. This is to start the ball rolling, no doubt others will wish to argue. By all means comment via e-mail if you must, but it is much preferable to comment directly on the post.

Several weeks ago the Spanish newspaper “El Pais”, one of the leading dailies in the world, held a party to celebrate the 35th anniversary of its foundation. "El Pais" has appeared in the days of the Spanish "transition" from Franco's dictatorship to democracy, and has throughout remained consistently pro-democratic and center-left. The daily perhaps best reflects the period of remarkable transformation of Spanish society from dictatorship to one of the most tolerant democracies in the world; from the country of emigrants to the country in which foreigners, coming literally from everywhere, account for 12 percent of the population; from a middle-income and in some respects even an underdeveloped country to an affluent country with first-rate quality railroads and highways. In a display of commitment to democracy and tolerance, the “El Pais” party was attended by all Spanish prime ministers since the transition, whether of the left or the right. The tone of speeches was celebratory and somewhat smug. Praise for democracy and the transformation in Spain was not excessive, considering what was achieved in the previous three decades, yet perhaps a bit deafening", reminding one of rather formulaic declarations about the importance of democracy that can be heard in the United States on every 4th of July. I thought that, except for Poland, the Czech Republic and perhaps the Baltic states, it would be difficult to imagine such optimistic tones on similar occasions in Eastern Europe. The reason is simple: democracy is a good thing and there is reason to celebrate it, but only if it goes together with economic development and higher incomes. And in that Spain was indeed very successful, so the generation that has accomplished this historic feat had many good reasons to celebrate. Or so it seemed.

But just ten days after the celebration and on the eve of local and regional elections in Spain, thousands of young people began rallying in the main squares of Spanish cities. The largest gathering, which attracted the attention of world media, took place on the central square in Madrid, La Puerta de Sol, just a kilometer or so from the headquarters of "El Pais" and the building where its party took place. Young people´s discontent was driven not only by the fact that youth unemployment hovers around 40 percent, that most of those who are employed hold very precarious jobs (working on time-limited contracts), or that salaries are stagnant, but by discontent that has spread to the democratic system itself, as it functions in practice. In contrast to the praise we heard at the "El Pais" gathering, now the speeches were very different: democracy ignores the opinions and interests of a large part of citizenry who have become alienated and no longer participate in the process; all political parties, regardless of their name and professed affiliation, pursue similar economic policies; the real power is in the hands of big capital and bankers who finance all political parties, not in the hands of “people”. These are all criticisms that would be subscribed by most young people throughout both “old” and “new” Europe. So, one might think, there is really something deeply flawed with democracy as we know it, and one of key slogans of los indignados said precisely this: "Real democracy-now!". In other words, "partocracy" and "bancocracy" are not acceptable.

But while the young were attacking the current Spanish "system" from the left, the Spanish right, which, because of the economic crisis and high unemployment which it blames on the socialist government, expected a major victory in the elections, retorted with its own slogan, published on the election day on the front page of a newspaper close to Partido Popular: "Real democracy-today." The message to the youth was clear: if you want to have your voice heard and believe that you have a majority, this is your moment, defend your ideas as everybody else does, go to the polls and see if you can win. "People" is not just you: “people” is others as well.

A lot of young people chose not to go to the polls and these unexpressed votes, that would normally go to the Socialists, made a difference and gave a huge victory to the right. Zapatero´s government is on its deathbed, he will not run again, and early general elections may be called. Here, then, the weaknesses in the position of los indignados began to be revealed. While they, on their posters, did not associate themselves with the soixante-huitards (of which they strongly reminded me) but to the demonstrators in Cairo and Tunis, the differences between them and the Arab youth were glaring. Demonstrations in Cairo and Tunis had a clear objective: to end dictatorships and allow for a meangful universal suffrage, multiparty system, and freedom of speech and association. These were clear and simple demands. The protesters knew what they wanted, and eventually won in both Egypt and Tunisia. But the demonstrators in Madrid were not able to clearly say what they wanted: indeed, they desire a better democracy, but what exactly does it mean? Of course, they also want a less corrupt “system" but this is what we all want. How to achieve it is a problem, and they offered no solution. When los indignados finally formulated their 8 theses, all of them except perhaps two (on changing the electoral system and the financing of political parties) were so general in nature, lacked any clear "addressee" responsible for them, or indication of the way in which things need to be improved, that they were made in fact irrelevant. Anyone would sign on these demands any time, and nobody could do anything with them.

And since real democracy took place on the election day and the right won overwhelmingly, while the demands of protesters appeared so general and vague, the demonstration turned into a fiesta, young people having good time in the central city squares, discussing, chatting, drinking beer, smoking marijuana, listening to jazz and rock music for most of the day and night. At 3 a.m., La Puerta del Sol was full of young men and women who enjoyed themselves the way they enjoy themselves at any music festival. Love blossomed – which is indeed excellent, except that it had nothing to do with politics.

And while some youngsters were speaking passionately about the evils of the "system", at the edges of the square, real poor people slowly emerged trying to sell beer or cigarettes, and to make some extra euro. And so it turns out that the older generation, gathered at the "El Pais" party, was indeed right – although when one looks at these young people, in a good mood, kind, pleasant and decent, and compares them to the well-situated, smug and self-congratulating democratic bourgeois, one is torn between sympathy and reason. But the twentieth century has taught us not to trust what our heart tells us.