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Arguing against: The “indignados” movement in Spain has vanished and did not left behind any tangible political achievements.
This essay will explore the impact the Indignados movement had in the Spanish political realm. The movement experienced a swing between the type of action it presented at its forefront; from encampments, to mass protests, to localised action. An anti-austerity populist party; Podemos, emerged shortly after the movements demise and carried its voice through new channels into the political arena. This essay will first analyse the core goals and progression of the Indignados movement and then observe how Podemos acted as an evolved, second wind to the movement’s cause.
The Indignados movement, also known as the 15M movement, emerged in the midst of the 2008-2014 financial crisis in Spain. The Spanish government had turned a blind eye on the financial sector and banks were misleading investors and regulators. Spanish real estate bubble was being financed too easily and the results were devastating. High prices were coupled with some of the worst unemployment records in Spanish history…and the livelihoods of the Spanish citizens were being heavily impacted. The youth was hit hardest, with those under 25 experiencing about a 50% unemployment rate (Hidalgo, 2012). Citizens felt that their basic rights had been neglected and the failing approach taken by governing powers to tackle the economic crisis was heavily reprimanded. The socialist party known as Partido Socialista Obrero Español, or PSOE, was in power at the time and, among many others, were in the direct firing line of the Indignados movement.
On the 15th of May 2011, amidst the economic crisis, high unemployment, the housing crisis, cuts to social services, threats to online freedom and home foreclosures, an anti-austerity movement was called to action, just one week before the local and regional elections. The call to action was catalysed through social media networks, whereby the “global dimension of contestation” was emphasised (Nez, 2016). The goal was to demonstrate that international social discontent was growing. A moto of the 15M demonstrations was “Real Democracy NOW” – a direct reflection of the hardships experienced by the citizens who were at the hands of irresponsible political and economic powers. This was linked to a national context by specifically denouncing the systems at the origin of the Spanish crisis. The movements first steps included large-scale national demonstrations, encampments on public squares, and assemblies with thousands of participants in the town centres, known as Los Indignados.
While the first stage, and the original call to action, was generally aimed internationally, the national context from which it was born was more highly recognised. Another moto, reflecting this, was “They do not represent us”. “They” referred to the current government and PSOE party that was in power, as well as the PP (promoting the same austerity policies), the mainstream trade unions, specifically the CCOO and UGT, the EU, the IMF, the World Bank, and even the historical context from which Spanish democracy was born which was seeing a gradual increase in institutionalisation. The movement denounced the two-party system as well as the electoral laws that promoted bipartism in Spain (dominated by PSOE and PP since the end of the Franco dictatorship). They highlighted the roles of the political system and the economic model in the social crisis affecting Spain. The criticism against capitalism was a significant narrative of the emerging movement. (check)
The encampments at Puerta del Sol also manifested a general assembly that did not represent any part or association. This committee dealt with the self-management of the camp and organised working groups on economics, politics and education. There was no leader or program. This provided ammunition to the critics who would label 15M as directionless, anti-political and without purpose. In addition, conflicts between the internal workings of the movement threaten to completely destabilise the cause. Subgroups were set up to work within the political sphere. Short-term policy working groups wanted impact at the national level by improving the current political system, while the long-term policy working group attempted to change the entire political system through small scale, local demonstrations (Nez, 2016). (CHECK)
Running parallel to the internationalisation of the movement, was the decentralisation of the movement down to the level of the neighbourhoods. “Nos vemos en la plaza” changed to “Nos vemos en los barrios” and “Que no nos vamos, nos extendemos”. This helped the movement not lose its momentum and the focus was shifted to local issues. While this stage of the movement saw some concrete victories, the limitations of the localised approach was constantly pointed out, not only by the part of the movement still concerned with national and international influence. Victories included the prevention of ethnic profiling at metros, prevention of a number of home foreclosures, concrete practices of social solidarity (such as soup kitchens, barter exchange networks, mutual assistance networks, time banks – proving functioning examples outside the market economy). (check) Nez (2016) describes the movement’s strategic choice to decentralise and focus on the local level as “a search for a capacity of action” (p.142). This was limited in its ability to influence political, economic and social policies that arose on a national or international level. However, Nez agrees with Pleyer’s assessment of the location strategy of autonomous movements whereby he questions the impact of the localisation of movements. “Shifting the fight from the political sphere towards that of the local space of the daily life, did these movements not leave the field to their adversaries as regards the influence they exerted on the government authorities and resorting to the institutions?” (Merklen & Pleyers, 2011, p. 51)
15M was mostly celebrated by analysts as an example of well networked logic. However, it was not without its criticisms. Conservatives, liberals and leftists dismissed the movement as anti-political. “At the time, the mass media could identify no political impact or purpose in the protests” (Valdivielso, 2017, p. 279). In addition to this, the tension within the movement was evident around the issue of participation in the upcoming election. The short-term policies working group believed it was possible to establish a series of propositions and to hold political candidates accountable on that basis, the long-term policies group though it was more constructive to follow one’s own fighting program. The movement was described as “variegated” and was seen to be a wound in legitimacy of the movement and its ability become a political movement with a political program (Nez, 2016). Informally, it is thought that the group on long term politics won. Due to the Indignados rejection of the electoral path (partly evident in the election results whereby the 15M discourse encouraged people to abstain from voting or vote for smaller parties) the localisation of the movement sought to attack concrete problems with visible results. Their inability to influence policies at the national and international level was becoming evident. (Nez, 2016).
It wasn’t a surprise that the upcoming elections in May 2011 saw a strong decrease in support for PSOE and overwhelming majority for PP. While the 15M movement continued to be labelled as anti-political, without an affect, channels started to emerge that facilitated new types of political action. This was particularly inclusive of the “disaffected to whom the 15M gave voice” (Valdivielso, 2017, p. 298). Among them were the PAH anti-eviction platform, the White Tide in defence of public health care, the Green tide in defence of public education, and experiments with networked democracy (Party X). Most notably, in January 2014, Podemos emerged from the process. Piggybacking off the support mustered by the 15M movement and utilising their highly successful call to action tactics through social media, Podemos attracted the public support they required to run in European elections the next year. They comprised of a group of intellectuals who presented the following manifesto; “Making a move: turning indignation into political change” (Valdivielso, 2017, p. 298).
It is critical, when analysing the progression of Podemos, to consider the context from which Podemos emerged. “Podemos emerged in a window of opportunity between two key moments. The first was the end of the socialist government (2004-2011) whose authority had been deeply eroded due to its poor management of the economic downturn and the adjustment measures it was forced to adopt. The second was the arrival in government in 2011 of the PP, which focused on a thorough fiscal adjustment and structural reforms of the economy that boosted the populist discourse. It was against this backdrop that the 15M movement emerged, occupying the Puerta del Sol in Madrid for weeks, and which Podemos usurped, profiting from the protest” (Zarzalejos, 2016, p. 189)
The anti-austerity movement, when sparked by 15M, was voiced through the chants of “sí, se puede” by the indignados who partook in the mass protests of 2011. The same chant echoed, through the same iconic square of Puerta del Sol, four years later via “podemos”. Podemos was “an insurgent force with roots in los indignados ideology and vision for Spain” (Kassam, 2015). Their platform was coated in narrative around anti-corruption, high standards of purity, and bringing an end to the bipartisan political system. The window of opportunity from which Podemos emerged, made this rhetoric highly successful, elevating them in the opinion polls and saw them win five seats in the European elections of May 2012.
The opposition were quick to label Podemos as ‘populist’, attempting to attach it to the negative connotations associated with the generally adopted European definition of the term. As described by Ramiro and Gomez (2017), the basics of the populist narrative are characterised by two antagonistic groups, for example; the honest ordinary people are pitted against the ‘corrupt’ elite. Podemos used the dichotomy between la casta and la gente – a common populist strategy where parties attach their claims to different ideologies (either from the right or the left). General, right wing populist parties are also known to avoid the left-right divide (Podemos was an exception being left-wing) (Ramiro & Gomez, 2017).
Their voter base described and analysed in detail by Ramiro & Gomez (2017) started with the general hypothesis that European populist voters are associated with lower levels of political trust, dissatisfaction with democracy, lower levels of education, ideological extremism, weakness of social ties and Euroscepticism. They provide a link here with the theory of globalisation losers (Kriesi et al. 2008, 2012). In addition, Ramiro & Gomez attempt to explain why Podemos had an advantage over an already established ‘radical left party’ – it could not be explained solely by globalisation and the economic crisis ‘losers’ hypothesis, or by the common description of populist voters. Their analysis discovered that these voters were not seen as more prone to vote for Podemos. Podemos was able to attract a different kind of voter through insisting on the irrelevance of the left-right divide for contemporary Spanish politics. “They combined a varied left-wing electorate, anti-mainstream protest voting, and highly educated groups with unfulfilled expectations” (Ramiro & Gomez, 2017, p. 110). Podemos (and other radical/populist party support) grew through the social dissatisfaction of the austerity policies being implemented by successive governments.
Podemos, carefully embraced the populist term, as their ideology was in fact rooted in a theory of South American and American Populism as described by the work of Ernesto Laclau and Mouffe. “Podemos frontrunners used Laclau and Mouffe’s work explicitly to: (a) build a new political subject for channelling the radical democratic demands of the indignados movement into the formal public sphere, and (b) articulate a new hegemonic electoral majority through (c) a narrative liberated from classic leftist discourse. Unlike the discourse of the 15M assemblies, the theory effect is clear, in Bourdieu’s words” (Valdivielso, 2017, p. 298). Ernesto Laclau challenged the view that the nature of populism limited to a racist, nativist or proto-fascist ideology of the far right. While in Europe, the term ‘populist’ is used in a derogatory way (referring to demagogic appeals by right-wing parties who exploit the public’s ignorance, ethnic and religious resentments), Laclau is influenced by Latin American and American history. He views populism as a condition for deepening the central value of equality that governs democratic societies. His analysis describes populism as a political logic that could be used by the left, right and centre. It is a discourse that dichotomises the political and social arena that is defined by specific kinds of demands to establish a “political frontier” between the two (the works vs the oligarchy, la gente oppressed by the establishment). Lacau says “what creates the conditions leading to a populist rupture is a situation in which a plurality of unsatisfied demands and increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them differentially coexist.” For Podemos the unifying theme has been an end to austerity in politics/society. His theory argues that the foundations of populism is in the creation of “empty signifiers”. These are words and ideas that could express a universal idea of justice, and symbolically structure the political environment. He also notes that “Any populist unification takes place on a radically heterogeneous social terrain.” A more heterogenous, complex society (referred to as the logic of difference by L) sees demands specific to a diverse range of social sectors. When a number of these specific demands are not met, a window of opportunity opens for a populist campaign/new party. When an alliance of these unmet demands occur, Lacau describes this as the chain of equivalence. (CHECK and SITE)
“Podemos offers a practical example of what is meant by understanding populism not as having a particular ideological content but as a discursive logic. It is a logic of political construction that can be filled with different ideologies; in short, by understanding populism as a ‘political narrative’. Populism, from either the right of left, rests on two pillar. On the one hand, it required the construction of an enemy. On the other, it disparages representative democracy. Populism is basically illiberal” (Zarzalejos, 2016, p. 185). While 15M struggled to define their political ideology and affect political change at the national level, Podemos provided the Indignados that platform. While 15M’s long term goals could not compete in the space that Podemos could, their anti-austerity narrative has been manifested within the broader movement that Podemos eventuated from. They could, however, be seen as the success of 15M’s short term policy goals.
However, the short time frame from which Podemos’ rose to success in the political realm, begs the question of its sustainability, much like the 15M movement itself. The voice of the Indignados evolved and adapted, and they still managed to express their voice through new channels. In a way, Podemos is doing the same. Since their success in 2014, they have had to adapt. Their success at the European Parliament elections as a newly formed party, was followed by another huge success at the national parliament elections, where they became the third largest party in parliament with 69 seats. The social, political and economic conditions that were alive when they emerged are changing and pose a risk to their current political model. The 2015 general elections couldn’t form a stable coalition government and Podemos evolved by firstly announcing an alliance with Izquierda Unida and other left-wing political parties in 2016. They became Unidos Podemos, and eventually changed their name to the feminine form; Unidas Podemos prior to the 2019 election. 2016 was still successful for Unidos Podemos, however Unidas Podemos didn’t fair as well in the 2019 election, where they lost 29 seats previously held.
“The discovery that radical left-wing populism is stagnant has triggered an internal debate that calls into question the core elements of its political project. Íñigo Errejón, Podemos’s ‘number two’ and ideological driver, acknowledged this shortly after the last election: ‘In order to govern, Podemos has to change, it has to mutate’. He added that the model of a populist party that Podemos had developed ‘is a model that no longer is the exception, the surprise . . . It is one capable of delivering certainties to a large part of the Spaniards who, even though they see us with sympathy, need more security and need us to demonstrate, in the meantime, our usefulness.’ ‘The street,’ Errejón stated, ‘not only demands epic narratives and demonstrations, the street asks for guarantees, public policies’. That an intellectual disciple of Ernesto Laclau should express himself in these terms reveals the depth of the sense of crisis among the populists. Podemos is facing a very difficult task: nothing less than surviving itself” (Zarzalejos, 2016, p. 190). Critics have been analysing the progress of Podemos since their inception, and as early as 2015 their ability to live up to their own standards have been questioned. “By demonising corruption, Podemos set impossible standards of purity for itself” (Murado, 2015). The party has seen internal spats and its own ring of scandals that has weakened the image that helped build its success.
The 15M has undeniably left a considerable mark on Spanish politics. Its most meaningful impacts have not been directly through the Indignados, but rather through the climate they created. The Indignados brought about the window of opportunity that saw huge success for anti-austerity and radical left movements. As Valdivielso (2017) states, “The people’s moment has driven Spain’s newest radical subjects towards more democracy, not less. Through Podemos the theory of radical democracy has made a key contribution to that move. It has accompanied and self-clarified processes of radical politics that otherwise would have easily become dispersed or co-opted by right-wing xenophobia.” (p. 307). While Valdivielso’s opinion may have rung true in 2017, accurately the 2019 election saw the arrival and incredible traction of the far-right Vox party’s success. This begs the question of Podemos sustainability and the long term impacts that 15M movement will see.
- Hidalgo, J. C. (2012). Looking at Austerity in Spain. Cato at Liberty .
- Kassam, A. (2015, Feb 1). 100,000 flock to Madrid for Podemos rally against austerity. Madrid: The Guardian . Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/31/podemos-spain-austerity-rally-madrid-syriza
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- Zarzalejos, J. (2016). Populism in Spain: an analysis of Podemos. European View(15), 183-191.
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