This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.
It’s the second day at work for Castellón’s four new “15M” councillors. Not much is working in the corner of an unremarkable office in Castellón’s Town Hall. An IT technician comes and goes, promising Wi-Fi will arrive soon – “manana”. The mood is upbeat, however, with much smiling and shrugging in that “no-one really cares” gesture the Spanish excel at.
Context explains everything. These councillors aren’t too bothered whether they can work or not. They have chosen to be in opposition and, when quizzed, they confirm that they see their roles as temporary.
They see themselves not as representatives, even less “politicians”, with clear responsibilities that have to be taken seriously. Rather, they are flag bearers or “post-representatives” for the quiet revolution they hope will overwhelm “la Casta”. These are the corrupt elites who have presided over the bankrupting of Spain, mass unemployment and the erosion of living standards for young and old.
The general feeling that “something has to be done” drove more than six million Spaniards to occupy squares in virtually every town and city across the country on May 15, 2011 – a date imprinted in the collective imaginary as “15M”.
Castellón and the others
Where does Spain’s quiet revolution go from here? One path suggested itself last year via the creation of Podemos, a “pop-up” party created by academics in Madrid and designed to give an electoral voice to the disenfranchised.
Led by savvy Laclau-istas Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón, Podemos succeeded in providing an immediate focus for political energies, and still appears to many as the most likely source of a breakthrough for those who identify with the 15M movement.
However, Podemos decided, curiously, not to contest the recent municipal elections. That necessitated the creation of a raft of ad hoc political parties, collectives and initiatives among those wishing to maintain momentum.
La Veu del País Valencià/flickr
In Castellón, a small city north of Valencia, local activists took the matter into their own hands, calling for an assembly and the creation of a new group, Castelló en Moviment (CEM), to fight the elections. The local Podemos group dissolved itself and joined in. With no resources of its own to call upon, CEM used crowd-funding to raise a few thousand euros, which it spent on advertising its existence on Facebook and other platforms.
Regularly attracting up to 100 locals, the assembly became the focus for political activism locally and fought the election using an imaginative digital strategy as well as assemblies to engage the town – successfully it seems. CEM won four seats, and the solicitation of the local socialist party to form a governing alliance.
CEM refused the overture, claiming they were too inexperienced to wield power. They prefer to remain aloof from the grubby business of governing the municipality, drawing attention instead to the myriad injustices that animate its constituency: high local unemployment, clientelism, croneyism, corruption, mayoral excess.
Similar efforts elsewhere paid even greater dividends, most noticeably in Madrid and Barcelona where ad hoc collectives led to the victory of Manuela Carmena and Ada Colau, the popular spokesperson for the campaign against mortgage evictions, or simply “PAH”. Podemos had never quite established “hegemony” in Catalonia, so the creation of Guanyem Barcelona (later renamed Barcelona en Comú) around the figure of Colau seemed logical.
But in Madrid, where Podemos was founded in 2014, the creation of the “Ahora Madrid” initiative resonates significantly as far as the internal politics of 15M is concerned.
Any sense that Carmena would be a spokesperson for Podemos was quickly dispelled. So too, however, was the sense that she would be directly accountable to the street assemblies, barios and collectives who campaigned for her. She will be her own mayor with her own team, with her own programme. Such is the logic of post-15M “non-vertical” leadership.
Representing the unrepresentable
Waiting in the wings is Podemos itself. It has certainly managed to protect its own “brand” by remaining beyond the recent electoral process, but at what cost? Today, they seem like spectators rather than actors in the unfolding drama of 15M’s encroachment on municipal power.
One effect of the municipal elections has after all been a return of many of the most savvy activists back to the streets, the assemblies and the more horizontal initiatives like Castelló en Moviment. With Podemos’ own activists getting involved in these more recent initiatives, its popularity and status as the leading element of the 15M platform may be on the wane. Support for Podemos across the country has declined, from 24% to around 15% in recent opinion polls.
Does Podemos have a strategy to counter this decline? The signs are hardly encouraging.
As even its own activists are ready to admit, Podemos is a “vertical” initiative representing the unrepresentable 15M “project”. Herein lies the paradox of contemporary Spanish politics. The more activists use electoral means to leverage the sentiments unleashed in 15M, the more they become enmeshed in the messy bureaucratic business of “politics” as this is enacted in liberal democracies.
One can hardly blame the Podemos’ leadership for trying to think tactically about where to take their party; but the very demand to build structure, instil some order and discipline and develop “the brand” rails against the anarchistic and horizontal energies that lie beneath.
Nor can one blame the activists of initiatives such as Barcelona en Comú and Castelló en Moviment for trying to remain true to that energy – but can they do so without disappointing the base who faithfully turn up for assemblies and direct deliberation? Carmena has read the runes and decided to distance herself from the base in the hope of demonstrating to the ordinary voter that 15M-istas are capable of responsible and mature governance in Madrid.
By contrast CEM – like many other regional initiatives – are determined to be accountable to their assemblies. They argue that that this is the true or proper form of interaction with the unrepresentable – 15M activists themselves.
La Veu del País Valencià/flickr
Spain’s ‘democracy to come’
At stake in this fascinating collage or “shape-shifting” is not only the political legacy of 15M but the nature and form of Spain’s “democracy to come”. It is not at all clear at the time of writing whether Podemos has the wherewithal to channel the extraordinary energies unleashed by 15M for its own electoral purposes.
Some speculate that they will all come together in time to pose a real alternative not only to the mainstream parties, PP and PSOE, but also the rightist 15M doppelganger, Ciudadanos, a new party led by Albert Rivera.
The evidence, however, suggests another possibility. Having developed a taste for assembly-driven political initiatives, activists will prise Podemos itself apart to create a kind of hybrid “Ahora Podemos en Comú”-type platform, which might include endorsement by Iglesias and Errejón, but also Carmena, Colau and the very many horizontals who rediscovered their political mojo and sense of purpose in the May elections.
Beyond the elections lies the question of what kind of governance 15M offers. It’s early days in the town halls, but the possible outlines are not far from hand: a stress on “ethical governance” underpinned by a commitment to reducing the distance between representatives and represented through abolishing the very many privileges hitherto enjoyed by the Spanish political class.
Greater transparency in financial and legislative terms. Greater commitment to engaging ordinary citizens via a variety of means: assemblies, referendums, virtual and digitally enabled deliberation. Greater focus on environmental sustainability, on ensuring that women play leading roles, and on providing citizens with access to housing and basic foodstuffs.
It seems that these are the core concerns of the 15M-istas who have taken many of Spain’s town halls in this quiet revolution. But before getting down to business they need to find a computer that works.
Acknowledgment: with sincere thanks to Ramón Feenstra and to the very many activists of the various initiatives and parties mentioned above in Castellon, Madrid and Seville who agreed to be interviewed. Muchas Gracias.
Read Simon Tormey’s previous article in this series about European movements and the end of “representative” politics here.
His new book, The End of Representative Politics, is available from Polity and Wiley.