Since global capitalism plunged into existential crisis in 2008, workers, students, pensioners, and other vulnerable segments of society have mounted mass protests in the face of a grinding neoliberal policy offensive that has hiked tuition, privatized services, dismantled labor rights, and slashed wages and benefits. The millions who protested from Lisbon to Athens, London to Wisconsin, and countless other places were for the most part ignored. The defeat of these protests has real consequences, however, and it has taken a rising toll with each passing day. Tens of thousands in Spain are still being evicted from their homes each year, record unemployment in Southern Europe has left behind a permanent, swelling underclass, and a generation struggles with choosing between dependence on their parents well into their late 20s or early 30s, or exile to another country in search of work that may or may not sustain them.
With the mass street protests largely exhausted, global stock markets euphorically rallying to record highs, and profits and income gains being registered by the most privileged sectors of society, politicians who’ve governed since the crash are desperately trying to cash in politically on this unbalanced recovery. The risk is if this triumphalism ruptures the bitter resignation of much of the public who saw little alternative but to trust the narrative that the measures are temporary, and that contesting them would only heighten the state of emergency. This narrative is already being walked back by Portuguese prime minister Passos Coelho, who has acknowledge that levels of pay and benefits won’t return to pre-crisis levels, and instead, effort will be put to making pay cuts permanent.
We have found ourselves in an age when social-democracy has no policies or political aspiration. Europe’s socialist parties can do no better than promise to carry out austerity with less enthusiasm than their center-right rivals. The state of Europe’s center left is so bad they look on with envy across the Atlantic at Obama’s policies like healthcare reform. What a sad state of affairs when the most half-hearted, business friendly attempt at reforming the U.S. healthcare system makes the U.S. Democratic Party the standard-bearer of social democracy across the globe.
Contesting the ideological bankruptcy of the dominant political parties is left to those same social movements that suffered repeated failures in their goals of altering the crisis policies of center-left and center-right governments. Failure isn’t the same thing as being wrong, though. The critique of the movements that occupied Puerta del Sol in Madrid or Syntagma Square in Athens still have a better analysis of current state of affairs than any parliamentary force. The system may not have failed and come crashing down as authorities warned but it still failed the poor and working class, leaving older generations with reduced wages or pensions, and condemning the young to precarious work, exile or both.
In Spain, there are positive indications that the collectives, platforms, and social movements that rallied huge protests in 2011 and 2012 are reemerging with new, contentious politics; contentious politics that not only object to the political ambitions of the two dominant political parties, but to offer their own political ambitious to rectify the injustices in Spain. For the past week, Marches of Dignity have set off from each end of the Spanish state, marching dozens, even hundreds of kilometers to reach Madrid by Saturday. The Marches of Dignity brought together some 300 collectives, from anti-foreclosure groups, to the most left-wing unions, as well as platforms by indignados that previously carried out separate mobilizations.
What stands out about this mobilization is that it managed to bring these platforms, unions, and collectives behind a shared set of demands: bread, housing, dignified employment, and a basic income. It’s a set of aspirations that is essential to breaking widespread resignation and giving protesters an objective to tirelessly strive for. It’s insufficient and undesirable to return to the state of affairs before austerity. Society was broken and unjust before austerity and that can’t be forgotten. Instead, these aspirations not only reverse the misery brought by austerity but pursues an egalitarian society to replace the current one.
Of course, coalescing around a set of political objectives is just one of the corrections demanded of the movement. The other correction is one of tactics and this is less clearly a matter of consensus. This past January a popular revolt in a working class neighborhood of Burgos, Spain challenged excessive ideological attachments to pacifism. The neighborhood of Gamonal had for months petitioned and marched against plans by the mayor for a boulevard and parking lot in their neighborhood, spending millions of euros on the project while thousands there are without jobs and while social services are shuttered. Their protests ignored, in January residents took the direct action of blocking work on the boulevard which escalated into days of pitched battles between riot police and protesters.
The revolt in Gamonal was marked by widespread community solidarity. Arrests each night provoked hundreds to descend on police stations to demand their release. During skirmishes with police, protesters were sheltered by residents, ending in police storming into buildings to make snatch arrests. In the end, the boulevard plan was suspended, but the protests continued, demanding the unconditional release of all those arrested. The idea of the Gamonal Effect was born out of this revolt; that defiant, popular revolt had won and could be replicated.
The lesson to be taken out of this isn’t even that mounting barricades or lobbing stones at riot police is the most effective method. The lesson is that government and political systems that we consider unrepresentative can’t be lobbied or have their behavior altered by massively attended protest marches. Instead, they must be confronted and defied with a diversity of tactics where no single tactic is romanticized. In terms of Saturday’s March for Dignity in Madrid, for me it’s not about persuading the government to accept their demands but of inspiring the masses out of their resignation. The 1,700 riot police being deployed in Madrid to contain the protest suggest authorities are afraid that their recovery hasn’t won social peace, but reignited the conflict.