Where are the ‘indignados’ going?

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Translation of an article by Manuel Castells, originally published in La Vanguardia, 21st January 2012.

The indignados movement that burst forth in 2011 in Spain, Europe and the United States is a breath of fresh air in a world that smells rotten. They set out in social networks and in acampadas what many people think: that it was banks and governments who created the crisis and it is the people who suffer as a result, that politicians only represent themselves, that the mass media represent vested interests and that there are no channels for social protest to translate into real changes because in politics everything is nailed down securely so that those who always pay keep on paying, and those who reap the rewards do the same. This is why for months tens of thousands of people participated in assemblies and demonstrations and this is why the majority of the citizens (up to 73% in Spain) shared their criticisms. And all this in a peaceful way, except the violence that resulted from wild police baton charges, which have led to those responsible being brought before the courts. The movement had the maturity to lift the acampadas when it sensed that the occupations were stewing in their own juices and the daily assemblies where only getting attended by activists.

But the movement did not disappear; rather it spread out into the social fabric, with neighbourhood assemblies, defensive actions against injustices, such as opposition to evictions of families, and the spreading of alternative economic practices such as consumer co-operatives, ethical banking, exchange networks and many other such forms of living differently so as to live with meaning.

Even so, the media, police and political harassment suffered by the movement, which at one state managed to frighten ruling elites because of its possibility of contagion, has managed to create the impression that the movement has remained confined to a few young idealists or a few hotheads. Best to close ranks and wait until they get tired. The left parties thought about fishing in troubled waters in order to replenish their dwindling stocks, but they gave up when they saw that the new rebels already have it clear in their minds that the change they are struggling for does not lie in that direction. Despite the hostility of the powers that be, the movement has continued, it has maintained its deliberation in assemblies, commissions and over the internet, and it still enjoys popular support whenever concrete initiatives arise where the groundwork of those who do not resign themselves to everything staying the same comes to the surface.

Even so, the determination to create new forms of transformative action without formal leadership and without bureaucratic organisations brings with it considerable difficulties for the development of the movement. In one sense, it did not make sense to reach this point in order to go back to reproducing a model of activism that has already failed repeatedly. In another, what is essential is a link, between the deliberation and action within the movement and the connection to the 99% that the movement seeks to represent. Seeking out new paths, there is a deep debate in the 15-M about how to simultaneously maintain action and the creation of new forms of organisation and the elaboration of the strategy of the movement itself. On December 19th past, after an assembly discussion, the Madrid Puerta del Sol Commission for International Outreach decided to suspend its activity and declared itself on indefinite active reflection. “The public space we had rediscovered has been replaced once again by a sum of private spaces…The success of the movement depends on us being the 99% once again. Although we do not have the answer to what has to come next, what shape the restart we need can take, we understand that the first step for escaping from the wrong dynamic is to break with it: to stop, hold back, and get perspective”, went the argument.

Although this attitude does not necessarily reflect how other assemblies and commissions of 15-M might feel, it is significant because it gives evidence of the capacity for auto-critique and self-reflexiveness that characterises this movement. It is only in this way that one might build a new process of change that does not cast aside its goals of real democracy in the forms of its existence. Because where one ends up depends on the methods used to get there, whatever the intentions might be. If the question is how to connect with the 99%, how does that connection operate? What is essential in every social movement is people’s mental transformation. Being able to imagine other ways of life, breaking with the subordination to media manipulation, the feeling that many others think the same way you do, and the losing the fear in setting out one’s rights and one’s opinions. In this sense, there are multiple indications that people are changing, that the 15-M made the outrage visible and fed hope, and although there might be less participation in the activist assemblies, many people within their sphere are occupying their everyday space and trying to seek out links with other similar experiences. It is clear to them that change does not come via elections such as these. The triumph of the PP, magnified by an electoral law that is not representative of the vote, was nothing of the sort (400,000 votes more than in 2008) but a debacle for the socialists which exemplifies how weary people are with the supposed representatives of the interests of the people below. And it is also clear to them that the crisis is getting worse and no-one knows how to handle it. Faced with this, people are looking for their own solutions. By relying on networks of solidarity that are ever more numerous. And supporting protest actions wherever these might arise. This mental transformation and these multiple everyday changes can be activated on far wider levels, in ways that are yet to be discovered, as normality breaks down. It is not a matter of the old communist myth of the sudden collapse of capitalism, but rather of knowing that the European economy is sinking into recession, that the social safety net is shrinking, that politicians are digging in and that the citizens are still outraged and they are ever more conscious.

The 15-M exists in that consciousness. And like water, it will go about finding its own paths until it becomes a torrent as the situation becomes critical. Fortunately so, because the alternative to this peaceful protest is a violent and destructive explosion.