“No one represents us”: the 15 May movement in the Spanish state

Issue: 132

Andy Durgan and Joel Sans

On 15 May 2011 thousands of people, mainly young, demonstrated all over the Spanish state under the slogans “For real democracy now” and “We are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers”. The demonstrations explicitly rejected the participation of political parties or trade unions. A month later, on 19 June, over 1 million marched in around 50 different cities and towns, mobilised by what now was known as the “15 May Movement” (15-M) or the indignados. In the four weeks after the 15 May protest tens of thousands had been involved in camps and mass assemblies. The supposed passivity and lack of commitment of youth disappeared overnight. Above all the emergence of the 15-M shows how quickly the situation can radicalise in the context of deepening crisis. To understand how such an explosion has been possible it is necessary to look both at the effects of the crisis and the peculiarities of the Spanish left and trade union movement.

The economic crisis has hit Spain hard. The country’s apparent prosperity since the 1990s was centred on construction and dependent on cheap credit until this came to an abrupt end in 2008. Among the EU15 countries (the core of the “old” European Union before the accession of ten mainly Central and Eastern European states in 2008), Spain already had the highest percentage of temporary contracts and unemployment combined with some of the lowest wages and social expenditure. Unemployment now stands at nearly 5 million people—around 21 percent of the active population—of whom many receive no benefits. Among those under 25 unemployment affects nearly 44 percent, compared with an already high 20 percent in the eurozone as a whole. And those young people who do work are usually hired on short-term contracts and very low wages. Things are made worse by the near complete absence of affordable accommodation, forcing most young people to live with their parents.

The rejection of political organisations by the 15-M reflects the alienation of large sections of the population, particularly the young, from the political system and its representatives. This is understandable, given not only the level of attacks on ordinary people but also the corruption and hypocrisy that can be found in much of institutional politics. However, this does not mean there is less interest in “politics” than elsewhere in Europe. For instance participation in general elections (over 70 percent) is higher than in Britain.

Disillusion with the ruling Socialist Party (PSOE) is particularly deep. Massive attacks on working class living standards and rights at work have undermined the party’s support and let in the right in the recent local elections. The main electoral alternative on the left, the Communist Party-led Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left), has hardly benefited from the PSOE’s decline and its share of the vote, apart from a small increase in the recent local elections, has steadily declined since the mid-1990 from 10.5 percent in 1996 to only 3.7 in 2008. The reasons for this are diverse. The electoral system, although proportional, is heavily weighted in favour of the two main parties and some voters feel a vote for the IU is “wasted”. More importantly, IU, despite its left wing rhetoric, has been unable to present itself as a credible alternative due to its tendency to tail-end the Socialist Party or, in some cases, participate in regional and local government with them applying neoliberal policies. To the left of the IU only in the Basque Country and, to a lesser extent, in Catalonia is there a serious electoral alternative in the form of radical left nationalism. The anti-capitalist left is fragmented and weak in comparison with its counterparts in France, Greece, Portugal or Britain.

Nor do the trade unions inspire much confidence. Few workers are members of unions (around 15 percent of the workforce). Rather than dues paid, unions are principally financed on the basis receiving state subsidies dependent on of the number of delegates elected in the workplaces. The fact that all workers vote in these elections, whether union members or not, means many do not see the need to join a union as such. Not even having to depend on their members’ dues has made the former Communist-led CCOO (Workers’ Commissions) and the Socialist UGT—which control over 85 percent of workplace delegates—particularly top-heavy. Only large workplaces and the public sector systematically elect representatives so young people are unlikely to come across unions in part-time and precarious jobs. This compounds the distance between youth and a bureaucratic structure that appears to spend most of its time making pacts with the government and employers at the workers’ expense. It should be added, however, that with a similar union representation system and even fewer members, the French trade union movement has a far better record when it comes to mobilising in defence of workers’ interests. Thus when explaining the specific weaknesses of the Spanish trade unions, the limitations of the left have also to be taken into account.

The PSOE government’s reaction to the crisis was state intervention to save banks and injections of cash in an unsuccessful attempt to revive the economy which meant the negative effects of the crisis passed from the private to the public sector. The deficit then spiralled to over 10 percent. As the EU only allows a deficit of 3 percent there was soon enormous pressure to reduce public spending. Prime minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero subsequently imposed a 5 percent wage cut for all public sector workers and in early 2010 announced a far-ranging austerity package.

In response to these attacks the unions called a one-day general strike on 29 September 2010. Over 5 million workers struck and hundreds of thousands demonstrated, fewer than the previous general strike in 2002 but a real achievement given the effects of unemployment on workers’ confidence. However, rather than take advantage of this mobilisation to intensify the struggle against austerity, the union leadership opted to negotiate with the government. The result, only four months later, was a pact that raised retirement to 67 over the coming years and a labour “reform” that made it easier to sack in exchange for a few minor concessions. Since then the CCOO and the UGT have embarked on negotiations over collective bargaining now from a position of weakness, the end result of which will probably be to undermine workers’ ability to defend themselves even further.

Politically non-aligned mass movements are not new in the Spanish state. For instance, in March 2002, coinciding with an EU summit, a claimed 500,000 people were mobilised in Barcelona against “Capital and War” mostly by an ad hoc committee made up of activists from social movements and autonomous collectives. Then in 2006 V de Vivienda emerged after a campaign of text messages led to demonstrations over the high cost of housing. Like the 15-M this campaign was based on youth and declared itself “apolitical”. But the level of class struggle remained low, certainly if compared with France or Greece. The general strike apart, mobilisations by late 2010 were in general small and reduced to the radical left rump. No one expected what was about to happen.

The movement takes off

Like most mass movements, the 15-M was not “spontaneous” but emerged as the culmination of a series of events. The whole experience of the mobilisations of 2002-4 against the Iraq war and the right wing Partido Popular (PP) government was a starting point for many participants. Similarly, V de Vivienda and the student protests of 2008-9 against the Bologna Plan1 provided a nucleus of experienced young activists who would be central to the 15-M. The general strike of 29 September 2010 saw the involvement of a layer of youth outside the majority union structures in local assemblies that organised pickets and direct action. Platforms against the cuts continued to exist in some localities after the strike, mainly sustained by the anti-capitalist left. This positive experience of unity, especially in Barcelona, also fed into the 15-M.

Other contributory factors were the publication of the much heralded short book by veteran French activist Stéphane Hessel Indignezvous! at the end of 2010 and the “Sinde Law” (associated with the minister for culture Ángeles González-Sinde) passed in January 2011 with the aim of stopping illegal internet downloads. More importantly, the Arab revolutions encouraged the belief that a fightback was possible. The occupation of Tahrir Square became a particularly inspirational example of resistance. Then in March a “Precarious Youth” appeal was launched on the internet in Portugal and this led to an extraordinary demonstration of 250,000 people in Lisbon. This mobilisation inspired the setting up in Madrid of the youth movement Jóvenes Sin Futuro (Youth Without a Future) which organised a 5,000-strong demonstration for 7 April through social networks under the slogan “Without a job, without a home, without a pension: without fear”.

Meanwhile sweeping cuts in social spending first by the PP regional government in Murcia and then by the recently-elected right wing Catalan government provoked an upsurge of resistance by workers. In the Catalan case protests turned out to be much bigger than expected with hospital workers ignoring union leaders and blocking roads, causing chaos in Barcelona. Subsequent weeks saw regular protests and marches more or less independent of the main unions. When the CCOO and UGT called a token protest outside the Catalan government headquarters on 14 April 20,000 turned up. Then on 14 May over 50,000 marched against the cuts through Barcelona.

The success of the 7 April protest inspired the Jóvenes Sin Futuro to call further demonstrations for 15 May in alliance with the “Democracia Real Ya” (Real Democracy Now, DRY) group. The latter’s programme centred on the need for electoral reform aimed at eliminating corruption in politics and increasing citizen participation. 15 May was chosen to coincide with the run-up to the local elections of 22 May. Like the 7 April protest, the 15 May demonstrations were bigger than anyone expected (20,000 in Madrid, 15,000 in Barcelona…).

The following day there was a small occupation of the central Puerta del Sol in protests over arrests on the Madrid demonstration. When the participants were violently evicted by the police, hundreds responded to calls for solidarity and the first camp was established. By the end of the week there were an estimated 120 such camps round the country. Daily mass assemblies ran the camps, with decisions, in most cases, being taken on the basis of consensus. Commissions were established to organise everything from food, medical assistance and cleaning through to legal advice, the spreading of the movement and the drawing up of demands. The numbers involved were far greater than any previous local assemblies or platforms: in Barcelona and Madrid there were meetings of over 10,000. The international situation weighed heavily on the camps. An Egyptian flag flew over the Madrid camp, while in Barcelona the Plaça Catalunya was divided into three areas: “Iceland”, “Palestine” and “Tahrir”. Greek flags would become common on protests.

The reaction of the political establishment has been mixed. The PSOE opted for a low-key approach, perhaps hoping not to aggravate further a situation in which they were widely expected to lose the local elections on 22 May. Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, who will head the party’s electoral lists in November, has since gone further, speaking of the need for electoral reform and higher taxes. The right first saw the movement as helping them, assuming that it was based on potential voters of the left who would now abstain. However, this benevolence changed when the dimension of the movement and its clear critique of the existing political and economic system became clear. The PP was soon calling for the movement to be repressed.

The first challenge to the movement came when the central electoral board ruled that the camps would have to disband before Saturday 21 May as they were deemed as interfering with the electoral process. By midnight on 20 May tens of thousands had congregated in the squares where the camps had been set up. The authorities were incapable of carrying out their ban. This victory further strengthened the movement; according to opinion polls it was now supported by up to 80 percent of the population.2 The right’s victory on 22 May failed either to weaken the movement or to demoralise those sections of the left enthused by the 15-M. The movement had also become international with pickets of Spanish embassies and other protests organised mainly by Spanish youth living abroad. Most significantly, similar camps were now established in Greece.

While the Madrid camp attracted most media attention, it was in Barcelona that the movement most directly challenged the authorities. Early morning 27 May the riot police began to evict the hundreds of mainly young people camped in the Plaça Catalunya with the excuse that the square needed to be “cleaned” and “dangerous material” removed in advance of the Champions League Final the following day. The people in the square tried to resist peacefully but were attacked by the police. As the morning went on, hundreds of youth gathered around the square eventually retaking it. The effect of this victory was electrifying both in Barcelona and the rest of the state. That evening, at least 20,000 people gathered in and around the square in support of the camp and to participate, even if just passively, in a memorable and emotionally-charged mass assembly.

Meanwhile activities were increasingly being organised away from the camps. In particular activists from the 15-M were mobilised to stop the increasing number of evictions due to unpaid mortgages. Where initiatives were taken to link with workers in struggle or organise protests in working class neighbourhoods or outside unemployment exchanges the response was excellent. In Barcelona marches by hospital workers, teachers and firefighters all ended at the central camp; 24-hour camps were set up outside five different hospitals in Barcelona on the eve of the by-now weekly protests against cuts. There were also lively protests outside town halls when the new local governments were inaugurated.

By early June it was widely accepted that the camps could not sustain themselves indefinitely. More importantly, the majority of activists had been won to the argument that the 15-M needed to embed itself in the neighbourhoods, away from the city centres, so most camps were disbanded.

The next great test came on 15 June when the Barcelona movement encircled the park where the Catalan parliament is located to prevent MPs from entering and thus vote in favour of a drastic 16 percent reduction in public spending—4,000 protesters obstructed most entrances and forced the Catalan president and other ministers to arrive by helicopter. Other MPs had to run the gauntlet of taunting demonstrators; most opted to slip in through the back door of the nearby zoo. A number of minor incidents, some provoked by plainclothes policemen, were subsequently blown out of all proportion by both the Catalan government and the media to try and criminalise the movement.

Outraged by the attempted blockade, all parties (left and right) signed a motion denouncing this “assault on democracy”. Everyone from the liberal left press through to the rabid right now announced the end of the movement whose supposedly peaceful methods had been exposed as a front for violent extremism. But on 19 June the movement showed in the most dramatic fashion how it was far from divided, let alone finished. At least 1 million demonstrated, including over 200,000 in Barcelona.3

Politics and class

Young people make up the overwhelming majority of the activists of the 15-M. The core activists tend to be university or ex-university students, often unemployed or under-employed, in their mid to late twenties. However, the movement is much broader than just this sector. Claims that it is “middle class”, apart from misunderstanding class as such, ignore the fact that most of the youth involved have little hope of finding anything but badly paid temporary jobs.

Talk of what some autonomists refer to as a “precariat” does not help locate the class basis of the movement either. The relationship with the core working class is fluid. Apart from the high level of unemployment, 67 percent of young people who work do so with temporary contracts (by far the highest in Europe) but they do not live in a vacuum. The support the movement receives and those present on the demonstrations represent a broad spectrum of working people. In both Madrid and Barcelona the largest columns that arrived in the centre of both cities on 19 June were from out-lying working class districts. This in turn is a reflection of the move of the 15-M to the neighbourhoods and the links made with workplaces.

What should be discounted is the idea—defended by some of those involved and by sectors of the media—that the movement is “apolitical” and therefore “neither left nor right”. The reality is that the movement is deeply political if we understand “political” as referring to the struggle to change the balance of power in our everyday lives. A significant minority of participants, 38 percent, describe the movement as representing a “break” with the present system; this rises to 43 percent among those involved in the organising commissions. The rest preferred the term “reformist”. Even the most cursory glimpse at the demands raised by the 15-M shows its left wing credentials.4

Autonomist ideas dominate the 15-M. The rejection of “parties”, insistence on self-organisation and consensus-based democracy are commonplace, as is the elevation of the role to the internet has having generated a “new social legitimacy”.5 At a very general level there are three trends reflected in the movement, albeit in no way mutually exclusive. The majority trend, especially among the activists, is broadly anti-capitalist as reflected in the slogans on demonstrations and the demands emerging from the camps and assemblies. There is also a more hard-line autonomist tendency that saw the camps as an end in themselves and, in the case of both Barcelona and Madrid, ignored the majority decision to wind them up and move into the neighbourhoods. This tendency is strong among sectors of the squatter movement, a minority of newer activists and the homeless who gravitated towards the larger camps as the movement developed. A third tendency can be identified as centring more on electoral reform; this is the case of the DRY and is most evident in Madrid.

The DRY calls for an “ethical revolution” and proposes the suppression of parliamentary privileges, a society based on equality, “free access to culture”, environmental sustainability and “the welfare and happiness of all”. More specific demands coming out of the Puerta del Sol camp include: cancellation of all bailouts to banks and financial institutions; higher taxes for the rich; taxing of speculative transactions; rejection of privatisation; defence of quality public health, education and transport services; revision of labour legislation favourable to the bosses; sharing of work and maintenance of salaries and pensions.6

The Barcelona camp was generally considered more radical than its Madrid counterpart and its first programme announced that it was “completely changing the world”. Its list of “minimum demands” included: nationalisation of the banks under “social control”; withdrawal of the Immigration Law; participatory budgets to be approved by citizens; obligatory and binding referendums for issues of “great magnitude” (including EU directives); and that the economy should be at “the service of the people”.7 All these general demands were accompanied by more detailed measures, as was the case with similar programmes emerging from other camps.

At the centre of the 15-M’s demands is the call for “real democracy”. Quite rightly the movement continually draws attention to the fact that the PP “won” the local elections with the support of just 23 percent of the electorate (37 percent of the vote). The capitulation of the PSOE before the demands of the “markets” makes a mockery of their insistence that the only democracy possible is the liberal model. Real democracy does not just mean the end of corruption and privilege but the ability of ordinary people to control their representatives and to intervene in the daily running of society. Despite what some activists appear to believe, no such democracy exists. “Real democracy” has only existed on a large scale, albeit briefly, in the Paris Commune of 1871, the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Spanish Revolution of 1936 and at other moments of revolutionary upheaval.

The struggle goes on

The conditions that led to the emergence of the 15-M are likely to worsen. Even after the government’s onslaught on the public sector and workers’ living standards, the deficit of 2010 stood at 9.2 percent, only two decimals below that of 2009. However, it has to be reduced to 3 percent by 2013. In this context, and with its support plummeting, the PSOE has brought the general election forward to 20 November. This could well lead to a PP government that will impose more austerity and be even more unlikely to make concessions to the 15-M or the trade unions.

All the indications are that the movement, in turn, is extremely buoyant. Its activities have multiplied during the summer. On 23 July five marches from all over the country converged on Madrid. The following day thousands demonstrated with the slogan “It’s not a crisis—it’s the system”. So the central question is whether the 15-M can both maintain itself and win any of its demands. This poses the question as to how these demands can be won and which social agency could achieve this.

For the movement to move forward it needs a strategy that puts pressure on the state and centres of economic power. This means a campaign of civil disobedience that disrupts the functioning of the system: targeting financial institutions and the main political parties. In this context the insistence on peaceful resistance when confronted with the police has won the 15-M wide support. But there is a danger that the movement has become too defensive over the question of “violence” (for instance after the attempted blockade of the Catalan parliament) so it is important to insist that those responsible for any violence are the state and its security forces. More to the point: what is “violence” if not being jobless and homeless, the closing of hospitals or the degradation of the environment for the sake of profit?

Moving forward also means developing a programme or list of demands that are as uniform and as precise as such a multiform moment can allow. Such programmes are in place in most assemblies but, as far as it is feasible, certain demands should be pushed to the fore. It is essential, for example, to insist on the cancellation of the debt, the return of the money given to the banks and not only no cuts but the restoration of those already made.

For the movement’s demands to be won, civil disobedience alone is not sufficient. The move into the neighbourhoods and the growing orientation towards the workplaces could thus prove decisive because they open the real possibility of rooting the movement in the working class.8 The 19 June demonstrations also represented a clear turn towards such an orientation. By demonstrating specifically against the Euro Pact, “a project…designed to finish with what is left of the welfare state in Europe”, the movement had moved decisively beyond just questioning the legitimacy of the main political parties at the polls.9 The anti-capitalist left has been at the forefront of defending such an orientation as it has with the call for a general strike—now a central slogan of most protests.

On the face of it, the demand for a general strike without trade union support has no chance of going beyond at best propaganda or at worst an ultra-left stunt. However, given the dynamics of the movement and its mass base such a call is not far-fetched. Moreover it opens up the whole question of both agency and forms of organisation. Many activists have accepted in principle that such a stoppage will be impossible without organised workers; a general strike “without unions” is clearly absurd. But the type of generalised stoppage that is called for would have to be very different from the top-down bureaucratic one-day general strikes that have been organised in the past. The need to involve masses of people, many of them young, in such a protest means that local assemblies and other forms of organisation outside the workplace would have to play a key role in supporting the strike and making sure it spread. This way the 15-M could be drawn into such action and at the same time link the movement very concretely with the workplaces.

The leaderships of the main trade unions have, so far, rejected calling another general strike. This is due as much to their innate conservatism as to their fear of not controlling a mobilisation with the 15-M as protagonists. Fear of damaging the PSOE’s chances in the forthcoming elections, despite all their supposed anger with this party’s record, is another reason for their caution. However, such is the opposition to austerity and support for the 15-M that there is real pressure building up on the bureaucracy to act. Thus it is necessary to get rank and file members and local organisations of the CCOO and UGT to demand such a stoppage—something that is now happening.

The potential of the movement to inspire workers’ organisation from below is very real. An assembly of teachers in Madrid in late July, for instance, attracted nearly a thousand people despite the fact that the holidays had started. The militant atmosphere was clearly influenced by the 15-M and it was proposed to start the next academic year with a strike against cuts.10

While the call for a general strike provides a focus for the movement and would mean a massive step forward in terms of taking on the government, it cannot become a panacea. It is important that the 15-M continues to organise other forms of action. In this sense the growing campaign against evictions is a very visible and effective way of combating the effects of the crisis, as are the camps outside hospitals threatened with cuts or closure.11 The increasing use of the riot police to impose evictions can only radicalise the movement further, especially given that this involves violent attacks on local people supporting neighbours. Likewise actions like those in the Madrid neighbourhood of Lavapies that have stopped police raids on immigrants need to be generalised. Above all, the call for a “worldwide” demonstration against austerity and for real democracy on 15 October will provide the movement with an important focus to mobilise around.

Finally, the question of political leadership will also need to be posed even in a movement supposedly without any “leaders”. It is essential here firstly to clarify what is meant by “political” and by “leadership”. The idea that “politics” is alien to the masses and only serves the system has an important historical precedent in Spain in anarchism. The experience of the revolution of 1931 to 1937 is replete with lessons for anyone claiming that it is possible to be above “politics”: from the disastrous insurrectionary policy and electoral abstention defended by the anarchists prior to the civil war through to the leaders of the “apolitical” CNT12 collaborating with the rebuilding of the bourgeois state in 1936. It was not “leadership” but the “politics” of this leadership that led to defeat. “Leadership”, in the case of the 15-M, exists through the democratic decisions of assemblies, the proposals of the organising commissions, specific collectives inside the movement or individuals.

The loss of credibility of both parties and unions is such that there has emerged the idea that if you go on demonstrations with organisations’ banners present then you were being forcibly “represented” by someone out of your control. So while the union-led demonstration in Barcelona on 14 May brought out onto the streets an impressive 50,000 people, the 19 June demo called by the 15-M with similar demands, but without direct involvement of the union or main left parties, had the support of five times that number but was far more militant. Among those on the demo was the base of the very left parties and unions being disowned with chants of “No one represents us!” It is a paradox that the anti-capitalist left have to come to terms with.

Organised revolutionaries thus have to find the way to intervene in a constructive way in a movement which appears hostile to them. This means being open about our ideas while not becoming fixated on the visual presence of a set of initials. It means combining hard work in favour of the movement with independent interventions (distribution and sale of material, the organising of public meetings and discussions…), without encroaching on the movement’s structures and methods.

Leadership thus means trying to shape the movement, not manipulate it, through argument and proposals, to shape it in the sense of raising the central question of what is the agent of social change, that the precarious are not somehow separate from the working class. The 15-M’s demands for no more support for the banks, the defence of public services and making the rich pay for their crisis pose the need to take on the system in its entirety. The prolongation of the crisis and threat from the right means that the situation remains explosive.


1: Aimed at unifying university education in Europe and making it more market-oriented.

2: This has since “dropped” to around 65 percent.

3: For a list of demonstrations see www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=25201

4: When questioned about political self-identity, on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being “extreme left”, the average was 2.84 among 15-M supporters compared with 4.56 for the population as a whole in 2008 – Público, 17 July 2011.

5: Requena, 2011, pp41-42.

6: Taibo, 2011, p42.

7: Viejo, 2011, pp58-65.

8: Sans, 2011.

9: Pastor, 2011.

10: Robson, 2011.

11: Simón, 2011.

12: Anarcho-syndicalist trade union.


Pastor, Jaime, 2011, “El ‘Estado de Rebelión’ Llegó para Quedarse”, Viento Sur, number 115.

Requena, An, and others, 2011, Las Voces del 15-_M_ (Los libros del lince).

Robson, Sam, 2011, “Defensa de la Educación Pública en Madrid: ‘Este año el curso no empieza’”, www.enlucha.org/site/?q=node/16260

Sans, Joel, 2011, “De la Indignación a la Revolución: Los Retos de un Nuevo Movimiento”, www.enlucha.org/site/?q=node/16057

Simón, Óscar, 2011, “Las Victorias del #15M”, www.enlucha.org/site/?q=node/16250

Taibo, Carlos, 2011, Nada Será Como Antes. Sobre el Movimiento 15-_M_ (Catarata).

Viejo, Raimundo (ed), 2011, Les Raons dels Indignats (Pòrtic).