In the summer of 2011, hundreds of thousands of citizens throughout Spain took to the streets to protest government austerity measures. Street-protests turned into encampments, which spread into neighborhoods where neighborhood assemblies formed across the country. In a two-part interview, Stephen Roblin from Baltimore's Indypendent Reader asks David Marty, an activist and writer based in Spain, about the status of the movement and more. The focus of Part I is the evolution and future prospects of the “15M movement.” Part II changes course and focuses on the recently launched revolutionary organization, International Organization for a Participatory Society (IOPS).
Part I. The State of 15M
What is the current state of 15M?
Well, the 15M right now is focusing on a 3-day protest between May 12th and May 15th to both celebrate its first anniversary and also protest against the austerity measures that are now sinking social spending in Spain to a new low. The intention is to rebuild an encampment that would stay for three days as a sign of protest. Whether this encampment will stay passed May 15th is up to the people itself, but unfortunately also a function of the attitude of the police and authorities. The conservative government of Mariano Rajoy has already announced — through its Minister of Interior Jorge Fernandez Díaz –that such gatherings were “illegal” and that a bill was being drafted in the Parliament that would outlaw “passive resistance”, thereby criminalizing civil protests. This means, for example, that sitting down while holding a peace sign in a public square would be punished by up to 4 years in prison… This is a grave violation of freedom of speech of course. This protest will take place in just two weeks now and it is uncertain what will happen, although there is no doubt that the bigger the crowd the least likely it is that the police will act violently.
There are also other developments that are quite interesting in my view. The 15M is a big movement and there are many groups that are part of it, as you know. Democracia Real Ya ('Real Democracy Now' or DRY) was the group that called for the May 15th protest under the banner “we are no merchandise in the hands of bankers or politicians”. It seems that DRY is now moving to become an association with legal statutes. However the way this move was voted on is, to say the least, very controversial and is even leading the group to split in two: there are those who want the movement to become a more formal civil society group and the rest who consider this move to betray its principles. Some think it would allow the movement to move forward and push for bills in the Parliament (using article 87.3 of the Spanish Constitution), but others consider it a step closer toward institutionalizing the popular movement (which is seen negatively). The debate is currently ongoing as we speak, and from what I have gathered, there is also a controversy around the fact that consensus — defined by DRY as 75% of the votes — was not reached when voting on this decision (which passed with ‘only’ 53% in favour). Ironically, the defenders of this move to become an association (and even opponents) say it is just this consensus rule that was the cause of a paralysis within DRY. The whole thing seems to be a split between reformers and radicals, which in my view is an unnecessary division, but that would be another matter to discuss.
The other side of the 15M movement is, as you have mentioned, the assembly movement, one that is perhaps more in the vein of what we have seen in the US with the Occupy movement. As you said, the 15M led to an unprecedented movement that went from a temporary encampment on the main city squares all over the country to more permanent neighborhood assemblies that had the ambition to become new political bodies, able to take decisions over local and state affairs. But if the neighborhood assemblies were at first very popular, with time they lost most of the people that attended. Today the assemblies still exist but do not really count enough active members to represent an alternative political body (at least for now). But time and events have shown that whatever the current state of the assembly movement is, it cannot be related to any decrease in its outrage, or 'indignation', on the part of the Spanish citizenry. In fact, with the new Conservative government the situation has gotten a lot worse: unemployment is now above 26% and the economy is now entering its third recession since 2008. IMF projections, as optimistic as they usually are, do not foresee any improvements in the near future. This outcome is now more and more perceived by many here in Spain to be the result of policies rather than a natural disaster like Tsunamis. Seeing how well Argentina is doing today, ten years after rejecting austerity measures should encourage us to pursue a more independent route. Every protest is still met with huge crowds taking the streets — April 29th general strike was one of the biggest ones in Spanish history — leaving little doubt that indignation has not been tamed the least bit, even suggesting it might even be at its peak.
What positive developments have come out of 15M?
Ok, when I describe the latest developments of the 15M like I just did, you could think that the situation in Spain is that 'business is going back to usual', but nothing could be further from the truth. It may be true that the movement has not yet managed to transform its demands into a political reality but the fact is that the 15M has managed to create a spirit of activism and solidarity that seemed unrealistic to foresee even a day before the protest. (In my case even an hour before the 15M march I thought there would not be many people protesting.) The myth of individualism has been dissipated (for good?), people no longer feel they stand alone in their outrage. For instance, solidarity groups for home evictions following foreclosures are stronger than they ever were; co-ops are not only growing in numbers but in some cases they even developed the ambition to federate and create a network ; the unemployed (26% and still growing) are at last organizing and educating/training themselves on a number of issues ; people regularly take the streets to protest the government, the banks, the European Union, the IMF… The 15M has also succeeded in producing lots of papers, organizing talks and courses on economics, on necessary reforms, alternatives to capitalism, international affairs, feminism, racism, the environment, etc. Even if these changes in mentality take time to materialize into a political reality, civil society is already showing more solidarity and a humane face, which is very encouraging considering the challenges we are now facing.
In what ways has 15M fallen short?
I believe that maybe the movement has not yet managed to clearly define certain principles and rules that would allow decision-making to be more efficient and fair without violating self-management — meaning avoiding excessive bureaucracy or the tyranny of the minority under consensus. From what I have gathered, neither the neighborhood assemblies nor DRY have yet defined self-management — or “horizontality” as they say — in a way that allows them to proceed efficiently but with the assurance that relaxing certain rules will not lead to any situation where a small group takes all the decisions, which is sort of a recurrent nightmare of the movement. Ironically, it is precisely this absence of a clear definition of self-management that allows small groups to dominate assembly-like movements. According to a poll taken internally by the 15M a few months ago, this is exactly what has happened in most cases, where small groups of individuals abuse the consensus rule, consuming all the energy and patience of the majority, leading large groups of people to leave the assemblies. The result in the end, unfortunately, is assemblies where only a tiny group of people meet and discuss issues. Even though this has not happened everywhere, it is a pattern that is repeated often enough to exhaust the movement in the long run.
I think that in order to avoid this pattern our priority should be to have a real debate over what self-management ought to be. To me and the people at the International Organization for a Participatory Society (IOPS), self-management is understood as the distribution of decision-making power among individuals to a degree that corresponds to how much each person is affected by the given decision. From this simple principle one can imagine all sorts of algorithms for votation that would serve just that purpose. One can also easily see how difficult it might be, at times, to implement this notion, but that does not mean that we must not try, nor that this presents a difficulty that is any different from majority rule democracy, consensus, etc. Self-management, once its notion is clarified, would allow more flexibility and help us move out of this Democracia Real Ya-type of situation. Indeed, if some important decisions affects everyone a lot, then maybe consensus would make sense. However, other less consequential decisions that would only affect a few could sometimes be taken by a few without necessarily giving up on democracy or self-management. This may not be the only difficulty to overcome for our movement to achieve its goals, but it is what I would identify as one of the main ones.
You say consensus rule can lead a small group to dominate an assembly. Can you elaborate on this point?
Well, if you see that dominance of the few is a possible outcome when people gather in assemblies, but do not understand why exactly that ever happens, then you might end up being "on guard" 24/7 against this perceived danger, you might be afraid that anything less than consensus might ruin everything. This dynamic can, and often does, end up in some sort of collective paranoïa. If you remember in the early 80’s, before people got educated on AIDS, the fear of this disease was so big that it led some people to homeschool their children, to avoid public bathrooms, to stop sharing glasses with friends, etc., – making normal life effectively impossible. Hopefully that did not last long and very soon we all got educated on the causes of contagion. In this case fear of the unknown led to paranoïa and antisocial behaviour. In the case of assemblies, I would suggest that there was a little bit of that same dynamic of paranoïa at work. The assembly movement was so overcautious not to violate consensus that they barely allowed any individual to have any sort of initiative. This led to collective paranoïa and even paralysis.
Indeed, when the encampment at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid decided on whether or not they should leave on June 12th, they proceeded to vote on what seemed to be a no-brainer, everyone agreeing it was time to leave and create something more permanent in the neighborhoods. The encampment had fulfilled its role as a showcase for the protest, it was now time to leave. But to everyone’s surprise, a small group of individuals abused the consensus rule and systematically blocked the decision. Having said that consensus had to be reached on every decision, they had to allow a small minority to block this decision, no matter how badly affected everybody else was. Small shop owners who had seen their revenues decline for three weeks, neighbors who had helped with free material and food in spite of the nuisance caused by the encampment, protesters who volunteered to work there tirelessly day and night… All of them insisted it was time to move out of the Puerta del Sol and most agreed. But quite unnecessarily, the voting process took several days. In the last days, some of the neighbors and people living around the encampment withdrew their support. The 15M finally decided to move on but the damage was done. Consensus allowed a minority to impose their veto on the rest, no matter how little they were affected by the decision to move. Well, this is just a small example of how a small but active minority can block decisions. Now, if you extend this dynamic to a longer period you could understand why in many cases, local assemblies have been taken by small groups of highly politicized groups who ended up discouraging most participants.
This is not a case against consensus rule, rather it is a case in favor of self-management as distribution of decision-making power to the degree one is affected by a decision. Sometimes consensus makes senses, sometimes it does not. From here it is not up to any of us to dcide how to implement voting rules that would follow this principle. It is up to the assemblies, local chapters, co-op members, workers, participants, etc. to make up their own rules that fit this principle. But overcoming the definitional problem of self-management would be, in my view, a necessary improvement and a big step toward the type of social change we want.
Stephen Roblin is a Baltimore-based activist and writer. He is a member of the Indypendent Reader collective and the International Organization for a Participation Society (IOPS). He also teaches a bi-weekly writing workshop for Baltimore's new street paper, Word on the Street. Roblin's writing focuses on US foreign policy towards the Horn of Africa. He has written for ZNet, ZMagazine, Truthout, and other publications.