eipcp News
05 2011

The Left Against the Abyss of Democracy. Between 11-M 2004 and 15-M 2011

Translated by Yaiza Hernández Velázquez

Marcelo Expósito, Tomás Herrero and Emmanuel Rodríguez

Marcelo Expósito


Tomás Herreros


Emmanuel Rodríguez


Yaiza Hernández Velázquez (translation)


On March 11, 2004 ten simultaneous explosions blew up four trains in Madrid, killing almost 200 people, injuring nearly 2000 and spreading terror in the city. In the hours that followed, the Partido Popular government, led by president José María Aznar launched an exercise in mass confusion in order to politically capitalise on the pain. Meanwhile, mobile phones started to receive text messages: let’s meet in the street. Crowds of people took over public spaces in decentralized and spontaneous demonstrations, demanding to know the truth. This was May 13, the day before the elections, a day when political campaigning was not allowed. The following day, the majority of votes went to the PSOE candidate José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, giving him an unexpected victory. To put it another way, it was a social movement that put Zapatero in power. The newly elected president publicly promised: “I won’t let you down”. Let’s dwell on that image for a moment.

Sunday May 15, 2011. A march that has been organised on web-based social networks grows beyond all expectations: tens of thousands of people gather in sixty different Spanish cities under the common slogan “Real Democracy, Now!” behind which a whole constellation of statements are also brought into play “We are not commodities in the hands of bankers and politicians”, “They don’t represent us”. The marches generate such a sense of euphoria that hundreds of people occupy the main squares in their towns and cities, starting with the most emblematic one, the Puerta del Sol in Madrid. With just a few hours to go before the municipal and regional elections in Madrid, in the midst of a pathetic electoral campaign, the so-called Movimiento 15-M has restored the meaning of the word “politics”. Let’s say this clearly, everything seems to indicate that president Zapatero will leave the Spanish government surrounded by a social movement that was triggered by a growing sense of outrage at the way he dealt with the economic crisis and has now turned into a demand that democracy is re-established on a different basis.

We propose a simple operation of montage: let’s put these two images together, these two social movements divorced from any political parties and spontaneously generated that signal the entry and exit points of a president on whom many progressive hopes were placed. What has happened in between these two images? What sense can be produced by contrasting them? How has that trust in the vote as a tool for change been replaced by the current rabid dissatisfaction?

The explanation lies in the fact that president Zapatero has ruined a historical opportunity: the conditions under which he was elected opened the possibility of a renewed political exercise that would take into account the potency of an organised society. However, he insisted in keeping to a civic republicanism whose progressivism could only go as far as understanding citizens as individual voters endowed with rights from above. This meant he misunderstood the complexity of a society where traditional systems of political representation and delegation of popular sovereignty through the vote have reached an irreversible crisis. Had he understood that the current tensions between social powers and counter-powers were the conditions of possibility of his victory, perhaps he would have tackled the economic crisis in a substantially different way. Perhaps he would not have negotiated with economic and supra-institutional powers such a set of undesirable measures––cuts designed to foreclose any hope in our future—he would not have waited until the last minute to look back at his voters, he would not have needed to trump everything on the fear of the right. Those who Zapatero failed to govern, social counterpowers, the potency for democratic mobilisation that is always latent in society, have regained their shape to say, this is enough!

Between the two images (2004-2011) there are seven years in which the street has been shaken up by a right that has become aware of the collapse of democratic representation and exploits it shamelessly, taking like a fish to water to corruptions and lies, turning the population against the same political institutions in which the right is thriving in, in order to benefit the most powerful and richest sectors of society, manipulating social dissatisfaction, promoting a civil war among those in the middle and those who are weaker than them. The left, has taken on board concepts like cuts, reforms or austerity in order to return to economic “normality”. But we have already seen that this crisis is, above all, a crisis of politics as we know it.

A crisis for which the parliamentary left bears an inexcusable responsibility, as it has been unable to reconceive effective mechanisms of the redistribution of income or new social rights. The left-centre governments of Catalunya, Galicia or the Balearic Islands as well as those of some major cities, have not attempted to think through other forms of democracy, other relations to the State or to the social body, they have not implemented any policies that depart from those written in the handbooks of territorial administration and management. All this despite the fact that their own window of opportunity for institutional management was opened thanks to the new cycles of movements and citizens’ campaigns that preceded the 13-M: the mobilisations against neoliberal globalisation and against the war, the Nunca Mais movement, and the local battles against the plundering of land and water.

It is in this context that the 15-M is validated: the time for delegating trust and accepting promises is over. Only a concrete wager, one that invents another ethics, another politics beyond nostalgia and resignation can push the left forward into its next cycle. New rights that take on board the productive capacities and wealth-generating potentials of urban interactions should be in its future programme. The task of reinventing democratic politics demands the support of new social struggles and conquests. Struggles by the poor and by new citizens. Struggles where poverty is constructed as a potency instead of scarcity. The open themes of urban mobilisations do not need to be fictionalised: they are already stated in the agenda of the movements and the citizens’ demands. The Manifesto of the 15-M puts it quite clearly “The priorities of any advanced society have to be equality, progress, solidarity, free access to culture, environmental sustainability, development, and the welfare and happiness of the people”.

A Charter of New Rights could be a way of reprogramming our welfare, a political and economical project that appeals to any party that declares itself a left-wing one. And yet, the formula for left-wing parties would never be to “represent” the people. Citizenship is today constituted as a tendency towards self-representation. Migrants, women, people affected by the mortgage crisis, by environmental destruction or by the degradation of public services, communities formed around singular lifestyles, social networks and a large etcetera of emerging clusters have found a way of speaking for themselves, without the mediation of outmoded institutional or representative apparatuses. It is now time for the institutional left to rehearse new proposals that accept the limits of its own ability to represent and to cooperate with social movements and new forms of aggregation emerging in new urban textures. They need to listen to the need for housing, the right to health and care, the recognition of the commons, the right to education and free movement. These are powerful demands that resonate like the subterranean clamour of new times to come, that are echoed in the daily practice of new ways of inhabiting the city. They are practical programmes and proposals put forward by a real movement that invalidates and leaves behind the current state of affairs, demanding that local governments stop submitting to economical and extra-democratic powers and devote themselves to serving the urgent needs that new social movements have already pointed to.