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The left at the abyss of democracy

Between 11-M 2004 and 15-M 2011

Marcelo Expósito, Tomás Herreros and Emmanuel Rodríguez (Universidad Nómada)

Written on Thrusday, May 19, 2011

6 min leestijd
Placeholder image

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 streets”. Crowds of people took over public spaces in
decentralized and spontaneous demonstrations, demanding to know the
truth. This was the 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. Let say it clearly, 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!” (Democracia Real Ya) 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 Spain (Sunday, May 22), in the midst of a lamentable
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 current tension between
social powers and counter-powers was the actual condition of
possibility of his victory, perhaps he would have tackled the economic
crisis in a substantially different way. Perhaps he would have done
something different from negociating with economic and
supra-institutional powers such a set of undesirable measures––cuts
designed to foreclose any hope in our future—in order to wait until
the last minute to look back at his voters, trumping everything on the
fear of the right. Those who Zapatero failed to govern with, social
counterpowers, the potency for democratic mobilisation that is always
latent in society, have regained their shape to say ya basta!, this is

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 coming out 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
Movimiento 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 the 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.