The 15M movement and Nonviolence
By Carlos Pérez Barranco
I imagine that the majority of us who participated in last Sunday’s demonstration on May 15th, believed that we were going to repeat the familiar experience of taking to the streets for a just cause, only to then go back home with the feeling of having participated in something necessary but in some way sterile.
However, this demonstration was different to the others that came before it. It started off as little more than a “self-arranged meeting” publicized weeks in advance on social networking sites by a widespread combination of people calling it “Real Democracy Now”. Unlike the demonstrations we are used to it was totally separate from the trade unions, or the usual organizations and movements that we see on the streets in protest and despite being entirely silenced by the corporate media channels, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in fifty Spanish cities just a week before the autonomous regional and municipal elections. Their message was a resistance against the privileging of money over people and the rejection of a political system which is unreservedly subjugated to the dictates of the economic elites and the global financial companies.
Furthermore we felt the difference in the presence of a vast majority of unknown faces and the absence of flags and political organisations’ acronyms, there was an entirely unprecedented energy and creativity rarely seen on the political protest scene in recent decades. There was a sense of a “breaking point” with the traditional means of protest and there was so much energy in this act that it inevitably changed into something which went beyond the original concept.
This is how widespread civil disobedience came about with the occupations of the squares, firstly in la Puerta del Sol, in Madrid, and in the following evenings in practically all of the Spanish cities up until the beginning of July. These camp outs were held until after the local elections, despite the explicit restrictions made by the electoral bodies.
The unexpected, unprecedented and organic eruption which escaped the radars of the main Spanish political actors, the “15M Movement” as it came to be known, (or that of the “indignados”, as they were trivially labelled by the media), is linked by an unbreakable red thread to other social action events in recent years.
Inspired by international events many people from 15M drew from the social revolts of the “Arab Spring” and from the Icelandic protests against the adjustment policies which their political elite were preparing. Further back in time, they also are linked to the emergence of a movement against economic globalisation and its use of the internet in order to coordinate and act on an international scale.
At a domestic level, the 15M is linked to the legitimisation of civil disobedience carried out by social movements, such as the refusal to carry out military service or that of occupations. It also has links with more recently developed protest acts which appropriated the internet, social networks and new technologies in order to mobilize vast numbers of people. The use of SMS on the eve of the 2004 general elections which led to tens of thousands of people congregating outside the headquarters of the Partido Popular calling for an end to Aznar’s government’s untruthful version of the Madrid attacks, stating that ETA was behind the violence, would be an example of this.
There was also the “V” movement for housing (Vivienda) of 2007, the student protest movement against the “Bologna Plan” of integration of Higher Education in European Space, and the electronic civil disobedience carried out by the “anonymous” internet groups against the so called “Sinde Law” which was supposed to close web-pages which exchange archives, thus stifling the free culture of the internet (this was a local scale imitation of the actions carried out against Paypal and Visa for the economic strangulation of Wikileaks).
The uprising/ emergence of 15M has marked the climax of ever increasing and widespread social malaise, especially due to the increasingly evident indifference of political elites in relation to the will of the majority and their subjugation to financial policies and the interests of the military superpowers (“Sinde law”, Spanish participation in the Libyan war, structural adjustment policies and cuts etc).
The majority of the analysis is in agreement on the fact that the 15M has become a political actor at the same level of parties and trade unions. Its appearance on the scene has put an end to decades of subjugation of the people opening the way for a new cycle of social protest and a change in paradigm regarding the role of society when faced with the harsh attacks carried out against the hard fought social and political rights.
But the importance of the 15M reached much further than this. The movement has shown, from the very start, great originality in relation to the traditional political organisations and even the previous social movements.
Firstly, the most obvious point is its strong diversity and multiplicity of voices, its contradictory nature. It couldn’t be any other way, given that it faithfully reflects the society in which it is strongly rooted. 15M has known how to use this multiplicity as one of its strengths, making it a source of great creative capacity and collective intelligence. This is partly thanks to the fact that it addressed concrete problems and didn’t get lost in debates or purely abstract ideological concepts.
Furthermore, the 15M movement has been a clear example of the potential of social self-organisation, maintaining its refusal to create links with any political party, trade union or other type of organisation. Even when members of these organisations became part of 15M from the beginning, there was a rejection within the movement of traditional political “labels”, this being at the heart of its foundations. Even if anarchists, communists, trade unionists or political parties, NGO members, feminists, environmentalists or people who were simply fed up with the way politics works, the movement still managed to create a new identity as “members of the 15M”.
Alongside this, the 15M has shown some characteristics which are influenced by anarchy, such as organisationally horizontal structure, inclusivity, the refusal to recognise charismatic leaders or to let oneself be represented by visible faces or famous characters. The ‘assembly structure’, which the movement has proudly shown as part of its identity, has been seen in the occupation camps, many times more with will than skill. Due to the lack of appropriate instruments available in the innumerable assemblies some meetings and working committees took place over several weeks or even months.
This blossoming of spaces for horizontal participation and direct democracy have been perhaps one of the most far reaching contributions, because they were practical spaces of socialisation and political training for many people who were, for the first time, getting into contact with a collective. Many had not trusted the pre-existing movements’ and organisations’ proposals up until this point.
Undoubtedly, one of the most fascinating and original features of the 15M movement is its ever changing character and the speed with which it changes, rendering obsolete the very structures which they have just created. The calling of “Real Democracy Now” in May, gave way to an “Occupy the Square” movement whereby occupation of public spaces in the form of camp outs took place, which tried to equip itself with general and central assemblies, thematic committees, which, within the space of a couple of weeks, then gave rise to decentralised assemblies, especially in the neighbourhoods of large cities and in villages. Currently, as well as having passed onto being a testimony to the global movement, from the global meeting on October 15th, and after having influenced the vast “Occupy” movement in the US, 15M seems to have now dedicated its efforts in concrete struggles such as the Network of the “Platform for those affected by Mortgages”, which, through direct non-violent action, attempts to support people who are so indebted that they are unable to pay the mortgage on their houses, so that they do not get evicted by the police. They are also involved in mobilisations against privatisation and cuts in education and health. Although there are many places where the movement seems to have entered a stage of lethargy, in several cities, such as Barcelona or Cadiz, occupation of abandoned buildings are taking place in order to re-house families who have been evicted from their houses by the banks.
All these changes of the movement are about dual nature. Not only is the 15M a crystallisation of the “real” world, which began to take shape through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, but it is this “virtual” face which has been the space for actions and consensus based training on organisation and action. The 15M is another example of how it is possible to colonize, re-appropriate and politicise instruments originally conceived for corporate means. It was about meeting, creating “clusters” and entering into dialogue, in a horizontal manner. This capacity to “retreat” to the social networks and build on from there, is one of its major strengths, and it has been used in order to destroy the criminalization campaigns launched by the corporate media and the political powers who have suffered, when they saw that their attempts at “domestication” and trivialisation were not yielding any results.
The nonviolent blocking of the entrances to the Catalan Parliament, where big cuts were to be made to the Catalan health budget is one such example. The criminalization campaign wanted to portray this as a totalitarian attack against the institutions and, in response, the movement circulated images of the police involved in the crowds where there was a clash with the anti-riot agents. The results of these criminalization campaigns were few and far between, given the increase in popular support for the movement, as a result of this particular action.
The 15 M movement is in this regard a “movement mark 2”. It is better adapted to the internet society in which we live, in comparison with the experiences of our previous struggles. Undoubtedly, this particular facet is one of the reasons why the movement has elicited such a deep misunderstanding and mistrust amongst some sectors of the traditional left and social movements whose attitudes towards 15M sway between arrogance, paternalism and condescension. In some cases this has even led to them coming up with conspiracy theories on the origins of the 15M.
Finally, one must also talk about one of the most important characteristics of the 15M’s identity, which is of particular interest to anti-militarists, pacifists and war resisters in general. It is the unconditional and explicit application of nonviolence, on the one hand and the almost obvious acceptance of civil disobedience as a legitimate and viable tool on the other. The nonviolence of the 15M has been unquestioningly accepted as part of the movement’s identity from the very start. Although this lack of debate may have had the disadvantage that the type of nonviolence used by the 15M is almost always simply “non-aggression” or even based on not creating “tense” situations on the streets.
This natural acceptance has meant that the predominance of nonviolence is quite superficial and has been trivialised. There is no other way of explaining why the movement hasn’t radically criticised the violence based institutions, for example, the police or the army. On these issues, the 15M has only reached mass consensus on the repudiation of the immense volume of military spending and arms trade-and they use it more as a way of comparing this volume with the decimated social budgets, rather than criticising the fact that this spending is supporting violence or criticising military intervention of the army, for example in the case of the Libya war.
There have been very few texts which take into consideration the “deeper” aspects of the peaceful action and nonviolent organisation, such as the consistency between means and ends, the distinction between the personal and the social role, legality and legitimacy, repression used in order to consolidate the legitimacy of the oppressor, creating alternative institutions or criticism of institutions of violence and structural violence as the main form which generates more violence.
However, one must recognise that all these dimensions, except perhaps the last point, have almost always been implicitly present in in the actions and the organisation of the movement. We must also highlight the solidarity of nonviolence of the 15M which, even at the highest points of police repression, for example in the harsh actions of the anti-riot police of the Catalan police force on May 27th in the Catalunya Square of Barcelona, who were trying to clear out the occupation camps. These events have tainted the image of the Catalan government and their police because the images of “pure” police violence carried out against pacifist demonstrators sitting on the ground, have been etched into the minds of the public.
As regards to civil disobedience, the movement has showed an acceptance of this type of action that is very often only timid and where overly cautious declarations are made. A large part of the movement has shown great reticence, from the start, to go into more detail on this issue, alleging that this could erode the social base and the sympathy shown by a large part of society. It is quite a surprising argument, taking into consideration that civil disobedience has been the very tool used by the 15M when they “occupied/took over” the squares, thus re-appropriating and politicising public spaces and staying there for months, despite increasing threats.
Due to all these points in common, people from anti-militarist and pacifist networks of the Spanish State, such as the Alternativa Antimilitarista-MOC, have joined the networks of the 15M movement and have contributed their experience, both in terms of the functioning of the assembly and in affinity groups, as well as in the practice of civil disobedience. The participative workshops have been the main way of disseminating this practical knowledge and in recent months, within the 15M context, dozens of workshops on direct nonviolent action and civil disobedience have been given. The number of participants has surpassed prior expectations. The objective of these workshops is to increase knowledge of and participation in civil disobedience and direct nonviolent actions for 15M activists. In these workshops, not only do we present collective, organised, political action as effective, legitimate and ethically grounded tools, adding depth to the workshop we show how to organise an action or civil disobedience campaign so that the participants come out of these workshops stronger, both as individuals and as a group.
This division of opinion in the movement, in relation to the methods used in the struggle, is one of the challenges which we face in the coming months. Either we follow the conventional and even electoral methodology, or we radicalise the actions within nonviolence and decisively opt to raise the tone of the conflict through civil disobedience. Currently, it appears that both paths are co-existing, with a large part of the movement demanding that there be a reform to the electoral law which would make it more equal, and another part occupying abandoned buildings in order to house evicted families. The new political scene, with the absolute majority of the PP in the recent general elections and their predictable policies which attack social rights and increase militarisation, will probably tip the balance in favour of civil disobedience.
Yet another challenge is the transmission of experiences from previous struggles to the 15M movement. To disregard the wealth of these experiences is a luxury which no movement can afford. Up until now, the 15M has been suffering a sort of “Adamism” , caused by the presence of many people who have joined a movement based on political action for the first time and they therefore lack reference points of movements of great change. Therefore, it seems that the 15M has invented or has to invent everything, ignoring the legacy of organisational experience and past actions of grass-roots based social movements. This is partly due to the very social movements which have reacted, in some cases, with a lack of understanding of the 15M, focusing only on their supposed naivety and lack of discourse, as if this were an organisation or movement which was ready to go, fixed and stable, when the situation shows quite the contrary; it is a constantly evolving process, a “melting pot” and an attempt at a democracy which deserves this very name.