Why the ‘Indignados’ Matter: Spain, Revolution and the European Ideal

europeonthestrand |

By Pablo Calderon Martinez

Adjectives such as ‘paradigmatic’, ‘inspiring’, ‘impressive’ and ‘remarkable’ have been widely used in academic circles to describe Spanish democracy and the process that successfully established it; referring to a “Spanish model” of democratisation was common practice when analysing what Huntington referred to as the Third Wave of transitions to democracy. The Spanish case has been widely used as a benchmark for most democratic transitions ever since; Spain is considered to be the greatest success of the Southern European transitions in the 1970s, and the main factor that unleashed a democratic snowballing effect in Latin America that lasted more than two decades and that saw the end of military/authoritarian regimes in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Mexico and many other countries. Spain was also hailed as an example for post-communist countries trying to become democratic whilst securing accession to the European Union, and has been treated as a testing ground for any explanatory paradigm of democratisation (from modernisation theory to culturalist explanations). In fewer words, although not without its problems and shortcomings, Spanish democracy has always been considered a resounding success. 

How could we get it so wrong then? Has Spanish democracy not delivered on its promises? Could it be that the panacea for democratic transitions is not the Spanish ‘model’ after all? In the light of current events one could be forgiven for thinking so. The 15-M movement has brought to the fore what seems to be a large number of ‘indignados’ looking for ‘Democracia Real Ya!’ (Real Democracy Now!). This must be a clear indication that Spanish democracy does not work, the transition did not deliver on its promises, Spain is not an example to be followed, and we should revisit the transition to democracy in Spain and look at it as a failed venture. Well, none of these accretions are entirely true; Spanish democracy has many flaws and most of them are actually a direct consequence of the very same transition process that was hailed as such a success (a clearly weak and ambiguous constitution or the structural design of a political system that encourages consensus over confrontation, to name a couple of examples) but this is not the same as saying that there is no ‘real democracy’ in Spain (whatever we mean by ‘real democracy’ is an entirely different matter that needs more than a blog entry to be settled). We should certainly revisit the Spanish transition to democracy and look at it objectively, understanding that it was never supposed to be a model (no transition can be). However, there are still many lessons to be learned not only from the Spanish transition but also from Spanish democracy as a whole. Without trying to undermine what is, in my view, a very constructive exercise in democratic practice, we should understand what the 15-M movement is, what it is not, and what it means to Spain and Europe.

The first issue that should be handled with extreme caution is the link that has been made in some circles between the Spanish revolution and the pro-democracy movements spreading through the Arab world. Mubarak, Gaddafi, the Bahraini royals and the many other non-democratic regimes challenged by the social movements of the Arab Spring are diametrically different from the admittedly less-than-perfect Spanish democracy. To try and establish a feeble link between the movements in Spain and the Arab world based on the use of Twitter, Facebook and every other type of social media to organise civil action is, in my view, a rather clumsy attempt to benefit from the broad (and very much deserved) admiration the Arab Spring has earned throughout the world. The Spanish movement should not be confined to being an example of how new technologies are shaping civil society and the production of social capital.

The 15-M movement needs to define itself better within a Spanish context and not try to jump on the band-wagon of what very well could become a fourth wave of democratic transitions; Spain has already completed a process of democratic transition and consolidation, there is no reason for it to happen again. Trying to define the 15-M movement in the same context as the Arab uprisings would be like trying to define the Lebanese Civil War in the context of the Spanish transition; significant events tend to happen simultaneously all over the world and there is usually a considerable level of linkage between them, but this does not mean they can be defined as part of a unified movement towards a common goal. The Spanish movement should be understood and defined primarily as a European event: with its roots found deep in the particularities of the Spanish democracy, its actions aimed at transforming a system that is now hurting developed nations  and its goals defined in that specific context. The struggle for democracy will always capture the imagination of wider sectors of society than the struggle for a fairer economic system (in 2005 almost 97% of the Spanish population regarded democracy as a positive form of government for Spain). Democracy is, by definition, fair to all; capitalism, again by definition, has winners and losers; the winners usually tend to favour the rules of the game they are so adept at playing. It is also true that the Spanish system is far from perfect and reform is needed. However, this does not mean the banner of a democratic struggle should be displayed by default; this is both unfair and ineffective. No good can come from pretending that the real catalyst for Spanish social unrest is not the dire economic situation in the country, which was brought about by a very unfair system of economic development that is now (probably for the first time) hurting the developed world more than the developing world.

It seems now that the 15-M indignados are even buying into the, by now, very well established exercise of Euro-bashing. It is no secret that Angela Merkel is not the most popular person in the soon-to-be-removed Sol camp; she is not only regarded as the one person to blame for the sudden collapse in the consumption of Spanish cucumber, but also, for every other ailment of the country. The organisers of the movement are now trying to mobilise the masses again in an attempt to shift popular attention to the Euro Pact: an agreement that will increase the cooperation of the Eurozone countries for the coordination of economic policies. Surely enough, this pact will lead to further measures to reduce the fiscal deficits of Euro countries, more cuts and, almost certainly, more pain for the average citizen. This shift towards Europe is a clear indication that unacceptable levels of unemployment (particularly amongst the youth), slow economic growth and tough economic measures in general are at the core of the Spanish social unrest; and rightly so. Indignation is the right adjective to describe what we should all feel when faced with a system that offers no other option other than digging deeper into the mess… but let us not forget the past either.

Back in 1910 Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote: “Spain is the problem, Europe is the solution”. This simple statement defined Spain throughout most of the past century; the Europe Ortega y Gasset envisaged as the solution to the “problem of Spain” was not the supranational bureaucracy that we now know, but the “problem of Spain” was the same in 1910 than in 1975: economic and political backwardness relative to Western Europe. The European Community proved to be crucial in solving this problem. The economic benefits of EC membership in Spain are almost unquestionable: in 1989 EU aid (structural and cohesion funds established under the Delors I Plan) represented a staggering 1.5% of Spanish GDP and, according to some estimates, EU backed projects mobilized an average of about 3.4% of Spanish GDP in the period between 1994 to 1999. Spain’s European fuelled economic growth allowed Spain’s per capita GDP to increase from 70% of the EU’s GDP per capita average in 1986 to 88% in 2003 (the year before the enlargement to Eastern Europe lowered the EU’s average). There are also strong cases to be made on the positive influence Europe had on the Spanish democratic political structure, political culture, mass values, elite behaviour, political party configuration and many other aspects that make of Spain now a troubled but stable democracy.

The 15-M movement can have strong repercussions in Europe. It is not only that the emblematic success story that was Spain is now changing the picture of an “impeccably” democratic Europe, which might hamper the efforts of the EU to present itself as a promoter of democracy abroad (hard to promote democracy all over the world when it is being systemically being questioned at home), but also that the Spanish phenomenon may lead to other European countries using the banner of democratic struggle to reach other structural goals. I am certainly not suggesting that questioning democratic regimes is by any means detrimental to democracy, quite the opposite. We should, however, avoid trivialising democratic struggles by immediately jumping on the bandwagon. Undoubtedly Spain needs to reform its judicial system so it is more independent from political influence and other issues still pending from the democratic transition should be dealt with. But it is also encouraging to see a Spanish society that is now free to express its rejection to an economic system without fear of repression; the legacies of a highly oppressive regime and the fear of a polarised society unable to coexist seem to be finally waning. In more ways than one Democracia Real Ya! is proving its own point.