No Parties, No Banners: The Spanish Experiment With Direct Democracy
On October 15 last year, 200,000 people marched in Madrid. They were part of a Spanish movement that has come to be known as 15-M—after May 15, the date of its first action—or the indignados. The movement has broad support from the Spanish public, both right and left, with 73 percent approving in recent polls. Participants and organizers consistently report that “regular people” and “first time” protestors, “not just movement activists,” are deeply involved in the assemblies. As Irache, a public school teacher participating in the march, told us, “The crowd that day came from all walks of life in the city.”
The six-hour march past the city’s financial and tourist center to the iconic Puerta del Solwas animated by the now-familiar indignado chants: “if we can’t dream, you won’t sleep”; “they don’t represent us”; and “these are our weapons,” as protesters lifted their hands in the air, a sign of agreement at assemblies.
Along the route there were more strollers than police. But at least for North American eyes, what was most striking was the absence of banners. True to the principles of 15-M, almost no one came with signs representing parties, unions, or any other organized groups. The only exceptions were the green T-shirts of the “Green Tide,” an ad hoc movement of teachers and students to defend public education against drastic cutbacks. This group, Irache assured us, was there to support the protest, and not part of 15-M itself.
The lack of banners is essential to the work of the indignados. As a movement, 15-M does something novel, bringing people together as equal citizens, not as representatives of particular interests or bearers of particular identities. Claiming broad allegiance—8 million people say they have participated in at least one 15-M event—the movement has broken the barrier between political activists and ordinary citizens. It shares principles of nonviolence and nonpartisanship with the Occupy movement and other peaceful demonstrations around the world. But its central demand—for a direct, deliberative democracy in which citizens debate issues and seek solutions in the absence of representatives—is unique. 15-M represents a striking challenge to traditional political actors—parties, civic associations, unions—and to democratic politics itself.
15-M has evolved to become a new political subject, distinct from the original Internet-based group—Democracia Real Ya, or Real Democracy Now (DRY)—that organized the mobilization of May 15, when about 20,000 people gathered in Puerta del Sol. Three months earlier, on a Sunday night in February, ten people met in a Madrid bar to began planning the event. They had already been exchanging opinions online about the political and economic situation in Spain. Their meeting ended with both a slogan—“Real Democracy Now: we are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers”—and plans to hold a demonstration the week before the municipal elections of May 22.