The “15 May Movement”, as it has become known, was organised principally through social networks and by non-aligned collectives, some already active over housing or against the banks. Although the camps involve mainly young people, they have received widespread support from people of all ages. The movement coincided with local elections and when the camps were declared illegal by the Central Electoral Board – they were deemed as interfering with the voting process – tens of thousands flocked to their defence and the authorities were forced to retreat.
The movement has erupted against the background of 21 percent unemployment – some five million people – and sweeping cuts. Young people are particularly badly hit. Over 40 percent of people under 25 are jobless. Those who do find work are mostly on part-time contracts and low wages. With a government that spends less on public services than any other in Western Europe, most young people cannot afford to leave their parents’ home.
Events in the Middle East and North Africa have also been central to inspiring a movement that is based primarily on disaffected young people. An Egyptian flag presides over the Madrid protest and Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya is referred to as “Tahrir Square”.
The camps, based on direct democracy with daily mass assemblies, are rapidly becoming a melting pot of ideas and initiatives. Commissions have been organised for everything from food and medical assistance through to propaganda. Protesters’ demands include calls for radical democratic reform to end the two party system and corruption; for an increase in citizen participation; the end of government support for financial institutions; the ending of cuts in social spending; and revoking the immigration laws.
The camps declare themselves independent of all existing political organisations or trade unions. Autonomist ideas fit easily with the mass of participants, many of whom are new to political activity. The rejection of political parties is understandable given a dominant two party system where both major parties are the same when it comes to economic policy and where corruption is rife.
Nor do most young people identify with a weak and bureaucratised trade union movement that has offered little opposition to government policy. Although the unions organised a successful general strike last September against austerity measures they did not build on this, preferring instead to negotiate a deal with the government that included raising the retirement age to 67.
The organisations of the radical left are weak and unknown to many protesters. As a result initially it was difficult to intervene openly in the movement. In the organising commissions, where autonomist ideas are strongest, socialists have found it hard to get their proposals adopted. However the clearly anti-capitalist nature of the movement has opened the door to a more “political” orientation. In the mass assemblies concrete proposals to link up with workers and to take the protests out of the camps have met with widespread support.
This is particularly the case in Barcelona where in recent weeks there have been widespread mobilisations by public sector workers against the cuts being introduced by the new Catalan government. The day before the 15 May protests, over 50,000 people marched in Barcelona against these cuts. Protesters from schools, hospitals and fire stations have received a warm welcome when they subsequently marched to the camp in the city centre.
At the time of writing the future of the movement is uncertain. The main camps have declared their intention to continue until at least 19 June when another mass demonstration is planned. The local elections of 22 May saw widespread gains for the right so there is a desperate need for a sustained and powerful opposition to the new attacks which are sure to come. The magnificent protests of May hold the key to creating such an opposition. Now they need to take the movement into the neighbourhoods, the workplaces, schools and universities.
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