Saturday, June 18, 2011

Los Indignados

These days indignation is a right and proper, indeed compelling, not to say compulsory, sentiment. It was forcefully advocated by Stéphane Hessel, the 93-year-old former French resistance fighter, in his influential though somewhat over-rated pamphlet Indignez-Vous (2010). “ In this world of ours – Hessel writes - 'there exist intolerable things… Indifference is the worst of all possible attitudes… One of [man’s] indispensable capacities is the capacity to feel outraged, and the commitment that derives from it”. Gramsci said it long before him.

In Spain at the beginning of March, a minor social network connected via e-mails, Facebook and Twitter, that called itself Democracia Real Ya, gathered mounting consensus and called on its adherents to take to the streets on 15 May. Which they did, punctually and massively, over 60,000 of them, in spite of the extant prohibitions due to the coming administrative elections of 22 May. They became El Movimiento 15M; they called themselves Los Indignados. In Madrid they occupied Plaza del Sol, in Barcelona Plaza de Catalunya, as well as the main squares in most of Spain’s provincial cities. They responded to provocations with peaceful and orderly meetings, discussions and free collective catering. They left on the last week-end, after cleaning up the square after themselves, but planning repeat action.

On 15 June they met again in front of the Catalan parliament in Barcelona. El Pais reported that “the protests were among the most violent since the restoration of democracy”, but a
Youtube video provides incontrovertible evidence that the violent demonstrators were agents provocateurs. An identifiable small group of young people who turned nasty, in the end left 'under police escort' (sic); the peaceful demonstrators had chanted at them “Secreta, idiota, te crees que no se nota” [You are from the secret police, you are idiotic if you think we don’t know].

Who are Los Indignados? They are “the excluded” ( Los excluidos) – mostly educated, unemployed youth and those in precarious short-term employment – and their sympathizers. Los mileuristas (as christened by Espido Freires) and los zero-euristas, i.e. those earning 1,000 euro a month, or nothing at all. El Pais celebrated cartoonist El Roto – who is also a very good economist judging from his take on the global crisis - sums it up thus:

- The excluded are rebelling
- Sack them!
- No way, they don’t have jobs

- Cut their subsidies!
- We can’t, they don’t get any
- Demolish their homes!
- Impossible, they haven’t one

- Then, we are lost!

The socialist government led by Zapatero since 2004 initially made good economic and political progress, with a booming economy, high employment, secular distance from the Catholic Church, the protection of civil rights, and income redistribution. But in 2009 the global crisis hit Spain particularly hard, in spite of its earlier record of virtuous fiscal policies (as was Ireland’s). It was its worst setback since EU accession: real estate and the construction boom came to an abrupt end, investment fell by a quarter, consumption and exports were badly hit. In 2009 GDP fell by 3.6%, in 2010 GDP growth was only 0.8%; the Economist predicts 0.6% in 2011 and 1.1% in 2012.

The crisis had a devastating impact on the labour market. In the last three years Spain, with a population of 46 million, has lost more than 2 million jobs - 623,000 in 2008, 1.21 million in 2009, and 238,000 in 2010. By the end of 2010 Spain had 20.3% unemployed, or 4.69 million – more than twice the European Union average of 9.6%. In the first quarter of 2011 Spain had 21% unemployment, and youth unemployment reached 45% (860,000 people among 16-29 year-olds; 15% of youth in the 16-24 age bracket are the "ni-ni generation”, short for ' ni estudian, ni trabajan' —neither study, nor work). Those employed hold precarious, short-term jobs. They are educated, they are “the lost generation”. In their view, power is in the hands of “markets” and the bankers (as exemplified by Santander President Emilio Botin), in whose hands, they believe, politicians are simply puppets.

Zapatero’s expenditure cuts (recortes), aimed at reducing the government deficit from 11.1% in 2009 to 5.5% by the end of next year, have destroyed the confidence of the Indignados. Furthermore, in 2010 pensions were frozen and retirement age raised from 65 to 67, civil servants salaries were cut, the cheque bebé of €2500 and a planned €426 increase in unemployment benefits were shelved. A labour legislation reform that made layoffs easier to carry out generated Zapatero’s first general strike last September. The long-term viability of the banking system, and especially the savings banks (the cajas) is in doubt. The rich become richer, while there is no money for education and health. The Partido Popular would be no better. On the eve of the elections Zapatero declared that Spain would “very probably” have needed a bail-out by the European Union last year without the government’s imposition of a harsh austerity plan, but the Indignados did not accept that this was the case.

Is there contagion from the North-African Arab spring? Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, Tahrir Square in Cairo, and the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain provide images similar to those of Madrid’s Plaza del Sol, but there is a significant difference: “In the Arab world, they are demanding the vote,” former Socialist prime minister Felipe González said on Spanish television. “Here they say there is no point in voting.” As in Italy, in Spain voters cannot pick and choose among individual candidates.

Their slogans are telling:

Adopt a politician. Educate him!
Violence is 600 euro per month.
We are excluded by neo-liberal decree; we are rebels by human dignity.
They piss on you then tell you it’s raining.
When the doors of justice close, those of revolution open.
Democracy now is voting for those you despise to stop government by those you fear.
Parliament is on brain strike.
Politics for the people, but … without the people?
To kick them out, do not vote them.
Wanted – a decent politician.
Bankers!!! As we did not vote for you, why do you govern us?
Problems do not arrive by boat, they arrive in limousines.
If you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep.
We are not anti-system, we want system-change.

What do they want? At first they didn’t know. Slowly they hammered out some kind of manifesto in their open assemblies, committee and sub-committee meetings and working groups. On 19 May, Los Indignados put up their proposals to re-generate Spain, calling for: the elimination of the privileges of the political class; measures against unemployment; housing rights; quality public services; control of banking; a more egalitarian taxation; greater participation, and reduced military spending.

Some of their proposals are straightforward and desirable, such as the expropriation of unoccupied houses to be let out at a controlled rent, or the proposals on the elimination of privileges for the political class: sanctions for absenteeism and dereliction of duty by political appointees, abolition of privileged tax regimes, pension and pensionable services, indexation of their salaries to the average wage, abolition of immunity for actions taken on duty, and of proscriptions for corruption charges. But nobody really knows how to limit corruption of politicians. Should they be banned from working in the private sector (as so many do) once they leave office? The US have a two-year ban, which really does not achieve much. Perhaps they should be banned for life, but this creates a real caste of politicians, like in India and Greece, which is no better.

Some of the proposals are ambiguous, if not outright economically naïve, for instance work-sharing and a reduction of working hours to reduce unemployment – without specifying a parallel earnings reduction without which higher unit labour costs would raise unemployment instead of reducing it. Most proposals are expensive: the welfare state of Western Europe of the 1960-70s, i.e. 40 years ago, has been unsustainable for some time, given both globalization, i.e. the mobility of capital and the willingness of poor people elsewhere to work for much lower real wages, and the public debt accumulated by maintaining the welfare state under such adverse conditions. Some complaints are contradictory: you cannot have Europe and complain of a European democratic deficit and then ask that every EU decision be subjected to a national referendum. And what does “street democracy” (democracia de la calle) mean? Are we to reproduce Soviets? And how on earth can abstentions and spoiled ballots achieve “representation in the legislature”?

Four comments are in order:

First, the Spanish Indignados mis-timed their demonstrations terribly, just in the run up to administrative elections in which they could – and many did – demonstrate their feelings without occupying public space.

Second, there were large scale abstentions (34%) and the number of spoiled ballots doubled to 4% representing the third largest “party” in Spain after the Socialists and the People’s Party, which contributed to the PP victory.

Third, the Spanish electorate – as happened virtually everywhere after the crisis, with the exception of Turkey – was not particularly discerning and did not match its votes with its aspirations. Indiscriminately electorates have voted against the incumbent government, right or left, in debtor as in creditor countries (in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, as well as in Germany and Finland), supporting, instead, parties which were most unlikely to pursue their desiderata. They cut off their noses to spite their faces. Thus in the regional and municipal elections of 22 May José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s PSOE lost 19% of votes with respect to the previous round, and was resoundingly defeated by the opposition conservative People’s Party led by Mariano Rajoy, that gained 7% involving a 10% lead that gave them control of 9 out of 17 regional governments, and 36 out of Spain's 50 provincial cities, including several traditional PSOE strongholds like Barcelona and Seville and the regions of Castilla La Mancha and Aragon; while in the Northern Basque country a new radical separatist party, Bildu, won 25% of the vote. Last April Zapatero had announced that he would not lead his party into the general election next year, but any repeat performance by the PP is bound to hand them a parliamentary majority.

Fourth, Los Indignados did not really know what they wanted and – as indicated above – most of their proposals were vague, or infeasible, or outright contradictory.

These may sound highly critical, even adverse comments on Los Indignados, but they are not. Their approach and strategy may be debatable, but are perfectly legitimate and right and proper political behaviour. Lack of intra-party democracy debases the contest between parties leaving the electorate feeling unrepresented and frustrated. Abstentions and spoiled ballots are a wasted opportunity – and there is little point claiming that they should be counted and count – but, again, a perfectly respectable strategy, though not one that most voters (including me) would advocate. Alternation in power facilitates renewal of the political class – though not enough by itself; Gordon Brown's re-election would have been as much a tragedy for the British left as his self-imposition, and for Great Britain at large, though Brown’s protégé Ed Miliband has yet to learn any lessons from Labour’s defeat. At least Zapatero has not, like Blair/Brown Labour, launched an imperialistic war, presided over increasing inequality, liberalized and subsidized the financial sector and attacked civil rights, but he has certainly failed to honour the social contract with those who have elected him. And dissenters have no duty (though it would be in their interest) to provide well-developed credible alternatives: this is what parties, professional politicians and their think-tanks are supposed to provide, garnering and formulating as policy the wishes of their electorate.

Democracy allocates votes to alternative political ends - like markets allocate resources to the production of alternative competing goods and services. And just like markets, democracy can function too slowly or too fast, over- or under-react, produce cycles and unwanted results. At least democratic processes, at their simplest, are égalitarian, one person one vote, in theory, while markets are equivalent to multiple voting weighted by wealth; though in practice income and wealth inequality naturally biases and perverts democratic processes. But both markets and democracy - though defective - are the best instruments we have to organize our societies.

Indignation has proven to be contagious. The Spanish example has been followed across Europe: young people, though in much smaller numbers, have taken to the streets in Hamburg, Vienna and Rome. The lost generation has voiced its indignation in Lisbon, Paris, Athens and elsewhere. In Paris 2,000 young demonstrators occupied the entrance to the Bastille Opera and half the Place de la Bastille, demanding "démocratie réelle" and measures against a 20% rate of youth unemployment. Eventually they were dispersed by tear gas.

In Portugal as early as 12 March, 200,000 people marched down the Avenida de Liberdade in Lisbon - the biggest demonstration in Portugal since the 1974 Carnation Revolution. Again, it started with an appeal on Facebook by students of Coimbra University, calling upon the Geração [à] rasca (or the “troubled generation") to join together in protest. "We, the unemployed, the underpaid and the interns, are the best educated generation in the country's history," they wrote. "We are protesting so that those responsible for our precarious situation quickly change this untenable reality." (See “The Rage of the 'Indignants' - A European Generation Takes to the Streets”, Spiegel Online, 7 June). “Portugal is the fourth-poorest country in the euro zone. Even in Greece, the per capita gross domestic product is higher. Unemployment has almost doubled to 12.6 percent in six years; among people under 25 the jobless rate is 27 percent. Of those who do have jobs, more than half are working in temporary positions. Many are pseudo self-employed, earn very little and must pay a tax rate of up to 50 percent. They receive no social insurance benefits.” (Ibidem).

In Greece resistance to the austerity measures forced on Papandreu’s Socialist government by EU authorities and the IMF, to reassure financial markets, last Sunday elicited the eleventh general strike. More than 50,000 protesters, self-professed “Indignant Citizens” after the Spanish model, gathered around Syntagma Square and were involved in violent clashes. It is certain that this kind of resistance will raise the interest rate spread on Greek sovereign debt over German bonds (already of the order of 15%), and the probability of sovereign default. Yet if this is the cost of popular sovereignty, which is what democracy means, it is still cheap at the price.


Carmen said...

What you say about the 15 June clashes in Barcelona is true, but Zapatero is not responsible for police repression in Catalonia. This is the responsibility of the Catalan government, which since the recent regional elections is in the hands of CIU, the nationalist right.

D. Mario Nuti said...

I stand corrected, thanks. I thought the secret police must be a central government responsibility. Clearly the provocateurs were simply local policemen in plainclothes. I will make a correction on the original post.

Carmen said...

Catalonia'a own police force, called "Mossos d'Esquadra", is one of the powers transferred to the autonomous region where nationalist claims are strongest (the other is the Basque Country, regional police there is called Ertzaintza). They are not municipal police, they are autonomous. If you look at the Youtube video of the police charge you can easily distinguish between the Mossos and the Guardia Civil (state police).

All this nationalism is so boring...

Felix said...

"à rasca" is a Portuguese popular slang expression.

if you are "à rasca" that means you are in troubles, you KNOW IT and you don´t find any issue whit dignity but you still sending MMS's to your friends whit the iPhone your father payed.
if you are "à rasca" you aren't violent so the next stage could be the "desperate generation" and than you could be aggressive!

so, my translation would be "afflicted generation" or something near by!

"junk generation", "geração rasca"(*) was the name we give to my generation, the precedent guys who showed is asses to the Education Minister when he reintroduced fees for the university studies in 15-April-1993 [ ] in fact our prime minister was one of the leaders of such generation!!!

*the proposition “à” changes everything “rasca” means junk, “à rascal” has one other meaning.

Félix, Lisboa

D. Mario Nuti said...

Thanks, Felix. A Portuguese friend had already explained to me the enormous difference between « geração à rasca » - a generation with extreme difficulties without a future – and « geração rasca » as a pejorative term, meaning a worthless generation.

My source, which I quoted, was Spiegel Online of 7 June: it was their mistake. I have now made a correction on the post.

Aurelia said...

Well! Mario I see that your attitude toward ”los indignados” is in a better path. Nonetheless, me, who lives in Catalonia, an area of Spain where already University teachers are being converted into faculty fellowships, if they are lucky and are not dismissed; and where hospitals are closing its operating rooms, I still disagree on some of your points.

Politically, I'm from a generation closer to yours than to those of “los indignados”. Therefore, me too, feel some kind of discomfort when I look at their disaffection for politicians. Though, as I have already said in my former intervention, I do think that their sudden apparition in the core squares of our main cities was politically right. Three are the main reasons.

1 .- None of the eligible political parties were adopting none of the economic heterodox proposals. Therefore, ideologically, it was quite impossible to vote for anyone. And someone has to tell it to them.

2 .- I repeat, in these municipal elections participation was higher than in the previous –municipal- ones (except in Catalonia, due to local issues). So it is unfair to attribute to “los indignados” a drop on the votes. On the contrary, my feeling is, from the attitude of some of my friends, some leftist who already had decided not to vote, after the irruption of “los indignados” in the political arena, changed their mind, even if they did with a “stuffy nose” not to smell the rotten air of the Spanish politics. As a matter of fact, Izquierda Unida increased its number of votes.

3 .- Maybe, even, if it might be considered political fiction, things are not so bad. If the PSOE was smart and if it stands until March 2012 (the due date for legislative elections) it has a chance to correct its attitude and to explain to the citizens why Zapatero acted as he did. In other words, “los indignados” may have either given a final stab to the PSOE or given them an opportunity for a resurrection. Actually, I’m not quite sure about it.

Though, honestly there is one think that I do not like of the indignados’ movement. And, I think that we agree in this aspect. Their generic complain against politicians and political institutions such are the Senate, the Foreign Service or others is quite dangerous, because it is extremely close to the populists visions of what politicians should be. In this sense I stand for the good functioning of democratic institutions, not to dismiss its own members or to end with them.

D. Mario Nuti said...

Well, Aurelia, I certainly have moved a long way towards your position. I said that their political behavior is perfectly legitimate and right and proper. I denounced lack of intra-party democracy, and legitimated abstentions (though I firmly believe it is silly to claim parliamentary representation for them and for spoiled ballots). Voting against incumbents regardless is a way to facilitate renewal of the political class. I recognized that dissenters have no duty (though it would be in their interest) to provide well-developed credible alternatives. And I recognized that both markets and democracy - though defective - are the best instruments we have to organize our societies. I believe we are on the same side of the (virtual) barricades.

Carmen said...

Can I push a little your virtual barricades? I would not say that markets are the best instrument we have to organize the economy. They are more than "defective". Since most of the population in developing countries and large segments of the population in developed countries do not cover their basic needs, I would say that the market fails as an allocator of resources. Different institutions should be set.

D. Mario Nuti said...

Yes, I am grateful to my Spanish and Portuguese friends for helping me understand Los Indignados.

Of course markets are very defective, and fail to distribute income to a desirable degree of equality. But central planning can be worse, in terms of both efficiency and distribution. You need active government policy within a market system. And maybe also different institutions, but I do not know what they might be, and you don't say.

By the way, on Emilio Botin and the Santander shareholders meeting of 17 June, see

Carmen said...

What new institutions? we close the loop of these comments back to the proposals of the indignados: participatory democracy. Retrieve the collective and participatory dimension for the radical transformation of the system. Precisely the absence of this dimension caused the regression in the transformative process of historical experience we know, as you say "central planning can be worse"

D. Mario Nuti said...

Yes, Carmen, absolutely. In principle - but "the devil is in the details".

Jacob Richter said...

"Some of the proposals are ambiguous, if not outright economically naïve, for instance work-sharing and a reduction of working hours to reduce unemployment – without specifying a parallel earnings reduction without which higher unit labour costs would raise unemployment instead of reducing it."

Rhetorically asking: what are wages' share of national income compared to profits?

"The mobility of capital"

There needs to be struggle for capital controls.

"Willingness of poor people elsewhere to work for much lower real wages"

Heavy-handed international treaties of a pro-labour variety and enforcement agencies are the key. The immediate goal is globalized and upward equal standard of living for equal work based on real purchasing power parity.

"You cannot have Europe and complain of a European democratic deficit and then ask that every EU decision be subjected to a national referendum"

There I agree with you, but then again in my comments in your blog to date I have posed solutions in a global or at least continental context. Nation-state politics is bankrupt.

"And what does “street democracy” (democracia de la calle) mean? Are we to reproduce Soviets? And how on earth can abstentions and spoiled ballots achieve “representation in the legislature”?"

Although you're cynical towards councils from a more mainstream perspective, I'm cynical about them from another perspective. It comes from Marx and the IWMA on the relationship between classes for themselves, disciplined mass movements, and real mass political parties (read: they're identical).

Abstentions achieve nothing, but spoiled ballots at least organize something and help delegitimize the system.

"Indexation of their salaries to the average wage... But nobody really knows how to limit corruption of politicians. Should they be banned from working in the private sector (as so many do) once they leave office?"

Since you touched upon Paris Commune politics, I'll respond by saying that there are activists and theorists who do know how to minimize corruption. Re. working in the private sector, I think one of the bigger problems which causes public officials (not just politicians) to crop higher salaries while in office is the fact that there's no government employment transition program that will adequately transition them to some job outside the government once they're done. Again, I'm thinking Minsky.

العاب ماريو said...

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