Democrary Here and Now: The exemplary case of Spain
As the economic crisis began in Spain, representatives of the state did not hesitate to set aside democratic and legal institutions in order to exercise authoritarian power. This power-over state repression was aimed at protecting the status quo and the programs of austerity being imposed on the population. This behaviour is in alignment with the general thesis suggesting that European and Western representative governments tied to unregulated capitalist development and the war machine necessary to protect them, will ‘hollow-out’ democratic institutions whenever they feel the need to do so.
We are seeing how across Europe, and across Western states more broadly, representative democracy is being degraded. Yet, in each country this hollowing-out, and any contestation to it, follow particular local processes that adapt to local conditions. Following from this, although activities in different countries share family resemblances, ultimately citizens across the globe are grappling with unique local realities. This generates a multiplicity of modalities of contestation, which, although criss-crossing and overlapping, carry with them local customs and traditions.
In the case of Spain, on May 15th of 2011, 15M came together in opposition to such hollowing-out through the occupation of public squares in a clearly articulated and exemplary nonviolent and horizontal manner. For months, public squares across the country were occupied by a ‘collective presence’ constituted by a ‘strange multiplicity of culturally diverse voices’ shouting “Basta Ya!”(Enough!). These voices were challenging the political system of representation with the phrase “No nos representan!” (They do not represent us!). They demanded “democracia real ya!” (real democracy now!) and shouted “no somos mercancia en manos de politicos y banqueros” (we are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers).
In May of 2013, two years after participating in my first general assembly at the encampment in Barcelona’s Plaça Catalunya, I set out on a road trip around Spain. The objective of the trip was to learn about what 15M meant to different actors seeing themselves as being 15M and working from within different autonomous communities in the country. During my trip, I visited the autonomous community of Andalucía, the autonomous city of Melilla, the community of Valencia, the community of Madrid, and the autonomous communities of Galicia, Asturias, Basque Country and Catalonia.
When I took to the road, I was inspired by the clear failure of institutional reform in Spain, but also by the joy of seeing fellow citizens in the square occupations of 2011, coming together in a manner that appeared to go beyond the institutional frame of representative democracy. At the time, the democratic spaces they co-generated seemed different and more egalitarian to the democracy I was used to. Nevertheless, I began my trip with only a vague sense of what I thought individuals being 15M were doing. Because of this, I understood that in order to better grasp what 15M was, I needed to broaden my understanding of their field of practice. I was captivated by their exemplary commitment to dialogue, their horizontal practices, and their nonviolent modes of conflict resolution and conciliation. As an outside observer, their lifeway seemed to be one of ‘deep democracy.’ It was prefigurative, direct, and radical. I found it very inviting and it drew me in to hear its own vernacular meanings and paths towards both the construction of community and its transformation.
What I discovered through this participatory process is that 15M crystalizes a multiplicity of examples of civic activities and exemplars of civic citizenship. Through continuing dialogues of reciprocal elucidation, civil and civic modes of citizenship in 15M and their complementarity are revealed. In this manner, 15M appears as a living exemplar, not a living memory, of citizens enacting civic freedom. 15M citizens are citizens immersed in constructive programs of various kinds through which they develop the being-with ethos of thinking and acting with and for each other no matter how diverse the others happen to be. Those citizens wanting to reform institutions from within, work with those organizing beyond these institutions. Together they practice six different yet related ways of joining hands, cooperating, and contesting nonviolently with differently-situated others.
Through its practices 15M clearly shows that it is not struggling against representative democracy per se, but is rather de-universalizing it through its tightly interwoven activities. 15M citizens clearly understand democracy as a space within which their multiple heterodoxies can enter into dialogue and negotiate ways to co-exist peacefully and constructively without being subsumed. Although governed subjects within the dominant governance system,15M shows citizens as primarily engaged agents in the field of governance.