Tag Archives: Daniel Bensaïd

one year of protests in Spain: Esther Vivas marks the anniversary

15M: A look toward the future
Esther Vivas

Untimely and unexpected. That’s what the emergence of this movement of collective outrage at the Spanish state was. If we had been told on 14M (May 14th, 2011) the next day thousands of people would start  taking to the streets week by week and occupy squares, organized meetings, challenge the power with massive civil disobedience while staying in the streets… we would never have imagined it possible. But that’s what happened. People, two and a half years after the outbreak of the “great crisis,” said “Enough.”In the countries of Europe’s periphery, emulating the popular uprisings in the Arab world, drawing warmth from Tunis’s Qasbah and Cairo’s Tahrir Square, people took back and took over the public space. The Arab Spring gave us confidence in “ourselves” and our collective ability to change the existing order. And looking also at Iceland and Greece, the 15M movement broke with the prevailing skepticism, resignation and climate of apathy. But a year after popping up, what remains of it? What has been achieved? What challenges and prospects lie ahead?

The movement of collective outrage heated up fast. Beyond the thousands who occupied the squares, attended meetings, marched in the streets… many others, from their homes, identified with this angry tide that “represented” them. And with 23% unemployment, 175 evictions per day and one in five households living below the poverty line in the Spanish State, how could anyone resist growing indignant, rebelling and disobeying?

The 15M has been able to go beyond the activist core of protesters, awakening a new militant generation and lifting many people out of their easy chairs. These are young people, environmentalists, women, the elderly …, who made up the “people of the Plaza del Sol” in Madrid and “Plaza de Catalunya” in Barcelona. A year after 15M we see how the movement has charged both those holding economic power and those holding political power with social responsibility for the current crisis, highlighting the close links and collusion between them. 15M has unmasked a low-intensity democracy, held hostage by financial power; those who govern serve the 1% not the 99%. It has succeeded in altering the collective imaginary and the political atmosphere to its roots. The crisis has provoked a social, political and economic earthquake, but the emergence of 15M has also, conversely, generated a process of re-politicization of society.

The deepening crisis and the emergence of the movement has allowed people to “think big” and “act big.” Today, there are not only calls demanding reform of the banking system but promoting the expropriation and nationalization of banks and for “nonpayment” of unjust, illegitimate and illegal debts. The action agenda has expanded and radicalized; it is no longer enough to simply demonstrate and take to the streets, now we occupy plazas, block traffic, stop evictions…  The crisis exposes how often what is “illegal” is legitimate and what is illegitimate is precisely what is “legal.” To occupy houses or banks can be punished, while evicting families or swindling with “preferentes” (complex bonds of ownership) by the banks is perfectly legal. Facing a reality so unfair, why not disobey the law or support those who do? This is one of the great victories of 15M: to make these forms of struggle normal and socially acceptable.

And what challenges and prospects do we face? Changing the world from bottom up is neither easy nor quick, and for this, as the philosopher Daniel Bensaïd pointed out, you must arm themselves with “a slow impatience”. We must rebuild another correlation of forces between those in power and the vast majority of society, and this requires a long march, which does not always follow a predictable or straight path. And 15M is just the prologue of this cycle of struggles that has begun. At the same time, to win concrete victories beyond some defensive ones is extremely difficult. Despite the anger and social unrest, the cutback policies are intensifying.

To combat slander, criminalization and repression is another key task in the coming period. The erosion of the rule of law is accompanied by the emergence of the state of emergency. This we have already seen. The more the welfare state withers, the more the police state grows. It begins by slandering those who are mobilized by dubbing them “perroflautas” (street musicians), then goes on to criminalize them by calling them “anti-system thugs,” and steps up repression using preventive detention, websites that insult, etc. What’s involved is creating “an enemy,” to justify repressing it.

The politics of fear and intimidation is the other face of the policy of cutbacks. But the best antidote to such measures is the massive size of the protest. How can you slander the elderly of a town who defend a clinic from being closed down? How can you smash down those who defend themselves with their books in their hands? It can be done, and has been done, but not without paying a high price in public opinion. So far, repression has boomeranged, striking back against the power.

It has often been said that with 15M “fear has disappeared”, but “fear” continues to be very present in the workplace, where capital dominates with hardly any bumps. That the leadership of the major trade unions submitted to the government and the employers, weighs heavily on all social movements. We need a militant trade unionism, which has its center of gravity not in negotiations from above but the struggle from below and that defends a culture of mobilization and solidarity.

And if the movement plans a radical shift in the paradigm, we cannot forget other key aspects of the crisis, beyond the economic ones and the fight against cutbacks, debt and privatization. The ecological and climatic aspect of the crisis is a central element. It is impossible to believe in “another world” without fighting the logic of a system of that prioritizes production but ignores the limits of the earth. Economic and ecological crises are intimately intertwined. Nor is an alternative possible unless it also seeks to end a patriarchal system that refuses to recognize women’s work, making it invisible. We can say the current economic crisis clearly has a feminine face.

International coordination is another major challenge we must resolve. Although the movement has had successful days of global mobilization, like that of last October 15th, 2011, and now the 12M and 15M, its international coordination is still weak. Capitalism is global and, consequently, resistance to it must be equally global, internationalist and built on solidarity. From the public squares to global outrage there is a road of comings and goings we will have to travel more each time.

Looking backwards a year, few would have foreseen the magnitude of the cuts in the Spanish State (which reached making Constitutional Amendments to put a ceiling on public deficits) or repression (threatening changes to the Penal Code to severely punish non-violent direct action), but neither would anyone have imagined this angry tidal wave that has smashed on the political and social panorama. In troubled times, certainties tend to be false and we have but one that isn’t: those in power will not give up their privileges without a fight. We do not know the outcome of this “battle” between “those at the top” and “those on the bottom,” but if we do not struggle, the game is already lost.

*Esther Vivas has published recently, with Josep Maria Antentas, “Planeta indignado. Ocupando el futuro” (Ed. Sequitur).

**This article has published originally at Público.es. Translated by John Catalinotto

I would like to thank Esther Vivas for allowing me to reproduce this article.

+info: http://esthervivas.com/english

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how to change the world?

How to change the world?
Esther Vivas

How do we change the world? This is the question asked by thousands of people intent on changing things, the question that is often repeated in alternative social gatherings — a question that the French philosopher Daniel Bensaïd said has no answer: “Make no mistake, no one knows how to change the world.” We do not have an instruction manual but we do have some hints on how to do it and some working hypotheses.

Fighting in the streets and in social movements is the first premise, as there will not be spontaneous changes from above. Those in power today will not give up their privileges without this. Any process of change will depend on the consciousness of those below and the fight to take back our rights in the street, defying the powers that be. This is what history shows.

But it is also necessary to build political alternatives that go beyond social mobilization, since we can not just be a lobby of those who rule. It is necessary to formulate alternative policy options which have their centre of gravity in social struggles, antagonistic to today’s ruling class. We are well aware that the system cannot be changed from within the institutions but rather from the street, but we can not give up spaces that also belong to us.

Today institutions are hijacked by private interests and capital. A social minority, which is the one with economic power, is totally over-represented in these institutions and has the full support of the majority of those who hold elected office. The dynamics of “revolving doors”: those who are currently in the institutions and tomorrow on the advisory boards of major companies in the country, is a constant and a reality. We present here the socially dominant neoliberal ideology — and the fact that it is untrue. We think that anti-capitalist and anti-systemic voices would be useful in breaking the hegemonic political discourse of the institutions, proving that “other worlds” are viable and that “another political practice” is both possible and necessary.

We must move in both directions, subjecting the latter to the former, creating mechanisms for control from the bottom up and learning from past mistakes of both the political and social left. On the basis that no one knows the absolute truth, that the process of change will be collective or it will not happen, that we must learn from each other, that is necessary to work without sectarianism or tailendism and that labels more often separate than bind . Without however falling into relativism or ideological resignation. Surely these are the most difficult lessons: to break the moral and ideological domination of the capitalist and patriarchal system.

And how to change the world is not something that will happen in two days — it’s a long-haul task, which requires consistency, perseverance and “slow impatience” as Daniel Bensaïd used to say. We have to go forward in our utopias starting from daily life in parallel with social mobilization against the current policies and in defense of alternative measures. We have to change the world in our own lives, demonstrating in practice that “another way of life” is both possible and desirable. Alternatives learning from the cooperative economy, self-management, critical consumption and agro-ecology, ethical finance, the alternative media — all these initiatives are essential to move towards a different model of society.

We have to be aware that these prefigurative models are not an end in themselves but a means to move forward without losing sight of the goal of more just and equitable society for everyone. Fighting for an economy based on solidarity in daily life and demanding a progressive tax policy, in which those who have more pay more, which will eliminate unit trusts, where tax evasion is prosecuted, which builds agroecological projects and works to ban GMOs, in favor of a public land bank, to have our savings in a credit union but to claim a public banking service from below. The way forward is shown by walking it and this cannot wait until tomorrow.

We should not forget that our model of social change requires the conscious mobilization of the majority of the population and a process of breaking the current institutional and economic framework. The emergence of the “revolution” in the political landscape again, following the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, despite their weaknesses and limits, was the great and unexpected news that 2011 has brought us.

We also need to understand our role in the world and the impact of our practices on the ecosystem. We live on a finite planet, but the capitalist system ensures that we often forget this. Our consumption has a direct impact where we live and if everyone consumed as we do here a single planet would not suffice. But we are also encouraged in unbridled, compulsive consumerism, with the promise that more consumption means happiness, though in the end the promise is never fulfilled. We must begin to ask whether we can “live better with less”.

Anyway, we want to hold responsible those who impose such practices. We are told we live in a consumer society because people like consumption, which is why we have industrial agriculture and genetically modified foods — lies. Our model of consumption is based on the logic of a capitalist system that produces goods on a large scale and needs someone to buy them to keep the model running.They want to make everyone accomplices of policies that benefit only themselves. Fortunately, this great myth has begun to crumble. The ecological crisis we live in has turned on the warning lights. And we know that the climate crisis is rooted in a system that is productivist and short-sighted.

Today, a wave of anger is sweeping across Europe and the world — breaking the scepticism and resignation that for years have prevailed in our society, and restoring confidence in collective action which is useful and necessary for changing the existing order of things. We have seen the Arab Spring, the movement against the debt in Europe, the Icelandic people, the popular uprising, general strike after strike in Greece and now Occupy Wall Street in the “belly of the beast” which says we are the 99% opposed to the 1%. The time is short and moving quickly. We know we can.

*Esther Vivas is a member of the Centre for Studies on Social Movements (CEMS) at Universitat Pompeu Fabra. She is also a member of the editorial board of Viento Sur.

I would like to thank Esther Vivas for allowing me to reproduce this article.

+info: http://esthervivas.wordpress.com/english

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the movement of the “Indignad@s”

In an interview for the French newspaper Tout est à Nous, Josep Maria Antentas1 and Esther Vivas2  discuss the origins, the evolving agenda, the immediate goals and the prospects for the Spanish movement of the “Indignad@s”. I am grateful to Esther Vivas for allowing permission to reproduce this translated version. Click here to read the original article.

Beyond the special characteristics of each country, what has been happening both in the Spanish state and in Greece, after the start of the uprisings in the Arab world, will have consequences throughout the continent. Hence the importance of a thorough analysis of the reality and potential of these large protests. Esther Vivas and Josep Maria Antentas give us their opinion about the meaning of the “Indignad@s” movement.

How would you define the central characteristics of this movement?

Josep Maria Antentas: The movement started completely by surprise. The demonstrations of May 15th (15M) were much larger than expected and the camps arose spontaneously. From the beginning of the crisis, social reaction had been weak. Finally everything exploded in an unexpected, or “unseasonable” way, as Daniel Bensaïd would say. And as nearly always when a large social movement starts, it did so with young people being the protagonists in the initial phase, and with innovative and disruptive forms of protest. It is the most important instance of social radicalism for the last ten years, when the antiglobalization movement started, and now, in the middle of the crisis, the social and territorial depth of the movement keeps growing.

Esther Vivas: The 15M movement’s criticism is twofold. On the one hand, it is aimed at politicians, and on the other, at economic and financial powers, as the motto aptly sums up: “We are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers”. The revolts in the Arab world have been a source of inspiration, as is shown by the occupation of squares and by the camps, which follow the example Tahrir square, among others. These actions have worked as a lever to propel future protests, and they have helped amplify current ones. They played a symbolic role and acted as base camps, not as an end in themselves. The internet and social networks, such as twitter and facebook, have played a key role as a space for discussion, political awareness, and to build an identity and a shared experience, beyond being instrumental to social mobilization.

From the outside, one gets the impression that the breakup with the organized workers’ movement, trade unions and parties, is even more important than in Greece… What happened with the unions after last year’s September 29th general strike?

Esther Vivas: After the general strike on September 29th the majority unions demobilized as usual. The general strike was only a temporary shift and did not mean a change of orientation. In January CCOO and UGT and the government signed an agreement about pension reform, which raised the number of years’ contributions that are needed in order to receive a state pension. This violently ended any hopes of union mobilization. The majority unions remain puzzled by a movement they never expected and which questions them. Now it remains to be seen what their reaction will be and whether the movement will be strong enough to force some kind of change on their part. On many camps, such as the one in Barcelona, a general strike was clearly called for, and the will was also shown to “take indignation to the workplace”, where there is still a lot of fear and resignation.

Josep Maria Antentas: The movement expresses a total rejection of Zapatero’s government policies. Izquierda Unida have shown sympathy with the protests, but in general they have remained well on the outside, without a real militant commitment. The left outside parliament and some alternative unions have been present in the movement, together with a large variety of non-organized people and social collectives. Struggling sectors, such as health workers in Catalunya, who had mobilized against the cuts, have also played an active and visible role.

As mobilization develops, is there progress in the demands and the level of awareness?

Esther Vivas: The protest day on June 19th (19J) showed how the movement was moving towards the left and had deepened its demands. Some of the most often recurring slogans in many demonstrations were against the Euro Pact, against social expenditure cuts and against banks, and also for a general strike. A radicalized atmosphere can be perceived, although in a vague and diffuse manner, in shouts like “revolution begins here”, chanted on many of the camps. Another key moment in political radicalization was June 15th, when in Barcelona there was an attempt to block the Parliament of Catalunya during the parliamentary debate on the Catalan government’s budget, where the most important social cuts in the history of democracy were put forward.

Josep Maria Antentas: From the start the movement has passed various tests, which have allowed it to mature and to deepen its discourse, for example the victory against the attempted removal of protesters in Barcelona on May 27th, or the criminalization undergone after the blocking of the Parliament of Catalunya on June 15th. Denouncing the use of the budget deficit as an excuse to cut rights has been a part of the movement’s policy. In the case of Catalunya, for example, the rejection of the Catalan government’s budget, which includes severe cuts on health and education, has been a key aspect of the movement.

In your opinion, what will remain of this movement? Is there a chance that more permanent ways of structuring it will survive?

Esther Vivas: Since the first camps and the occupations of squares in big cities, their example has spread to medium and small cities and towns, as well as suburban areas around big cities. Coordinated assemblies in towns and neighbourhoods have also been set up. And these are, in fact, one of the movement’s main organizational achievements. We are expecting a heated autumn with new protests, like the one on October 15th, and with specific struggles against social expenditure cuts.

Josep Maria Antentas: This is not a temporary movement, but the tip of the iceberg of a predictable new wave of protests. 15M and the camps have been the first blast and have acted as a springboard. In the last few weeks the movement has spread, diversified in terms of class and age, and it has taken root geographically. The success of the 19J demonstrations showed this clearly. In less than a month there has been great growth in quantity and quality.

What is the impact on the Spanish state’s political scenario? Does the movement involve or can it cause important changes?

Josep Maria Antentas: The movement that arose from 15M has had a strong impact on public opinion and it has been very prominent in the media. No one expected the huge success of 15M, and even less what followed. These few weeks have changed the political and social landscape of the whole of the Spanish state. They are a token of the rejection of Zapatero’s government policies, and also a very clear warning to the right, which aspires to win the next general election, that they are going to meet a panorama of social unrest once they rise to power.

Esther Vivas: These protests mean, without a doubt, a turning point and the start of a new stage. Many people have said that “nothing will stay the same”, and so it is. The movement has finally ended the resigned passivity and the despondency that ruled until now. The present has opened up a window of hope for the future.

*An interview by Jean-Philippe Divès.


The Spanish version of this interview can be found at:


Josep María Antentas is a member of the editorial board of the magazine Viento Sur, and a professor of sociology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.


2  Esther Vivas is a member of the Centre for Studies on Social Movements (CEMS) at Universitat Pompeu Fabra. She is author of the book in Spanish Stand Up Against External Debt and co-coordinator of the books, also in Spanish, Supermarkets, No Thanks and Where Is Fair Trade Headed?. She is also a member of the editorial board of Viento Sur. Click here to read wikipedia entry for Esther Vivas.


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