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Indgnate!: The 2011 popular protests and the limits to democracy in Spain
Greig Charnock, Thomas Purcell and Ramon Ribera-Fumaz
Capital & Class 2012 36: 3
DOI: 10.1177/0309816811431937

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431937
2011
CNC36110.1177/0309816811431937Charnock et al.Capital & Class

Behind The News

Capital & Class

Indgnate!: The 2011


36(1) 311
The Author(s) 2011
Reprints and permission: sagepub.
popular protests and co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav
DOI: 10.1177/0309816811431937
the limits to democracy c&c.sagepub.com

in Spain

Greig Charnock
University of Manchester, UK

Thomas Purcell
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Spain

Ramon Ribera-Fumaz
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Spain

Abstract

We are the unemployed, the poorly remunerated, the subcontracted, the precarious,
the young we want change and a dignified future. We are fed up with antisocial
reforms, those that leave us unemployed, those with which the bankers that have
provoked the crisis raise our mortgages or take our homes, those laws that they
impose upon us that limit our liberty for the benefit of the powerful. We blame the
political economic and economic powers for our precarious situation and we demand
a change of direction. Democracia Real YA! website, 2011

Thus explains one of the principal organisations behind the movement of the
indignant that has re-awakened popular political consciousness in Spain since
15 May 2011.1 From its origins in a network of activists utilising new social
media to coordinate a series of protest marches in cities across Spain, the 15-
M movement has since staged camp-outs in several main city squares, and in
the space of a month mobilised 40,000 protestors in Madrid and 80,000 in
Barcelona to march against high unemployment, the policies and conduct of
Spains political class, and to demand real democracy NOW! As an important
case of potential interest to Capital & Class readers in its own right, but also
as one example of contemporary European mass movements like that of the

Corresponding author:
Greig Charnock, University of Manchester, UK
Email: greig.charnock@manchester.ac.uk

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4 Capital & Class 36(1)

aganaktismenoi in Greece, this report explains the motives and actions of los
indignados, while also contextualising it within a critical materialist analysis of
the political economy of Spain since the mid-20th century. It concludes with some
open questions about the limits to the movement itself and its demands for real
democracy and systemic change.

Keywords
Behind the News, Spain, indignados, protest, political economy

Introduction
The indignados movement in Spain was born out of the action of Democracia real YA!,
an internet-based social movement platform created by activists involved in the free
culture movement and the struggle over a new Spanish law on intellectual property
rights.2 Through this new media network and small local platforms, demonstrations
were planned to take place in many of Spains cities on 15 May 2011. Hundreds of the
15-M protestors took the initiative to occupy and set up encampments in major urban
squares, such as Madrids Puerta del Sol and Barcelonas Plaa de Catalunya, attracting
the attention of the worlds media. Days later, tens of thousands joined the 15-M move-
ment in protest marches across Spain against austerity cuts, a high unemployment rate
(with youth unemployment then at 41 per cent), and the predicted dominance of the
main Spanish political parties in upcoming regional and municipal elections on 19 May
(Tremlett, 21 May 2011).
As in Greece, the course of events has sometimes taken a violent turn, despite the
pacifist intentions of the vast majority of the movements. In Barcelona, for instance, the
Catalonian police were widely criticised for the disproportionate use of force in evicting
camping protestors from the Plaa de Catalunya on 27 May, while a small number of los
indignados were also denounced by the wider movements for attacks against members of
the regional parliament (Generalitat de Catalunya) on 15 June. In Madrid, on 27 July,
the police forcibly removed a group of indignados that had descended on the Spanish
parliament to deliver a list of demands.3 Clashes between los indignados and the police
have since been a regular occurrence.4 Tensions were again high on 15 October 2011,
when a further day of mass marches took place across Spain to protest against the Euro
Plus Pact (aka Pact for the Euro) a series of crisis management measures that commits
all seventeen members of the Euro zone to meeting specific deficit, revenue and expen-
diture targets, and to several areas of structural reform such as labour markets (aimed at
lowering unit labour costs and standardising so-called flexicurity in all signatory coun-
tries) and pension reforms, including raising the standard age of retirement (European
Council, 24-25 March 2011).5

Making sense of Spanish indignation


As encapsulated by the sloganeering of one of the groups behind the 15-M movement,
Juventud SIN Futuro, a significant proportion of young people in Spain are living
WITHOUT A HOUSE, WITHOUT WORK, WITHOUT A PENSION, and there-
fore, WITHOUT FEAR.6 In order to address the dire situation of a generation, several

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Charnock et al. 5

of the activist platforms at the heart of the movement of the indignant are demanding
real democracy and are rejecting the institutions of state which they feel are dominated
by a corrupt and self-aggrandising political elite (la clase poltica). The elite is accused of
being at the beck and call of bankers, with the shared goal of accumulating money at the
expense of the welfare of society.7 Significantly, then, many within the 15-M and wider
indignados movement are demanding some form of systemic change.8 But what kind of
change? While noting that the 15-M movement was not simply a knee-jerk reaction to
austerity cuts, one Spanish journalist writing for The Guardian surmises,

For all its far-reaching rhetoric, [the movement] addresses solely the left. It ultimately represents
the frustration of those who see that it doesn't matter which way you vote, the economic
policies are dictated by the markets; hence the critique of the system and the demands of
accountability and transparency. Most of the protesters seem to be the people who voted
Socialist in 2008 only to prevent a win for the People's Party. They don't want their vote to
be taken for granted yet again They may not change Spanish politics forever, but they have
succeeded in something difficult enough: in putting all politicians to shame at least for a few
days. (Murado, 20 May 2010)

The Economist (14 July 2011) has similarly played down the radical credentials and
efficacy of the 15-M movement, likening its many meetings to Monty Python sketches,
labelling its selling point well-mannered rage, and concluding that the broad support
for the movement can be put down to common complaints, [but] not solutions.
Coincidentally, reports from within the movement have noted that, for all its vibrancy
and creativity, the process of decision-making, strategy formation, and the formulation
of a coherent set of demands has been chronically slow.
This report seeks to offer crucial background understanding to the popular protests in
Spain. This background does not take as its principal explanatory focus advances in inter-
net-based new social media, the cross-contamination through such media of the so-called
Arab revolts, nor the present crisis affecting the Euro zone amidst fears of contagion from
a potential default by Greece (and, as we write this, Spain and Italy). Rather, it is our con-
tention that only by taking a longer historical appreciation of the contradictory forms taken
by capital accumulation in Spain can the current climate of anger and protest be explained.
Moreover, it is only by doing this that we can appreciate why clear limits to democracy in
Spain have endured long after the death of Franco and will, in spite of popular indignation,
likely endure for some time yet. The following section provides a summary of the dynamics
of capital accumulation in recent decades, so as to excavate the deeper historical and struc-
tural contradictions of Spanish political economy contradictions that today find their
expression in the emergence of, and the demands of, los indignados.

The contradictions of capital accumulation in Spain


It is our view that the principal contradiction of Spanish political economy has long been
manifest in the concentration and centralisation of capital in the hands of a powerful
financial sector on the one hand, and the small scale, and poor competiveness, of manu-
facturing industry on the other. The roots of this can be traced to the decline of colonial
mercantilism in late-19th-century Spain, when there emerged longstanding tensions
between an aristocracy linked to finance capital, and a nascent industrial sector tied in the

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6 Capital & Class 36(1)

main to specific enclaves of manufacturing in the Basque Country and Catalonia


(Holman, 1996). Salient and enduring characteristics of capital accumulation in Spain
have emerged out of this situation: the small scale of the domestic market driven largely
by internal demand; the segmented labour market; the endogenous and exogenous ten-
sions that have played out during successive rounds of European integration; and, in the
most recent economic boom spearheaded by the real estate market, the contradiction
between speculative and productive capital. A comprehension of these fundamental char-
acteristics of the development of the Spanish political economy is essential to an under-
standing of the more conjunctural concerns of the 15-M movement and los indignados.
The first meaningful drive towards industrialisation in Spain emerged from the dicta-
tor General Francos failed project of economic autarky that had been implemented fol-
lowing the bloody Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). On the brink of international
insolvency, the Franco regime was forced to introduce the 1959 stabilisation plan, which
reintegrated Spain into the global economy through a combination of controlled liber-
alisation and a complex bureaucratic system of import substitution. An ensuing eco-
nomic miracle based largely upon wage repression and an extraordinary inflow of
external revenue in the form of tourism and workers remittances established Spain as
the fifth industrial power in Europe, with a rate of industrial growth averaging 7 per cent
between 1959 and 1972 a rate surpassed only by Japan among member states of the
Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (Harrison, 1978: 163). The
main banks in Spain (the Big Seven) profited handsomely from state-controlled indus-
trialisation during this period, as they were able to purchase risk-free public debt and
dictate lending rates to industry. However, the apparently outstanding performance of
the Spanish economy veiled a scenario in which massive profits were accruing in the
banking sector, while small- to medium-sized firms with underdeveloped financial, eco-
nomic, and technological characteristics still dominated the national economy.
The structural basis of this period of sustained growth internal demand, abundant
credit and low labour costs brought with it an expanding trade deficit and growing
inflationary pressure. With the global oil crisis of 1973 and Spains overt dependence
upon energy imports, inflation continued to rise in Spain (topping 27 per cent in 1977
Salmon, 1995: 9). The death of Franco in 1975 instigated a delicate period of political
negotiations to transfer to civilian rule. Social peace was engineered by means of rising real
wages that outstripped both inflation and productivity, while levels of state and private
borrowing also increased. In 1977, the first civilian government, headed by Adolfo Suarez,
was forced to broker drastic measures to prevent a full-blown crisis, including curtailing
the money supply, reforming labour legislation and introducing wage controls. However,
the only measures pursued with any real zeal were attempts to flexibilise the labour market
and restrain wages, and so the burden of transition was placed largely upon the workforce
(Etxezarreta, 1991: 40). Between 1978 and 1982, 1.35 million people lost their jobs and
the ranks of the informal economy expanded dramatically (Harrison and Corkill, 2004:
16). Even after the election of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) to government
in 1982, attempts to boost industrial productivity and competitiveness were limited to
just a few sectors, a strategy that failed to end the pervasiveness of small-scale production
and Spains reliance upon wage repression (Harrison and Corkill, 2004: 147).
Entry into the European Economic Community, in 1986, signalled the consolidation
of democracy, and with a surge of foreign direct investment Spains GDP grew by an

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Charnock et al. 7

average of 5 per cent over four years (De la Dehesa, 1992). However, the entry of the
peseta into the European Exchange Rate Mechanism placed monetary and fiscal policy
under strict surveillance and control. This has had the effect of restricting the scope for
state intervention to undertake structural reform, stimulate technological development
and to address structural unemployment, which still hovered at around 20 per cent in
1987. Such contradictions were, however, veiled by periods of boom and triumphalist
notions of a Spanish economic miracle. In the first (1985-89), Spanish banks realised
record profits while fresh surpluses of capital were invested not in the manufacturing
base but in non-tradeable utilities, the expansion of household consumer credit, and the
booming construction sector. When recession hit by 1992, Spain was forced to devalue
its currency cumulatively by almost 18 per cent in order to make its meeting of European
Monetary Union (EMU) convergence criteria viable (as stipulated under the European
Unions Maastricht Treaty) (Lpez and Rodrguez, 2010: 174). Another key factor in
convergence with EMU was the harmonisation of interest rates. This had the significant
effect of increasing the availability of cheap credit in Spain, with negative lending rates
in real terms once inflation was considered, and set the basis for a round of accumulation
based upon credit-fuelled expanded consumerism and speculative investment in the
residential construction sector.
Under Jos Mara Aznar, the centre-right Popular Party (PP) defeated the PSOE in
1996. Between 1995 and 2007, Spains economy grew at an average rate of 4 per cent per
year a rate bettered only by Ireland within the Euro zone. The Aznar government zeal-
ously pursued entry into EMU, reformed labour-market legislation to introduce a greater
degree of flexibility, shrank public-sector participation in proportion to GDP, and engaged
in large-scale privatisations. After the PPs defeat in the 2005 general election, a new
PSOE-led coalition formed a government, led by Jos Luis Rodrguez Zapatero.9 It is easy
to see why the new Zapatero government did not break with Aznars economic policies
and for pragmatic reasons. By 2004, 1.8 million new jobs had been created under the
PP, unemployment had fallen to a record low of 8.1 per cent of the active workforce, and
60 per cent of all new jobs in Europe were created in Spain (Royo, 2009). It is noteworthy
that, when most governments in the EU were struggling to keep their fiscal deficits in
check, Spain enjoyed three years of consecutive surplus between 2005 and 2007.
Beneath the surface of this new economy, however, the structural contradictions of
capital accumulation in Spain intensified. The majority of new capital investment was
into services and construction (non-tradeables) sectors. As a result, Spains manufactur-
ing base remained poorly competitive while Spanish banks now firmly integrated into
global financial markets were keen to capitalise on the growth in land, house, and
rental prices. This stimulated a further wave of credit-based speculation and extensive
mortgage lending. Between 2000 and 2007, average household debt grew by some 200
per cent (Lpez and Rodrguez, 2010: 188), while a residential construction boom that
saw the creation of 800,000 new homes alone in 2005 (creating a housing stock of 23
million in a country of 40 million inhabitants Chislett 2009) was fuelled by extremely
low or even negative real interest rates (as well as a significant inflow of cheap, flexible
migrant labour, and an endemic culture of profiting through construction-related cor-
ruption at the municipal scale). Spains current account surpluses were actually predi-
cated upon a growing asset bubble that underpinned bank lending, consumer spending
and tax revenues for the state. In the face of huge profits, and despite warnings from the

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8 Capital & Class 36(1)

Bank of Spain in 2002 and the OECD in 2005 that house prices were far above justifi-
able levels, the risks were ignored (Salmon, 2010: 45).
After the global crisis heralded by the collapse of banks in the UK and USA in 2007
gained momentum, Spains fiscal surplus of 1.9 per cent of GDP in 2007 had been trans-
formed into a deficit of 11.1 per cent by 2009 (Chislett, 2008). Total employment fell
by 7 per cent by the same year, with 64 per cent of jobs being lost by migrant workers in
the construction sector (Meardi and Lozano Riera, 2010). According to Eurostat,10 over-
all unemployment reached 20.4 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2010 (4.6 million
unemployed), double the Euro zone average and the largest discrepancy since the forma-
tion of the single currency area. This aspect of the unfolding crisis revealed the extent to
which Spain was a magnified expression of a global crisis where cheap money, real estate
speculation, and cheap immigrant labour had offset stagnant real wages and declining
rates of industrial productive activity. Since 2009, Zapateros PSOE government has
introduced a spate of measures aimed at reducing the fiscal deficit measures that have
again exposed the fragility of Spanish manufacturing. Between 2007 and 2010, employ-
ment in Spanish industry shrank by over 20 per cent (Salmon, 2010: 87). By 2010, 72.3
per cent of the economically active population was employed in the service sector,11 the
majority in the non-traded sector, implying that any future jobs strategy will again be
geared towards services rather than production (Instituto Nacional de Estadstica, 2010).
There is little about the crisis management measures proposed by the Zapatero gov-
ernment over the last year to suggest anything other than continuity as regards the prin-
cipal contradiction of accumulation in Spain. Indeed, while manufacturing has
contracted and a number of regional savings banks recently failed EU stress tests, Spain
can still boast two transnational banks BBVA and Santander that have expanded
their global assets in the fallout from the crisis and are now identified as some of the
soundest banks in Europe. That the banking sector has emerged the strongest from the
crisis confirms the analysis developed here regarding the privileged and robust position
of finance within Spanish capitalism. In the light of this account of the structural char-
acteristics of the Spanish economy we can put into context, and critically reflect upon,
the movement of the indignados.

The limits to real democracy in Spain


The tendency within recent academic commentaries of popular protest, from Athens to
Barcelona, is to identify an outright rejection of the political class as a defining and pro-
gressive element of a novel form of anti- or post-politics (Dinerstein, 2012; Holloway,
2012; Memos, 2009; Swyngedouw, 2011). However, such analyses tell us little about
how capitalism engenders and limits popular resistance in particular national states. For
us, the potential fruitfulness of a Marxian analysis is in finding an internal and necessary
link between ostensibly novel forms of protest politics and the form taken by capital
accumulation in a given national state.
As was shown above, due to the historical and contradictory development of capitalism
in Spain, accumulation in recent years necessitated the availability of cheap money, profit-
making opportunities in real estate speculation, and spiralling consumer demand. These
offset endemic weaknesses in the labour market (poor flexibility), a poor supply of qual-
ity human capital, poor productivity, and created an environment in which pervasive

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Charnock et al. 9

corruption was tolerated, if not normalised. Once such characteristics of capital accumu-
lation in Spain are taken into account, the popular protests of 2011 can be explained in
terms of the fallout from the inability of the political class to sustain an asset bubble and
keep in motion a trajectory of high investment, high growth, and high growth rates of
income accruing from the construction boom and the accumulation of debt.
The danger, in our view, would be for the indignados movement to ignore questions of
political economy and Spains place within the world market and to instead focus upon
abstract and purely political notions of real democracy, celebrating the momentary explo-
sion of protest in and for itself, and demanding the immediate goals of punishing the cor-
ruption, self-interest, and general moral bankruptcy on the part of the Spanish political
class and banking sector (see, for example, Roos, 27 July 2011). This is not to denigrate the
indignados movement, but to highlight that the importance and potential of mass politics
lies in its ability to grasp the material determinations of its own action and demands. With
Greece only temporarily avoiding default in 2011, and Spanish and Italian bond yields
inciting genuine fears of default in those countries, there is an emerging scenario in which
the struggle has only just begun.12 Over the coming months, and while the indignados are
looking to enter into an extensive dialogue between themselves and other European move-
ments, it remains to be seen whether they can effectively integrate popular indignation
directed towards the political class with that of the analysis of capitalism in Spain and
beyond, and as a means to constructively debate the meaning of real democracy.13

Acknowledgements
Some of the research for this article was conducted with the support of funding from the Spanish
Ministry of Innovation and Science (Ribera-Fumaz and Charnock, ref. CSO2010-16966) and the
Spanish Ministry of Education (Purcell, ref. SB2010-0060).

Endnotes
1. From the website of the platform Democracia Real YA! <www.democraciarealya.es>,
accessed 19 July 2011; authors translation. For further information and insight, other web
and social networking sites of organisations associated with the 15-M movement include
those of ATTAC Espaa <www.attac.es>, elindigNado <www.elindignado.com>, Juventud
SIN Futuro <www.juventudsinfuturo.net>, and Plataforma de Afectados por las Hipotecas
<http://afectadosporlahipoteca.wordpress.com>.Democracia Real YA! has its own YouTube
channel at <www.youtube.com/democraciarealya>. John Postill, an anthropologist, is
compiling a glossary of the 15-M movement at <http://johnpostill.wordpress.com> (in
Spanish and Catalan).
2. Spains Sustainable Economy Law, or ley Sinde, dictates that content in breach of copyright
law can be removed from the internet, and is unpopular with many website owners and new
social media networks.
3. The demands are posted in Spanish at <http://marchapopularindignada.wordpress.com>,
accessed 28 July 2011.
4. For instance, there have been clashes with riot police where some groups of indignados have
attempted to prevent evictions (desahucios) of tenants whose rents have been suddenly and
substantially increased after years of rent control. See one such situation unfold in Barcelona
on 25 July 2011, '#15M lluita contra brutal desnonament al Clot 25/7/2011' on <www.
youtube.com>, accessed 28 July 2011.
5. Spains parliament passed a bill to increase the standard retirement age to 67 on 27 June 2011.
6. SIN CASA, SIN CURRO, SIN PENSION, SIN MIEDO; see <www.juventudsinfuturo.net>.

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10 Capital & Class 36(1)

7. See the Manifesto at <www.democraciarealya.es>, accessed 19 July 2011.


8. See, for example, the proposals in Spanish and French at <www.democraciarealya.es>,
accessed 1 August 2011.
9. Commentators attributed the defeat of the PP in 2005 to the Aznar governments support of
the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its handling of the 11 March 2004 train bombings in Madrid.
10. Eurostat unemployment data available at <http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu>, accessed 21
July 2011.
11. Instituto Nacional de Estadstica employment data for 2010, available at <www.ine.es>,
accessed 28 February 2010.
12. The adjustment measures taken by the Spanish government in the recent months represent
both a short-term necessity to avoid default, but also, more importantly, longer-term goals
of recovering the rate of profit by means of an attack on the Spanish working class through
pension and labour market reforms, the reduction of public sector salaries, further spending
cuts, and the privatisation of social services, among other means.
13. At the time of this reports going to press, and even after the largest indignados demonstration
to date on 15 October 2011, the PP won an absolute parliamentary majority in the general
election of 20 November 2011. The PSOE suffered its worst electoral performance since the
transition to democracy. In the context of the deepening crisis of the Eurozone, this presages
an intensification of privatisation and austerity measures, and further social unrest.

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Author biography
Greig Charnock teaches international politics at the University of Manchester. Thomas
Purcell is a postdoctoral researcher at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in Barcelona,
where Ramon Ribera-Fumaz is also a lecturer in business and economics. All three are cur-
rently collaborating on a research project on the political economy of Spain, and its cities.

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