Taking the Square: Digital Activism in Spain
Nobody expects the spanishrevolution. With this Python-inspired phrase and a V-mask a protester made the point that the Spanish political system is in turmoil. The construction bubble that sustained economic growth burst with the financial crisis of 2008. The result is a high level of public debt that may force Spain to request a humbling bailout from the EU and the IMF.
Unemployment is a more protracted problem. It has long been argued that the social security system in Europe creates structural unemployment, which is not harmful. But the statistics in Spain reach today numbers beyond “structural”: a general unemployment rate of ca. 20% and a rate of 45% in the group of young people 25 or younger. Such dismal figures coupled with an ageing population and an expensive social system has created a political crisis.
The weakened leftist government of the PSOE started May with an electoral race to select municipal leaders and presidents of the autonomous communities, widely regarded as a popular referendum on the ability of the government to manage the situation. However, the situation turned into a popular protest movement that started within the social networks and developed into an effective form of #digital activism that brought out thousands of people to take the main square in Madrid (#Puerta del Sol) on May 15th.
The same digital activism that made 15-M possible, now with the attention of the mass media, created similar movements in several Spanish cities, and it spread to European countries and beyond. Young and old alike took part in the sit-ins. The message was one of civic engagement, of taking responsibility and of “indignation”, influenced by the manifest by Stéphane Hessel “Indignáos!.” (Time for Outrage!)
The #15-M movement has camped in Sol for more than 3 weeks and has created a micro-environment of political discussion and decision making. Sol is a place where among the disorder of a protest young people run around maintaining order and cleanliness, pleading not to drink alcohol, distributing food and water, tending to children and providing health services; and discussing all sorts of political issues in sessions (the topics range from immigration to green energy). However, the camp has been marred by people that do not care for activism and have “nowhere to go” (the okupas and other “tribes”) and the need to move on with the movement at a new level. Proposals to spread the movement to local meetings in barrios coordinated by social networks or to have a form of online-assembly and parliament are direct consequences of online activism, but none has taken form yet.
No clear outcome is in sight, but the 15-M phenomenon will have an impact in the emerging political form called “digital activism”. Further, it will test the degree of its power to transform a traditional democratic system into one that may be open to online forms of discussion. Such discussions are in real time and can be used to analyze popular sentiment and the perception of measures in the systems, what could become a system of feedback democracy.
The interest lies in that Spain is not an isolated case. The role of online and social networks have been central in many of the recent movements in Egypt (Tahrir Square revolution), Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and in the political campaigns of Antanas Mockus in Colombia, the anti-violence protests in Mexico (mxhastalamadre) and of course the presidential campaign of Obama. Its real influence, if any, is difficult to measure and there is precious little data to go around. New research has to be done to be able to answer many questions. The social network companies themselves, if they are becoming a platform for political agitation and mobilization, more over a new kind of public space for free speech and political debate, will have to consider at some point the need to make information from its databases widely available to researchers. This would probably raise questions about the role of such companies in a global society, and the need for regulation and control.
But for now the interest in focused in the ability of a group of young people to use a new medium, and a new way of talking, listening and acting, to obtain the political power necessary to affect non-violent change in a society that in its most basic structures, still lives under the paradigm of broadcasting, television, mass media and top-down control of information and power. Will the change from consumer to “prosumer”, the change from audience to speaker, transform the political landscape and allow some new powerful form of civic engagement? Or will the system of media control make sure that digital activism remains a curiosity flower in a huge garden tended by one chief gardener?
Up to this point the pastiche with the Python skit has turned to be an excellent metaphor for the 15-M. In the Python short, the cardinals that embody the Spanish Inquisition are unable to decide how many weapons they have at their disposal, and have to start over again and again. The torture methods of the pythonesque inquisition turn out to be nice and ineffective: cushions and comfy chairs. The 15-M movement is struggling with a way to find consensus amid a myriad of voices and influences, and further to maintain its commitment to non-inflammatory, self-deprecating methods. Both dilemmas of effective political activism, that may be its undoing.