DEMOCRACY HERE AND NOW – The exemplary case of Spain, by Pablo Ouziel

By Pablo Ouziel, Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria

Reflections on the talk and presentations given at the Political Theory Research Group seminar, Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona on June 20th 2019

On June 20th 2019, I had the pleasure of initiating a multilogue on Spain’s 15M democratization practices, with the Political Theory Research Group (GRPT) at the Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) in Barcelona.

In 2011, Spanish public squares 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).

At this UPF event in 2019, everyone in the room had a certain lived experience within 15M. From 2011 until 2013 Spain was immersed in a 15M climate which altered the way in which many Spanish citizens thought about what it means to be political. Everyone who attended this GRPT seminar was in Spain during the occupations of 2011. For this reason, I thought it best, being faithful to the mode of being I have learnt-with while studying 15M, to begin my talk by asking the GRPT members present, to describe what they thought 15M was or still is. This was my way of situating my descriptions of 15M within a multilogue of reciprocal elucidation in which we all co-learnt about what 15M represents in/for Spanish politics.

Marc Sanjaume, researcher and adviser at the Institut d’Estudis de l’Autogovern (Self-government Studies Institute, Catalan Government) was the first to describe what 15M was for him. From a personal perspective, he described 15M as an expressive movement, with a high dosage of expression and a multigenerational component, which was unwilling/unable to articulate or organize a political project. He understood 15M as vaporous, and thought that in the end, every day in the square people repeated debates on the same issues because every day new people were joining the square.

Ultimately, Sanjaume thought that the absolute and radical commitment to assembly based decision making was unable to make proposals, and argued that its voluntarist nature created a blind spot in its understanding of the political.

Pau Bossacoma Busquets, lecturer in public law at UPF and legal advisor to the Catalan Government, followed by adding that it was a social movement that brought people together and then crystalized into a political party (Podemos), and various associations which achieved numerous things in different areas of social life. He specifically mentioned the Platform of those affected by mortgages (PAH) and Democracia Real Ya. The later was actually the organization that called for the demonstration on May 15th of 2011, which later materialized into square occupations.

Bossacoma Busquets argued that 15M was unable to articulate its relationship to the Spanish state in a manner which managed to convince Catalan society. He identified a conflict between Spanish assembly based movements and secession movements in Catalonia and argued that this antagonism was not resolved. He reminded us of the fact that language was a big issue in square assemblies and of the fact that Catalan speakers were not happy with the assembly being carried out in Spanish. For Bossacoma Busquets, 15M was clearly an extremely urban movement and thus saw it disconnected from rural communities.

Peter Kraus, professor at the University of Augsburg, continued by adding that those in 15M should ask themselves how come once institutionalized, those in government had quickly become like the old parties they had previously been denouncing. Specifically, he referred to Ada Colau, who after being a spokesperson for the PAH had become mayor of Barcelona. He reminded us of the fact that in the recent mayoral elections she has pacted with mayoral candidate Manuel Valls, former Prime Minister of France from 2014 until 2016, in order to retain her position as mayor. Valls is thought of in Catalonia as a radical neoliberal politician striving for a strong Spanish state. He is seen as someone expressing no interest in listening to the voices of the Catalan independence movement. For Kraus, with this pact, Barcelona En Comú, Colau’s party (and Podemos’ partner in Catalonia) stopped being the party which could act as a dialogue facilitator between the Catalan independence movement and groups around and within 15M.

Klaus-Jürgen Nagel, Professor of Political Science at UPF, painted a similar picture of 15M. For him, it was first in the squares, it then became more organized and started a new political party. In speaking of a new party, he referred to Podemos and all the new regional and municipal coalitions made up of new parties stemming from 15M. As to to the question of what is left of 15M, he simply stated that all that is left is a political party with its internal crises.

Ferran Requejo, Professor of Political Science at UPF and director of the Institut d’Estudis de l’Autogovern (Self-government Studies Institute, Catalan Government), argued that 15M combined two things: First, citizenry disaffection building up since the 1980s against representative democracy. Second, conflict stemming from the 2007 economic crisis. For him, in the squares we witnessed a debate between pseudo-intellectualized people who used very little empiric data. To him, the language that was used seemed too abstract and he argued that people were against the state of the system rather than against the state. To him, it appeared like the kind of discourse one would expect in a high school. In addition, he found 15M to be too pro-Spain and pro-Spanish to be representative of the Catalan citizenry.

For Requejo, 15M accomplished nothing and is today a dead movement which is on the decline. He mentioned that he never understood what people were referring to when speaking of ‘real democracy now’, and he argued that people came together because of discontent presenting an unfriendly and unappealing discourse.

Following reflection on these contributions, I proceeded to present my imaginary of 15M. I described what I discovered during my research trip in 2013. I explained how 15M showed civic and civil citizens practicing participatory democracy and joining hands. I argued that with their examples of civic activities and exemplars of civic citizenship, individuals being 15M were contesting while simultaneously constructing alternatives. Finally, I explained how disclosing the field of 15M in this manner, crystalized 15M as a political phenomenon in its own right that is overlooked by state-centric framings.

A precious multilogue ensued, within which we discussed distinctions between being the demos and being a demoi, we spoke of constitutive processes, of the similarities and differences between the Catalan independence movement and 15M, about crisis time versus slow time, about violence versus nonviolence, and about the national versus transnational dimension of 15M.

In an inviting yet provocative manner, Kraus asked whether I might be tinting my imaginary of 15M by wearing Tullian glasses imported from Canada when entering research in Spain. To this I simply responded that I co-constructed my understanding of 15M with those being 15M by immersing myself in dialogues of reciprocal elucidation across Spain. Nevertheless, I took his point to heart and I realize that this is something which is important to always keep in mind when arguing like Foucault that people know what they want, why they want it, and are perfectly capable of speaking with their own voice. We must avoid at all times misrepresenting agents we are entering into dialogue with. We must avoid super-imposing theories we have learnt upon social realities we observe and interact with. An ‘ethic of interruption’ (Mathias Thaler) is crucial as we engage with people we are going to write about.

Finally, in an exemplary joining hands gesture, Requejo made a valuable suggestion regarding the importance of exploring family resemblances between the Catalan Procés and 15M. This could be a valuable contribution as Catalonia and Spain undergo deep transformations. Clearly there is a lot of work to be done in this area and I hope to join hands with people at UPF to explore criss-crossing and overlapping similarities between these two crucial events marking present day Spanish politics.

Overall this was a valuable conversation in which we discussed different imaginaries of what is possible in current day Catalan and Spanish politics and explored the futures of democracies in these lands.

About the author: Pablo Ouziel is co-founder of the Cedar Trees Institute at the University of Victoria. He is Associate Fellowship at the Centre for Global Studies at the same university and is a visiting fellow at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain and the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom. Pablo’s research interests include public philosophy, collective presences, horizontality, nonviolence and civic democracy. By standing within the tradition of public philosophy, the core of his work is centred on excavating networks of individuals governing themselves in numerous ways that supersede our current structures of representative government





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