“I am amazed that there is social peace in this country,” the writer Almudena Grandes used to say. And indeed, considering the enormous fault lines that crisscross Spanish society in terms of the economy (inequality, unemployment and wage devaluation), politics (representation and territorial crisis) and morality (corruption among the elites), it is hard to understand why the average person on the street is not up in arms.
To a great extent, this is due to social movements, which have channeled this disaffection and given it a voice. These movements have managed to pull the losers out of their invisibility, dragging out into the public arena the kinds of problems that power had attempted to conceal or play down as an inevitable collateral effect of the crisis. And visibility is the first step toward recognition, a necessary condition to prevent exclusion. Once visible, they are given a voice. Politics is all about words, and he who lacks the possibility to speak out simply does not exist.
All this has gelled into different types of mobilizations that have expanded the participation game, much against the will of those in power: they have taken their demands to high authorities (witness the anti-eviction groups who collected enough signatures to bring a popular initiative on mortgage relief to Congress), stopped abusive political decisions, such as health privatization in Madrid, and channeled the fight against government abuses, such as abortion reform as well as the pro-sovereignty demands of broad sectors of Catalan society, in the case of the so-called National Catalan Assembly (a private group of pro-independence activists).
Politics is all about words, and he who lacks the possibility to speak out simply does not exist
The growing strength of these movements is underscoring the reason for their success: crisis in the system of representation. Citizen sympathy for these movements, as reflected in the polls, can be explained by the realization that the political oligopoly that controls Spain’s institutions is neither capable nor willing to represent the people’s best interests. And so the social movements are providing democracy with the opening that the institutions are denying it.
The government, bent on building an increasingly restrictive democracy with support from a good section of the political caste, began by discrediting the movements, writing them off as anti-political or anti-system, as though citizens did not have the right to do politics without going through political parties. Later the government criminalized the movements outright. The new public order law, which even the General Council of the Judiciary, Spain’s legal watchdog, finds aberrant, was partly aimed at them. The incidents at the end of several street demonstrations, featuring acts of violence by organized groups who are very familiar to the police, are being used to criminalize the social movements as a whole, instead of separating the behavior of a few from the impeccable conduct of the vast majority of protesters.
Yet thanks to the fact that the social movements have expanded the democratic game, a game that increasingly opaque institutions are intent on ending, the street belongs to everyone, not only to those who use violence.