15-M: how Spain’s ‘outraged’ movement spawned political change

Seven historians analyze the ongoing impact of the May 2011 social protests against austerity and corruption, the most visible manifestation of which was the sit-ins at Madrid’s Puerta del Sol

Scenes from the protests in Madrid's Puerta del Sol in May 2011 (captions in Spanish). Video: LUCA PIERGIOVANNI / EFE | EPV
Guillermo Altares

Ten years ago, on May 15, 2011, the online rallying cry for a demonstration by a grassroots movement called Real Democracy Now was an unexpected triumph that turned Madrid’s central Puerta del Sol square into a protest camp. Out of it came a political movement known in Spanish as 15-M, named after May 15, and sometimes also referred to as the movement of the indignados or the outraged. This movement catalyzed much of the discontent caused by the 2008 global financial crisis and became the launching pad for the left-leaning political party Podemos.

A decade later, and for very different reasons – a pandemic, rather than the pitfalls of an unreal economy that devastated the real economy – the world is experiencing another crisis marked by rampant inequality. The 15-M movement has left many marks on Spanish society, above and beyond a handful of popular expressions such as “the caste,” a term coined by Podemos co-founder Pablo Iglesias to describe Spain’s political and judicial establishment, or “the ’78 regime,” alluding to the political system that emerged from the 1978 Spanish Constitution. Its effects on the Spanish party system have once again become evident in Madrid’s recent regional election, which resulted in the withdrawal of Pablo Iglesias from active politics and in the rise of the Podemos splinter group Más Madrid, which has eaten away at the voter base of the Socialist Party (PSOE) in that region.

EL PAÍS has consulted seven Spanish historians, all of whom are 20th-century scholars from different generations and areas of expertise, about the repercussions of 15-M on Spain’s recent history. Accustomed as they are to dealing with extended time spans, they generally feel more comfortable with a broad perspective. However, they all agree that the spirit of 15-M is here to stay, not only in contemporary Spanish history but also in the history of the Western world.

Demonstrators at the Puerta del Sol protest camp on May 22, 2011.
Demonstrators at the Puerta del Sol protest camp on May 22, 2011.David Ramos (GETTY IMAGES)

“It is undoubtedly a very important date in the developed world,” says Mercedes Cabrera, 69. She is a professor of history of political thought and social movements who also served as education minister from 2006 to 2009, and has written several essays on economic history. According to Cabrera, 15-M marked a turning point that flagged up changes that had already been underway, such as a transformation in the configuration of the political party system. A lot has happened in the past 10 years but, as she points out, the cycle has not ended yet. “It was a wake-up call regarding our understanding of politics and how politics are done,” she says. “And it was a fallout from the crisis and the institutional deterioration of the democracies that were supposed to have secured an eternal victory after the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

The seven historians agree that 15-M was a manifestation of the crushing effect of the 2008 recession, which was accompanied by a brutal wave of cutbacks that knocked out the middle classes, condemned millions to poverty and robbed many young people in Europe and the US of their future.

Enrique Moradiellos, 60, a professor at the University of Extremadura, author of several studies on the Spanish Civil War and winner of the National History Prize for a book on the subject, believes that the significance of 15-M can only be explained in a much broader context. He points out that it is a relevant phenomenon within the people’s civic response to the Western world’s economic crisis, which has become a crisis of the welfare state. It is, he says, a protest against cutbacks and austerity, but also against the paralysis of the political system in the face of mounting inequality. Many of the demands that were introduced in the political agenda at the time were related to that inequality: the right to housing, or the fight against evictions and corruption.

Moradiellos also relates 15-M to other very different – even contrasting – manifestations of this malaise, such as the Trump phenomenon. “I don’t want to compare [Trumpism] with 15-M. God forbid!” he exclaims. “But they form part of the same response to globalization, to the incursion of new technologies that are revolutionizing the world of work.”

This would include the Arab Spring – it should not be forgotten that this movement kicked off in Tunisia due to poverty and injustice fatigue – the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US, the arrival of the left-wing Syriza coalition on the Greek political scene, and even the French “yellow vest” populist protests. Eduardo González Calleja, 59, a professor at Carlos III University and an expert on political violence and social movements in Europe, sees parallels with those movements protesting against aspects of post-industrial capitalism. “Perhaps it is comparable to the outbreak of the 1968 protests,” he says. “In 20th-century Spain, there is nothing comparable. These are processes that espouse peaceful action and go beyond the national framework.”

Juan Francisco Fuentes, 66, a professor at Madrid’s Complutense University and an expert on Spain’s Transition period who has written many books on contemporary history, including an essay on the 1981 coup attempt, believes that the study and understanding of 15-M is inseparable from its context. “Two things stand out with respect to other protest movements: its spontaneity and its impact on political life, without, however, provoking a change of regime,” he says. In other words, it affected Spain’s two-party system and raised awareness about corruption, but did not alter the structure of the democratic system.

The repercussions on the Spanish political system, chiefly by ushering in new political forces and players, is undoubtedly one of the main implications of 15-M agreed upon by the historians. There was a concerted effort to change the status quo that went beyond the placards bearing slogans that echoed the protests of May 1968, such as “Economic slave for rent,” “Rebels without a home,” “More education, less corruption,” and it also went further than the assemblies and debates in Puerta del Sol, which later expanded to other city neighborhoods.

“It will endure because it implies a change in tack, the arrival of new players in political life,” says Mirta Núñez Díaz-Balart, a professor of history of social communication, former head of the 20th-Century Historical Memory Academic Chair at Complutense University and an expert on the Spanish press during the Civil War. The main players, she points out, were conscientious and committed young people. “It was an expression from the left, but it took place outside the traditional parties,” she notes. It could also be interpreted as the end of the Transition, a period roughly spanning from the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 to the national election of 1982. The movement showed society that Spain had changed significantly and that new individual and collective protagonists had emerged.

The protest camp in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol early in the morning on May 21, 2011.
The protest camp in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol early in the morning on May 21, 2011.David Ramos (Getty Images)

Pilar Mera Costas, a professor of contemporary history at the National Distance Education University (UNED), and author of numerous research papers on dictatorships and nationalism in the 20th century, points out that the 15-M movement paved the way for a different way of doing politics. The movement was a visible expression of discontent that explains the success of the protest parties Podemos and the liberal, center-right Citizens (Ciudadanos). “The electoral law was the same and yet there was a very clear shift,” she says. “People began to consider that they could vote for other parties; a third party emerged and won seats in Soria and Burgos.” Being the third party started to become important. And this is possibly part of a more extended change in the cycle: it started with Podemos and Ciudadanos and will likely end with the far-right Vox party and the Greens. “We are going to be totally European at this rate, because we were the only country so far without a far-right or an ecologist party,” she adds. “All that is missing now is a truly liberal party.”

The reinterpretation of Spain’s Transition period has been another lasting repercussion of 15-M: groundbreaking events not only change the future, but also transform the past. A new generation burst onto the Spanish political scene and into the social limelight during May 2011: not only did this generation refuse to accept its role in the economic system, but it also shattered what had been the greatest consensus in the collective memory of Spanish democracy: namely, that the transition from Franco’s dictatorship to a democracy integrated within Europe had been an unqualified success. This consensus was due to the manner in which the Transition was carried out, through an agreement that brought together hitherto irreconcilable political opponents. Only the violent extremes, such as the far-left Basque terrorist group ETA and the political far-right, were excluded.

An assembly at Puerta del Sol, a week after 15-M kicked off.
An assembly at Puerta del Sol, a week after 15-M kicked off.David Ramos (Getty Images)

A number of scholars believe that so much criticism of the Transition has ended up undermining the value of consensus and dealmaking. It has given wings to extreme positions and public brawls instead of dialogue as a mode of political communication. Others believe it is an inevitable shift in the way in which the new generations consider their past. Ana Martínez Rus, an expert in cultural history and Francoism who teaches contemporary history at Complutense University, explains that she has been teaching 20th-century Spanish history for more than a decade and noticed an important change after 15-M. “Before that, students never questioned the Transition,” she says. “Afterwards, they became extremely critical. I don’t think the Transition should be sanctified, but neither should we look at what was done through a 2021 lens. There is also a noticeable disgruntlement with the institutional corruption of some elites, which makes sense considering everything that is now known about the head of state. Before this, a very uncritical way of understanding that period prevailed. My students in this class were born in 2000 and they are critical.”

Asked about its long-term repercussions, Fuentes points out that six months after 15-M, the conservative Popular Party (PP) won the elections with an absolute majority. “The movement spoke in the name of the people,” he says. “But when the people spoke at the ballot box, as happened in France in June 1968, the result bore little resemblance to what [15-M’s] spokespersons predicted.” But he believes that there will be lasting effects, including an awareness that the brunt of a crisis cannot be borne by its most vulnerable victims; that people react if abused. Fuentes says this perception is already influencing post-pandemic recovery plans, which are far more constructive than the savage austerity measures implemented after the 2008 economic crisis. “This is 15-M’s main legacy: the message that people are not easily resigned to losing everything.”

Since 2018, a plaque recalls what happened that May: “‘We were asleep, we woke up.’ The people of Madrid in recognition of the 15-M movement that took place in this Puerta del Sol.” The rest is history.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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