Victor Manuel Espinosa flickr cc

‘No one represents us’: On the Links Between Podemos and the Indignados

‘Hey, hey, hey! Calm down, buddy,’ says the short and stocky man with his hands in the air. He has just received two blows from a riot officer’s baton. ‘Now, what’s your badge number?’

The officer turns and walks away as his fellows form a wall around him. ‘No, no, no,’ the stocky man says, his voice rasping into a bratty snarl. ‘When you ask for my ID card, I give it to you. When I ask you for your badge number,’ he punches into his hand emphatically, then points at the officer, ‘you give it to me.

He looks at one of the cameras around him. ‘That one, right there. The one who’s running away. Look how he runs!’

He follows the officer, pointing and motioning to the cameras to follow. ‘You! You there! You’re so brave? Get over here. Hey! Hey, valiente! Yeah, you, valiente! Weren’t you brave enough to hit me? You want to do it again? Get over here!’

He glares through the wall of shields and Teflon, oblivious to the cluster of officers sneaking into his blind side. A baton swats the back of his leg, just below the knee. He jumps back, hopping angrily. ‘Y venga ahi, vamos!’ he shouts, mockingly. ‘All right, with blows. That’s how we’ll solve this! That’s what you know how to do!’

He points to the onlookers, then at the police around him. ‘They’re fooling everyone, man!’ An officer charges at him wildly, swinging his baton and shoving. The stocky man refuses to disengage. A cameraman informs the police that they’re all on record. The stocky man points at the Congress. ‘It’s them, you imbeciles! They’re committing the fucking crimes here, those hijos de puta. They’re fooling everyone! They’re the real cabrones!’ The line of officers prepare their charge. ‘Why don’t you reason?’ he asks. ‘Because you don’t have a fucking clue, that’s why. Because all you have are orders. That’s all you know.’

At the Fuente de Neptuno in Madrid, the Surround the Congress protest has cracked open. Police are charging, firing rubber bullets as they run at the crowd. Pakistani beer vendors drift through the multitude, calmly selling cans to breathless demonstrators as the shots whizz by. Their serenity lends the scene a dreamlike air. A riot officer wrestles someone to the ground but is thrown off balance by a flying kick to the side. Another protester trips him up, another pushes him down. As the image is broadcast in a bar the next morning, a manolo bar with the Spanish flag on the counter and a bullfighting calendar on the wall, a liberally oiled man with his hair slicked back mutters, ‘Ese es un compañero.’ Now that is a comrade.

There’s a certain attitude that gets associated with Madrid called la chulería. A cheeky insolence with both nihilistic and antagonistic overtones, it is brave, devilishly male and quintessentially Spanish. Though it’s generally viewed as an unflattering trait, there’s a scrappiness to it, a willingness to let things get ugly and embrace that ugliness, that can be endearing and often quite brave.

The Surround the Congress protest on 25 September 2012 was an ugly protest, one where overwhelmingly the most common sign simply read ‘NO’ in thick black letters on a white background. But by the autumn of 2012, things had got ugly all over Spain. Though the festive repertoire of the indignados transmitted a message of hope to people thirsty for it, the Popular Party government’s super-majority confronted us with the desert of the real.

In their first year since being voted into office on 20 November 2011 – the 36th anniversary of the dictator Francisco Franco’s death – the Rajoy administration dramatically intensified austerity and imposed major structural reforms, including a labour market reform that decimated collective bargaining, reduced firing costs and spurred the proliferation of precarious employment. This sparked a massive general strike coupled with a consumption strike organized by the unions and the 15M neighbourhood assemblies. The day was marked by heavy conflicts. In Barcelona, hundreds of masked citizens seriously damaged several major banks, a Starbucks, the Opus Dei-related, upper-class hypermarket El Corte Inglés and the Barcelona Stock Exchange. 20 people were wounded by rubber bullets and at least one man lost an eye. Meanwhile, in Torrelavega a shop owner attacked a picketer with a knife. In the Basque Country, a 19 year old was left in the ICU with serious head injuries after the Basque Ertzaintza beat him down with clubs and fired a rubber bullet at his head from close range.

The Popular Party accompanied cuts and restructuring with a disturbing knack for adding insult to injury. Nowhere was this more visible than in Valencia. There, when photos of high school students wearing blankets in class owing to a lack of heating went viral in the winter of 2012, protests against the cuts gave way to the so-called Primavera Valenciana (‘Valencian Spring’). These mobilizations were violently repressed by riot police, producing outrageous images of officers attacking minors. When asked about his heavy-handed tactics at a press conference, police chief Antonio Moreno denied the use of riot gear, pounding the podium as he responded, ‘You’ll understand that I’m not going to tell you this. It is not prudent, from the perspective of police tactics and techniques, for me to tell the enemy what my forces are.’

Then, on 11 July, Valencian representative Andrea Fabra, the daughter of Carlos Fabra, a prominent businessman and politician under investigation for corruption, responded to her party’s approval of a severe cut to unemployment benefits with enthusiasm. ‘Qué se jodan!’ she shouted, ‘Fuck ’em!’ A video of her outburst went viral almost immediately, sparking protests in front of Popular Party headquarters all over the country.

That same day, 200 miners arrived in Madrid as part of La Marcha Negra, a march that began three weeks earlier in the mining villages of Asturias, where subsidies were being slashed by 63%. The miners responded to the cuts with an indefinite strike that produced dramatic images of police occupying towns and masked miners returning their blows, firing home-made rocket launchers from behind burning barricades. As the march approached Congress, however, the miners and their sympathizers were beaten back by riot police, fuelling several more days of protest.

The next month in Andalusia, some 200 members of the Sindicato Andaluz de Trabajadores – the Andalusian fieldworkers’ union or SAT, for short – went to two large-chain supermarkets, filled up ten shopping carts with milk, sugar, chickpeas, pasta, rice and other basic necessities, and walked out without paying. The SAT referred to the action as an expropriation and proceeded to donate the food to 26 families in La Corrala Utopía (an occupied housing block in Seville) and three civic centres in Cadiz province. Despite the establishment’s aggressive campaign against the SAT in the media, polls in the conservative and progressive press showed that the majority of respondents supported the action.

Finally, on 11 September 2012, two weeks before the Surround the Congress protest, 1m people filled the streets of Barcelona calling for Catalan independence from Spain. In an uncharacteristically risky move, the region’s governing party, the right-wing nationalist coalition Convergència i Unió (CiU), had opted for a policy of confrontation with the central government in Madrid.

Far from caving in to the voices of the streets, Catalan president Artur Mas’s strategy was largely intended to quiet them. The indignados in Barcelona were arguably the most radical in Spain, and polls showed that, as happened everywhere with large anti-austerity movements, the opposition in the streets was leading the governing party to haemorrhage votes at an alarming rate. But it was well known that there was one question that had proved particularly difficult for the indignados to agree on: Catalonia’s right to self-determination. By amplifying its nationalist rhetoric, CiU were able to distance themselves from the Popular Party (which they had relied on to pass austerity), divide the indignados and counter their critique of electoral politics by championing a prohibited vote that, in theory at least, foreshadowed potentially radical consequences for both Catalonia and Spain.

All of the above combined to give the Surround the Congress protest an air of what Giorgio Agamben might consider a ‘destituent moment’, wherein the governmental machine is, if not deactivated, at the very least laid bare. To borrow a local expression, it revealed that, as a project of national sovereignty, España vence pero no convence. Spain vanquishes, but does not convince.


On 17 January 2014, at the Teatro del Barrio in the Lavapies neighbourhood of Madrid, Pablo Iglesias, Juan Carlos Monedero, Ana Castaño, Teresa Rodríguez, Miguel Urbán and Íñigo Errejón presented a manifesto that would launch Podemos, the upstart left-wing party that everyone will be watching on Sunday as the results of Spain’s general elections come in. The title of that manifesto was Making a move: Turning Indignation into Political Change.

From its outset, the party has winked at the indignados movement. Between 2011 and 2013, that movement filled Spain’ streets and plazas, breaking down the country’s dominant cultural narrative, known as la Cultura de la Transición, in reference to the transition from Franco’s dictatorship to its current constitutional monarchy. As often happened during the movement’s heyday, the event at the Teatro del Barrio provoked an overwhelming response. The humble theatre proved too small for the crowd, and hundreds were unable to get past the door.

Over time it has become very common for analysts to refer to Podemos as the party of the indignados. This is a misconception. The indignados were hostile to the very idea of representation. Underlying their message was an awareness that they were not a single people demanding a single program, but a multitude demanding more mechanisms and more power to decide how they would organise their lives and livelihoods. While I make this claim based on the actual discourse of the movement’s assemblies, admittedly, my view is also the result of a key linguistic distinction. In the plazas of Madrid, Seville and other Spanish cities, the rallying cry was the Castilian no nos representan (‘they do not represent us’). In Barcelona, however, we declared in Catalan that ningú ens representano one represents us.

What also distinguishes Podemos from the indignados is the party’s support base. Though their message resonated far beyond their class composition, the indignados were largely composed of a relatively young, college-educated precariat. This was mostly due to the differences between what participation in a social movement entails and what participation in a political party entails. For instance, the indignados’ emphasis on direct action and slow, horizontal deliberation introduced something of a selection mechanism into actual participation in the movement. Consequently, people who were less versed in the culture of radical politics, had less time to spend in general assemblies, were not entirely comfortable with public speaking, were not particularly interested in learning new internet tools like Mumble or PiratePad and were not willing to take the risks associated with civil disobedience were gradually filtered out over time.

In contrast, Podemos’s access to national television guaranteed contact with a somewhat older demographic, which is extremely important in a country where decades of low fertility have given way to an older population structure. Moreover, the types of participation that Podemos enabled (namely, ballot boxes and smart phone apps) have a low learning curve, require less time and involve fewer risks than those favoured by the indignados. As a result, Podemos was able to complement its young, college-educated base with substantial support from working class, underprivileged and older groups, whose precarity generally comes with substantially greater risks than that of the indignados.

It is also important to note that Podemos was not the first political party to be associated with the indignados. The first organisation to break with the movement’s taboo against entering the electoral arena was the Partido X, a Pirate Party-style network of technopolitical practitioners who proposed a radically horizontal, net-centric approach to electoral politics. Though they never really caught on with the general public, they introduced a number of fascinating ideas, uncovered several major corruption scandals and had a hand in some of the indignados’ major achievements. Perhaps the most notable of these was 15MpaRato, a crowdfunded campaign that brought Rodrigo Rato, a former Managing Director of the IMF and Spain’s Minister of the Economy from 1996 to 2004, to court for fraud, money laundering and concealment of assets.

The other major examples of parties that were associated with the indignados before Podemos are found among the so-called radical left ‘nationalist’ parties in Galicia and Catalonia. The first of these was Alternativa Galega de Esquerda (AGE), a coalition of federalist and left-wing independence parties led by Xose Manuel Beiras, a charismatic politician best known for his involvement in the antiglobalisation movement and for banging his parliamentary seat with his shoe in the style of Nikita Khrushchev as a sign of protest. In October 2012, AGE surprised many by becoming the third party in the Galician parliament, with roughly 14% of the vote. Pablo Iglesias played a key role in advising their campaign, which received considerable support from local 15M assemblies.

The second left-wing independence party to be associated with the indignados was the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP) in Catalonia. Once a strictly ‘municipalist’ candidacy composed of neighbourhood associations, social movements, radical left independence groups and prominent members of anarcho-syndicalist unions, the massive pro-independence rally on 11 September 2012 pushed them to run at the regional level in that year’s elections. Led by David Fernandez, a highly respected journalist and familiar face in Barcelona’s cooperativist movement, CUP won three seats in the 25 November elections.

So while they weren’t the first to attempt to channel the energy of the indignados into the sphere of representation, Podemos were the first to seriously challenge the establishment parties in a battle for control of the central government. Their spectacular impact on the country’s political situation suggests that they understood the climate in the aftermath of the 2011 protests better than any other institutional political actor. They avoided interpreting the role of the social networks in connecting people and movements as support for a technopolitical, decentralized peer-to-peer ideology. Instead, they treated the social networks as a discursive laboratory through which to test and refine a common narrative that they would then take to the public arena in order to maximise its impact. At the same time, though they initially drew their legitimacy, structure and demands from the social movements, their intention was always to bring these to people who live beyond activists’ comfort zones. To put it bluntly, they wanted to take the discussion they saw on the social networks and in the codified spaces of the social movements to the murkier terrain of Spain’s bars, cafés and unemployment lines. And no matter what happens on Sunday, it is safe to say that they’ve achieved this.

This is an edited extract from Hope is a Promise: From the Indignados to the Rise of Podemos in Spain by Carlos Delclós (Zed Books, £1.99 / $2.99).

Photo: Víctor Manuel Espinosa/Flickr

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Published 20th December 2015

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