Demanding democracy

Posted on May 23, 2011 by | 1 Comment

It’s always interesting to see what protesters demand. The wave of demonstrations that washed around the world post credit crunch has been extraordinary. But while almost all have at least some of their roots in the financial collapse, each country seems to have a different response.

In Britain, protests have mostly been against cuts, corresponding fees, and, to a certain extent, privitisation. Similarly, Greece’s protests have mostly focussed on fiscal policy. While these demonstrations have been exciting and important, it has been interesting to see how little vision for the future the collective messages seem to have. My generation has taken to the streets to ask for little more than what our parents got.

And so it has been refreshing to watch as people in Spain demonstrate to demand real democracy. If you’re not clear what is meant by that, then consider the lives young people in Spain face: whichever of the major parties is in charge – at the moment, they have the centre left ‘Socialist’ party – they can expect mass youth unemployment, few life prospects, and vast cuts to their welfare state. What kind of choice is this, they ask? As one placard outside Spain’s embassy in London says: “Penniless, homeless, please give me democracy”.

Beyond this lack of any kind of chance to vote for their future, or even their present interests, Spanish protesters clearly feel trapped in what lefty theorists and activists have long seen as the false choice of neo-conservativism vs neo-liberalism. I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life at demos where someone shouts about how the political system in Western countries isn’t truely democratic. Activists talk about the how we are given endless choices between nearly indestinguishable consumer goods,  but no choice over what economic system we would choose to live under. But these discussions have always been a niche interest. It is often seen as a little out there, a little radical, a little unhelpful.

And so it seems bizarre that it is this lack of choice, this lack of democracy, against which the young people of Spain – the most screwed of Europe’s jilted generation – have turned. They face huge cuts. Yet this didn’t galvanise them. They have huge unemployment. But this, on its own, didn’t deliver mass protests. No. It was the point at which the absolute impossibility of choosing between parties whose programs are seen as equally terrible became clear that people rose up. It was the point at which the farce of false choice was so exposed that people saw it as clear as day that they started to truely rise up.

Early indications suggest that small parties have done well in Spain’s provisial elections. Let’s hope it’s the right small parties. But, whatever it is, it is clear that many people in Spain are demanding something we haven’t seen properly demanded in a Western European country in a long time – serious democratic reform, not just of the voting system, but of the whole economic system.

And that sort of vision, that understanding of the questions of ownership which sit at the core of our roblematic economy, that radicalisation, these things will surely form the back bone of the rapidly emerging movement in Spain. And if they do, this will add a new flavour to the swelling movements across Europe. And perhaps it will start to inform those protesters. And if this happens, what next? Who knows. But I have been hoping for a while that we can move to broader questions than just austerity. And I’m glad to see the Spanish leading a way.

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