One Million March to Sunset Square: Adventures of an English Anarchist in Madrid
It just so happened I was attending a physics conference in Madrid during the ‘Huelga General’ (general strike) on the 29th of March. You’d need to have been living under a rock in Madrid to be unaware of the strike – what with flyers, posters and graffiti advertising its existence and the accompanying evening demonstration being strewn absolutely everywhere as you walked around the city. Naturally I decided to check out the demos for myself.
First, a little background, if I may. Spanish citizens, particularly the young, have had their fair share of reasons to become ‘Los Indignados’. Unemployment is staggering, around 20% for the population in general and more like 50% for the young. Dotted around Universidad Autónoma de Madrid’s science building (where my physics conference was being held) were many student noticeboards, full of information about the strike and critiques of the current economic system. It made an interesting contrast to apolitical English university notice-boards. I guess nothing politicises a student body like a 50% youth unemployment rate! A situation we could be moving closer to in the UK, as austerity begins to bite.
The employment situation in Spain is likely worse than even these figures suggest: there are many ways to massage unemployment statistics, through underemployment, “flexible” employment contracts and the like. The Spanish government is pushing through an ominous sounding “overhaul of labor rules which makes it less costly for employers to hire and fire workers” in the words of the New York Times. Wage cuts are expected across the board following the reforms. An alphabet soup of socialist and syndicalist Spanish unions were “contras las reformas laborales” as the thousands of flyers and posters around Madrid attested to.
That New York Times article also cites the comments of one “Francisco Pérez, a former union representative who recently retired after three decades in the administration of Madrid’s airport” :
“What is the point of a strike before even knowing what kind of budget this new government has put together and when unions have presented no alternative proposal to create jobs?” Mr. Pérez asked.”
That’s quite a disingenuous comment from Mr Perez. The budget was always going to be “very,very austure”, in the words of Spain’s current president Mariano Rajoy. And as a conference attendee from Spain informed me, a major reason for the protests was the Spanish governments’ delaying the release of its budget plans until after the Andalusia elections, such that people weren’t able to base their vote upon it (despite which the government still lost these elections). So criticizing the strike on such grounds is crass, to say the least. This came up again in the context of a discussion amongst physicists about university funding – in fact the government has withheld its national budget for so long that universities are having great difficulty planning courses and recruiting students, lacking concrete knowledge of how much money they will have available to spend. The second part of his statement – that unions propose no alternatives – is merely an assertion that no-one should accept at face value.
As well as the demonstration I attended in Madrid, there were parallel demonstrations in Barcelona and Valencia. In contrast to the other two marches, the one in Barcelona became quite heated, with water cannon and rubber bullets being deployed by police and acts of vandalism perpetrated by the protestors. I always find it interesting to see how the mainstream media covers such events. There was of course the standard conflation of violence with property damage. Many ran headlines about protestors ‘vandalizing shops’. They did throw bricks at the windows of banks and burn down a Starbucks cafe. Clearly there is a difference between the indiscriminate, wanton destruction suggested by an unqualified ‘shops’ and the deliberate targeting of major symbols of corporate globalization. Whether one agrees with the tactic or not (I don’t, for the record) it’s worth keeping in mind the motivations behind them, something journalists failed to do with impressive uniformity.
Meanwhile, back in Madrid, I was following the march lines from about 7pm as they wound their way into the centre of the city. The feeling here was relaxed, very much a carnival atmosphere . The protest groups I saw were awash with the red and black flags of the CGT (the “Confederation General del Trabajo”, the world’s largest syndicalist union) and the green t-shits bearing the slogan:
I noticed a lot of children and their parents were marching garbed in green, understandably. We in the UK should fight with the same tenacity against the tides turning university education into a private marketplace, from which tomorrow’s young graduates are to be manufactured like any other commodity, to whatever specifications our CEOs and captains of industry demand. Instead, we need debt-free and free-thinking graduates: thus free and able to able to apply themselves creatively to the problems our societies are facing, problems requiring solutions beyond ‘business as usual’.
As the main protest groups moved ahead and space cleared behind them, children were playing and dancing in the wide and empty streets of the Paseo del Prado, which just a few hours ago had been teeming with traffic and choked by exhaust fumes. It was amazing to see the properties of a space transformed so totally in these few short hours by the collective actions of people. The flyers, flags and laughter made an interesting contrast to city-street ‘business-as-usual’ – that of people hurriedly passing one other by, gazes directed downwards or onwards, leered at from on-high by corporate billboards. Instead, our feet were gently lapped by union and activist flyers buoyed along on warm breezes.
Many protestors were carrying placards simply stating “NO”. In our fake “democracies” it can feel like shouting “NO” as loudly as possible is the only response left against the juggernaut of an elite consensus currently being ramming down the populations’ throat. I followed the march some way into the city before it became difficult to move further through the dense crowds, at which point I climbed onto the roof of a subway station to get a better view. A woman next to me had done the same and was busily photographing the action from all angles. I didn’t make it as far as the Puerto del Sol square, a shame, as this looked like it made an impressive spectacle:
Apparently, close to one million people marched in the above rally! That’s a lot of people, suggesting a much broader support base. It’s amusing to watch the Euro-zone politicians currently forcing through austerity measures attempt to denounce such authentic democratic statements as aberrations. Angela Merkel was apparently quick to point out that these protests did not represent Spain. Presumably those in the above photograph are some kind of strange alien species, not Spanish citizens? It’s the standard politicians’ double-think about ‘special interests’ vs ‘the national interest’.
She echoes Nicholas Sarkozy’s earlier reassurance to elites, after something like three million people marched in protest over French pension reforms, that “the street does not rule” (which he said in a speech, according to a participant at the conference I talked to). Perhaps President Sarkozy will soon feel the need to go further and declare that “l’Etat c’est moi” ?! Clearly austerity has no democratic consensus. Of course, we don’t live in a democracy, because as John Dewey pointed out (and as ¡Democracia Real YA! are saying today in Spain) :
“As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.”
After watching a while longer I picked my way back through the now empty streets, just in time to see an army of cleaning vans and accompanying police convoys coming into action right behind the departing protest lines. The operation felt almost military in its precision, as if the aim was to erase the memory of this act from the streets; wash away the dangerous cultural pollution; disappear the visceral experience of an alternative use of public space down the memory hole as soon as possible; contain the infection. Probably I am projecting ideological intentions (theirs and mine) onto a simple bureaucratic procedure, deployed in exactly the same manner at a politically neutral event, say the aftermath of a football match. Still, that’s how it felt to me at the time.
I caught a final sense of this the morning after, a kind of cultural microcosm for the evening’s events. On my way to the second day of the conference we passed the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid’s science building, where someone had graffitied on the wall the words “Buenos Dias Princesa!”, accompanied by an anarchy heart symbol, to greet the students in the morning. A nuisance for the cleaners perhaps, but it brought a smile to this anarchist and physicist. What thoughts and feelings had been raging behind a can of spray paint a few hours before? By the time I passed it again, on my way to lunch, the writing had been white-washed from the wall, as if it never existed. But the sense of possibility, of waking to a new tomorrow lingered, as a seed sown.