The Indignados Movement Changed Spanish Politics Forever
This day in 2011, the Indignados protesters occupied Madrid’s Puerta del Sol to denounce Spain’s dominant parties and their austerity agenda. Ten years later, the Spanish left no longer has that insurgent dynamism — but it’s had an enduring success in breaking a previously monolithic neoliberal consensus.
- Interview by
- Eoghan Gilmartin
Ten years ago today, a demonstration was called in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol under the slogan “We are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers.” Some fifty thousand people participated in the May 15, 2011, protests in the capital, launching what became known as the 15-M, or indignados, movement. As it spread over the following weeks, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, took part in assemblies and occupations in the central squares of towns and cities across Spain. With the European Union imposing brutal austerity on the country’s center-left PSOE government, and with the youth unemployment rate hitting 46 percent that year, 15-M articulated the rage of a generation toward a system that could offer only declining living standards and a hollowed-out democracy.
The wave of social-movement activism and anti-establishment feeling that coursed through Spain between 2011 and 2013, in turn, gained organized political expression. Podemos, founded at the start of 2014, and its charismatic leader, Pablo Iglesias, surged to 20.7 percent of the vote at the 2015 general election, posing a seemingly deadly threat to Spain’s entrenched two-party political system. Yet today, the situation looks rather different. With Iglesias retiring from frontline politics this May 4, less than two weeks before the tenth anniversary of 15-M, many have framed the current moment as the end of a political cycle.
Following his resignation, supporters have praised Iglesias as “the general secretary of an entire generation,” while Madrid’s right-wing mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida, gloated that “exactly ten years later, Pablo Iglesias has cut off his [famous] ponytail — that is the only legacy of the 15-M movement.” In this respect, a certain left-wing nostalgia is reaching similar conclusions to those within Spain’s conservative establishment who are seeking to harness the anniversary to proclaim a definitive restoration of the country’s old two-party status quo.
Yet Podemos cofounder and close Iglesias ally Juan Carlos Monedero rejects such an interpretation. Speaking to Jacobin, he insists that 15-M marks a permanent shift in Spanish society’s common sense. With his party now in government as the junior partner to the PSOE in the country’s first left-wing coalition in eighty years, he believes the material and democratic demands articulated by the Indignados are still those that can mobilize a new historic bloc around a progressive alternative to neoliberalism.
Iglesias’s decisions first to leave his post as deputy prime minister in March (to stand as the Unidas Podemos candidate in Madrid’s snap regional elections) and then to retire from politics after the defeat in that contest were a shock to many. How would you explain his swift exit, particularly as it came only sixteen months after you entered government for the first time?
You have to remember that 15-M sought to articulate and explore new ways of doing politics, and that part of this included challenging the professionalization of politics. When we set up Podemos, we were clear that we were not professional politicians seeking lifelong careers and secure institutional salaries. Rather, we had entered the political arena to be useful and to change society. And within this context, Iglesias’s decision to leave government does not seem so remarkable.
We were always very clear that the potential to change society from within government was rather limited, at least within the existing framework of the European Union. You can limit the worst effects of neoliberal capitalism and improve the living conditions of people in certain areas, but it is very complicated to push through a transformative agenda as the junior partner in coalition. Iglesias himself was very aware of these limits, and so when it became clear that the far right were seeking to use the regional elections in Madrid as a launchpad for a broader Trumpian project at a national level, he decided to step forward and stand in the elections himself, seeking to contain this threat.
He managed to improve Unidas Podemos’s share of the vote compared with the 2019 regional election. But having not secured the type of result that had been hoped, he was brutally honest. He spoke of how, as a candidate, he no longer had the same capacity to attract and mobilize voters, and how the years of smear campaigns and lawfare had taken their toll. And so, rather than seeking to hang on beyond his sell-by date, he decided to leave.
What do you see as Iglesias’s political legacy?
Pablo Iglesias and Unidas Podemos have changed Spanish politics. Before Podemos’s emergence, a party to the left of the PSOE was not permitted to enter government, and the idea of a governmental party questioning the monarchy or the country’s economic and media powers was unthinkable. Podemos has challenged the old two-party system’s monopoly on governmental power, which it has maintained since the 1970s return to democracy. What stands out, in this respect, is Iglesias’s lack of fear or deference toward the powerful — which came with a high price tag for him personally.
Also through his sheer determination and audacity in seeing through the creation of Spain’s first left-wing coalition in eighty years, he has been instrumental in creating a new political majority in Spain — one that brings together the radical left and the social democrats with progressive and left-wing forces from Catalonia and the Basque country, as well as other regional groupings. This new majority that Iglesias was instrumental in organizing has the potential to form an alternative historic bloc going forward, becoming the cornerstone to the governmentality of Spain over the coming decades.
His exit only days before the tenth anniversary of the Indignados movement has seen many in the Spanish media proclaim the “definitive end” of a political epoch — that is, of the 15M-Podemos cycle. Does it make sense to talk in these terms?
No, I don’t think so. A certain nostalgia is normal, but epochal changes don’t suddenly come to an end with the exit of a single political leader, however important they are. 15-M marked a watershed moment in Spanish society.
15-M in the squares was a movement born with a lack of historical memory, structure, program, or leadership, but through its deliberations and activity, it managed to reintroduce grand political questions that contested the basic consensus underpinning Spanish political life. Rather than accept the dominant narrative of the 2008 financial crisis — that we had been “living beyond our means” and so had to accept austerity — the indignados came together and pointed to the political and financial elites as the culprits for the financial crisis. At the same time, they forced new questions, like systematic corruption or the quality of our democracy, onto the agenda.
As sociologist Jesús Ibáñez used to say, the precursor to a revolution is a great societal conversation, one that can break down existing borders and consensuses. But it can take decades for these changes to fully materialize. The 1905 revolution in Russia had to wait until 1917 for the actual process of social transformation to come to fruition.
With the Right’s electoral victory in Madrid last week, we have to remember that the pandemic, and in particular the restrictions it has placed on our daily lives, is a parenthesis. The health emergency has produced a particular moment that the Right has been more successful in exploiting, with its discourse promising “freedom to do whatever you want.” But the deeper crisis of neoliberal capitalism is ever more evident — and unlike ten years ago, there is now an organized left space articulating an alternative model.
You can see similar dynamics in the United States and elsewhere, with the coming years likely to be defined by a confrontation between competing models: a dying and increasingly authoritarian neoliberalism, or a new Keynesianism based around greater public intervention, a renewed welfare state, and new labor and social protections.
One of the most famous slogans of 15-M was “PP and PSOE, the same shit,” with protestors railing against the shared economic orthodoxy of the two-party system. A decade on, Unidas Podemos now finds itself in government as the junior partner to PSOE, struggling to push through some of the more ambitious proposals in the agreed-upon program for government, against this larger party’s resistance. For example, Iglesias spent his final months in office trying to pass a promised housing law that was meant to include rent controls, only for PSOE to back out of its commitments at the last minute. Did Iglesias and Unidas Podemos overestimate their margin to drag PSOE leftward? And are more substantive reforms just not possible until the PSOE’s hegemony over the country’s progressive space is finally broken?
The government’s full term lasts four years, and much of its first year has been dominated by the pandemic. It is legitimate to demand a quicker pace of reforms than have been achieved so far. But let’s not ignore the advances that have already been secured: raising the minimum wage and state pensions, groundbreaking legislation to protect gig workers, legalizing euthanasia, and strengthening the laws around sexual consent, among other things.
The program for government remains a binding agreement, and its commitments must be implemented. If not, the PSOE needs to find another coalition partner, which it will struggle to do.
In our diagnosis, we had a clear sense of the limits to advancing a post-neoliberal agenda against a hostile media and judiciary. We were also very aware of the tensions within PSOE between its more social democratic and liberal factions (with the latter firmly in charge of economic policy). But it is the prime minister who must enforce the programmatic line against these liberal elements. Pedro Sánchez won back the leadership of his party by promising a return to social democratic principles and copying the anti-establishment discourse of Podemos.
After a collapse in PSOE’s vote in Madrid last week, where the combined support of the alternative left easily surpassed that of the Socialists, Sánchez needs to realize that reverting to an agenda of neoliberal reforms would likely mean the disappearance of his party, as has been the case with social democratic forces elsewhere in Europe. So the scenario remains an open one — and it would be overly negative to conclude after only one year that the coalition’s program won’t be implemented.
What do you see as the organizational challenges for Unidas Podemos after the loss of Iglesias? And how should Spain’s very divided left move forward? I am thinking here in particular of the relationship between Unidas Podemos and Íñigo Errejón’s splinter formation, Más País.
Iglesias’s exit has to serve as a moment of reflection for us. It points to the need for an organization that is more attentive to its base, more diverse in its leading cadre, and less vertical in its structure. In the medium- and longer-term, we are faced with the strategic challenges arising from our failure to so far create a movement-party with territorial and organizational reach and capacity for popular deliberation. To substantively break with neoliberalism, we need to build political consciousness and popular organization — and this cannot be achieved simply through the mediums of television and social networks.
In terms of our relationship with other alternative left forces like Más País, we have to remember that the lack of proportionality in the electoral system nationally would make a right-wing victory much more likely if we were to run separately in a general election. I am in favor of exploring a broad-front electoral alliance, which would include Unidas Podemos, Más País, and other forces to the left of PSOE, but this won’t be simple to achieve. The media are likely to foment divisions, and there is the risk that Errejón will lose his head amid all the positive coverage, as he has done in the past, and say: “No, no, I don’t want to negotiate with anyone.”
Unidas Podemos’s new figurehead is labor minister Yolanda Díaz, who has also now taken over the deputy prime minister post from Iglesias. For an international audience probably not familiar with her, who is the new leader of the Spanish left?
Yolanda is an activist in the Spanish Communist Party, a labor lawyer who comes from a strong union background. Her father, a retired metalworker, is a historic figure in the Comisiones Obreras union in Galicia and was active in the anti-Francoist resistance in the 1970s. She is someone with strong ideological commitments but, at the same time, she has shown a real capacity for dialogue and pragmatism. Her ability to reach agreements between the unions and employers, and her management of Spain’s pandemic furlough scheme, has seen her become one of the most popular members of the coalition government.
In this respect, she is ideally positioned to project an image of an institutional leader. Furthermore, it would not surprise me if, in the years to come, she became Spain’s first female prime minister, leading a government capable of providing a progressive response to the historic crises facing this country.