This struggle is not about being granted rights by government; it is an uprising in which people determine and exercise their rights for themselves.
“What if we started to practice the no longer proclaimed right of dreaming?”
This is the second article by Marta Sánchez written as part of a research project on the 15-M movement at the Center for Human Rights in Nuremberg.
Filling the Vacancies of the System
As I pointed out in my previous article, it is the struggle for people’s economic and social rights that underlies the protests and mobilizations of the Spanish indignados. This first dimension of the movement can be characterized as a phase of denouncement in which the flaws in the system are identified and pointed out. But there is a second dimension, one which is still a work in progress, but which can tentatively be defined as the process of experimentation with new ways of ensuring human rights. Two aspects are crucial to this emerging state of affairs: first, the process of filling the system’s vacancies, and second, the collective, self-determined protection of human rights.
The vacancies of the current system that the indignados aim to fill are double: on the one hand, they are the physical vacancies embodied by empty homes (the bursting of the housing bubble in Spain left an immense number of them: around 6 million houses — 20 percent of the nation’s total — currently sit empty); in the number of people without a job (unemployment stood at a staggering 4.587.455 in late July 2012); in the large number of irregular immigrants being denied access to medical care (Decree-Law 16/2012 excludes undocumented immigrants from healthcare); or in the 24 percent of the Spanish population currently living at the risk of social exclusion).
On the other hand we find the vacancies of capitalism that have helped to contribute to a metaphorical hunger for a better world. The inability of the system to learn from past and current problems by lessening people’s pain (a pain that is not equally distributed among the population), has given rise to a space of collective action and solidarity in which this pain is self-alleviated. This, in turn, leads us to the second aspect: the different conception of rights that is emerging from these vacancies, and the way in which this conception is rooted in the project of self-organization.
As we have seen in the previous article, the indignados have framed their struggle in terms of human rights, but, at the same time, they have created spaces of solidarity and collective action to ensure that these rights are communally respected. This can be best illustrated through the paradigmatic case of housing in Spain: the bursting of the real state bubble at the beginning of the crisis has led to more and more homeowners losing their houses as a result of predatory lending or outright bank fraud. Renters get evicted because they either lost their jobs or cannot afford to service rising mortgage obligations.
This has left a paradoxical landscape in which countless homeless families sit side by side with millions of empty homes. The indignados have joined civil society collectives active in the field of housing (such as the Platform for Those Affected by a Mortgage) and together they have engaged in what they call direct action: first of all, activists started a campaign with the goal of stopping forced evictions (stop desahucios). Forced evictions and foreclosures have become a drama in Spain: only last year, 58.241 evictions were processed in the country, a rise of 22 percent comparing to 2010.
The movement has achieved to stop around 200 evictions since last year. A working group on housing rights was set up inside of indignados movement, which subsequently created the Housing Office (Oficina de Vivienda). The neighborhood assemblies served as the means to channel the desahucios initiative: they started collecting information on the evictions planned in their area, and organized the mobilization of activists on the dates of eviction.
Secondly, the indignados have actively promoted the dación en pago initiative, calling for the cancellation of mortgage debt upon turning over the keys of the foreclosed property. Under this initiative, activists have managed to collect the signatures needed for a people’s legislative initiative. The aim of this action, in turn, is to introduce a petition to Parliament in order to reform housing legislation, introducing the dación en pago in a way that does not depend exclusively on the discretion of banks.
In the third place, activists have set up an Occupation Office (Oficina de Okupación), in other words, an advisory service for squatters. The movement uses squatting in two ways: on the one hand, some spaces are occupied to develop self-management projects, such as self-managed social centers (centros sociales autogestionados) as multi-purpose cultural centers, hubs for a huge variety of direct action groups, campaigns and activities. On the other hand, squatting is being used as a technique to provide a decent place to live to the thousands of people who have lost their homes as a result of the crisis.
One successful example of this is Corrala La Utopía in Seville, where 32 families, supported and assisted by members of 15-M Sevilla, squatted an empty building, property of a real estate agency, on May 16, 2012. These families were facing serious housing problems, many of them had been forcibly evicted from their homes or were about to be foreclosed on, without enough income to meet montly rental or mortgage obligations. They got in touch with members of the 15-M movement in Seville, who provided them with support and free consultancy, and with their assistance they occupied the empty building.
A New Culture of Rights
Creative and radical direct action is integral to this phase of the movement: it connects the dots between the grievances of the indignados and their struggle for a different system. While denouncing the failures of the existing order, the indignados have engaged in a process of collectively building a different society, starting locally, finishing globally. The struggle for human rights has been placed at the heart of this process.
The movement has set up a social laboratory for the creation of a new culture of rights. This struggle is not about being granted specific rights by the government; it is a political uprising in which people are starting to determine for themselves their needs and how they can help each other fulfill them. The indignados are intentionally, but also unintentionally, creating a system of rights based on self-determination and autonomy, one that doesn’t rely on the conventional structures of power and the conception of rights as state-based.
Instead, the indignados are experimenting with a community-based way of ensuring human rights. They have realized that their rights are at risk since they rely on the conventional architecture of power (and, as we see, austerity and adjustment programs keep being implemented by governments without any assessment of their consequences for basic human rights). Therefore, as anthropologist Razsa argues, the indignados are finding new ways of producing rights, by defining them in such a way that their definition simultaneously builds the power to realize them.
We could define this as a project of self-organization enlivening a parallel power structure, one in which rights are produced collectively, and one in which rights are possessed only insofar as we managed to build together with others the collective capacities to exercise them. As the activist Andrej Kurnik expresses it, this is a politics of small steps to accumulate new forms of alternative power. This conception of rights is linked to the alternative view of democracy that the indignados movement upholds: democracy starts with citizens caring about one another and acting responsibly on that sense of care, taking responsibility both for oneself and for one’s family, community, country, people in general, and the planet as a whole. This responsibility to care lies at the root of the movement’s networks; the responsibility that we all have as a community or collective to ensure that people meet their needs, are respected and included, and free of coercion.
Work in Progress: Creating Alternatives
We have aimed to show here that indignados are currently engaged, interacting with a wide range of well-established, long active social organizations and collectives, in the formulation of alternatives to the current system; alternatives that would help bring about a human rights-centered society. In this sense, it would be wise to leave behind the public/private binary that recognizes only two unequally satisfactory options (state or market control), and to recognize that new alternatives are being proposed, mainly based in a decentralized, community-based, democratic management of commons, politically, socio-economically and culturally inspired rather than financial-economically motivated.
The indignados are attempting to create their own communal spaces under the principles of solidarity and self-organization. They are experimenting with new ways of ensuring human rights as part of a larger political struggle. They have unleashed a radical imagination with the aim of liberating the collective consciousness of every sector of society to challenge the current structure of power, and replace it with civilized, horizontal, and self-determined alternatives.
This article is part of research undertaken by the author at the Center for Human Rights in Nuremburg, Germany.