The Spanish political laboratory

Posted on February 22nd, 2017 by Ramon Feenstra

This year sees the publication of Reconfiguring Democracy, first in the Crick Centre’s new book series Anti-politics and Democratic Crisis, published by Routledge and co-edited by Matt Wood. Here, the authors Ramón A. Feenstra, Simon Tormey, Andreu Casero-Ripollés and John Keane summarise the book’s main argument, examining a new phase of democracy developing in Spain.

On May 15, 2011 the whole of Spain was convulsed by one of the most spectacular popular uprisings in its history, and in the history of the modern democratic world. Eight million Spanish citizens took part in the occupation of public squares and buildings in at least 60 towns and cities across the country. The movement of ‘the Indignados’ (or ‘pissed off’) was born.

Spanish citizens had plenty to be disgruntled about: economic recession, high unemployment, endemic corruption, cronyism, wasteful and reckless ‘mega-projects’, mounting central and local government debt, and much else besides. With both major political parties complicit in these dynamics, the public themselves began searching for an antidote to the ‘business as usual’ mantra offered by the cartel parties and mainstream media.

From occupying public areas in 2011 to creating new political parties in 2013 and 2014, politics in Spanish social circles is livelier than ever. The country has transformed into an unprecedented democratic laboratory, where the participation and use of new communication strategies, born in peripheral political contexts, is primarily active, open and ready for experimentation and innovation.

Breaking the spell of parliamentary representation

In the initial phase of 15M, as the uprisings came to be called, expressions of anger took the form of general criticisms of the decadence and disintegration of Spain’s dysfunctional political order. The renowned claim no nos representan (‘they do not represent us’), together with a demand for democracia real (real democracy), brought together two ideas: crisis of representation on one side and a craving for more citizen participation on the other.

Then, under the slogan of ‘real democracy’, and to highlight the gap between promise and reality in the Spanish democratic system, citizens began to create parallel intuitions and processes. They wanted to shame politicians into acknowledging their own lack of democratic legitimacy.

What was most innovative in the organisation of this outbreak of public protest was that none of the traditional political structures was involved. In the place of trade unions and political parties, digital networks played a vital role in organising, mobilising and publicising 15M. Even without mass media coverage (which only came after the proliferation of demonstrations), outrage spread quickly through many Spanish cities.

Faith in the democratic credentials of the Spanish political system crumbled. Citizens were now asking: how can the search for an improved democracy be sustained, and what might that mean in practice?

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Protestors confront police at a demonstration in 2011.

Image credit: via Wikimedia Commons

Monitory democracy and the new weapons of the weak

In the era of monitory democracy, new forms of non-party representative politics involving those not elected in the polls flourish. Citizen efforts to draw attention to institutionalised corruption, secrecy, violence and social injustice become essential demonstrations of the limits of political parties and parliaments.

Indeed, monitory democracy has given new ‘weapons to the weak’ and in some ways turned relations of power upside down. Today citizens and their representatives have a considerable advantage against the secretive and petulant elites that could previously do what they wanted in splendid isolation, out of public sight and mind.

This is not to say that we are witnessing the emphatic end of representative politics, only that the ecology of representation is becoming more complex and more dispersed. In Spain and beyond, the aura previously surrounding the political class is clearly being replaced by public disdain.

Introducing the post-representatives

The very fact that there is an attitude of hostility towards parliaments and other forms of representation, however, has cast a shadow over current initiatives in Spain. New political parties cannot escape considerations of transparency and must be the first to modify aspects of the political party to prevent new elites from springing up within them.

Several parties have already introduced defence mechanisms to ensure that  personalities do not become arrogant. However, measures for revocation, rotating official positions and reducing salaries for elected positions have their limits. Much of Podemos’ success is due to the easily identifiable figure of Pablo Iglesias; Ahora Madrid would not be where it is now without Manuela Carmena; and Barcelona en Comú’s election campaign would not have had the same success without the formidable presence of Ada Colau.

How is it possible to avoid what seems to be an inherent oxymoron of the new politics—an anti-representative style of representative politics? In a media-saturated environment, where political actions are carried out on a scale involving millions of citizens, there will always be charismatic personalities and visible figureheads who adopt and embody a particular stance on the major questions of the moment; they provide a focus for the ordinary person’s attention.

At the same time, we are witnessing the evolution of political figures whose raison d’être is to reject the legacy of the politician as representative. These are the ‘post-representatives’, representatives who are simultaneously ‘monitory and monitored’, even though they have their roots in criticism of the very legacy of politics and politicians.

Activists who have to date fought their battles in the streets are not only setting up political parties but also, as seen in local council and regional elections in 2015, gaining access to positions of power. Ada Colau, who largely came to fame for drawing attention to the shortcomings of the established political elite and of the very democratic process itself, can no longer be regarded as a ‘street activist’. Following her election as Barcelona’s mayor, she is now at the forefront of action within the political process.

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Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona.

Image credit: Ferran Cornellà via Wikimedia Commons

Looking towards the future: innovation or nostalgia?

But it is on this point that numerous observers have questioned just how this more direct political alternative can be put into practice. Does it imply a desire to keep up the overwhelming impetus of the public forums and assemblies, the memory of which is still very much alive in the minds of many activists in the Spanish democratic laboratory? And if this is the case, is this not a formula for what has been termed ‘the tyranny of structurelessness’, that is, transferring the burden to ordinary citizens who have the time, energy and ‘click power’ to spend hours in public debates, both on and offline?

Is it not simply a case of making a fetish of ‘presence’ over ‘voice’ regardless of how weak or mediated it is by other processes? Why should those with responsibilities for looking after their children or older relatives, or those who have to go to work, or those who have no access to online participatory digital media become hostages of those who are ‘crazy about politics’ and are perfectly happy to spend all their free time in group debates?

Is there no argument to suggest that this practice looks less to the future than to the past, based perhaps on the nostalgic desire for face-to-face, neighbourhood interactions; a slower, community-based way of life; and other tropes that go back to the assembly democracy of classical Greece? The question arises of whether the danger of this nostalgic ambition is that it starts to move away from the reality of many citizens’ lives.

Still, the ambivalence about parliamentary representation among millions of Spanish citizens is fully understandable. Simply going back to the mass political parties with their memberships of millions seems highly improbable. Whatever happens to representative politics, we are observing an extraordinary desire to rethink the basic coordinates of democratic life in Spain. It is not easy to think of another modern political system where this sense of contingency runs so deep, and where the alternatives seem so real.

Author info


Ramón A. Feenstra is a Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Sociology at Jaume I University in Castelló.

Simon Tormey is a political theorist based in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney.

Andreu Casero-Ripollés is a Professor in the Communication Science Department at Jaume I University in Castelló.

John Keane is Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (WZB), and is also the co-founder and director of the Sydney Democracy Network (SDN).

Note: this article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series.

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