Towards New Forms of Political Democracy in Spain

Few books on populist (grassroots) social movements manage to be both theoretically original and empirically well documented. Richard R. Weiner and Iván López’s Los Indignados: Tides of Social Insertion in Spain (Winchester [UK] Washington [USA], Zero Books, 2018) accomplish this rare intellectual feat.

The authors rigorously analyse the recent history of a major western European nation whose democracy grew out of a transition from an authoritarian regime (Franco’s Spain). As the authors explain, they have been following the developments of Los Indignados, 15-M movement and Podemos from their very beginning. The first two can be described as a large anti-austerity movement that arose as a reaction to high rates of unemployment and economic hardship. Podemos is young a party founded in the aftermath of mass protests to respond to corruption and social inequality.

Being experts in sociology and political science Weiner and López go beyond simply describing the historical development of these movements and their various political consequences. They also present a clear picture of the social forces and actors who played a major role in the new forms of democracy in Spain. As they explain (p. 1),

Following Alain Touraine’s sociology of social movement as an institutionalizing leveraging to reorganize the field of historicity, the authors have been keeping up with Los Indignados for these past four years.

In particular they have explored how new forms of social pacting and non-hierarchical association have been at the forefront of the struggles to “re-embed” the economy and limit the power of the neoliberal economic agenda of various Spanish socio-economic elites.

Weiner and López begin by describing the origins of the Los Indignados. Who exactly are the people behind the movement to make Spanish politics more accountable to the population? They are mainly, though not exclusively

cut off and massively unemployed youth – cut off from the circuits of capital accumulation, workplace habitus, and the pillars of social democracy (p. 9).

This generation, the grandchildren of the Spanish welfare state, are living lives best described by Gilles Deleuze and André Gorz. They exist as a sort of non-class, neither proletariat nor bourgeoisie. They are the result of a dwindling middle-class now living economically precarious lives in an increasingly neoliberal world order.

Yet, as the analysis of Weiner and López convincingly shows, they are not doomed to social nothingness, cut off from political power, what Stiglitz sometimes refers to as a “wasted generation”,

The Indignados movement of Confluence against a perceived unrepresentative and unresponsive Transition State amounts to more than effervescence (p.  12).

This apparently “lost generation” and their movement in Spain have become something, despite their lack of hold on traditional sources of economic and political power, perhaps even because of it.  They have learned to be creative and structure their demands in new, effective and original ways.

Weiner and López also discuss the question of legitimacy and democracy in 21st century Spain and in the context of western democracies generally. They paint a very accurate and poignant picture of the various phases from authoritarian rule to a transitional state form towards something new that has not yet fully developed.

They portray the nature of the distrust towards the major political parties. Weiner and López explain the phenomenon of “social washing”. Parties present themselves as close to the people but serve the interests of economic elites:

They pose insincerely as “socially concerned” in their promotional communication and marketing, while actually operating the other way. It is a manipulating of discourse and legitimation claims in a misleading way. (P. 38)

This type of “social washing” was also widely noted and denounced by the student protesters of 2012 in the province of Quebec (Canada). The student protests spread and eventually led to the downfall of the Liberal party then in power. The difference being that in Spain a large and durable social movement, including a new political party, emerged from the mass social protests.

Another major aspect of this major work in political sociology is their analysis of the question of “social insertion”. How do the people who do not have access to traditional forms of economic and social power manage to organize and become active in the construction of a better and viable future?

The concept of “social insertion” goes back to before the Franco regime. As Weiner and López explain (p. 44),

The concept of “social insertion” has roots in the municipalismo of mutual aid practised by Spanish anarchists […] although it is used in new ways by the Indignados.

The authors also note that there is a tension within the larger social movement and the Podemos party. A tension between organizing outside and around the state or rather attempting to use the State’s “institutionalizing power”.

Weiner and López describe much of what has happened in recent years in Spain as a contemporary form of what Polanyi famously dubbed the “double movement”. (Re)insertion and (re-)embedding are two processes that seem to be happening together and to be supporting each other in the movement presented by Weiner and López.

Beyond resentment, the authors (p. 35) point us to the concept of rhizomatic form of social insertion as a “constitutive provenance,” one articulating “an emergent imaginary” in the precarious, the marginalized and the displaced. There are significant chapters (7, 8 and 11), grounded statistically, that chronicle — in two decades in public opinion polling — a growing mistrust and existential insecurity foreshadowing the legitimation crisis of the post-Franco Transition State.

Los Indignados is a must read book for anyone interested in social movements and who wishes to better understand the mechanisms of social change.

About the authors of the book: Richard R. Weiner is Professor of Political Science at Rhode Island College and Local Affiliate, Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University. Iván López is a Researcher and Assistant Professor at Universidad de Zaragoza.

About the reviewer: Omer Moussaly (PhD, Université du Québec à Montréal) is a postdoctoral researcher at the UNESCO Chair on the Philosophical Foundations of Justice and Democratic Society at UQAM. He is currently writing about the works of Algernon Sidney with the Chair on Critical Antiquity and Emerging Modernity at l’Université Laval.

 

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