The lessons of the Spanish assemblies

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We originally published this article in Acción Proletaria, our publication in Spain. The struggles of the Indignados in Spain were one of the most developed expressions of the period of struggle that emerged during and after the economic crisis in 2007-8. The movement in Gamonal, described below, shows how the legacy of the Indignados movement has been adopted and adapted by present movements in Spain: particularly, the use of "assemblies" to organise struggles.
 
But no struggle of the working class is ever truly "national". The working class is an international class, that produces and is exploited on a global scale. Its struggles in response, however isolated they appear, also take place on a global stage. Although theses struggles emerged in Spain, they are not a "Spanish" phenomena but the most advanced expression of a form of struggle that has been adopted across the globe: the Occupy movement in the US, the mass demonstrations and protests in Brazil and Turkey to name but a few.
 
However, while these global struggles had definite strengths, they also contained important weaknesses that enabled the ruling class to smother them. The Gamonal struggles expressed these weaknesses as well; weaknesses that the class and its political organisations must identify, criticise,confront and overcome.
 
This is not just a task for the workers and revolutionaries involved directly in any particular struggle, but a task for the international class. Now translated into English, we hope this article and the analyses presented within it will contribute to that process.
 


Until only one week ago, the inhabitants of the working-class neighbourhood of Gamonal [in the town of Burgos in Castile, central Spain] have daily come out onto the streets to demand a halt to building work of a major road. The mayor had continually refused to do anything, but faced with persistent demonstrations and the widespread solidarity across Spain (in at least thirty towns), he initially announced a temporary suspension of the work and then finally on Friday 17th [January] agreed to call a total halt to it. However, when the residents, met in their assembly on Saturday 18th, they decided to continue the struggle, demanding the unconditional release of everyone taken into custody and the removal of the anti-riot police.

Why and how did such a movement arise? What lessons does it provide? Is it part of the international struggle of the working class? We will try to answer these questions in order to stimulate discussion and to aid the development of the class struggle. That said, we also want to express in particular our solidarity with the struggle and with those who were imprisoned.

Frustration and indignation

The struggle appears to have arisen out of something quite small: the reconstruction of a boulevard (a large avenue), part of the unfolding programme of road work taking place in many cities, lining the pockets of the urban developers, and tainted by corruption, but with no concern at all for improving the lives of local residents.

But sometimes we can be deceived by appearances and only a serious examination of the background to the struggles can enable us to understand them and to support them. In much the same way, a significant social movement in Turkey arose after the felling of some trees in a park in Istanbul[1]

Gamonal is a working-class neighbourhood of Burgos built in the 1960s next to an industrial area of the same name. The enormous buildings are like rabbit hutches squeezed together to make vertical slums. But if suffering from such living conditions for many years has left a bitter after-taste, more recently unemployment has increased dramatically, social services have been cut, and municipal taxes have spiralled, and evictions have increased ... an accumulated burden of suffering reflected in the faces of people in signs of anxiety, worry and a fear of things getting even worse.

In this context, rebuilding a boulevard that shows a blatant waste of money, and the proposals for an underground car park that would threaten the fragile foundations of many buildings, was seen as the final straw to break the camel's back coming on top of unacceptable levels of unemployment, a bleak future, atomisation, “living on one's nerves”. This is not peculiar to Burgos, but is the daily experience of millions of workers and exploited around the world.

Assemblies, the brain and the heart of the struggle

The struggle of Gamonal can't be compared with other kinds of protest where people come along and make a lot of noise before quietly retreating to the whence they came, home to their atomised and solitary existence. Every day without exception the assembly was held at noon and at 7:00 in the evening following the day's demonstrations.

The assemblies were the brain and the heart of the movement. The brain, because here there was a collective reflection about how to struggle, about what actions to take next, about the decisions to make. The heart, because the assembly is a real expression of the means of communicating, developing understanding and establishing links to break the isolation and the atomisation, which are the terrible stigma of a society where everyone is trapped "in their own little world", dominated by the commodity..

As some people who actively participated in the struggle wrote on a blog[2]: "The failure of the old structures of pseudo-participation such as political parties and the creation of the self-organised assemblies, without leaders, everyone participating as equals, opens the door to a new world", but even more important was the insistence that "we all are needed, the elderly, youth, the mothers and fathers and children" and it is inside the assembly (the method specific to the working class) where they all have a place and can each make specific contributions.

The assembly aimed to deepen consciousness. The struggles which have unfolded around the world since 2003 have arisen in the context of the loss of working class identity; the class has lost confidence in itself and is unable to recognise itself as such.[3] However, this is what we read: "Today, Thursday [16 January], we have freed our imprisoned comrades. Local residents, parents, all kinds of people in solidarity, came to greet them upon their release from prison in Burgos chanting. You are not alone (and) Long live the struggle of the working class!" Realistically, we know that this is only an indication, but such proclamations highlight the fact that at least some minorities are beginning to have confidence in the power of the working class.

One graffiti stated: "Barricades close the street but open up the road, Paris May 68 - Gamonal 14 January". Let us repeat: there is no room for complacency but we must emphasise the relationship established between this movement in a neighbourhood of Burgos and the struggle of May 68. Marx spoke of the subterranean maturation of consciousness in the great mass of workers as an old mole digging his hole and advancing through the depths of the earth. Today, the working class seems to be buried in a dark well, but the struggle of Gamonal shows it entails a striving for consciousness. Diario de Vurgos reminds us: "We are carrying a new world in our hearts".

It is very significant that the movement did not stop after the final abandonment of the roadworks, stating that it is necessary "to go much further, extending the struggle for housing, against work-unemployment -insecurity ... and in creating a community of struggle that confronts the various attacks of the State". "It is always necessary to keep alive the flame of a phenomenon that is not at all new and is part of the collective heritage of all the exploited and oppressed of the world."

How to deal with repression?

The state responded quickly. The neighbourhood was surrounded on all sides by riot police. It was an undeclared state of siege, with the police checking identities, establishing roadblocks everywhere, breaking up any "suspect" groups. There were 46 arrests.

The democratic state, which we are told is the champion of respect for human rights, treated the detainees in a brutal and humiliating manner: "In the assembly this afternoon [Thursday, 16th], a young boy who was held in prison, spoke about his stay in the police station and prison. Beatings were dished out at the police station,  (...) This youth was carrying a backpack when he was arrested that the police subsequently filled with stones. When he protested saying it was not him who put stones in the bag, the police threatened to put him in a cell with more police and to beat him up as they had done with others".

The unions and left parties provide a false picture of the state. They recognise that it has a nasty face (politicians, the government of the day, the police and its excesses) only to bamboozle us with the other face, that of the "eminent" judges who would not hesitate in indicting the daughter of the King! But such fairy tales vanish when we look at the actual experience of Gamonal: "This morning, the judge of the court No. 3 in Burgos jailed four comrades held on bail of 3000 euros, accused of committing crimes against public order on the Monday evening. (...) At the time of his court appearance, [this youth] has said that the judge spoke to them, insulted them, distrusted them, not even listening to their statements about how they had suffered in the police station". With the state, it is not a matter of the "nasty face" and the "friendly face"; it is a machine for repression in the service of the exploiting class and all its institutions play their part in this from the police and the church to the judges and unions.

The best weapon against repression is the massiveness of the struggle and the search for solidarity. On each occasion the assembly asked the participants not to disperse individually on their own after the event, but to leave in the most compact groups possible so that the anti-riot police were not able to hunt down lone protesters at the end of the demo. The assembly was trying to avoid police provocations that try to create a melee, dispersing the protesters into isolated groups and using police power against them. Diario de Vurgos puts it very clearly: "Today was not a pitched battle, it was psychological: the forces of repression have used intimidation for hours, gradually, throughout the neighbourhoods, with their guns, batons and uniforms, oozing hatred, trying to send the message: 'we are in charge here' but we have not fallen into the trap. They are not in control, though they want to be. Today, more than ever, the street still belongs to the neighbourhood of Gamonal and it is the neighbourhood itself that sets the tone and pace of the struggle and only the neighbourhood that decides when we roar and when we bite".

The strength of solidarity

That said, Diario de Vurgos falls into a contradiction: "In Madrid, we went out into the street three days running and we continue to charge [against the police]. In Zaragoza, barricades were built, as well as in Valencia and Alicante; in Barcelona, the windows of banks inside the barricades were smashed and in the Ramblas the police station was attacked. There were twenty arrests across the country. It is now up to us to show solidarity with all those who showed it to us! "Previously, Diario Virgos showed very clearly how the Gamonal Assembly had avoided the trap of isolated clashes with the police, and now it highlights such clashes.

We offer our support to the 20 detainees. We do not condemn their actions, on the contrary, we understand their rage and frustration very well. What we condemn is the trap the bourgeoisie has set up to make us believe that the struggle can be fought on the terrain of street violence by small minorities.

What is the "Gamonal danger" according to the televised news? It seems that what shook the Interior Minister most was the sight of hooded individuals throwing stones, the burned out containers and the shattered windows. There are probably some stupid bourgeois experiencing the chills faced with such ''disorder''. But Capital is a cold and impersonal machine and its smartest managers (who are also the most cynical) know perfectly well what in truth worries them most. In other words, what the so-called ''communications'' media don't speak the truth about when referring to Gamonal: the massive nature and "assembly form" of this movement.

Let's look at a blog called El Confidencial that credits itself with informing politicians and the employers. Regarding Gamonal[4], this blog says: "Jobs, housing and residents' participation, as in the case Gamonal, are not defended anymore on the basis of the same logic of five or six years ago, when there was no alternative leadership to the unions or organisations directly linked to political parties. Since then there has been a process of discrediting and decomposition of these social agents in parallel with the success of the new forms of organisation and protest, which have less structure but, on the other hand, a clear capacity to mobilise". Further on, these gentlemen give a warning. "The new logic of protest took everyone by surprise. They do not fall within the traditional definition of organisations and social movements, they do not correspond in any way to the neighbourhood associations, let alone the trade unions". Not one word about the "terrible danger" against which we were hysterically alerted by the Minister of the Interior or the Commissioner of the Government of the Region of Madrid (the latter now considered as "progressive" because of his ''criticisms'' of the Gallardón Law[5]).

The strength of Gamonal rests on two pillars: the assemblies and solidarity. Solidarity with the 46 imprisoned in response to the fact that today, Monday, the struggle continues owing to the fact that the prisoners have not been released or the charges against them dropped. But this solidarity has taken on a greater significance owing to the extension of the movement all across Spain.

The Assembly of Gamonal decided to send some delegates to other towns to inform them of its struggle and to explain its key objectives and especially to show that there is an underlying mutual interest in struggling together. This germ has borne fruit and on Wednesday 14th at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, where 3,000 people, mostly youth, demonstrated in support of Gamonal. On the Thursday and Friday, the demonstrations spread elsewhere while continuing inside the country's capital city. There were demonstrations in more than 30 cities where it was mostly young people gathering together to shout slogans of support for Gamonal. The solidarity of the street has strengthened the commitment of the Gamonal residents. The profound experience of 2011 was not completely lost in the void of forgetfulness[6], and some traces of it can be seen here and there. Only two months ago, there was the cleaners' strike in Madrid, and there were expressions of working class solidarity from other sectors[7] that helped to cushion the blows felt by the strikers. In November 2013, a large wave of strikes rocked Bangladesh in solidarity with the textile workers there. Currently, there is a struggle of workers in the Lavanderias (laundries) in the Madrid hospitals outside and against the unions. Similarly, the workers of Tragsa (a public company carrying out 'environmental work' consisting of 4,600 people across Spain) have rejected the agreement signed by the unions proposing 600 redundancies.

Criticism makes us strong

But it would be a serious mistake to overestimate the movement.

The Assembly of Gamonal had its own dynamics that the opposition parties (PSOE and IU[8]) failed to stop. But if people rejected the PSOE, the IU was better equipped to exert its influence in the neighbourhood associations and, even if it was still not able to block the struggle, it was able, on the other hand, to stop any clear understanding of it. It did this by arguing that the current PP government was the cause of the problems, and that everything could be blamed on the detrimental effect of privatisations on the public sector, and the claim that "an alternative" was possible if the municipal administration was really linked "to the people". For those who think only in terms of "action" and what matters is that "people react" without clearly knowing why, with whom, and to what end, raising any other sorts of questions would amount to talking nonsense and making life more complicated.

In fact, this only serves to hide the need we all have - we, the proletariat - to make the effort to reflect, to reclaim our historical experience. If we are going to avoid the errors of the past, we need a revolutionary theory that is a real force for action.

This difficulty to provide ourselves with an orientation is rooted in the fact that the demonstrations in solidarity with Gamonal are not backed up by assemblies. This means that, while being very precious and full of promise, the solidarity has remained at the level of good wishes; it has not been made concrete, and the demonstrations have not gone beyond simple protest.

Despite what is signified by the slogan "Long live the struggle of the working class!", the movement has still seen itself as a "citizens' or people's" struggle (in the demos we often heard : "The people united will never be defeated"). The bourgeoisie and its parties impose this vision (and the unions too speak about "popular protest").

If we see ourselves as "citizens" or "the people", we become the class brothers of the politicians who deceive us, of the police who beat us, of the judges who imprison us, of Amancio Ortega, the richest man in Spain; we are all part of the "greater Spanish family". And if we accept this "Holy Family", we have to also accept insecurity, cuts in social spending, lay-offs, as is required to make the "Spanish brand" more competitive[9]. This is what the government, the employers and the right wing politicians proclaim in all their cynical frankness and what the left and the unions oppose with their idyllic vision of "trademark Spain" without cuts or redundancies, which they do not believe in themselves,  as is clearly seen whenever the left is in government or the unions sign agreements on redundancies and wage cuts.

As we said in our international leaflet on the balance sheet of the movements in 2011: ''However society is divided into classes, a capitalist class that owns everything and produces nothing and an exploited class (the proletariat) which produces all and has less and less. The driving force of social change is not the democratic game of the decision of a majority of citizens (this game is nothing more than a masquerade that covers up and legitimises the dictatorship of the ruling class) but the class struggle. The social movement needs to join up with the struggle of the principle exploited class (the proletariat) that collectively produces most of the wealth and ensures the functioning of social life: factories, hospitals, schools, universities, ports, construction, post offices (...) There is no opposition between the struggle of the modern proletariat and the profound needs of social layers exploited by capitalist oppression.  The struggle of the proletariat is not an egotistical or specific movement but the basis for 'the independent movement of the immense majority to the benefit of the immense majority'(The Communist Manifesto)”.

It is clear that in so far as the struggles are considered part of a "citizens' movement", they will not be directed against the state but will engage in a desperate search, continually coming up against the same wall of so-called "reform", which amounts to "everything must change so that everything can stay the same", as the Prince of Lampedusa said. Beyond insights like seeing the link between Gamonal, 2014, and May 68, if the struggles are seen as a "popular actions", they will not be able to break out of the national shackles and will not put forward what is needed: being an active link in the broad international movement of the proletariat. It is obvious that in so far as the struggles do not integrate themselves into the class struggle, they will not be fighting against the global capitalist system, but they will lose themselves in allocating blame to each in turn, to the speculators, the bankers, the corrupt politicians and so on, like selecting from an interlocking nest of Russian dolls. 

The assemblies, the debates, the discussions in the streets, in the workplaces and in the schools, must address these dilemmas. We shouldn't be afraid either of problems or criticisms. "These present movements would benefit from critically reviewing the experience of two centuries of proletarian struggle, and attempts at social liberation. The road is long and fraught with enormous obstacles, which calls to mind the slogan oft repeated in Spain: 'It is not that we are going slowly, it is that we are going far'. By starting the widest possible debate, without restrictions or discouragement, that is consciously preparing the future movements, we will be ensuring that this hope becomes a reality: another society is possible!" (Excerpt from our international leaflet quoted above). Gamonal with its assemblies and solidarity is one more step on the long and difficult road.


Acción Proletaria (22 January 2014)



[1]     See ‘Indignation at the heart of the proletarian dynamic’ in International Review 152, http://en.internationalism.org/internationalreview/201310/9197/indignation-heart-proletarian-dynamic

 

[2]              This is the collective Diario de Vurgos (deliberately spelled with a "v", because the Spanish "b" and "v" are pronounced the same way), that describes itself as "the inhabitants of the Burgos underground" in opposition to the official Burgos parties, trade unions, church and other elements of the system, including the city newspaper Diario de Burgos. Their findings are very interesting and it seems they have had a positive impact on the struggle. Their e-mail is http://diariodevurgos.com/dvwps/

 

 

[3]     To be able to see the struggle of Burgos in the dynamic of the international class struggle, we encourage readers to analyse the resolution on the international situation from our last congress (from point 15). http://en.internationalism.org/internationalreview/201310/9219/20th-icc-congress-resolution-international-situation.

 

[5]              The Minister of Justice is going to propose a very restrictive abortion law

 

[6]      See our international leaflet,  2011: from Indignation to Hope, http://en.internationalism.org/files/en/2011_movements_lft2.pdf

 

[8]              The PSOE is the Spanish Socialist Party. Since 2012 it has been in opposition. IU, United Left, is a coalition around the Communist Party (similar to the one in France), playing the same role of "radical" democratic opposition . The PP is the right wing People's Party that is currently in government.

 

[9]              The Spanish State has launched a campaign with the label "Trademark Spain" to promote its products.