Notes from the Camp Sol Protests

Camp Sol Protests in Madrid

In his latest book, Crack Capitalism, John Holloway argues that ‘there is nothing special about being an anti-capitalist revolutionary’, that in fact opposing capitalism is the everyday story of millions of people resisting, of people saying no.

This saying ‘no’ is found in the daily actions of people who take part in actions that lie outside the dictates of the market, something unrelated to financial value, to money. These actions could be the growing of vegetables in a local plot, the organizing of a book club, the forming of a choir because you like to sing. However, oftentimes, people create new forms everyday because they have no choice. ‘The functioning of the capitalist market does not allow us to survive’, Holloway writes, ‘and we need to find other ways to live’. But still, these other ways are not exceptional; they are not out of the ordinary. They are the everyday. There is ‘nothing more common’, as Holloway puts it, ‘nothing more obvious’.

After spending last Tuesday evening in Camp Sol, the protest camp that has taken over the central square in Madrid and is at the heart of the 15-M movement in Spain, I was reminded of Holloway’s words. I had headed to the camp to speak to some of the people involved, the organizers of the movement, about the ideas behind their action, about from where they had taken their ideas, from where they had taken their inspiration, their methods. Had they, in the first instance, been inspired by Cairo, by Tunis? On a secondary level, were they aware of Seattle 1999, of Genoa 2001, of anti-globalization generally, of alter-globalization, perhaps even of anti-capitalism? What links did they draw with wider movements, both past and present? Did they see any connection with May 1968, and the rest of the protests of a generation or two ago? Perhaps most interestingly, had they taken their inspiration from Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas, and their internet-infused revolt against neo-liberal capitalism in 1994?

The Experience of Protest

I entered Camp Sol on the eastern side, the side closest to the las Carretas entrance of the Metro—the underground here in Madrid—whose futuristic, glass-domed covering has served as the giant notice board for the placards and posters of the camp. As I made my way through this tented city on this, the first day of the second week of its brief but brilliant existence, I passed what now looked like a fully working kitchen, passed the newly established, exhibition-style stalls of the different committees—of respect, of infrastructure, of the neighborhoods—all staffed with people ready to provide information to the public, passed a fully functioning library, in which what looked like members of a reading group discussed their chosen text surrounded by bookshelves lined with books, passed a press room stocked with the newspapers of the world laid out for people to read, passed an art studio in which people painted new banners, new slogans. Across the top of crowded pathways, with the tourist and the passer-by still in attendance in large numbers, announcements echoed out, reaching the whole camp, via a fully functioning, clear public address system. An extraordinary amount has been achieved here in just a few days, an incredible level of hard work and organization to build a fully functioning, user-friendly, autonomous community.

Eventually, I reached the stall of the committee of communication, where a team of camp organizers and volunteers were politely fielding enquires from the public, from journalists, from academics. The committee pointed me in the direction of a portavoz, one of the officially appointed spokespersons for 15-M, who could talk to me about the movement, about its ideas and inspiration. However, to all of the questions above, my spokesperson patiently replied that there was no other motivation here, no other idea—no theory—other than the simple cry of enough. That the particular situation in Spain—the unimaginable levels of unemployment generally (21%) and the unemployment in particular amongst the young (44%), levels which only this week the OECD reported would take 15 years to reverse—was not only immoral and unjust, but completely unsustainable for them, the protesters. That the reason they were in this mess has nothing to do with them and everything to do with a malfunctioning, corrupt financial system. That, indeed, they had no choice but to do exactly what they were doing, to protest, to say ‘no’. That Cairo and Tunis were places not on which they based their own protest, but places they felt solidarity with. That May 1968 meant nothing to them, was their parents’ fight, a generation who were far more secure and comfortable than their own future appeared to be. And as for the Zapatistas—who were they, exactly?

In short, the movement was here, in Sol, camping under the relentless sun after which the Plaza is named, because they could not be anywhere else. They were here because they had to be here, because their futures, their livelihoods were at stake. They were here because nobody else would be here for them: no political party was asking what they were asking; no politician was arguing for what they were arguing; no nation-wide, European-wide, or global-level political or financial institution was saying what the campers in Sol were desperate to say—that the global economic crisis was not their fault, but now was very much their problem; that the very same crisis had left them without the ability to live a life of dignity. But what about methods? Surely the methods of the movement—email, internet, social networking sites—have been taken from the study of previous movements? Again the reply was no: not once had there been a discussion of methods in this overtly conscious way in organizing this movement. The way the participants of 15-M organized is the way they live: online, in the moment, connected.

I took leave of my portavoz and wandered off, back around the crowded walkways of the camp, passing again by people sat on sofas, people talking, reading, passing the library again and the book club, passing the kitchen with volunteers cooking for no financial gain, passing the crèche, with children playing with donated toys, passing the volunteers who sprayed cool water over everyone to lessen the heat, passing the resident campers who were relaxing, living their daily lives, and, suddenly, it dawned on me—nothing more common, nothing more obvious. Everything that was going on here, everything that was making this camp work, came right out of the business of the everyday. It was people, young people, doing what they do in living rooms up and down Spain, over and across the developed and developing world. It was people being civil to each other, respecting each other, treating each other with dignity, for no financial incentive, for no financial gain.

Everywhere you could see it: the cooks, the librarians, the information committee. What did they want? Well, again, they were here, camping, because they had to be here, because no-one else would be here for them. But more than this, they clearly also wanted to make the camp work. An incredible amount of effort had gone in to making it work. Why? Well, they wanted to show—through their means, their practice—exactly why they had to be here, for what reasons it was worth being here. That is to say, they wanted to show, through doing, what it was they were here to fight for, to protect. And that for which they are fighting is that which is most on display in the camp: the everyday respect and civility, altruism and co-operation, which accords to a dignified existence. To be clear: what is on show here the daily interactions of humanity, interactions that takes place outside of the market, but interactions which are being increasingly squeezed by the market.

‘Mother! This is what you have taught me! Thank you!’

In short, Camp Sol is the everyday life of regular, everyday, dignified people—an everyday life now so deeply threatened by the financial crisis—spilling out in collective form onto the streets of Europe in order to protect itself. And this is the real strength of this movement. This is what makes it different. This is what makes it so common, so obvious. Camp Sol is the collective expression of the nurture of the family, the cooperation of friends: the expression of human dignity in the name of preserving that dignity. And the protesters themselves are clearly aware of this: on one of the main walkways of the camp, there hangs a bright yellow poster with the words that capture this sentiment perfectly: ‘Mama! Esto es lo que me has enseñado! Gracias!’—‘Mother! This is what you have taught me! Thank you!’ Again, Camp Sol contains nothing more common, nothing more obvious than the very collective expression of that which is most under threat: dignified, civil, human interaction. Of course, from this, 15-M has formulated clear demands of the government here in Spain, but whether those demands are heeded, or even heard, the most remarkable thing is the way they have been articulated, via this eruption of collective resistance.

And, of course, in the end, this is also the one way that 15-M does tie in to the resistance movements of recent years. In 1994, it was Marcos and the Zapatistas who erupted onto the world scene in protest against the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA), the neoliberal package of economic reforms signed by the principal states of North America. And their rallying call was exactly the same: as Marcos claimed in ’94, ‘¡Ya basta!’—‘enough already’. He too argued that they were there, protesting, in Chiapas in the mountains of the Mexican Southeast, because they could be nowhere else: the impact of NAFTA would further impoverish the indigenous communities of the southeast, depriving them further of the means to live with dignity. They were there explicitly in the name of survival, in the name of protecting dignity. And, the means they used were their means, not the means of any other movement. Their means were the means of the everyday of the indigenous of Chiapas, and of no-one else.

Today, in Sol, the means of resistance are the everyday interactions of the youth of Spain who find themselves on the end of a fiscal threat to their dignity. They, like the Zapatistas, have no choice but to resist. And though their methods may be different, and their inspiration and ideas separate, they are connected by the very fact that they resist. They are a part of what Marcos described in 1996 as ‘the network of resistance’—separate points on a grid, united in resistance. Although a distinct world of its own in the struggle for dignity here in Spain, Camp Sol is one world in Marcos’s ‘world of many worlds … a world that struggles for humanity and against neoliberalism’. This does not, however, detract from its singular importance: Camp Sol has something very unique to teach us, a lesson about how resistance to neo-liberalism requires not a new form of politics, nor a new Left, nor a new method or theory of resistance, but rather a simple, collective—and incredibly well organized—expression of human dignity that has to do something, anything, to survive a crisis that undermines its continued existence.