Learning Democracy by Doing It

Pablo and Aurora from Spain's 15M movement

In an era where politics has come to mean a strategic and manipulative game played among distant elites, Spain’s 15M movement is trying to bring it back to the citizens in the squares. In the popular assemblies they have revived politics to its original meaning.

As people have lost trust in the political class and in conventional hierarchical institutions like political parties, trade unions and large NGOs, the assemblies have opened up spaces where ordinary citizens are invited to participate as equals. In these spaces the participants come as individuals, speaking in their own words, not as representatives of any organized group or special interest.

This horizontal and direct democratic way of organizing might explain how the movement could mobilize so many people from all backgrounds and all walks of life, including many who had never been involved in politics before.


For Aurora Gómez Delgado, the direct democracy of the assemblies is one of the most concrete and valuable results of the movement. ‘For me this kind of participation in which everyone has something to say is beautiful. We can hear each other and we can all participate’, she says. ‘One person and another person make more than individual things. This collective intelligence is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.’

I met Aurora and her fellow 15M activist Pablo Gutierrez del Alamo Moral in the Lavapiés neighbourhood in central Madrid to talk about the movement, the assemblies and their vision of democracy, one and a half year after it all started in the camps of Puerta del Sol, just a few hundred meters away.

For Pablo too, the assembly democracy is a crucial achievement of the 15M movement, but it has also been a personal revolution for him. ‘I’ve learned a lot of things’, he says. ‘I’ve learned to care for and to speak with other people, and I’ve learned to speak in public, which I didn’t do before. It’s very beautiful and I’m very happy only with this.’

Lavapiés is Madrid’s working class neighbourhood and with its large immigrant population the neighbourhood has become a multicultural centre and a community characterized by solidarity and radical grassroots politics. Both Aurora and Pablo are participating in the Lavapiés neighbourhood assembly, which is one of the strongest assemblies in Madrid.

Like other 15M assemblies the Lavapiés assembly has a myriad of affiliated working groups. Pablo participates in the communication group, writing a blog with news from the assembly and the neighbourhood. Aurora on the other hand, is nowadays most active in the performance troupe Gila, named after the Spanish comedian and critic of the Franco regime, Miguel Gila. The group performs street theatre, mocking politicians, bankers and the powerful, using humour as a weapon in the movement’s creative resistance.

Other groups includes the legal assistance group giving legal support to people who have been arrested and the finance group working to get money to pay all the fines that the movement gets; thematic groups discussing issues like debt, education and politics, and groups functioning as platforms for actions and campaigns, like stopping forced evictions, occupying bank branches, protecting immigrants from police harassment, and the campaign against privatization of water in Madrid.

Going beyond protest, the movement is also actively working to build alternatives. All across the country they are setting up consumer and production cooperatives, creating time banks and local currencies, growing ecological vegetables in urban gardens and turning squats into social and cultural centres. In this way they aim to reduce dependency on corporations and centralized and unsustainable economic structures and to create a new parallel ethical economy which is rooted in the communities and based on solidarity and mutual support.

In Lavapiés, Aurora tells me, the movement has set up several cooperatives and they have occupied an empty space and created an urban garden where they now grow organic vegetables and flowers.

Through this kind of prefigurative political praxis, the movement is trying to gradually create the new world they envision in their neighbourhoods and communities. ‘We are creating a new world everyday’, says Aurora. ‘And we are creating this new world by the way that we interact in our assemblies and cooperatives and by changing our collaborative relationships to each other.’

Real democracy

The 15M movement emerged as a response to the economic crisis and a protest against the brutal austerity measures forced upon the population in Spain, but their message is also one about democracy. As people have lost trust in mainstream political parties and politicians doing the bidding of the troika and the economic powers, the movement demands real democracy.

For Aurora a real democracy is a society where everyone is equal. However, this is not the situation in Spain now, she says. ‘If I have money I can get legal justice, but if I don’t have money I can’t. If I have money I can get an education, but if I don’t have money I cannot. So we are not equal in Spain now. This is not democratic.’

She too has lost trust in the political parties; ‘We vote for the parties because they promise something, but they don’t keep their promises. We can’t decide what we want to do, so we don’t have real democracy’, she says.

Disillusionment with the political parties and representative democracy has led many in the movement into exploring and discussing ideas for more direct and participatory democracy, ranging from binding referendums to Democracy 4.0., which would allow citizens to vote directly on political issues using the Internet. Some have also proposed to make the popular assemblies a part of the political system by putting them into the constitution. However, with the exception of the first - binding referendums - these proposals have not yet been included in the movement’s demands.

When considering changes to the political system, both Pablo and Aurora emphasize the need for reforms of Spain’s electoral law, like open lists in elections and proportional representation. However they do think the participatory democracy that the movement is practicing in the assemblies could be extended to the whole of society. ‘Of course!’, says Aurora, ‘But it will be very difficult. We are the first ones; it will be a very slow process, but it could be real. This kind of self-management and these kinds of horizontal relationships that we have in our movement could exist in any place. The cooperatives that we are creating are examples of this; they have another kind of organization where decisions are made in assemblies. And we are spreading this kind of organization where people are working and thinking in assemblies. So I think it is possible. It’s difficult though, but for my sons and daughters it could be real.’

‘We are learning what we want by the way we are doing things’, she continues. ‘We want to have a chance to discuss what to do and what kind of system that we want, but we don’t have a closed answer. We are a liquid movement, we are learning as we are moving.’

However, as austerity measures continue and unemployment keeps growing, people have become more impatient. They want an end to the cuts, an end to the injustice. They want change and they want it now. This impatience is one of the factors that recently have led many people to leave the assemblies, according to Pablo. While there were about 120 neighbourhood assemblies in Madrid a year ago, the number has now shrunk to between 30 and 40.

‘I think many people expected quick results and they didn’t think that we got any. One of our mottos is ‘we are going slow, because we are going far’. But many people didn’t realize what we mean by this, they wanted to change the system, to fight against capital.’

He says poverty and social problems are another reason why people have left the assemblies. When people lose their jobs, are evicted from their houses and can’t make the ends meet, they cannot do the everyday work that the movement needs.

A democratic constituent process

While there are fewer participating in the assemblies, people are still turning out in huge numbers for demonstrations and strikes. September the 25th was such a day, and it marked a turning point for the movement as tens of thousands surrounded the parliament in Madrid to demand the resignation of the government, call for a referendum over the austerity measures and the opening of a democratic constituent process to draft a new constitution.

‘The 15M has evolved through three stages’, Aurora explains. ‘The first stage was the camps, the second one was when we moved to the neighbourhoods, and the third was when we decided that this is not enough, that we want more, and then we went to surround the parliament.’

The first call for the 25s action which was made in July by a group of members from different collectives was initially not supported by all 15M assemblies because there was a lack of transparency and clarity about the initiative. But eventually, a new platform, Coordinadora 25s, was launched which had the support of the movement, as it was transparent and organized by open assemblies.

The initiative to promote a constituent process on the other hand, was launched in December 2011 when groups from the 15M started to set up constituent assemblies in different parts of the country with the aim of initiating such a process. A democratic constitutional process, the constituyentes say, must involve the participation of the whole community of citizens and this participation can be facilitated through popular assemblies and new communication technologies.

The constituyentes are inspired by the constitutional processes in Iceland and in Latin American countries like Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, which to some extent involved the citizens in drawing up their constitutions.

However, the constitutional processes in these countries had their shortcomings. In the Latin American countries the processes were dominated by political parties and elites, and in Iceland it didn't lead to any fundamental change in the political and economic structures. ‘They didn’t really change the system; they still have a capitalist system in Iceland, just as they had before the revolution’, Aurora says, adding that the movement in Spain could learn from the mistakes that were made.

The discussions on the constitutional process are still in a very early stage, according to Aurora. ‘In this stage we are only learning’, she says. ‘We are only talking right now; we are not taking any decisions and it is not organized yet.’

The 25s protests were followed by similar demonstrations in the end of September and in October, and the Coordinadora25s have said that they will continue surrounding the parliament until their goals are achieved.

The struggle for real democracy in Spain could be a long one, but as the 15M is practicing and working to build it in the squares and in their communities and through their networks, they are opening up new paths and inspiring others around the world.