Laboratory of Conversations: The 15M Movement

Ten years ago today, Spain’s “15M” movement burst on the scene. In short order, everything changed. Or has it?

“The people in the squares are not saying, ‘Democracy is shit,’” Spanish philosopher Juan Domingo Sánchez Estop wrote on his blog during Spain’s climactic days of May 2011. “What they are saying is, ‘This shit is not democracy.’” Starting with protests on May 15, 2011—10 years ago this Saturday—the 15M Movement (also known as “Los Indignados”) changed the country.1 So, what was 15M? A social movement? A series of protests? A mobilization cycle? A certain sensibility or political language? A “climate,” as Spanish philosopher Amador Fernández-Savater described it? Probably a little of all these and, at the same time, something else.

“A revolution,” Spanish sociologist Jesus Ibáñez once said, “is, in a way, an immense conversation.”2 The 15M Movement was definitely not a revolution, but it certainly was a conversation, as Ibáñez understood it, in societal terms: a moment when a whole society stops—when its citizens suspend the usual narratives that structure their daily life and meet together and talk eye to eye, to hear about each other’s pains and fears, but also their ideas and hopes.

That conversation, in its many different dimensions and evolutions, is what Cristina Flesher Fominaya explores in her latest book, Democracy Reloaded: Inside Spain’s Political Laboratory from 15M to Podemos. As Flesher Fominaya explains, 15M was an example of impressive collective political intelligence. Indeed, it was able to circumvent traditional dilemmas in social movements and leftist traditions. It was able to do so precisely because it appealed to a broader political spectrum, and because it resignified the terms, concepts, and parameters of public discourse. Instead of, for example, simply rejecting certain terms as the property of ideological rivals, accepting these terms’ predetermined definitions, the movement was able to turn them into powerful battlegrounds. As Sánchez Estop illustrated above, 15M was able to productively co-opt the term “democracy” itself and resignify its meaning.

Yet Flesher Fominaya’s story is not all positive. Certainly, 15M changed the country. Indeed, to a certain extent, it can be said that the current presence of a young left party (Podemos) as a junior partner in the governing coalition led by the Socialist Party is one achievement of the movement. But it is also true, as Flesher Fominaya makes clear, that—over the course of a truly intense social and political decade—there are so many things that have been left behind.

In 2021, we are confronted by the 10th anniversary of the emergence of the so-called “movements of the squares”: from the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab world; to protest movements in Europe, including Spain and Greece; to Occupy Wall Street in the US; and to the movements that followed in their wake (the Gezi Park protests, in Istanbul, in 2013; Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution, in 2014).

It is understandable to be shocked by our current situation, so profoundly impacted by COVID-19, just as it is understandable to be exhausted by the rise of far-right, fascist (or proto-fascist) forces all over the world (Trump, Bolsonaro, Orbán, Duterte, the Spanish far-right party VOX, and Salvini, among so many others). As a result, it is tempting to embrace the anniversaries of the 2011 movements either as reminders of what we were not capable of achieving or as occasions for a paralyzing, melancholic, self-serving nostalgia.

Having lived through—and, along with so many others, having been profoundly affected by—the movements of the squares, I’m convinced that, 10 years on, 2011 should be considered one of those historic years that define a sea change. Not necessarily, or not exclusively, due to the specific events that happened in that year, but because of the social, political, and cultural wake those events left behind. We could consider 2011 a new 1968, if you like. But, of course—as we all know—history is written by the winners. While 1968 is remembered as a historic year, a turning point, in one way or another—even if sometimes we are not sure exactly why, probably because sometimes we don’t exactly know who the winners were—the status of 2011 is less certain.

Will 2011 be remembered as a victory or a defeat? Will we remember it as the beginning of a renewed desire for a deeper, truer, just, real democracy? Or, as the last, desperate gasps of an exhausted longing for such a democracy? In a way, actively figuring out the answer to this question is a crucial political project.

Democracy Reloaded is an indispensable tool for that project—for the conversation we all still need to happen. First, by providing a detailed archive of voices, testimonies, and stories that help us understand the protean character of a broad, complex, mutating movement. Second, by emphasizing those aspects of the movement that help not simply to assess its achievements (beyond the usual success/failure framework, which Flesher Fominaya problematizes) but to remember the still-pending potentials to which those movements pointed.


The Spanish Case

How to explain the sense of social and political experimentation witnessed in Spain throughout the last decade? What makes the Spanish case so special?3 The 2008 crisis generated profound social upheavals all over the world. In a way, many current political developments can be explained as ongoing effects of that crisis.

However, the Spanish case included singular characteristics. What in other countries was experienced as a serious crisis—with numerous ramifications, yes, but emerging from more or less a single origin (the 2008 crash)—in Spain was perceived as a complex convergence of crises in different domains.

First, the economic crisis: the impact of the 2008 crash was felt particularly acutely in Spain, an economy heavily dependent on the real estate and construction industries and centered on banking and finance—what Isidro López and Emmanuel Rodríguez describe as “the Spanish Model.” Soon after the 2008 crash, unemployment in Spain rose to 27 percent—and to more than 50 percent among people younger than 25.

Next, the political crisis: in spite of the economic fallout, the then government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) adopted harsh austerity measures. These measures were later enshrined in the country’s constitution, due to EU pressures. This led to overwhelming distrust toward the two main parties—the PSOE and the conservative People’s Party (PP), both of which were swamped in corruption cases—and toward the monarchy.

Finally, there was what could be termed a cultural crisis: a crisis of the narratives and the self-perception of the country as a whole and its citizens. Founded through a delicate and complex transition from Franco’s dictatorship to a parliamentary monarchy in the ’70s, Spanish democracy was considered a sort of ultimate achievement, the arrival of Spanish society to its normalization into European modernity. Until 2008, Spain was finding its way among the most powerful economies in Europe and the world. This narrative of success had its social counterpart in the citizenry, who in many cases enjoyed a story of upward social mobility, the feeling of belonging to a modern, stabilized European democracy.


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Those narratives were shattered by the crisis. In other words, what Spain experienced after 2008 was a deep questioning of a whole political regime (the “Regime of ’78,” as it was termed by many activists and intellectuals—referencing the year of the democratic constitution’s approval) and, with it, many of the political, economic, social, and cultural consensus points upon which the self-confidence of the country rested (the “Culture of the Transition,” as journalist Guillem Martínez and others call it). One might even say that the very emergence of terms like “Regime of ’78” or “Culture of the Transition” points to the depth of this cultural crisis. When things are going well, there is no need to name what is simply considered the way things are.

Around 2011, normality had given way to exceptionality and extreme uncertainty. But also, as Flesher Fominaya’s book reminds us, to a huge desire for hope, imagination, and experimentation. Maybe the innovative and experimental character of 15M can be partially explained by this convergence of pain, questioning, and demands.


What was the 15M Movement?

If 15M was a countrywide conversation, what was that conversation about and how did it unfold? One of the defining characteristics of 15M was its capacity to link together pro-democracy and anti-austerity demands. The movement combined an anti-austerity framework (against the government’s post-2008 policies) with a commensurate demand for “real” democracy.

That is, the movement located some symptoms—the social pains caused by austerity measures. But, instead of stopping at the symptoms, 15M connected them to other issues (recognizing that these social pains are not purely economic but also reflect political decisions), provided a diagnosis (these economic and political problems are tied together; austerity and representative democracy go hand in hand), and proposed a set of solutions (we need a “real democracy”—a more just, participatory, direct democracy). In so doing, the movement became one that demanded a, so to speak, more democratic democracy.

As Flesher Fominaya points out, 15M had a distinctly nonbinary character—in other words, it challenged the usual (often artificial and politically useless) polarities that have traditionally structured leftist thought and practice. On the one hand, the movement’s language and demands, particularly for many (older) radical-left activists, could easily be deemed reformist. On the other hand, its methods of assembly meeting and civil disobedience—and its sheer ability to reach so many people and, thus, profoundly destabilize the social, political, and ideological order of Spanish society—gave it a quasi-revolutionary edge.

Another of the polarities 15M deftly traversed was the tension between the old and the new. Part of the movement’s appeal was precisely its ability to combine the old and the new, which complicates the question of its origins. It can’t be entirely explained as a sudden emergence—uncontaminated by previous experiences—nor can it be explained only as a natural, predictable consequence of the work of preexisting movements.

Ten years on, 2011 should be considered one of those historic years that define a sea change.

The 15M Movement combined the work of very young activists—who influenced the open, extremely inclusive language of the movement (seemingly post-ideological, although, in many ways, as Flesher Fominaya explains, the movement’s main achievement was precisely a deep, ideological process of resignification)—with the resources and spaces of previously existing activist spaces (especially autonomous social centers). In a way, 15M’s relation to the past was one of a fruitful forgetfulness. Its rejection of previously existing political identities could sometimes be unjust—a naive or uninformed dismissal of many indispensable political memories. But, in some cases, this memory void allowed 15M to avoid fetishistic and identitarian relations to the past.

The movement’s success can also be found in its blurring of the lines between spontaneity and organization. While a certain technopolitical element was crucial to 15M—and Flesher Fominaya pays great attention to this element—the movement’s use of social media can’t be understood simply as a means of catalyzing dispersed individuals to gather spontaneously—without the backing of a defined, formal organization. Instead, these contemporary resources were articulated by the movement within deeper organizing processes: assemblies, working groups, all kinds of connections and encounters. Flesher Fominaya devotes great attention to deconstructing conventional ideas around spontaneous, social-media-based movements.

These conventional ideas heavily influenced media perceptions and narratives around the movements of the squares (remember all that talk about Twitter revolutions?). Yet, this technopolitical framework erases complex organizing processes and trajectories, as Flesher Fominaya argues. After all, the 15M Movement challenged not only political representation, but also narrative representation—the way journalistic and academic discourses represented and explained the movement. Through a genealogical approach, Flesher Fominaya offers conceptual tools for a more nuanced understanding of the movement.


Protest, Occupation, and Movement

Democracy Reloaded makes two major contributions: firstly, Flesher Fominaya’s sequenced analysis of the 15M Movement as three interconnected, yet separate and qualitatively different, moments; secondly, her description of the movement’s political culture. Both aspects are extremely useful, in explanatory terms; innovative, in methodological terms; and, therefore, profoundly fruitful, in political terms. This makes the book a compelling read for a general audience interested in the 15M Movement as well as for activists and participants in social movements, while also containing important theoretical implications for scholars in the field of social-movement studies.

The first moment that Flesher Fominaya identifies as part of 15M was the initial protest. On May 15, 2011, mass demonstrations thronged the streets of Madrid and other major Spanish cities, under the slogan: “Real democracy now. We are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers.” Using a genealogic method—another of the important theoretical contributions of the book—Flesher Fominaya maps the different collectives, trajectories, and demands that coalesced in the organizing process that led up to May 15, including Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth without future) and Democracia Real YA, among others.

In other words, the demonstrations that erupted on May 15 obviously did not come out of the blue. Instead, they occurred after various actors had spent months establishing connections, conducting discussions, and organizing.

The second moment Flesher Fominaya identifies is when, two days after the May 15 demonstration, a small group of participants decided to camp at Puerta del Sol square, in Madrid. Their eviction by the police sparked a huge rally at the square, giving birth to the acampada there. This moment, Flesher Fominaya explains, meant not only a continuation of the protest, but a mutation. The camp that was established in the wake of the eviction allowed other people to join the movement, serving as a physical space for the construction of a collective identity. Camps are one of the defining aspects of the movements of the squares.

The third moment Flesher Fominaya identifies is the consolidation of the 15M Movement itself. After a couple months, the campers decided to leave Puerta del Sol square under their own steam, before being evicted by police—and, at this point, they started myriad neighborhood assemblies and initiatives. This is the moment when a certain 15M sensibility and language coalesced.

The movement endured for about three years, encompassing many issues and collectives and actors. Some of them, like the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages (PAH), preexisted 15M but were reinforced by the change of social and political climate the movement provoked. The many initiatives deeply marked by the horizontal, autonomous practices of 15M include 15MPaRato, a group devoted to bringing former economy minister and IMF director Rodrigo Rato to justice over the Bankia case; the iaioflautas, groups of elderly people affected by dubious banking practices; and precarious youth, like those involved in Juventud Sin Futuro. The 15M Movement was, through these different collectives and practices, able to connect many different issues and subjectivities.

Image of 15M initiatives

This sequence of moments Flesher Fominaya so aptly describes also facilitates the other major insight of the book: a powerful distillation of what she considers to be 15M’s emerging political culture. This culture is, in her telling, composed of three main elements.

First, 15M was influenced by autonomous movements. This influence is evident in many of the movement’s organizational practices and forms. Namely, its horizontality, rejection of political parties, and prefigurative character—that is, its focus on building social transformations directly from practices in the present. The squares themselves were both the medium and the message, to borrow Marshall McLuhan’s phrase. As a friend once said, precisely in one of those squares, they were “cities within cities, to show the cities what cities could be.”

Second, 15M was grounded in hacktivism and technopolitics. This was evident not only in its use of online tools, but, more importantly—as Flesher Fominaya underlines—in its political language and ideational framework, capable of informing methods of action.

Third, 15M was steeped in feminism. Despite initial tensions (feminist slogans were rejected in the first days of the Puerta del Sol occupation, as yet another political identity that should be left out of the agora), feminism permeated the movement through practices of care and inclusion, the rejection of competitive and hierarchical values.

Flesher Fominaya’s use of the concept of political culture helps us to take a longer view of 15M’s development and aftereffects. This approach allows her to avoid a certain instrumentalist conception of cultural aspects, which is frequently invoked in social-movement scholarship. In her view, the importance of cultural elements in movements cannot be reduced to displays of unity and identity. Instead (via the prefigurative dimension of movements, to which she repeatedly returns in the book) the movement’s culture connects to deeper societal transformations, for which such movements serve as vehicles. We could say that movements (regardless of their explicit successes and failures) serve as moments of empowerment, occasions for the transformation of what Althusser called the “imaginary relation” of the participants, and their perceptions of their own capabilities and their place in their social contexts (and, thus, their power to transform them).

The case of the PAH, for example, shows how a movement can change perceptions about personal failures into empowering political beliefs. When people threatened by evictions and foreclosures first come to PAH assemblies, they are struggling with a sense of deep personal failure. Taking part in this self-organized, horizontal movement helps them realize their situation is not their fault but, rather, a consequence of structural economic realities.4


The Event and Its Interpretations

By the end of 2013, there were signs of the exhaustion of the mobilization cycle sparked by 15M. This fatigue was due to various factors. The government had not made any concessions; moreover, the Ley Mordaza (Gag law), which heavily penalized the organization of protests, had gone into effect, thanks to an agreement between the two major parties.5

A patronizing statement made by conservative politician María Dolores de Cospedal about 15M as the movement emerged would turn out to be an unintended prophecy: “If they want to achieve anything, they should run in elections,” she said in 2013. Well, they did run. With unprecedented results.

That is when the second phase of this past decade’s Spanish political laboratory began: the so-called institutional assault. To put it in philosophical terms, after the “event” (the emergence of 15M), many participants started to think about different readings, interpretations, and political hypotheses of 15M—attempts to “translate” what the movement was into the institutional and electoral arena.

Given 15M’s extremely broad appeal, all these hypotheses tried to push forward a truthful interpretation of the movement that was, inevitably, only a partial representation. This should not be understood, however, as a failure, and even less as “treason” (as these transitions from the streets to the institutions are sometimes deemed). A complete representation of such a broad movement, and one that so powerfully questioned representation itself, was impossible. And, in many ways, undesirable.

Will we remember 2011 as the beginning of a renewed desire for a deeper, truer democracy? Or, as the last, desperate gasps of an exhausted longing for such a democracy?

Here is another trap that Flesher Fominaya avoids. From the more movementist side, initiatives to bring such movements into institutions can be seen as a betrayal of a movement’s original spirit. Meanwhile, from the more institutional side, electoral initiatives are usually considered to be a natural and necessary step in the maturation of any movement. Flesher Fominaya gives us an account capable of narrating the contingency in any political process, thanks to her attention to detail and her inclusion of the voices of so many participants.

The first hypothesis proffered in these attempts to translate the movement was the technopolitical narrative. This idea, propounded by the network of legal experts and free-culture activists Red Ciudadana / Partido X, stressed a collaborative, hacktivist logic and the use of online participatory tools. Such tools—as Flesher Fominaya explains—certainly played a big role in the movement.

The second translation attempt—although it was the last one to become publicly visible—was the organization of municipal candidacies in many Spanish cities; Barcelona en Comú and Ahora Madrid are the most famous examples. The municipalist hypothesis stressed the movement’s profoundly urban character, its redefinition of the use of public space, and its notions of a more participatory and concrete politics, focused on the everyday problems of citizens and city inhabitants.6

The third institutional translation of 15M was manifested in Podemos’s left-populist strategy—probably the best known of these narratives internationally—which was focused on popular sovereignty, a transversal understanding of political conflict (as being between elites and nonelites), and an inclusive redefinition of notions of patriotism and belonging. Podemos emerged in 2014. During the general elections of 2015 and 2016, it became, in coalition with other partners, the third-most-powerful political force in the country. The party is now part of the current government, in coalition with PSOE, despite its drop in votes in the last elections.

In a way, Podemos’s translation of 15M can seem to be just one example of the movement’s transference into the realm of electoral-institutional politics, leaving room for the reader to assume that other projects might have been possible. Indeed, there were other projects: the municipalist confluences, for instance—independent political forces (formed by social activists, smaller progressive forces, and individual citizens) that came to power in four of the five most important cities in the country, and in many others, in 2015.

Probably the single-most-important criticism that can be made of Flesher Fominaya’s book is its lack of specific attention to municipalism. While Ada Colau, Barcelona en Comú, and Ahora Madrid are repeatedly mentioned in Democracy Reloaded, the municipalist confluences are usually subsumed under the Podemos experience. This is undoubtedly due to issues of book length and the need for the whole work to keep a certain sense of unity.

Flesher Fominaya’s impressive attention to detail and to the words of active participants likely prevented her from embarking on a deeper immersion in the municipalist political process, which—while sharing many characteristics with Podemos (the party was, after all, included in many municipalist confluences)—has distinct approaches, methods, and debates. These elements are rooted in specific local realities, adding further levels of complexity and making the process difficult to translate into a succinct narrative.


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Still, Democracy Reloaded avoids many pitfalls, particularly that of nostalgia, and offers many excellent insights. Reading the book amid a pandemic and pre–US election anxiety certainly brought unexpected accents to the text. This process could be painful at times and joyful at others.

What the book ultimately provides is a powerful antidote to the bleak and uncertain present, not by indulging in the nostalgic contemplation of days past, but by examining still unexplored political horizons and potentials. Understanding the hope sparked by 15M—and, indeed, all those 2011 movements—is a necessary exercise, for multiple (historical, epistemological, intellectual, and political) reasons. Indeed, these movements of the squares may provide the blueprint for the future movements—and conversations and urgently needed transformations—to come.


This article was commissioned by Sophie Gonickicon

  1. The 15M Movement’s rejection of representation constitutes a challenge to conventional narrative representation itself—that is, to all the usual journalistic and academic narrative devices. This is evident in one of the movement’s names. “Los Indignados” comes from Stephane Hessel’s Indignez-vous, a short 2010 essay calling for civic revolt against the economic and political situation in Europe. It was a best seller and contributed to the popularization of this framework of moral indignation against injustice and inequality. However, its adoption as a name for the movement betrays an underlying idealistic (and patriarchal) logic of collective action: first there was the word (the book by The Author, The Expert, The One Who Knows) and the action by ordinary citizens, minions of The Idea, follows. Among movement participants, the name “15M” was very much preferred, precisely because—as Cristina Flesher Fominaya explains in the book under discussion here—one of the key elements of 15M was the rejection of hierarchical figures of expertise. The movement was a “culture of anyone,” to use the title of a great book on this topic. See Luis Moreno Caballud, Cultures of Anyone (Liverpool University Press, 2015).
  2. Jesus Ibáñez, El regreso del sujeto: La investigación social de segundo orden (Editorial Amerinda, 1991), p. 73.
  3. Flesher Fominaya’s book’s subtitle reads, “inside Spain’s political laboratory.” “Laboratory,” “experiment,” “hypothesis,” and other related words have frequently been used when speaking about Spain’s social and political experiences over the last 10 years. These words are testament to these experiences’ capacity to tap hidden potentials and organizational innovations while maybe also accounting for their somewhat inconclusive achievements. (But can there ever be anything totally conclusive in history?
  4. The 2014 documentary Sí se puede: Seven Days with PAH, made by Pau Faus and Silvia González Laá and produced by Comando Video, offers a useful and powerful look into how the PAH and its participants work.
  5. This law is still in effect today—even under what has been hailed as the most progressive government in Spanish democratic history.
  6. For more on municipalism in Spain, see Vicente Rubio-Pueyo, “Municipalism in Spain: From Barcelona to Madrid, and Beyond,” Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, December 2017.
Featured image: Movimiento 15M valencia 24-05-2011. Photograph by Fito Senabre / Flickr