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Protest by consensus: Laurie Penny on Madrid's Occupy

Like most of the occupations around the world today, Madrid's Puerta del Sol is peaceful.

In Spain, the revolution doesn't start till after teatime. It's 4pm on a Saturday and I'm wandering through Puerta del Sol in Madrid, the main city square that was occupied last May by thousands of anti-austerity activists, to find just two folding tables piled with leaflets. Behind one of them, some earnest young people in their late twenties are collecting votes for a people's referendum they have organised, involving some three million people across Spain, to decide what the 15O movement behind the evening's planned protest is actually demanding.

"In May, we asked everyone for proposals and suggestions for the change they wanted to see," says Rai, an eager 29-year old software developer helping to co-ordinate this referendum. "In the end we had about 11,000 suggestions. That was too much, and we couldn't get everyone to agree, so a group of four hundred made them into just five suggestions."

The referendum is so broad that the edges are hard to see -- participants are required to vote yes, no or abstain to "less political corruption" and "a more sustainable economy", alongside more specific demands for greater representation for smaller parties within Spain's current two-party system. Most people I speak to believe this is an improvement on the terms of the upcoming General Election, whose results are seen as a foregone and depressing conclusion -- more austerity, with a little less mitigation and no real choice for voters.

Rai wears a t-shirt saying "citizen of the new world". As protests begin to be coordinated across the planet, the shape of that new world is still uncertain although behind us in Sol, four or five young activists are doggedly constructing a giant globe out of bamboo and papier mache. I ask Rai if he expects many people to be here tonight. "I don't know," he says, admitting to a loss of radical energy in Spain's movement over the summer. "A few, maybe."

Four hours later the square is crammed with over 60,000 people, a vast, stamping, shouting human mass. "I'm here because I am indignados!" One girl shouts at me in broken English. "We are angry!"

As more demonstrators press their way into the square, chanting about the failure of representative democracy and calling for, among other things, the dismissal of the local governor, there is literally no room to turn around. Some activists break into an empty building on one side of the square and begin to drop banners: "somos los 99 percent", reads one, echoing the slogan of the "occupy" protests around the globe, as news pours in about sister demonstrations in New York, Boston, Lisbon, London and almost a thousand other towns and cities around the world.

This is a global protest, and it seeks to address a global problem: the monopolisation of wealth by the elite and the failure of free-market capitalism to create a liveable future for humanity.

The alternatives for that future are unformed, but they are at last being debated in open people's forums around the world. The giant papier-mache globe has now been completed and actually looks quite impressive, glittering with red and green LEDs at points of global occupation as it hangs in the middle of the noisy twilit square.

Like most of the occupations around the world today, Puerta del Sol is a peaceful protest. As each banner drops, the crowd cheers it cacophonously; those packed into the sidestreets can't see the banners, so they don't even know why they're cheering, but they cheer anyway, a thunderous roar reverberating back through the crowd and through the heart of the Spanish capital.

"Maybe people don't listen to us now, but in the future they will have to," says Eva, 18, as the night draws in and the crowd settles down for an enormous general assembly. "They can't ignore us. We are the 99 per cent."

In every wing of this protest movement I have reported from, one common theme is the fetishisation of form and process over ideology. In Madrid, as in London and New York, all decisions, from the smallest breakout circle to general assemblies of thousands, are made using the "consensus" model of direct democracy, waving hands in various simple signals and operating with discussion facilitators rather than leaders, a system that some say originated in the Quaker movement several centuries ago.

There are different dialects of hand-signal consensus in different countries-in Spain they wave their hands higher, in New York a system called "progressive stack" is designed to ensure that minority voices are heard -- but the principle is the same.

It's a principle of democracy done at ground level, and people involved in this "consensus" process find it incredibly empowering -- a refreshing contrast to the alienating remoteness and weary predictability of parliamentary representative democracy, which most people here see as totally irrelevant to their real lives.

The sense of collective engagement overwhelms the multiplicity of different strategies and suggestions within the movement: everyone turns up with their own problems and grievances, but the process of engagement becomes just as important . "I do not come here to affirm who I am already," one visiting Spanish activist in New York said last week, "I come here to discover who I can be with other people. This is a new kind of politics."

I believe that what we are seeing here is the beginnings of a substantive change not just to the nature of modern politics, but to the way in which it is done, demanded and delivered, a change shaped by network technology just as the printing press changed politics six centuries ago.

It baffles the hell out of the press, and not even those who have been involved deeply from the start pretend to be able to see the end game, but one thing's for sure -- it would be a grave mistake to write off this unique movement before it has really begun.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder