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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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Could Labour implement universal basic income?

The battle over this radical policy is moving gradually into the mainstream.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has called universal basic income (UBI) “an idea whose time may well have come”. It means a fixed regular payment to each citizen, irrespective of income or behaviour. It is seen by both socialists and Silicon Valley as a panacea for the post-industrial world, addressing unrestrained inequality, economic insecurity, and automation-generated unemployment in the modern economy.

Guy Standing, a professor at Soas and founding member of Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN), says a “perfect storm of factors have suddenly pushed us into being a mainstream policy question” in recent years. “A lot of people who were sitting on their hands, as it were, have started to come out in favour ... I'm inundated with requests to speak and involvement in conferences, and it's indicative of the sudden realisation that if the growing inequality and growing economic insecurities persist, then the drift to fascist populism will continue. 

“Of course, in the background, a lot of these techies including prominent names in Silicon Valley have come out in favour because they see robots displacing us all. I don't buy that argument, but it's added to a growing chorus of people saying that we should take it more seriously.”

Standing's recent book charts the long history of thinking about UBI (through ancient Greece, Thomas More, and Martin Luther King). But the idea's rise to prominence is the result of a interlinked developments in the economy and the nature of work. As Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds argues, changes such as the rise of self-employment and the gig economy challenge the appropriateness of the traditional welfare state. It's “based around the principle of compulsion, and broadly believing there's two binary states – people in work, and people out of work. We know it's becoming a much more complicated picture than that... The state can't keep up with the complexity of people's lives.”

For Standing, the prospects of UBI being implemented successfully depend largely on how it is framed. He is wary of libertarians who see it as an opportunity to dismantle the welfare state, and believes it needs to be placed within the context of chronic economic insecurity for a growing number within the post-industrial economy.

“The argument that I think is going to prove really important for the left is linked to the growth of the 'precariat',” he says, meaning those living without predictability or security. “People in the precariat are experiencing chronic insecurity that will not be overcome by any existing policy.” 

Even so, support from business could be key. Peter Swenson's work on the history of the welfare state finds that reforms and expansions of social policy have only succeeded when key sections of the capitalist class are in support. He, and other academics, resist the idea that the welfare state is simply the focal point for the battle between left and right over Robin-Hood style redistribution. If UBI is to make its way into policy, support from business may be more important than the strengthening of the left.

Reynolds claims UBI may solve not just policy problems, but political ones.  "You have to say that Labour's situation, in terms of how we've struggled on all of these issues (the party's polling is significantly behind on running the welfare state) over the last few years, means that we should definitely be open to new thinking in this area.” Both he and Standing  are part of the working group that was brought together by McDonnell in February to produce a publication on the issue before the next general election, which would then be discussed across the country. Understandably, the group didn't quite meet its deadline. But Standing says “the general thrust of the plans hasn't changed”.

Standing is hopeful that important sections of the Labour Party are either in support, or can be won over. Clearly, the leadership is generally supportive of the idea – both McDonnell and Corbyn have expressed as much in public statements. Standing says many MPs are “rethinking their position ... many of them have not taken up a position because they thought that this was not an issue to be considered. I think we're seeing a real opening for a much more constructive discussion.”

Reynolds says that “there's people on the right and the left of the party who are in favour, there's people on the right and the left who are against”.
 
Nevertheless, discussion is winning over important Labour constituencies. It's not just radical activist groups, but also trade unions, who are coming round to the idea. According to Standing: “Unite now supports it, as well as a lot of unions in Europe. It used to be the case that the unions were among the most fierce critics of a basic income, on the spurious grounds (in my view) that if people had a basic income they wouldn't push for higher wages and employers wouldn't give higher wages.

“We found in our pilots and in our psychological research that people who have basic security have a stronger bargaining position and are therefore more likely to stand up for their rights, and can lead to improvement in wages and working conditions. So I think that all of those objections are gradually being exposed by theoretical arguments against them, or empirical evidence, from pilots.”

Reynolds agrees that “there's a lot of support coming from the wider labour movement”, but warns that people must not be too optimistic about anything happening quickly. “Clearly it's going to need a radical change to how the tax and benefits system would work, and you'd obviously be completely recasting how personal allowances work, and all of that,” he says. “I think this is sort of the cutting edge of thinking about the future and what our economy will look like in 50-100 years' time, that is the frame that we're looking at.” 

Rudy Schulkind is a Danson scholar who recently graduated in philosophy and politics from St Anne's College Oxford.