New democratic movements (III). Occupy Wall Street and the 15M Spanish Indignados movement

Notes from the Workshop on New democratic movements, civic culture and the transformations of democracy, organized by the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, in Barcelona, Spain, on June 18th and 19th, 2015. More notes on this event: new_democratic_movements.

New democratic movements
Introduced by Michael Gould-Wartofsky and Ismael Peña López

Michael Gould-Wartofsky: Occupy Wall Street

Occupy movements: critique of actual politics, focus on the economic side of politics (both how they deal about economics and the economics of power), direct democracy, horizontality, etc.

Occupations where planned on a decentralized way, with a huge network of supporters. After the occupation, people would concur and build the necessary infrastructures to carry on with the occupations.

They would stablish procedures like “the people’s microphone” to initiate debates and deliberation, to set up a “school of democracy”.

What were the conditions of the initial success of Occupy Wall Street (OWS)? The success had to do with giving people a voice, to try and make desires and needs be heard and sometimes met.

OWS enabled the confluence of different ways of activism: traditional demonstrations, hacktivism, slacktivism, artivism…

Dire inequalities of the resources required to participate: time, education, political capital, etc. And there were not mechanisms to share or distribute this power to participate. Instead, inner circles were created including a “division of labour”.

How can we translate deliberation and distributed decision-making in other contexts, like institutional/representative democracy? Can they be translated? Do they scale? Are they sustainable?

Sometimes, the movement would close in itself, and lack of openness led to a certain degree of dogmatism.

Ismael Peña-López: 15M Spanish Indignados Movement

The Indignados movement begins with the terrorist attacks in March 2004, when the government lies to the citizens and they (a) go out to the Internet in the search of truthful news and (b) coordinate by means of SMS.

In May 2011, after some years of essay and error, comes the “pilot project”, the camps. The indignados movement will never more quit the public arena and will be characterized by:

  • decentralization in decision-making
  • individualization in initiating action, do-ocracy
  • enable casual participation, by increasing the granularity of participation

How does the movement work:

  • process
  • co-decision
  • radical subsidiarity

What do assemblies and movements do:

  • context
  • agora
  • interaction


Francesca Polletta: Where do these movements came from? Were they spontaneous? We know that some collectives played key roles, we know there were networks before, and, still, we say that they were spontaneous. How do we make sense of that?

Ismael Peña-López: for many years, people share data, information, documents, protocols, guidelines, etc. and they are appropriated by the different nodes of the network. The more exchanges and sharing of knowledge, the more the collective political or social capital grows. In the end, one only needs one spark (“let’s camp in Puerta del Sol on May 15th”) for everyone to act, and they will act similarly because they share the language, the protocols and the tools.

Francesca Polletta: About the process of decision-making, who are these movements prefiguring to?

Marianne Maeckelbergh: maybe prefiguration is not the best approach when the outcomes that the movement aims at are blurry, or not very well defined. Prefiguration works best in stable, well defined issues. But these movements are more about gathering first and buitding later, and thus prefiguration may not be a good methodology at all.

José Luís Martí: are these new movements a new thing? are they new from the movements of the 1960s…1990s?

Ismael Peña-López: They are built upon the shoulders of former movements, but they are brand new in the sense that they were born in a digital age, and not in an industrial age. Thus, they had to adapt to new contexts.

Michael Gould-Wartofsky: They are new people and they interact in new ways. People that were not politicized and now are, people that act in new ways.

José Luís Martí: why do we now see a coexistence of offline and online politics that was not present in e.g. 2004, during and after the terrorist attacks of March 11th, 2004?

Ismael Peña-López: the first decade of the XXIst century is an impasse, where industrial politics are already dying, but technopolitics (with a still young Web 2.0 and social networking sites about to gain momentum) are still not deployed. Some pioneers detach themselves from traditional politics and during a whole decade go out and explore the digital landscape. In the second decade of the XXIst century, they find they’ve mapped technopolitics and can now bridge new practices with traditional ones, taking the best of both worlds.

David Karpf: what is the origin of OWS?

Michael Gould-Wartofsky: OWS generated from a split of a general assembly. After that split, there was the need to come together, to try and put in common what they had in common and leave aside what separated them. And take action.

Q: did the participants in the social movements see themselves representatives of other citizens within the movement? did see themselves as representatives outside the movement? did as a way to becoming elected representatives?

Ismael Peña-López: in general, no one in the social movements was aiming to represent anyone, neither insider nor outside of the movement. And being an elected representative was out of the question until a year ago in Spain. But, the mechanics of participation have made it difficult for some people to participate and, thus, by construction, the ones participating were actually representing the whole collective. In general, though, most movements and new parties are really devoting lots of effort and resources to enable participation, and self-representation, so that no minor contribution is set aside just because it was minor, or punctual.

Jane Mansfield: it seems that Spain had more resources in putting up an inclusive movement. Maybe because of the economic context and the general despair with politics. But also maybe because of the longer tradition of labour and left movements in mobilizing people and being inclusive in doing so.

Q: was really face-to-face deliberation important in social movements?

José Luís Martí: these movements were supposed to be highly technologized, and you could have expected that these super-technological people would just have aimed at online participation, and online voting. But it did not go this way: they aimed at physical gathering, they promoted face-to-face deliberation.

Jane Mansfield: there was an excellent combination of coming together to the squares, and feel empowered and that people could make a change, and then also acting online, coordinating, sharing practices and approaches and tools.

Adolfo Estalella: people during the assembly were not allowed to speak for anyone else but themselves, and the assembly itself was not allowed, or believed to be speaking for no one else than the participants of that given assembly, not for the neighbourhood, not for any association, not for anyone.

Adolfo Estalella: for many people, the assemblies where both a “school of democracy” and a place where to ask for some demands. But demands that were not their own private demands, but related to the collective, to the neighbourhood. The assemblies not only re-imagined politics and political practices, but they did create a new ontology in the field of politics. And they did not only theorized about that, but created prototypes to put it into practice.

Q: the difference of these movements and previous ones is that for new movements, the process was key, and the goals themselves were secondary. New movements are more fighting for transforming democracy rather than reaching a specific goal.

Q: what things these movements feel powerless about? do hey think that they can transform institutions so that they work better? if thy succeed in transforming them, what comes after?

Ismael Peña-López: there is no feeling of being powerless because the aim is to change the whole system, not a part of it. Its about governance, not about empowerment. And it’s not as much as transforming institutions, but regaining the sovereignty upon them. So, there is no “after” at all: once the citizenry — not the “illegitimate” parties that now are ruling them — occupies the institutions, there is no “after” because that was just the point: to regain sovereignty upon the institutions, not to rule them, not to represent anyone.

Mariona Ferrer: in Barcelona en Comú, inclusiveness was something that was cared about, but nevertheless some people fell off because of the speedy pace of the process. In what relates to the participatory process, when it was dealt within small assemblies, consensus was very important; but later, when more people came and assemblies became massive, making decisions became more difficult, so decisions were taken at different levels, and with different degrees of participation or openness: more than in traditional parties, but far from being ideal. And creating the programme was also participatory, but again the limitations of time and resources sometimes forced some shortcuts in participation.

Ignacia Perugorría: maybe initial movements were highly decentralized, but the parties that came after them — especially Podemos &mash; had much more effort put in their design, and with a purpose. So, some of the initial nature of social movements was kept in new parties, but some other nature was borrowed from traditional parties.

Marianne Maeckelbergh: traditionally there have been opposing forces of centralization vs. decentralization. In the case of the 15M, the decentralization happened in the online sphere while the centralization took place in the camps and the plazas and the assemblies. And yes, there was some representation, but the meaning of representation was different from the usual sense of representation in electoral politics: this representation was not as much as deciding for others, but speaking in the name of similar ones.

New democratic movements (2015)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2015) “New democratic movements (III). Occupy Wall Street and the 15M Spanish Indignados movement” In ICTlogy, #141, June 2015. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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