On the sweltering Madrid streets back in May, there was a strong feeling that something very significant was happening. Tens of thousands were crammed into a makeshift encampment in the city's Puerta del Sol square, unified by an acute sense of disillusionment with the political establishment. High unemployment, unaffordable housing and a feeling that politicians were not representing the people had resulted in the near spontaneous birth of a movement that would become known as the Indignados (the outraged), or 15-M (after 15 May, the date the protest began).
Everyone who was there and who witnessed it could sense that this was not any ordinary demonstration. Despite the bleak social and economic conditions that had sparked the protest, the place was buzzing with indescribable energy and an optimism for what could be achieved. It was a forum for all ages to come and debate how to create a better society; inspired by protests in other parts of the world – particularly across the Middle East – the aim was, in essence, to take control of history and swerve it in a different direction. "I am here because I think we can change something," said 20-year-old student Alejandro Jalón.
In the main, they were reformist as opposed to revolutionary, calling for electoral and media reform and an end to corruption and money in politics. Rejecting representative, parliamentary style democracy, they favoured direct, participatory democracy, with decisions made by consensus at public "general assembly" meetings.
Like the uprisings that had exploded onto the streets of places like Tunisia and Egypt, the Spaniards hoped their actions would spark similar protests across Europe. One 66-year-old man stood awestruck amid the crowds at Puerto del Sol and recalled the student and worker protests that swept parts of the world in 1968. What was happening in Madrid was of greater significance, he believed, because of its relationship to the uprisings in the Arab nations. "I think I am living a new world order," he said, without a quiver of doubt or hesitation in his voice. "I am sure it will spread."
His prediction was not far off. By late May protests had sprung up in over 60 Spanish towns and cities, and similar groups were formed in Italy, France, Greece and England. In London, activists organised a protest outside the Spanish embassy and called a public meeting on 29 May at Trafalgar Square. About 300 were in attendance, but they were predominantly of Spanish or Greek nationality.
"We are hoping that the British will join us too, because you have a lot to complain about," said 29-year-old Virginia Lopez Calvo. "We are sure that more people will join us if we continue to convene."
The 15-M, however, seemed to lose steam after the Madrid camp, which had become the beating heart of the movement, voted to disband in early June. Marches and demonstrations continued – some of which were suppressed by authorities – but lacked the same scale. The systemic change which at one point seemed to be within the clutch of the Indignados' grasp suddenly began to look like a faded dream. There was a moment when the movement itself appeared destined to fizzle out, as had the protests of 1968, absorbed into history before making any substantial political impact.
That was, of course, until a new wave of protesters exploded onto Wall Street, New York, in September, which injected a powerful double dose of energy and inspiration into not only the Spanish movement, but to similar protest groups across Europe and beyond.
Calling themselves "the 99 per cent" – a reference to the gap in income and wealth between the one per cent super-rich and the rest of society – the Wall Street protesters had themselves been moved into action after watching events unfold in Spain, Greece and the Middle East. Their anger, like that of their European counterparts, was borne on a basic level from the same sense of disillusion – even despair – at the political establishment and the lack of equality and opportunity within their society.
Dubbed the "Occupy" movement, the American protest, which is ongoing, erupted like a volcano into something far more politically radical than anything proposed by the Indignado reformists. Though it adopts the same participatory methods of direct democracy used in Madrid, the New York group completely rejects politicians and the traditional system of government – instead calling explicitly for a "revolution of the mind as well as the body politic".
By mid October Occupy-inspired groups – many forming their own general assemblies and tent-based occupations – had sprung up in over 80 countries and 900 towns and cities, including across the UK. "It's about finding a new way for people to actually have control over their own lives," said 32-year-old Tom Holness, a protester involved with an Occupy group in Birmingham. "At the moment our access to democracy is limited to going to a ballot box every five years and voting for people who are going to lie about what they're going to do."
Each of the groups' methods, goals and motivations are not necessarily the same, but they are united in their adoption of participatory democracy and their broad rejection of 'leaders' and hierarchical forms of organisation. Some are reformist, others revolutionary – all are vehemently opposed to the current political and economic status quo.
In cities across the world, there is now that same sense of indescribable energy and optimism that could be felt in Madrid's Puerta del Sol in May. It is contagious and continues to spread. There are some who believe it could be the birth of a new paradigm – the embryonic beginning of an alternative future unburdened by the cobwebbed shackles of party politics. Many continue to disregard it as a flash in the pan that can be ignored, though there is an increasing recognition that the Occupy movement and others like it cannot be dismissed out of hand for much longer. Mark Field, Conservative MP for the cities of London and Westminster, acknowledged last week that such protests posed a "huge challenge for the entire political class".
In the five months since the demonstrations in Madrid shook Spain, citizens on almost every continent appear to have simultaneously awoken from their slumber in unprecedented numbers, giving rise to all manner of possibilities that would have been unthinkable one year ago. No matter what the political differences between the movements in America, Britain, Spain, or elsewhere, there is a binding feature that is in itself incredibly powerful. It is a relentless, restless desire to fight for what is perceived to be a better, more egalitarian society – or "in defence of our dreams," as one of the slogans popular among the Indignados eloquently put it.
"Once in a while in history something will happen that will capture people's imagination," said Edward Needham, 43, a volunteer at Occupy Wall Street. "We're all at the start of this. Together there's not going to be anything that we can't achieve."
This article originally appeared at: http://www.newstatesman.com/the-staggers/2011/10/occupy-movement-madrid