Fragility of the Social Contract

Spain’s May 15th movement is often called the revolution of the indignados, indignant at the failure of elective government to solve the problems that increasingly define the lives of ordinary people. The complaint, succinctly, is that the powers that be are collaborating in a systemic failure to live up to the rigors of a healthy, legitimate social contract.

Working people, young adults with university degrees but next to zero job prospects, families pushed from their homes by a real estate boom now shown to be a speculator’s wild west show, congregate, organize assemblies, vote on matters of policy, and demand meaningful political change. They argue together, though often in clashing voices, that the political system is rigged against the majority of ordinary citizens.

The demand has been centered on an opposition to all forms of violence, and a call for civic cooperation, for citizenship and for a recommitment to enforcing and expanding basic rights. It is a movement that draws inspiration from Tunis, from Cairo, from Madison, which positing a new world in which the people, and not the powerful, decide.

Yesterday, in Barcelona, the pressures of the moment briefly turned to violence, and it has to be said the May 15th movement, decentralized as it may be, denounced the violence of some protesters and called for an end to all forms of violence. The clashes between demonstrators and police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, seem to have begun when the police tried to disperse throngs of thousands who sought to block access to the Parc de la Ciutadela, where Catalunya’s Parlament does business.

The estimated 2,000 demonstrators wanted to stop action on a budget they say will harm ordinary Catalans. The police reportedly moved into the crowd, trying to open safe passage for members of the Parlament, around 6:30, but as the protesters would not move, the action turned to physical force.

Many were injured in the clashes, and the action radicalized the demonstration. Several members of the Parlament were intimidated or assaulted, being sprayed or having paint thrown at them. Police used batons against people in the crowd, with photos showing what appear to be assaults on non-violent bystanders and people trying to flee.

The melee was the latest in a series of security missteps, but the movement insists violence is not an option and can never be part of their protest actions. The last violent clash in Barcelona came in late May, when the Mossos d’Esquadra tried to clear the Plaça Catalunya by force, in order to make room for a soccer celebration. Over 120 people were injured, and the movement became more entrenched.

There seems to be a bias among agents of the political system toward the idea that they are the legitimate representatives of a functioning social contract. But democracy demands recognition of the fragility of that shared obligation to abide by rules of civility and deliberative government.

It is often the presumption of one’s own superiority that leads to the breakdown of the social contract, and a descent into violence. Movements like the May 15th indignados and the Egyptian uprising test the boundaries of political power, calling into question the devotion of those who wield power to the principle that even they, or they especially, are subject to the law’s constraints.

Non-violent protest aims to show the moral inferiority of those who wield power unjustly, thus to pressure them to shift position and return some power to the people. It is a way for people who do not hold political power to enforce the terms of the social contract. Spain enjoys a functioning representative democracy, but many of the Spanish people feel the system ignores their needs and tramples on their rights.

Yesterday in the Plaça Sant Jaume, one of the chants heard with coordinated vocal force was “No Más Crisis”, essentially “no more crashes”. It was a demand that banks not be rewarded for causing economic chaos and that social infrastructure not be degraded by austerity and rescue packages.

The conservatives now in charge in Catalunya are seen as being too close to the banks, and too distant from the people. But the movement of the indignados is not just opposition to the political right; the complaint has gathered force because the popular view is that in Spain, all parties are collaborating in a wave of fiscal actions that seem likely to prolong the crisis and further diminish the political influence of ordinary people.

There does not seem, for instance, to be a recovery plan, as was implemented by the Obama administration in the United States. Spaniards have now lived three to four years with the agony of economic collapse, and there is a sense of vertigo, that the IMF and EU might be moving in with imposed austerity measures most people believe will make matters far worse.

45% of young adults are unemployed across Spain, and yesterday, the defiance of political leaders who refuse to hear the popular complaint about misguided priorities was accompanied by a police action seen by some as an attempt to violently suppress the people’s voice. When the social contract is in such crisis, tensions flare.

The attacks on members of Catalunya’s Parlament were unjust and undemocratic, but there can be no room for police using force against unarmed civilian demonstrators. Far from showing the illegitimacy of Spain’s new citizen assembly movement, the Catalan situation is showing how desperately fragile is the standing social contract for many in this economically besieged society.

The appropriate response to rhetorical and ideological disharmony is conversation. It is in the debate of ideas that a legitimate democratic government finds its footing. Politicians in Spain need to be clear: it is a legitimate democratic social contract we seek to uphold and expand, not an established order of haves and have-nots.

Today, the Spanish press are reporting that one in three Spaniards is now eating worse than before the crisis. Lower quality food, less nutritional value, smaller portions, more health problems. And many believe the one-in-three figure is understated—people will complain of hardship, but are averse to report personal weakness or a failure to be responsible about their health, whatever the cause.

One of the most important differences between what is taking place among the movement of the indignados and what is perceived to be the case, I’m the press, is the manner in which the protest movement has committed itself not only to civility, but to civics and to social action. While conservative politicians who favor dismantling corporate regulation focus on an incident in Barcelona, the cause of which remains unclear, the indignados across Spain have joined with vulnerable neighbors who are on the verge of being evicted due to what are widely perceived as predatory lending practices.

Antisocial lending practices, which have ruined the finances of individuals, families, towns and cities, and may lead to the nationalization of four bank chains by the end of the year, have motivated a backlash among people of every age and socio-economic class who firmly believe lives should not be ruined by that way in a democratic society.

There are obligations unique to those in positions of leadership or public service, and powerful interests that benefit from the organizational health and cooperative efficiency of a free society have similar responsibilities. Spain’s movement to redefine democracy by involving citizens more directly is a sign of how the lessons of Tunis and Cairo are enriching the landscape of modern democracy, and it should be an example to those who serve.

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Originally published June 17, 2011, at IndependentsOfPrinciple.com

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