The assemblies of 15-M and Occupy Wall Street were different from past mass movements or protests. They introduced mass public assemblies that offered an alternate vision of democracy based along a horizontal organizing logic. The assemblies were so large people used hand signals to communicate. And despite their numbers they were committed to the establishment of consensus rather than simple majority rule. This commitment led to decisions that engendered unity rather than division.

The concept of the mass assembly offers a compelling vision of direct democracy that departs in many ways from referendums. The referendum has many pitfalls that remain unresolved by its advocates. The agenda typically remains in the hands of elites so the people may ultimately decide but their decision is shaped by the wording of the question and the choice of which questions are placed before the electorate. Moreover, the question placed before voters is generally a yes or no decision without the opportunity for nuance or negotiation.

Brexit demonstrated the problems with the referendum. The problem was never the fact the voters decided to leave the European Union. The problem was the necessary negotiations required to get there were distilled down to a simple question of leave or remain. Over time The Economist challenged the British parliament to place the Brexit decision before the voters in a second referendum to resolve the deadlock between a negotiated settlement and a hard transition. Numerous questions arose over time that were overlooked in the referendum. Questions that may have led many to either change their mind or encourage them to delay their decision until more public deliberation had resolved some of these issues.

The mass assembly form of direct democracy solves many of the problems associated within the more popular forms of direct democracy. The agenda is set by the people because they are actively involved. There is an opportunity to negotiate decisions through deliberation rather than defaulting to primitive techniques like majority rule. Moreover, there was a requirement to form consensus rather than impose their decisions on those who disagreed. The Brexit decision may have ultimately come to a similar conclusion through this method, but it would have given much more room for negotiation and taken different interests into account before making the final decision to leave the European Union.

Cristina Flesher Fominaya has written Democracy Reloaded to help explain the 15-M movement. It is not so much an historical account as it is an ethnographic study. Fominaya “has participated and researched autonomous social movements in Madrid since the early 1990s,” so there is a personal connection where she understands her subjects through a depth of experience among them. Her interviews remind me of the Pulitzer Prize winning work Evicted where Matthew Desmond spent time in a trailer park and a Milwaukee slum to understand the effects of evictions on real people and their communities. Her work evokes the academic distance Desmond conveyed yet was able to sympathize and share the voices of the participants like only an insider can accomplish.

There are some parallels in subject matter to David Graeber’s The Democracy Project where he gives an insider’s account of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. But Fominaya has an academic distance that establishes greater credibility to her work. Graeber found ways to introduce his own personal contributions that had questionable authenticity. They were too obscure for the reader to confidently confirm but had a sense of mythology in their account that questioned their accuracy. Fominaya, in contrast, describes her own methodology and it was much more intense. She conducted numerous interviews, but also organized different social media posts and articles to reconstruct the movement based on the archival evidence. The reader will never feel the need to question the veracity of her accounts.

The book has greater significance for the democracy scholar not simply for its account of the 15-M movement and the genesis of the political party Podemos, but also for its critiques. The challenges to resolve a feminist ethos within an increasingly masculine movement produced conflict. Podemos failed to establish credible gender representation within its leadership. Fominaya notes of the 16 secretary generals there were just three women. She conveys a consistent bias toward male leadership within the political party. There is a bizarre example where the voters of an assembly preferred the content of 10 out of 11 of the documents from Rita Maestre’s team but still chose to select Ramón Espinar as Secretary General.

Some biases were not just cultural but were inherent within the structure of the movement. The genesis of the movement evolved out of the Acampada Sol which began about four months before the encampment at Zuccotti Park which became known as Occupy Wall Street. It has a claim as the first real “occupy” movement which spread to communities around the world including the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong that has reverberations to this day in its protests for greater democracy. But any encampment requires a level of commitment many people cannot make. Despite its intention to reflect “the people” there are key demographics that may sympathize with its intentions but remain unable to participate in its deliberations.

The 15-M movement is driven primarily by young activists because they have the time available to commit to long, deliberative assemblies. As people add work and family responsibilities, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a presence. Ultimately, the movement lacked some of these different perspectives because its structure required a level of commitment which made it difficult to balance competing priorities. Moreover, the ethos of the movement was not simply about deliberation but direct action. It placed a responsibility on those with ideas to put them into action. Ideas carried little weight from those who were unwilling to do the work to bring them to life. There is a certain ethos within this expectation which deserves respect. But it also excludes the ideas of many who are unable to make those commitments. For example, working parents may have political demands, but lack the time to put those ideas into effect. They rely on representatives. The process is imperfect and may not always be the best means of addressing their concerns, but it gives them a channel to address them.

The book does a remarkable job showcasing how many tangible results emerged from the 15-M movement. The persistent efforts of 15-M activists led to the sentencing of Rodrigo Rato to four years in prison. Fominaya helps explain the background for this case of corruption. Bankers were targeting pensioners to invest into high yielding shares called preferentes. These shares had higher yields, but they carried higher risks. The banks apparently targeted consumers so they could offload these investments before they lost their entire value. Many people lost their entire savings because they trusted the banks. This helps explain why the public was so infuriated when the banks were bailed out while they were asked to suffer through a period of austerity. The situation is reminiscent of the mortgage crisis in the United States except it was far worse. Indeed, many lost their homes in Spain except the banks were apparently more aggressive in the foreclosure process.

In many ways the 15-M movement was centrist because it focused on concerns with universal appeal. Indeed, it can even be described as conservative because it called for a return to normalcy. Pensioners wanted their savings returned. The evicted homeowners wanted their homes back. People wanted a restoration rather than a revolution. The tactics of 15-M may have been revolutionary, but their causes were fundamentally conservative in the sense that they wanted to maintain society against the “creative destruction” of capitalistic forces.

In contrast, Podemos became increasingly identified with the political left. Fominaya details a fascinating series of power struggles within the party that put it at odds with its 15-M roots. The fundamental contradiction between Podemos and 15-M became the tension between vertical and horizontal organizing logics. Her key insight that the origins of Podemos predate 15-M in many important ways helps recognize why Podemos was able to transition into a vertical organizing logic which was antithetical to its identity as an offshoot of 15-M. Any semblance of horizontal logic was erased when Pablo Iglesias threatened to resign unless his documents and his list won a majority vote. This is reminiscent of examples where Michels recalled how socialist leaders kept the rank in file in line through their own threats of resignation. It was a situation literally pulled from Political Parties where Michels defined his “Iron Law of Oligarchy.” In fairness, Fominaya told me she did not interpret this as an example of an Iron Law of Oligarchy, but it was difficult for me to avoid the parallels.

It is a puzzle as to why socialist or far left parties are particularly susceptible to the Iron Law of Oligarchy. The philosophy of the left has traditionally embraced the ideals of democracy, yet it has abandoned these ideals in practice when it engages in its most extreme forms. Lenin, for example, was incapable of resolving the principles of democracy with the goals of communism. Both Iglesias and his rival Errejón were focused on the ends of the political process. They focused on policy solutions to the detriment of the process. The tradition of 15-M was entirely focused on process. There is an acceptance of uncertainty within any process. But ideologies place a greater focus on the policies and laws created. It places a focus on the ends of democracy rather than the means to get there. This perspective recognizes it is not a flaw within the left which brings about nondemocratic outcomes, but any movement which places ideology above the process itself.

Cristina Flesher Fominaya has not written a work of political theory. But her research is important to anyone with an interest in democracy because she has offered an account of an experiment in fundamental concepts of democracy. She is sympathetic to the cause but not afraid to recognize its flaws. The book was more challenging for me to read than it probably should have been partly due to my ignorance of 15-M and partly due to the academic traditions she references. Other readers may find it an easier read. But it was an informative and insightful read. Ultimately, this is how her book ought to be judged. And it deserves to be judged well.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

Follow me on Twitter @DemParadox

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