Last week, the main square of Barcelona was the epicenter of a vital insurgency. On the lawns of the Placa Catalunya, thousands of Europeans—most of them young—orated, ate free food, tried on free used clothing, and took advantage of free child care and yoga classes. An excellent jazz quintet played protest songs for activists and onlookers alike. In several languages, handmade signs demanded jobs, an end to political corruption, and the sacking of Felip Puig, the local official who had sent police to beat up protestors a few days before: “Puig, you have the guns, we have the people, who is stronger?” Other posters floated slogans that might have been lifted from a documentary about 1968. Inside backpackers’ tents, ad hoc “commissions,” or working groups, struggled to reach consensus on immigration, feminism, environmentalism, health care, and more.
Since mid-May, these self-described “indignados” have set up similar camps in dozens of Spanish cities. Thousands of sympathizers have taken to the streets in Paris and Athens. Taken together, this hardly amounts to a second coming of Tahrir Square. But in their defiance and vitality, the indignant ones clearly hope to create a new, fresh left. However, to produce something that endures and might lead to a better future, they will need some old-fashioned elements: a strategy, lucid goals, and institutional support. Unfortunately, the mainstream European left—who would be the natural partner in this effort—is at a historic nadir. If it does not recover, a crucial opportunity will be lost.
For pragmatic and institutional European leftists, this is the worst of times. Their parties govern just two nations – Spain and Greece, both of which are crippled by huge deficits and double-digit unemployment. They grumble, cringe, and eventually acquiesce while pensions, health benefits, and jobless pay are slashed. They seem impotent to stop the rise of charismatic xenophobes on the right—like Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front—whose working-class base used to vote for Socialists or Communists. Not since the fascist triumphs in the 1930s have the architects of the secular welfare state been so downcast and beleaguered.
Moreover, the left parties tend to be led by politicians who believe that managing the current crisis is all they can or should be doing. In Spain, Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero responded to the economic shock of 2008 by ignoring Keynesian theory and cutting back collective bargaining, reducing the pay of civil servants, freezing pensions, and increasing the retirement age from 65 to 67. “Let those who caused the crisis pay the bill,” protestors demanded. But Zapatero rejected advice that he raise taxes on the rich. Unfortunately for him, Keynes proved to be right. Since the crisis began, the unemployment rate has doubled, and faith in the left’s ability to govern has plummeted. In late May, the Socialists were drubbed in regional elections and will undoubtedly be back in the opposition after national elections take place next spring.
Meanwhile, the occupiers of Catalunya Square—and their counterparts elsewhere—assume that mass enthusiasm, if sustained long enough, can win over the masses. While the traditional left frets about being cut off from “the people,” the “indignados” believe they are the people. Like nearly every embryonic movement, they speak clearly about their grievances; discussion of solutions is broad and unfocussed. I heard talk of direct democracy, small-scale production, solar energy, abolition of the military, veganism, something called “functional diversity,” and universal public works employment. There were enough anarchists and/or “autonomists” agitating on the Placa to kindle nostalgia in anyone who has read Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s great memoir of the Spanish Civil War.
But the anarchists that Orwell fought alongside were working-class men and women, poor people struggling, he wrote, “to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine." The indignados, in contrast, have grown up in a prosperous, consumer society that suddenly has no need for their labor. Youth unemployment in Spain is close to 50 percent. And although the occupiers hope they have touched off a radical insurgency, they are most likely engaged in what, back in the 1960s, would have been called a political “happening.” They need mainstream support, which, so far, is nowhere to be found.
In Spain, as in all of Europe that avoided Communist rule, the popularity of the left has always depended on its reputation as the sole political force that, in good times and bad, seeks to defend the interests of the working majority. After World War II, in close alliance with labor unions, the democratic left helped to construct a social order that offered citizens a life of economic security in exchange for high taxes. What held the welfare state together was a sense of solidarity—fraternity that enhanced equality and made cultural liberty, or at least freedom of expression, more possible. Unlike Americans, Europeans had no principled objection to “big government,” as long as it was a government whose policies steadily improved their lives and the moral tenor of their societies.
The dawning age of austerity, when coupled with a fear of Muslim immigrants, now threatens to turn solidarity into a tired shibboleth. And unless leftists—both those who camp out in squares and those who run for office—discover how to revive or redefine it, they may have little to rely on but their complaints and their memories. As Orwell wrote about Barcelona during the few months when a left that was grounded among ordinary people with visions of equality thrived: “There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”
Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University. He is the author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, which will be published in August.
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