In late April, the progressive Spanish daily Publico asked why there was so little resistance to the economic crisis, despite the country’s 5 million jobless and rising misery.
The union and social movement leaders and left academics interviewed pointed to the numbing impact of mass unemployment, the casualisation of work, the bureaucratisation of organised labour, widespread scepticism that striking could achieve anything, and the economic cushion provided by Spain's extended families.
They also cited the apparent failure of French and Greek general strikes against austerity.
The consensus was that, given the absence in Europe of even one successful struggle, people in Spain were resigned to battling their way through the crisis as best they could.
No-one sensed the new wave of struggle just over the horizon.
Just over one month later, camps of thousands of los indiganados (“the outraged”) are pitched in the squares of at least 80 Spanish cities and towns.
The eyes of the world are on Mardid's Puerta del Sol and Barcelona's Plaza Catalonia, where the occupiers are denouncing pro-corporate austerity, political corruption and demanding a “new system”.
How did it come about?
It is not that there was a lack of anger.
In January, the leaders of the two major union confederations ― the Workers Commissions (CC.OO.) and General Union of Workers (UGT) ― agreed to a rise in the retirement age and a “social accord” with the national government and the employers.
Polls showed 70%-75% opposed the moves. Similar majorities have opposed bank bailouts, the forced restructuring of the credit unions and cuts to the welfare system.
The CC.OO. and UGT leaders led a general strike on September 29, last year. But once this deal was done, nothing more could be expected of them ― any resistance would have to come from elsewhere.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear signs of a fightback were already emerging in early 2011 ― but among young people, not organised labour.
Spain is the most internet-savvy European country ― 92% of young people are internauts (capable net users), above the European average of 80%.
Yet in February, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero chose to introduce Europe’s toughest law against illegal downloads from the internet ― with the support of the main conservative parties, the Popular Party (PP) and the Catalan Convergence and Union (CiU).
In reaction, the website “Don’t Vote for Them” was launched against the PSOE, PP and CiU ― becoming the hot site in Spanish cyberspace.
“Don’t Vote for Them” also posted a devastating Googlemaps corruption guide to Spain.
Another activist website appeared in January ― “Franco Did Not Die”, in reference to Spain's fascist dictator who died in 1975.
Its initial purpose was to raise funds for ads in support of judge Balthasar Garzon ―stood down for investigating the crimes of Franco's regime too enthusiastically ― but it quickly became a campaign against political manipulation of the judiciary.
The site “State of Malaise”, dedicated to bringing democracy and transparency into political life, began calling for weekly Friday protests across the country.
“Acuable.es”, the main online petitioning site, combined with global site Avaaz to launch a campaign against candidates charged with corruption running in the May 22 local government elections.
The growing mood of defiance was shown by the success of the short essay “Get Outraged” by 93-year-old French Resistance veteran Stephane Hessel.
This call to arms against the destruction of the European welfare state and democratic rights has topped Spain's non-fiction best-seller list.
Another big hit has been the film Inside Job, a devastating exposure of bankers and hedge fund managers.
The trigger that brought these cyber-protests onto the streets came from neighbouring Portugal.
On March 15, Lisbon was the scene of a 300,000-strong protest by the “generation on the scrapheap”, a “non-party political” outpouring of young people demanding a future.
On April 7, the newly formed Spanish “Youth Without a Future” collective called a demonstration under the slogan “without work, without house, without pension, without fear”.
About 5000 turned up when hundreds were expected, encouraging the organisers to call another protest on May 15.
This call was supported by the Real Democracy Now! group. This slogan captured what was common to all the different protest groups and web sites ― the conviction that no matter how they vote, bankers get richer, politicians do their bidding and life gets worse.
This rejection of institutional politics was expressed in the movement’s now-famous saying: “We are not merchandise in the hands of bankers and politicians.”
About 50,000 turned out across Spain on May 15 ― giving birth to the “M-15 movement”.
The lively and angry marches might have ended on that day if the police had not attacked a small, provocative group from the anarchist Black Block in Madrid.
In answer, the idea was born of setting up a protest camp in the central plaza, Puerta del Sol. Police attempts to close it down were defeated by the thousands pouring into the site after appeals on Facebook and Twitter.
The Madrid camp was reproduced across Spain, showing how badly people wanted to do more than march and go home.
Everywhere, there is a burning need to discuss what to fight for and what to do next.
The camps have become the centres of an ongoing teach-in, of what one activist has called “a continuous exercise in liberation”.
They have given heart to millions of working people who share the campers hatred for “the politicians”, and who cheered on May 27 as police attempts to close down the camp in Plaza Catalunya were humiliatingly defeated by sheer force of numbers.
Whatever happens next, the M-15 movement has won a huge victory. Resistance is possible, it can win, and with greater organisation and participation it will win more.
[Dick Nichols works for Green Left Weekly's European bureau.]