I went to Spain last fall hoping to find vigorous remnants of its bold anarchist tradition, homages to the spirit Orwell depicted during the anti-fascist civil war there in the 1930s, though this time the cause worth giving everything for would be democracy, rather than socialism.

I was attracted by the lingo: Real Democracy Now — it didn’t mince words, it combined disgust for the fake thing claiming the name with a sense of urgency to give it reality. Protesters were called Indignados, their bald passion a key to creating a democratic rebirth.

So in Madrid I met three young guys from 15M, named for the date in May 2011 when their movement launched: Alberto, Javi and Jonas. They knew each other online but had never met in person. What I found was a highly impressive project, though far from what I expected or wished for, I’m now pleased to say.

They explain that a number of groups decided a year ago to hold marches about the crisis on many fronts: joblessness, home foreclosures (in Spain you can lose your house but must keep paying the mortgage!). They excluded political parties and unions, which had held earlier, poorly attended events. They also excluded party symbols — anything suggesting left, right, Catholics, Muslims, etc.

“We wanted citizens to enter politics directly,” says Javi.

Turnout was bigger than anything but the victory celebration for the World Cup. A handful camped in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol plaza, joined by many thousands in coming days. This was repeated all over Spain. They quickly established “assemblies,” found some basic common ground, came under pressure from authorities to disband, and did so, for their own reasons, in June. But they set up ongoing neighbourhood “assemblies” that continue to discuss the issues.

I ask if they reject elections as not democratic enough. “We’re not against the representative system,” says Javi, adding this is his view, everyone speaks for themselves. They’ve had big internal debates on “electoralism.” Some oppose voting altogether, mostly anarchists, but they’re a minority.

This qualified respect for electoral processes — especially among the young — is different from what you generally find in the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement. They add that people who were never involved in politics, now are: “It’s one of our main achievements.”

The Internet was crucial in expanding their range, it’s a “lab for political ideas” — a term they like. But the “real” debate has to be in the streets, partly because not everyone has Internet. To reach out, they’ve deployed a new technology: posters! The neighbourhood assemblies meet weekly, usually with a preannounced topic. This is where I begin to feel something unusual is starting to take root.

“Wherever there was a camp,” they say, “there is now an assembly.” This differentiates them from North America’s Occupy movements, which set up camps and clung stubbornly to them, like guerrilla strongholds, waiting to be evicted, and vowing to move back. 15M, after tussling with eviction threats, chose to disband voluntarily — but shifted to neighbourhoods. In other words, they dissolved in order to expand.

In the suburbs, meetings are often huge. I ask if the usual left-wing suspects show up and they say yes, that’s fine, they’re part of the democratic process. But leftists don’t dominate. There are lots of locals who’ve never been involved.

If there’s consensus on an issue it goes to a higher assembly. Ideally, they say, elected authorities like mayors should “receive” and at least study those ideas. The goal is to build assemblies into the political process, via a constitutional amendment. In the meantime, politics gets extended beyond brief election periods.

Afterward, I talk with Alberto, a journalist having difficulty, like everyone, making a living at his chosen trade. He’d taken a lot of trouble to arrange the meeting. He knew the others as he’d known me, only through the Internet. He says he thinks real human contact happens in person and yet, he pauses and muses, he’s grown quite close to Jonas, they discuss personal things online. “The world is changing,” he says, with a kind of wonderment.

That afternoon I go to Puerta del Sol, at the centre of Madrid, where eight major streets converge. There are still some 15M info tables and kiosks — they were negotiated when the camps evacuated. Otherwise it’s bustling diversely, one of those great public meeting spaces. Mariachi bands, statues, hawkers, politics, all mixed together, as they should be. People line up to sign petitions, buy fast food, get photos taken with fake Indian chiefs. It’s odd how it never occurred to me that Occupy sites elsewhere exclude normal activity when they take over a park or street; you must be a “member” to attend and membership, as they say, has its privileges.

You could say the essence of 15M is that they didn’t occupy. If the call of Occupy is, “Join Us,” the message of 15M is more like, “We’ll Join You.”

Occupy Wall Street made its point brilliantly: it put social inequality on the agenda with its 1 per cent versus 99 per cent; did it so well that U.S. President Barack Obama is running on it for re-election. But where do you go then?

15M has a petition here with six separate points, none of which any sensible person would dispute — yet no main party endorses a single one. That’s a lesson itself. I can see why the government hates this movement, including both the “left” and right-wing parties that regularly alternate in power.

Sunday morning I attend a march that will wind up at Sol again, for a super assembly, this one larger than usual due to the impending election. I’m early so I duck in to see Picasso’s Guernica. Civil war really is the worst; it has the brutality of all war, plus a personalized passion. Those hatreds still rage here, even after 40 years of fascism followed by more than 30 of elected governments.

It is possible 15M has drawn lessons about the futility of those ancient left-right ideological melees. They aren’t in the position of, say, Tunisia, where people had less to lose in terms of political rights and institutions. Open elections, for instance, were only firmly established here in the early 1980s. It may make them less likely than Tunisians to risk or undervalue what they recently still didn’t have.

Jonas meets me at the march. He has a bodybuilder look but got roughed up by cops at a recent demo and looks nervously at them, trying not to show fear. Most signs are about democracy: They Don’t Represent Us. They Won’t Shut Us Up. Chants: They say it’s democracy but it’s not.

Jonas says the first local assemblies he attended were unusual since no one came with a platform, they just opened up discussion. They were test-driving democracy, seeing if they could reach conclusions, draw in new people — part of that post-civil war, post-left/right mentality. Normally, he says, people vote when an election is called, it’s a matter of a few days or weeks of attention, they never read party platforms. 15M doesn’t want to convince people of what’s right, it just wants to get them talking. It’s radically unradical, especially given Spain’s past.

He says the latest polling shows 84 per cent support for the Indignados but also a wide margin for the right-wing People’s Party — 15M’s polar opposite — in the coming election. Based on what I’ve been hearing, that may be less a puzzling contradiction than a matter of two different exercises using separate parts of your brain: elections versus. . . whatever you call this new thing under construction, maybe “real” democracy. Like buying a car versus helping the kids with their homework.

The march winds through a beautiful downtown park and past gorgeous public buildings, or formerly public. It makes sense since this protest is partly about privatization of public goods, now that there’s less money to be made in old ways, so that big business invades the public realm — health care, education, etc. — in its compulsive search for profit.

I ask Livia, Jonas’s friend, if she thinks their emphasis is on democracy or the economy. Todos, she says, everything. It all needs to change, yet she doesn’t mean it in the old revolutionary sense: that everything must be first destroyed and then replaced.

Jonas introduces a friend of his dad’s who has always been politically active in his district. He says when elections came after fascism ended, it sapped local democracy because people felt they could leave it all to city hall. Their solution now isn’t to eliminate city hall but to add a layer of political activity going beyond elections.

The assembly in Sol takes up only part of the square; the surrounding circus continues. People drift by, some stay to watch. Committees report, no endorsements for the election are issued, people are expected to decide themselves but there’s a sense of respect, even care, for the coming vote. There’s a report on housing, but no old-style rhetoric. If a consensus gradually emerges, so be it.

In a way, they’re mobilizing the resentment people feel into a collective form and giving it some form and direction but not too much.

Different pockets in the crowd react to issues, using the hand gestures (I especially like the hands rolling over each other when people drone on). It all sounds pretty mild: shorten the workday, don’t build new buildings when old ones can be refitted, create co-ops. It’s as if social democracy’s hour has finally struck. I came here expecting echoes of anarchism and found instead something more like the NDP, or what the NDP says it is. People start drifting away.

This whole patient version of involved democracy is like an answer to the common media critique that these movements offer no specifics. Specific solutions are what traditional parties claim to provide, and it’s what makes people feel passive and detached. Parties are part of the problem because they vacuum up power instead of extending it.

Assemblies of this sort are the alternative to parties without actually replacing them. What would be the effect on parties if a layer of popular assemblies was actually added to the system, even put in the constitution as 15M wants? Hard to say, but when elections did come around, voters would generally be more informed and critical than they are now. It would force parties to pay more attention to ordinary people.

The final report has a bit of that old-tyme rhetoric — “we have a new world in our hearts” — the woman giving it seems a bit embarrassed. It’s sweet. I run into Javi and ask if assemblies were part of their plan from the start. “No,” he says, “they just developed. At the start, we only wanted to wake people up. Things were too awful and nothing was being done. But the idea of assemblies took root and now it’s the main thing for us.”

It’s odd how the rediscovery of popular assemblies always seems like a breakthrough. Vicente Perez, who works with people fighting evictions and foreclosures in Madrid, told me, “The assembly is a central part of the Spanish left tradition. Social movements always saw themselves through the prism of assemblies.”

Even Angel Rivero, a Madrid academic who is skeptical of what he considers the deceptions of 15M, concedes the assemblies are genuine: “They sit around in a circle with no agenda and no attempt to control, it’s a real assembly.”

It’s the oldest democratic form, and not just in ancient Athens. New England town halls were what most impressed French historian Alexis de Tocqueville when he studied early U.S. democracy. Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution, said its essence wasn’t communism but “soviets” — popular assemblies that emerged during the revolution yet can be found nowhere in the canonical writings of Marxism. (Lenin eventually crushed them in order to preserve the power of his party.) Poet Percy Shelley said, in the disappointment that followed the French Revolution and the rise of reactionary politics: “Let a vast assembly be, /And with great solemnity/ Declare with measured words that ye /Are, as God has made ye, free-“

What’s the essential difference between elections and assemblies? It’s joint discussion and deliberation. In an election, each individual makes a private choice between pre-set alternatives. At an assembly, options get discussed and new ones arise. No one is left on their own, they all benefit from the insights of others. The views of those better informed or more thoughtful have a chance to sway those who are less so. Of course it can all collapse into egomania and chaos but that’s democracy; it’s worth the risk.

At the Occupy movement in London, outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, an older, middle-class woman looking at the grungy tents, asked me: What are they accomplishing? But if there’d been an assembly in her own neighbourhood, she might have gone and felt less perplexed; “they” might even have asked her what she’d like to accomplish.

The brilliance of 15M is no one is being asked to choose between elections and assemblies. They’re leaving the old electoral institutions in place, and merely proposing to add a layer. They don’t want to reform voting or parliament or the parties: most attempts to do so, like proportional representation, have been graveyards for well-meaning movements of democratic renewal. You get absorbed by what you’re trying to transform.

Yet it’s easy to become totally exasperated by normal politics and elections. Even ones that look different, like the 2008 Obama campaign, lose steam quickly. On the other hand, spontaneous outbursts such as the Arab Spring or Occupy are vital and inspiring — but lack a direct connection to the actual mechanisms of political power.

The trick is to link one to the other, the energy of democratic eruption to the formal structures of power, so that things can change and stay changed. 15M’s new layer of popular assemblies would have that transformative potential. If people are better informed and know what they want to accomplish, they’ll make voting choices based on that knowledge. When parties realize it, they’ll have to alter their platforms or suffer negative results in elections.

That’s the idea anyway. Who knows how far it will get and whether it would work. But it implies a deeply democratic faith in common sense — the intelligence of people reasoning together — so that if they get engaged in the system, even the inadequate one we now have, it could start to work in a far more democratic way. It wouldn’t need to be extirpated root and branch.

This is part three of a six-part series. This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Antonio García Rodríguez/Flickr


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.