I’ve been wondering when best to air some thoughts about the ongoing public protests in Spain and Greece. The moment never seems right, because there’s always some bigger crisis about to break in European politics. The markets have turned on Italy;  Ireland joins Portugal in the junk box, despite meeting all its targets; European leaders remain divided on what should happen; they may or may not hold yet another summit this week.

But as long as the countries that have been worst hit by crisis are required to impose continuous austerity policies in the present climate, something deeper may be happening to public opinion, to civil society, and to the framework of consent to be ruled in a particular way.

These are not fixed things of course. They shift and evolve in response to the balance of power, the dominant ideas, the credibility of pain- and gain-sharing plans, the institutionalization of compromises through particular policy commitments.

I was in Barcelona recently and saw some of the mass protests in the Plaça de Catalunya, which have been replicated this summer in cities across Spain. Not much was going on around the camp in the daytime, but the place came alive by night, with speeches, singing, dancing, lectures, films, and at the weekends, larger protests against the government’s policies.




This is not a trade union protest; these are not public sector employees. So who are the protesters, the ‘indignatos’ who have been occupying Spanish public spaces? The numbers out on the squares are going down a bit now, but their social networking links are expanding enormously. And in Greece, who are the people taking part in street protests, which now seem to take on an almost ritualized form, parallel to but not the same as public sector strikes? What does it all mean for our understanding of democracy in hard times?

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