The enormous crowd of young people which has been assembling in the Puerta del Sol, Madrid, all last week is a protest against Spain's political elite and its failed economic policies. The rate of unemployment among people aged 16-24 is around 42 per cent; this is a well-educated cohort, in danger of becoming a 'lost generation'.
There are obvious echoes here of Tahrir Square in Cairo and earlier demonstrations in Tunis, both of which toppled corrupt, self-perpetuating regimes. But it was only a little over 30 years ago that Spain, like Greece and Portugal, overthrew a military dictatorship and became a modern democracy. Given access to the European Community in the 1980s, they ceased to be authoritarian, backward societies of emigration, and their economies grew faster than those to their north and west, where young people had traditionally travelled to work.
What went wrong? It is far too facile to see the present problems of southern Europe as symptoms of incompetent government, lax public finanacial management and reliance on Euro-handouts. The emergence of a 'Precariat', to use the term coined by Guy Standing in his book of that title published this month, is a global phenomenon. As many as half of South Korea's workforce are temporary workers and a third of Japan's. The process of making labour markets more 'flexible', which has been a defining feature of globalisation, has transformed employment everywhere, and created a new class of mainly younger people who lack the traditional links to job and income security, benefits eligibility, occupational identity, career prospects and pension rights of their parents' generation.
Being on average better educated than their parents were adds to the sense of anger, anomie, alienation and anxiety experienced by this new class. Above all, they feel no identification with the political programmes of the established parties. The gathering in Madrid, now being consolidated into a semi-permanent camp, is like a mass movement-in-waiting, a crowd in search of new ideas. Whereas their Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts had a clear goal, to overthrow discredited autocrats, their European equivalent seems to be looking for a common identity and purpose.
But perhaps the most important aspect of this moment is the collective experience - the coming together of hundreds of thousands of people whose lives and work situations constantly isolate them, fragment their consciousness and make them feel responsible for their failure to achieve security, careers, property-ownership and family formation. The whole thrust of globalisation has been towards breaking up the organisation of the social, political and economic collectives in which people can form solidarities and influence their destinies by acting together. Denied these ways to understand and give meaning to their experiences, they have also been excluded from the political processes of their societies.
If the mass collective action of the precariat can be recognised and can recognise itself as a truly global movement of this generation, then it can acquire a vocabulary for its demands, and can frame specific policy goals. Guy Standing has long campaigned for a universl basic income, a guaranteed, unconditional sum which would allow all the legal residents of any political community to have the means to resist exploitation, to allocate time between paid and unpaid work, study, leisure and political participation. I too have spent 40 years advocating this proposal.
Starting as a protest, these demonstrations may become a movement with a voice, in turn leading to a new politics. Already the Madrid crowds are finding slogans to express their disgust with their situation. One of their largest banners reads: 'Spain Is Not A Business: We Are Not Slaves'.