Spanish Spring, Fall

During a hostile parliamentary session in 1997, former Spanish President José María Aznar, of the conservative Partido Popular, famously responded to criticism from the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español by insisting not once but three times consecutively: España va bien. España va bien. España. Va. Bien. In a way, it turns out, he was right: Aznar’s neoliberalizing reforms led to a post-Olympic boom period that—though it has been blamed for exacerbating the effects of the global economic crisis—saw modernization at a rate unprecedented in Spanish history and the creation of equally unprecedented quantities of wealth.

Spain’s current President Mariano Rajoy—whose succession of his mentor, Aznar, was delayed eight years by the unexpected election (and subsequent reelection) of PSOE leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, following the Madrid terrorist attacks of 2004—would be hard-pressed to offer such an answer to his critics. Even if Rajoy truly believes (delusionally, one might argue) that he has Spain headed in the right direction, there can be no doubt that right now it is in a very, very bad way. Unemployment is at 25 percent, with no prospects for improvement, and for those between the ages of 18 and 30—probably the most educated Spanish generation ever—the statistic is more than 50 percent. The financial industry has collapsed; the giant Bankia, the latest domino to fall, which was slated to receive about $14 billion euros in state rescue funds, will now receive well in excess of $20 billion. The bursting of the construction bubble has left behind countless acres of half-built subdivisions and unoccupied “chalets,” while skeletons of unfinished high rises and abandoned building equipment litter the coastline. Debt bonds are on the verge of junk status. More than 2 million children, and nearly as many elderly people, are currently living in poverty. This list could go on—and every day, every time one opens the newspaper, it seems to get a little longer.

Rajoy has so far responded to the growing crisis in two ways. First, he has implemented a series of public spending cuts vicious enough to make Angela Merkel blush. In the past few months alone, the minimum copayment for medication and medical services has risen to untenable levels for many patients, and all subsidized medical services for “irregular” immigrants have been eliminated. (Primero, los de casa is a slogan circulating among Rajoy supporters, while some in the medical community foresee a new AIDS crisis). The price of public transportation has spiked, and the minister of education recently announced the firing of tens of thousands of teachers and professors; a university tuition increase significant enough to price out even middle-class students; and a reduction in the number of government-subsidized scholarships, grants, and loans. Rajoy has also gone on the offensive against what remains of Spain’s actually working class, passing reforms that have made it easier and cheaper for companies to fire long-term employees, not to mention those working on one-year “probationary contracts.”  Meanwhile Esperanza Aguirre, the notoriously loose-lipped president of the Comunidad de Madrid and a major player in the PP, has offered personal assurances that Spain’s two major labor unions, the Unión General de Trabajadores and the Confederación Sindical de Comisiones Obreras, will soon “fall like the Berlin Wall.”

Rajoy’s justification for his slash-and-burn politics (or, rather the justification offered by the ministers and party operatives who do almost all of his talking for him) is that the only way out of the current morass is to make Spain attractive to the investors who have fled it like a house on fire—and that the only way to accomplish that is to reduce, and eventually eliminate, the public deficit, and at the same time create a more “flexible” (i.e. cheaper) labor force. Spain, Rajoy (or, those who speak for him) says, has lived beyond its means—the Spanish expression, encima de sus posibilidades, adds an aptly existential dimension—and it cannot hope to compete for investor dollars in a global marketplace unless it ceases to do so, and pays the price for having done so already. Few people take this argument seriously. As in so many other parts of the purportedly developed world, the economic crisis here has provided rhetorical cover for large-scale “liberalization” and the redirection of whatever wealth remains in this country into the hands of a transnational plutocratic class of politicians and financial operatives.

The exiled PSOE is not only incapable of pushing back against such a politics, having been drubbed into submission in last year’s elections; it’s also shown itself to be largely complicit. It was Zapatero, after all, who on his way out the door betrayed his party’s core supporters—workers—by pushing early versions of the labor reforms deepened and extended in recent months in the name of flexibility and global competitiveness. And while current PSOE leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba has joined Obama and Francois Hollande in calling for stimulating growth while imposing austerity, he has been reluctant to address both the strategic need and the ethical obligation to distribute wealth widely in times of economic contraction.

Instead the most meaningful and consistent resistance to Spain’s ongoing socioeconomic reorganization has come from the 15-M protest movement, named for the day in 2011 when tens of thousands of indignados took to the streets and plazas to demonstrate anger and exasperation at a government beholden to the interests of global capital. Opponents of the movement first dismissed its members as lazy junkie hippie anarchists.  More recently, they’ve taken to accusing protesters of posing a threat to the image of unity and common purpose they believe Spain must project in order to lure back investors (this, in addition to eliminating its deficit and breaking the collective integrity of its labor force).  Such idiocy does not warrant reply. For those who sympathize with the objectives of the movement, however, the more worrisome critique has been that by calling for systemic change without offering any clear alternatives to the system in place, the movement has condemned itself to an eventual death by stasis.

The four days of protest actions organized earlier this month to mark 15-M’s one-year anniversary appeared to validate such concerns. Turnout for the first night of actions, on May 12, was impressive throughout Spain—especially in Madrid, where some 40,000 protesters came marching into the Puerta del Sol from four different directions around 7 PM and, in defiance of an official 10 PM curfew, remained there until midnight for a pre-planned minute of silence. Shortly thereafter, the crowd began to disperse of its own accord, apparently satisfied with such a small victory. Around 5 AM, a few of the 2,000 police officers deployed by the city finally moved in to expel the handful of holdouts who remained.

By the 15th, the sea of protesters that had flooded the Puerta del Sol that first night had dwindled to a small pond, gathering near the Metro entrance to listen to familiar invectives from a scratchy loudspeaker. On the streets radiating from the Puerta del Sol, and even in the plaza itself, business proceeded as usual–if a good deal less profitably than just a few years ago.

It’s easy to conclude, on the basis of these more modest efforts, that the Spanish Spring is coming to a predictably fruitless end; but to do so may be to misunderstand its project. From the outset, beyond filling plazas with people and posters, the 15-M movement has—by calling into question the inevitability of a world system that more and more pits market calculus against the basic needs of human beings—aimed to open up a space that allowed communities to imagine and implement alternatives. And in this project there are, even as the crowds in the plazas have thinned, meaningful signs of progress. According to a survey conducted by El País a few days after the latest round of protests, 68 percent of Spaniards—many more than a year ago—consider themselves sympathetic to the 15-M movement. Still more recently, I read about residents of the economically modest Madrid suburb of Montecarmelo who worked together to convert a parcel of land, cleared for the now-abandoned construction of a medical clinic, into a community garden.

One could argue, of course, that, lovely though it may be in a kind of hopelessly utopian way, a garden planted on an abandoned tract of public land in a low-income suburb out on the periphery of Madrid poses little threat to that established order that has calculated the necessity of what novelist Maruja Torres has called “this inhospitable winter of Spain’s discontent.” It would appear that this was not the opinion, however, of those government officials who, upon hearing of the vegetable patch, first ordered it destroyed for having been constructed without the proper permissions, then sent undercover detectives to Montecarmelo to investigate whether members of the 15-M movement had been secretly involved in its cultivation.

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