Spain: a Pressure Cooker without a Safety Valve

February 20th and 21st saw Spain’s Congress (Parliament) debating the “State of the Nation”. While the debate was going on an opinion poll showed that of 80% the people do not feel they are represented by the Congress.  A growing wave of discontent is being translated into struggle. Spain is like a pressure cooker without a safety valve, facing a crisis of the regime which can only be solved through the eruption of the masses onto the scene.

Not a day goes by without a new dramatic incident revealing the depths of the social, political and economic crisis facing Spanish capitalism and at the same time an enormous accumulation of anger is bubbling just below the surface.

Anti evictions campaign

Last week saw the presentation of 1.4 million signatures in Parliament to demand a new law to prevent the eviction of families from their homes as a result of mortgage debt. Spain’s law requires half a million signatures to initiate a “popular initiative bill”, but the anti-evictions movement (Plataforma de Afectados por las Hipotecas - PAH) managed to collect nearly three times that number.

According to some estimates, there have been 350,000 mortgage repossessions in the last 2 years. In many cases it is banks which have been bailed out with state money that are carrying out the repossessions, while holding on their books hundreds of thousands of newly built empty homes (a conservative estimate puts the figure at 700,000). This has given rise to a mass movement to resist evictions and repossessions through direct action. When a repossession is announced activists mobilise in the neighbourhood to physically resist the eviction of the affected family.

Hundreds of evictions have been stopped this way. In Spain, if your home is repossessed by the bank for mortgage non-payment, the property is then auctioned (usually at a heavily discounted price) and whatever amount is made from that sale is deducted from the remaining mortgage debt.  With house prices at a rock bottom level, this means that the family loses its home but remains heavily indebted to the bank, while at the same time is forced to pay rent on a place to live.

PAH activists have also occupied bank offices and bank headquarters demanding that the repossession settles the mortgage debt completely and that the bank allows the family to stay in the property paying a heavily discounted “social” rent. There have been many small victories of the movement. The Popular Initiative Bill proposal argues that this should always be the case: repossession to settle the debt (with retroactive effect), social rents and a complete stop to all evictions.

Such is the pressure from below that Congress finally accepted the bill proposal for discussion, not without physically expelling PAH activists from the public gallery (with the president of Congress shouting, “Expel them, for fuck’s sake”). That same week, five people committed suicide in Spain as a result of eviction threats from the banks. Who were they? A 37-year-old building worker in Córdoba, who had found out that the after the repossession of his home he still owed 22,000 euro in legal costs. An elderly couple in Calvià (Mallorca) who were about to be evicted. Two other people committed suicide, one in the Basque Country and another one in Alicante.

According to an opinion poll, 90% of the population agree with the Popular Initiative Bill against evictions (including 87% of voters of the ruling PP) and 70% recognise the role played by the PAH in bringing the issue to public attention.

The same day in which Congress debated the acceptance of the anti-evictions bill proposal, there was another farcical incident when European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, addressed a closed session of a Commission of the Spanish Congress. Contrary to usual procedures, the meeting was not going to be recorded and no stenographic notes would be taken. When two United Left MPs declared that they would broadcast the meeting live on twitter, the president of the Congress decided to shut down all mobile phone and data communications in the meeting room! In the end, Draghi did not say anything new (Spain is on the right path, but more cuts and counter-reforms are needed to “improve competitiveness”), and the United Left MPs managed to record and then leak his whole intervention on Youtube, but the attempt at keeping the whole thing in secret further damaged the already battered reputation of Congress and politicians in general as being remote from the people they are supposed to represent.

The week closed with two sets of massive demonstrations. On February 16, hundreds of thousands marched in 50 different cities in demonstrations called by the PAH anti-evictions campaign in support of their proposed Bill. The day after, February 17, again, hundreds of thousands demonstrated in dozens of cities in a “white tide” against the privatisation of health care, in a movement which started in Madrid but has now spread nationwide.

This was last week. This week, the week of the State of the Nation debate, started with a woman setting herself on fire inside a bank office in Almassora, Castelló in desperation over mortgage debt. The day after a man chained himself to a pillar inside an office of the Deutsche Bank again in an attempt to renegotiate mortgage debt.

Even more significant was the incident in Coruña, in Galicia, where an 85-year-old woman was to be evicted from her flat. This was not even a case of mortgage debt, but a dispute over an old-style rental agreement (in which rents cannot be raised above inflation). Aurelia, the woman, had missed one rent payment, which she subsequently settled, and this had been used to start judicial procedures against her leading to an eviction order.

On the day, hundreds of activists gathered to resist the eviction, including some left wing and left nationalist local councillors and regional MPs. The intervention of the police was brutal and deceitful. At one point they declared that the eviction had been suspended, only to attempt it again once people had started to leave the scene. Even some of the regional MPs got beaten up.

The crucial point was when the police asked the fire fighters to intervene in cutting the chains with which activists had locked themselves to the front door of the building. Fire fighters refused to carry out the orders and left the scene brandishing posters of the anti-evictions campaign. This incident galvanised public opinion throughout the country. Fire fighters have also been at the receiving end of cuts in public services and in many parts of Spain they have been the most militant section of the resistance against austerity.

Now, fire fighters in Catalonia, Madrid, Galicia, Sevilla and others have declared publicly their solidarity with the Corunha fire fighters and announced that they would not collaborate in carrying out any more evictions. In their statement, the Madrid fire fighters said that they are not “puppets of the banks and their servants in government” and that their mission is “to save lives, not banks.”  Already in December, when there was another wave of eviction related suicides, locksmiths in a number of cities announced that they would not carry out any mortgage evictions.

Strike movement developing

At the same time there have been a number of very militant local or company struggles over redundancies, as thousands of layoffs are being announced on a daily basis. There have been open ended strikes of refuse collectors in Seville, Granada, Jerez, El Coronil. The banking sector has announced the destruction of a further 20,000 jobs on top of 35,000 already destroyed since the beginning of the crisis. The airports company AENA will sack 1,600 workers (10% of its workforce). The bankruptcy of one of the country’s main tour operators Orizonia will mean sacking 3,500 workers.

Hundreds of students and staff at the Madrid Polytechnic University occupied the Rectorate building and some of the administration offices in protest at compulsory redundancies and cuts in the budget.

Valencia, 16 February. Photo: Imagen en AcciónValencia, 16 February. Photo: Imagen en AcciónWhile Congress was debating the “State of the Nation” tens of thousands of Iberia airline workers went on a 4-day strike, as part of a plan of struggle which involves 15 days of strikes. The mood was extremely militant and there were clashes with the police as 8,000 workers occupied the flagship Terminal 4 at Barajas airport in Madrid.

Miners, who had already waged a very militant strike in June-July of last year, a strike which saw parts of mining valleys of Asturias and Leon become a war zone, are going back into struggle as the end of government subsidies means the closure of many pits. At CMC Cerredo they have already started an all out strike which threatens to spread to other companies.

At the same time, new revelations emerge every day in the never-ending saga of corruption scandals engulfing all institutions. The implications of the trial of Urdangarin, the King’s son-in-law, are now reaching the heart of the Royal Family. The scandal over the illegal financing of the ruling Popular Party seemed to have been somewhat contained, with the party and its former treasurer Bárcenas closing ranks and denying everything. It has now exploded again with the revelation that Bárcenas had made a notary statement about the book-keeping where he had recorded donations to the party by construction companies as well as payments to party leaders.

In Catalonia leading members of the bourgeois nationalist coalition CiU are under threat of being formally charged on a string of corruption cases, some involving the Russian mafia, others illegal financing of the coalition parties, etc.

Bourgeois democracy institutions discredited

It is no surprise that the combination of the economic crisis (which the workers are being made to pay for) and the corruption scandals (showing how capitalists control the main political parties) has produced a significant change in consciousness and a widespread discrediting of all the institutions of bourgeois democracy.

The February Barometer of Public Opinion carried out by Metroscopia for El Pais, showed that 74% of people do not think that “Congress represents the majority of Spaniards”, 80% do not think it represents them and 83% disapprove of the way Congress carries out its tasks and a whopping 85% do not think members of parliament are conducting their work in an honest way (84% think that of bankers). The index of confidence in the government / main opposition party system, which hovered around 50% for most of the 1990s and early 2000s, had already started to go down in 2005 and it has now collapsed to 26%, meaning that 74% of the population do not trust either the ruling PP party nor the main “opposition” PSOE.

A separate opinion poll in Andalucia, published on February 15, showed how the number of people who are dissatisfied with the way democracy works is over 80%, a massive leap from 38% in 2007, and 77% do not identify with any parties. A poll carried out by the Catalan government asked people which party they thought was most capable of giving an answer to what they thought was Catalonia’s main problem (and 48% said this was unemployment and casualisation of work, and 18% dissatisfaction with politics). The top answer with 43% was that “none of the parties” was capable of dealing with it, second came “don’t know” with over 15%, and with the first political party being mentioned receiving a poor 11.7%. Only 36% mentioned any of the parties currently represented in the Catalan parliament.

The United Left (IU) is obviously benefiting from these trends, but not as much as it could or should in the current circumstances. It is clear that their members of parliament have gained considerable authority, in as much as they are seen as representing the voice of the movements in the streets. They walked out of parliament on September 25th last year to join the “surround Congress” protest. They have consistently supported the anti-evictions campaign and stood up to applaud the PAH campaigners as they were being evicted from Congress last week.

In Galicia, where United Left has formed a coalition with a section of the left nationalists led by the historical leader of the BNG Beiras, the newly formed AGE (Galician Left Alternative) has substantially grown in the opinion polls. The Galician elections in October saw the first electoral success of the AGE (which presents itself as the Galician Syriza) which got 14% and 9 members of the Galician parliament. Now, just 100 days later, it would get 19.2% (only 0.3% from the PSOE) and 15 seats. The ruling PP would lose its overall majority. More significant is the breakdown of this poll, because it shows that amongst the 18 to 34 year olds, the AGE would be the first party overall, with 15.3% (more than the combined vote of the PP and PSOE!) and the second party amongst 35 to 54 year olds.

The PP government is clearly much discredited, even amongst its own voters. But it is not likely to collapse on its own even though that cannot be completely ruled out. If it does, it would just mean that the current crisis would find a solution from above. The most intelligent commentators of the ruling class are already hinting at such a scenario, where a discredited Prime Minister Rajoy would step down in favour of some other PP leader not directly tainted by corruption. The idea of a “national salvation” government to face corruption and the economic crisis is also being discussed by the ruling class.

The leaders of the PSOE would be more than happy to collaborate and this is what they have been saying all along. In fact, even when PSOE leader Rubalcaba demanded the resignation of Rajoy a few weeks ago over the corruption scandals, he was careful to make clear that he was not demanding early elections. The PSOE is still extremely discredited from its previous term of office and elections would not give them a majority strong enough to carry out the counter-reforms and attacks that the ruling class needs. In the State of the Nation address Rubalcaba made an offering: “we socialists think there is another way, through agreements”.

The president of PRISA, the communications group which publishes El País, in a conference in Barcelona put it very clearly: “what is in crisis is the whole system: industrial society, representative democracy, the system of the mass media,” and he warned that “anger will increase, and with it demagogy and populism,” therefore, he concluded, early elections could not be the solution as that would give rise to a “Greek scenario” in Spain. The callousness of these people knows no limits. While they stand formally for “democracy,” they are openly saying that the people cannot be trusted to make a decision, and that they should not be allowed to vote if the result of that vote is likely to go against the interests of the ruling class.

In a speech in Madrid on February 15, the historical leader of the PSOE, Felipe Gonzalez, went as far as to say that Rajoy should not resign as that would increase instability. He appealed to Rajoy to “take radical measures” in order to “generate agreements and consensus to clean political life, reform the institutions and political parties” and above all “to face the economic crisis.” This is what the ruling class is really worried about: the impact of the corruption scandals and the austerity measures on the ability of the government to carry out the further cuts and counter-reforms which are needed from their point of view.

The state of the Spanish economy does not leave much room for maneuver.  Far from the optimism of the government, which argues that the recession has already floored and 2013 will see the beginning of the recovery, the real situation is much worse. The European Commission is already forecasting a recession of -1.4% of GDP for 2013 (while the government’s figure is just -0.5%) and a further increase in unemployment to reach 27% (the government expected a reduction to 24.3%). The deficit reduction targets set by the government and the EU cannot be met and as a matter of fact it is likely that the deficit to GDP ratio will increase and not decrease once final figures are published for 2012.

All of this leads to one conclusion: the government will have to announce further cuts and austerity measures in a situation in which its legitimacy is next to zero. The ruling class has no alternative team to put in place, as the PSOE is as discredited as the PP. The only solution is some sort of technocratic or national unity government. There are already rumors of a secret meeting having take place behind the scenes between Felipe Gonzalez and PP leader Gallardón, who so far has not been tainted by any of the corruption scandals.

Unite the struggles

In this situation, a decisive intervention of the masses onto the scene could transform everything. The leaders of the main trade unions, CCOO and UGT, are extremely afraid to take any initiative and in fact have not been seen since the successful general strike of November 14 last year. All they can muster is a proposal to the bosses’ organization and the government for a “national agreement on growth and employment”. This is at a time when both the government and the employers are launching an all-out assault on acquired rights and conditions of the working class!

If the leaders of the trade unions took the initiative and organized a sustained plan of struggle to unite all the different campaigns and strikes into a single nation-wide movement to overthrow the government, Rajoy would not last a week. The problem is that the leaders of the trade unions accept the limits of the capitalist system and therefore are not able to offer any serious alternative to the deep crisis of Spanish capitalism, other than appeals to “stimulate growth”.

The leadership of United Left has openly called for the resignation of the government and the convening of early elections and some sort of new “constituent process”. This expresses the fact that this is a crisis of the regime, not just a crisis of the current government. However, it is not very clear what is meant by a constituent process. What Spanish working people are revolting against is not just corruption. The solution is not simply better functioning, more democratic institutions. The problem is that these are the institutions which correspond to the crisis of capitalism which Spain is experiencing. The rottenness of the Spanish ruling class is revealed precisely because their whole system is in crisis. What needs to be overthrown and replaced is not just bourgeois democracy but the capitalist system it stems from.

Any fundamental change in Spain must start from the expropriation of the IBEX35 companies which control the majority of the Spanish economy. Only then would we have the necessary instruments to organise the economy for the benefit of the majority of the population and not a handful of parasitical unelected bankers and capitalists.

What is also missing in the position of the United Left leaders is a clear idea about the role that the United Left can play. The organisation should not limit itself to following and supporting the initiatives which at this moment in time are being taken by the social movements. As argued by a number of local branches (including the Alava province and the Puerto de la Torre branch in Málaga), IU should take the initiative of convening a national summit of representatives from the different campaigns and organizations, trade unions, left political organizations, to create a united front against the government. Its activists within the trade unions should agitate for the coordination of all the struggles and strikes and put pressure on the leaders to act.

February 23th is the anniversary of the 1981 attempted coup. At the initiative of some of the anti cuts and anti austerity campaigns (the “tides”), demonstrations have been called all over Spain “against the coup of the markets”. In the current climate these will be massive and will show the enormous amount of anger which exists.

February 23th cannot be just one day of struggle, but it must serve as the starting point for a sustained campaign of mobilizations, including a 48h general strike, to bring down the government. United Left must take the initiative.

Now is the time: down with the PP government!