Archive for May 27th, 2011

Keeping the streets clean for ‘democracy’

Some notes, given the brutal punishment meted out by the Mossos d’Esquadra this morning in Plaza Catalunya. If the intention was to intimidate people from going out onto the streets, it seems to have failed. There are reports that gatherings are already intensifying in public squares across Spain. Esperanza Aguirre, the aristocrat right-wing president of the Madrid regional government, has requested to the Interior Minister that the police vacate Puerta del Sol. How they will manage this in light of intensifying public anger and the likelihood of thousands upon thousands of Madrid residents heading in the direction of Sol this evening, I have no idea.

I do not wish to say that these repressive actions have backfired, because we do not know yet what the long term reaction will be on the part of the population. Whilst the political class in Spain prides itself on the democracy it built after Franco’s death, a lot of the political class occupies the position it does on account of privileges acquired during the Francoist dictatorship, and a lot of the time ‘democracy’ is their alibi for the most flagrant abuses. When Baltasár Garzón decided in his capacity as a magistrate to investigate the crimes of the Franco regime (150,000 disappeared, corpses lying in mass graves and trenches), he was himself put in the dock for it.

When unions organised a protest in response, the Partido Popular (the foremost political heirs of the Franco regime) claimed it was an ‘assault on democracy‘. The current order was built atop the corpses of hundreds of thousands, and legitimised itself by effacing from memory the previous (albeit imperfect, see below) example of democracy in Spain. In so doing, the beneficiaries and apparatchiks of dictatorship transformed themselves overnight into ‘democrats’. For an example of this ‘democracy’ in action, see the example of the Iraq war, where opposition was in the high nineties percentage-wise against participating in the invasion, but Aznar went ahead with it nonetheless. For all Spain’s reputation nowadays as an open and liberal society, there is a deep authoritarian streak in the ruling class, and its response to genuine popular revolt could turn out to be brutal. Or not; we shall see. But my feeling is that they have prepared themselves for the long haul on this.

Today the Spanish state has decided to bare its teeth on behalf of the ruling class. It is all very well for these young people to be out protesting in favour of democracy whenever it has precisely no public impact, but whenever chambers of commerce and the tourism industry tell the ruling political parties that they’re making the place look untidy on account of their mere presence, the state authorities have no compunction in acting with gross brutality and impunity.

The language of ‘hygiene’ and ‘salubriousness’ employed this morning by state authorities in Barcelona has echoes of the moral panics in that city in the first decades of the twentieth century. There are also echoes in the way that Francoist forces described their vocation during and after the civil war. First, here is an extract from Los psiquiatras de Franco (Franco’s Psychiatrists) by Enrique González Duro. of Queipo de Llano’s repression in Seville.

To give order to and centralise the repression, on the 25th July 1936 Queipo named captain Manuel Díaz Criado as delegate for Public Order. As such, Díaz Criado sadly became famous for his extreme severity. “Criado didn’t go into the office until four in the afternoon, and rarely enough at that. In one hour, and sometimes less, he processed the files; signed the death sentences -around sixty daily- without listening to any testimony from the detained. To keep his conscience at bay, or for whatever reason, he was always drunk. He said that, once he had sat down, he didn’t care if he signed one hundred or three hundred death sentences, what was of interest was cleaning Spain of marxists. I heard him say, thirty years from now, there’ll be no-one left here”

Antonio Vallejo-Nágera, the foremost psychiatrist in the Francoist dictatorship, wrote the following of the ‘marxists’:

‘The marxist criminality started off with a group of infiltrators and agitators who through psychic contagion have dragged the multitude along with them. The secret social agitators have provoced an antisocial collective reaction influencing the environment for rousing the rabble in passion, awakening in every individual that criminoid aspect built into the human personality which only high ethical injunctions repress and restrain, as as occurred in the national (i.e. fascist) zone’

Writing of the republican moral panics in Barcelona in the 1930s, Chris Ealham writes, in Anarchism and The City

‘ keeping with the republican objective of splitting the working class, the moral panics can be viewed as part of a cultural struggle for hearts and minds in the barris. There were several strands to this ideological project. First, the exaggerated nature of the moral panics was essential in order to generate broad concern about phenomena such as street trade and crime, which in reality threatened the narrow interests of a small proportion of the population. Yet by stressing an undifferentiated civic interest and the essential unity and harmony of the social system, the moral panics projected a consensual view of society and appealed to an imagined political community. This explains why the moral panics were frequently couched in the language of disease borrowed from the discourse of nineteenth-century urban hygienists. By describing social enemies as a ‘plague’ and ‘infestation’ and the migrants as moral ‘pollution’ and ‘filth’ that ‘contaminated’ the city, the authorities hoped to find popular support for a ‘labour of hygiene’ to eliminate ‘scum’. Because this plague apparently threatened all citizens, regardless of social rank, it could not therefore be ignored and necessitated measures of social quarantine and a new surveillance of everyday life in order to ‘cleanse’ the city of germs and liberate it from the threats facing it.’

An onlooker, a M. N. Sarkozy of Paris, who popularised the use of the term ‘karchériser’ in relation to clean-up operations involving the removal of young men and women from the streets of his city, and who has since taken to expelling Roma, is reported to have observed, without a hint of irony, that the difference between the indignados in Spain and the people in North African countries in revolt is that the indignados live in a democratic country. Ruling classes across Europe are counting on the Spanish government to serve notice that dissent will not be tolerated. Just as their governments emitted weasel words over revolts against the Arab dictatorship, they will back their neoliberal counterparts in ensuring that order -which is to say, accumulation by dispossession- prevails.

Weekend World

It is nearly a week since the massive demonstrations in Spain first captured worldwide imagination, having been initially ignored, by Spanish media and world media alike, for several days. From the point of view of sympathetic onlookers, and no doubt some of the participants, the massive gathering in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid on the Friday night, in direct defiance of the ban laid down by the Central Electoral Commission against demonstrations in light of the forthcoming local and regional elections, was an indication that this movement had massive potential to open up a space in which the dominant order in Europe, and even worldwide, could be challenged. Whether people are in the thick of it at one of the demos, or watching the images flood in from wherever, it becomes hard to get a sense, when there is such an ebullient defiance of the forces  of order and expropriation, if the movement is likely to last. Because the movement was so widespread and intense in its manifestations, it was easy to get lulled into a sense that this was the way it was going to be for some time to come.

The election results, and, more prosaically, the end of the weekend, cooled things considerably. While there had been no declared intention on the part of the original motive force – Democracia Real Ya- that this was an initiative designed to influence the election – and indeed it had no impact anyway, the degree of attention conferred on it by media outlets was in part down to the fact that the political parties, who were under intense scrutiny precisely on account of the elections, had been caught on the hop. Once the results were known, the concerns, interests and intrigues of the parties of formal institutional political power came to the fore once again, and the movement, the camps and the protests were relegated to a secondary concern. The Partido Popular, as I noted the other day, obtained massive gains in the elections, with wins in key Socialist Party strongholds, even though it only garnered the vote of 24% of the population. The consequences, in terms of the attitude of power towards those taking part in the protests, were predictable enough. It was this, and not ‘lo de Sol‘ that was real democracy. Within the major sites of protest, such as Puerta del Sol in Madrid and Plaza Catalunya in Barcelona, there are concerted efforts on the part of the state to undermine the symbolic and practical role played by these sites in the staging of protests and ongoing resistance and organising.I saw this tweet from Barcelona this morning:

From Plaza Catalunya, it reads ‘They are evicting us with violence. This is totally illegal, the police are not carrying identification badges’. In the Puerta del Sol, where local traders are seeking the eviction of the protesters, assemblies are taking place through which a ‘consenso de mínimos’ is being worked out, that is, a minimum set of demands intended to give shape to the 15-M movement. These are likely to include a reform of the Electoral Law, anti-corruption measures, the separation of powers, and the creation of mechanisms that allow citizens greater power to hold politicians to account. While these seem rather modest demands, they still do pose a substantial challenge to political power in that they seek to address the marginalisation of the left, the domination of the judiciary by right-wing, often PP-supporting judges, and the impunity with which politicians undertake corrupt activities. From the point of view of the more radical members of the movement, it is likely to be considered a little tepid. I am not entirely convinced myself, but it is important to note that these will be points elaborated through an intense democratic process, and it will be in terms of the power of the challenge presented, not the length of the list, that the movement will exercise an effect. If there is intense resistance from political power, this in itself will widen the perceivable gulf between political and economic power and the majority of the population.

All this means that this weekend will be important, since it will allow people who have been working and/or studying all week to show their solidarity once again by amassing at these places and others throughout Spain and beyond. In Ireland the second demo has been organised for 2pm tomorrow at the Spire. It remains to be seen whether these protests in Ireland will, as in Greece and elsewhere, begin to directly address the common predicament of the two countries in light of the international character of the crisis. The gathering last week I think captured the imagination of quite a few activists round these parts. For the moment, however, the main aim of tomorrow’s protest ought to be to show solidarity and support with the movement in Spain since this is the central point upon which any local spin-offs that build on the movement is going to depend, for the next number of weeks at least.

It is not as if the two countries have nothing in common. As this translated piece by Vicenç Navarro from yesterday shows, the absence of the language of class struggle, the inability to perceive the role of the local bourgeoisie, or even name it, and its common interest with the institutions that are wreaking havoc on the local population, the tendency of governments to blame the policies they are adopting on the demands of the financial markets: all these things are as common, to both countries, as muck.

It isn’t the financial markets.

There is an understanding of the reality that surrounds us that is becoming widespread which assumes that states have lost their capacity to take decisions, since they have to act according to the dictates of the financial markets. This perception is accompanied by a narrative in which all categories of power such as class power or class struggle have been totally substituted by the “power of the markets that determines what happens in each State”, including the Spanish state. As a commentator wrote in one of the country’s biggest circulating papers, “capital is no longer personified in the bourgeoisie”. According to this posture, this bourgeoisie has been substituted by financial elites that are not the owners of anything except the capacity to produce paper that isn’t even money, but from which they derive mountains of money. And despite having caused the crisis they continue to receive public assistance from the State (paid by all of us through our taxes) that allows them to continue their speculative and unproductive practices that make the situation worse.

From them it is deduced that the bourgeoisie has lost its power too, making class analyses irrelevant. The social structure thereby gets turned into rich and poor, with the majority defined as middle class, new categories of social structure grouped within states, whose capacity to take decisions is determined by financial markets. It is important to emphasise that the governments themselves -to justify their highly unpopular public policies- call upon the same argument indicating that there is no other alternative than to follow the diktats of these markets.

This reading of reality, however, is mistaken, and it is easy to show why. First of all, the policies that the Spanish state is imposing on the population (flexibilisation of the labour market with greater ease provided to the business owner to sack workers, cuts in spending and public employment, cuts in wages, delay to the retirement age, and freezing of pensions, among other measures) are public interventions that the supposedly disappeared Spanish bourgeoisie has longed for for many years. In the light of these facts, to say that the bourgeoisie has disappeared or has no impact on the State strikes me as an error. As Lope de Vega might say ‘the dead were never so alive’. This bourgeoisie, both the financial and the industrial bourgeoisie, has some interests that diverge and some that coincide. And among the latter is that of using “the pressure of the financial markets” as an excuse to carry out what they have always desired. Naturally the Spanish bourgeoisie (and its components in the different peoples and nations of Spain) is helped by the bourgeoisie in member states of the European Union, whose political instruments control the institutions of the EU.

But external agents are not those who determine what happens in Spain. They condition and they facilitate, but they do not determine. The attention to what is going on outside dilutes the importance of the internal, which is the determinant. The Spanish ruling class (an absent term from the hegemonic narrative) is the one that influences the Spanish state. And part of its power has been to transmit the message that there is no alternative to the policies that are being carried out in response to external agents, the financial markets. And predictably, mass media outlets play a key role in the promotion of this message.

But it is not true that there are no alternatives. Here’s one example. The budget deficit could be reduced, instead of cutting public spending and employment, by raising taxes, an alternative that is not even contemplated by the main political parties or debated in the major media outlets. The parties to their left have proposed credible and practicable alternatives based on the calculations of treasury inspectors from the Treasury Ministry which have indicated that, reversing the tax breaks that have been implemented in the last 15 years (which have favoured the most powerful groups in the population) 35bn euro could have been obtained, without affecting the tax burden on the majority of the population, bringing in more money than what is being saved through social spending cuts, such as the freezing of pensions and or the cutting of public employment. What is more, if Spain had the same progressive fiscal policy as Sweden, the State (central, regional and municipal) would take in 200bn euro more than currently is the case. The fact that these alternatives do not enter the political debate corresponds to the systematic marginalisation and discrimination that mass media outlets exercise over these political forces. In reality, the low ideological diversity of the media in Spain is one of the major problems encountered by Spanish democracy. Another is the Electoral Law which marginalises the second party on the left (IU), thereby marginalising the left as a whole.

There is a class war in Spain in which the bourgeoisie -the ruling class in Spain- wins on a daily basis. The American financier Warren Buffett said: “This is class war, and my class, the rich, is winning”. Mr Botín (financial bourgeoisie) and Messrs Martín Villa and Amancio Ortega (industrial and services bourgeoisie) could say the same thing in Spain. All the Ibex firms (apart from three) have continued to turn profits, among with the biggest, but not the only ones, have been the banks. Meanwhile, the working class is paying for the crises that the former created. A symptom of the power of the ruling class is that no-one speaks, neither of classes, nor of class struggle, considering such categories as antiquated, in which one even arrives at the conclusion that the bourgeoisie has disappeared.

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May 2011