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.

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  1. 1 Irish Left Review · Keeping the streets clean for ‘democracy’ Trackback on May 27, 2011 at 11:58 pm
  3. 3 Homage to Catalonia; or “BTW, there’s a near-revolution in Spain” | Trackback on May 29, 2011 at 12:17 pm

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May 2011

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