First off, by 14N I mean the European Day of Action and Solidarity which took place the 14th of November. It’s a Spanish convention to abbreviate dates that way, hence the 15M movement, the 23F coup, etc. Here in Iberia–both Spain and Portugal–there were strikes called. In the Spanish case, a general strike whose success I was extremely dubious about. It turns out I was wrong, and I’ll be discussing some of that on this post.
Last year there were general elections in Spain. After almost 8 years of PSOE government, which conducted us, at least by negligence, to this critical point, it was almost inevitable that the right wing PP would attain a majority. What was less understandable was the size and scope of it. Partly attributable to a somewhat faulty electoral system, and partly to the collapse of the PSOE vote, the PP acquired a sufficient majority to rule unimpeded. The fact that their programme was a compendium of vagueness, and that the labour reforms and other austerity cuts imposed by the outgoing PSOE government had disappointed the people, didn’t seem to factor in at all.
Most people when asked would–as surveys show–reject the cuts, labour reforms, and bailouts to the financial system. So they voted for labour reforms, cuts, and bailouts excelsior. I must confess that, no matter how much dialectics I attempt to deploy on this, the logic entirely escapes me. I wasn’t caught by surprise by the collapse of the PSOE, and a certain resurgence of further-left alternatives such as IU, but the strength of the right wing party, when the whole society seemed to be rejecting their programme and after the unveiling of countless corruption scandals involving it, came as a shock.
After the elections, the predictions of most leftists became true: the PP disposed of its programme excusing itself on having had insufficient economic data, although the data they alleged had come from the autonomous regions they controlled, raised direct and indirect taxes, instituted the most aggressive restriction of labour rights since the Constitution passed, cut spending on the basic pillars of the welfare state such as education, health care, r&d, but far less so on defence, and kept watching the unemployment figures rise, under the province of a non-entity minister for “employment”–renamed from “labour”–who hadn’t had a job in her life. The 29M–for March–general strike, as well as indefinite strikes and marches by coal miners resulting from the withdrawal of state subsidies that had been promised their industry, didn’t seem to shake the government’s confidence at all. According to rumour and the press, the government expected to face a sharp, short, and ultimately ineffective struggle by the labour unions, which had, so goes the tale, lost their capacity to command a popular following, due to their relative passivity during the last PSOE government and the perception that they receive too lavish state subsidies. In spite of an increasing and scandalous unemployment rate, the beginning of the end of a universal health care system, now limited for non-nationals and the unemployed, cuts to education resulting in larger class sizes and punitive university fees, increasing tension with the peripheral nationalisms which is still unresolved, the realisation by society of the depth of corruption in politics and the financial system itself, and strings-free bailouts for ailing banks and saving institutions, all we heard from the government was a uniform discourse which began and ended in “there is no alternative”. Nothing seemed to make an impact on the course that had been set: not the figures, not the streets, not the increasing disappointment coming from organs of the right wing press itself, surprised that their favourites couldn’t sort out the crisis with some firm and commonsensical measures as they claimed. The myth of the right as the “workshop of the state” has been shattered, and that has some value of its own.
Then, Basque and Galician elections confirmed the trend: though the right lost votes, this was more than compensated for by the collapse of the PSOE and the increasing apathy on the left. Their majority was confirmed and increased in Galicia, and it seemed that there was something to those who claimed that in protesting what effectively was a two-party system, we’re now condemned to a one-party system instead. After these results, the call for a general strike by the unions for the 14th of November seemed like a tactical mistake to me. All I kept hearing from people was how annoyed they were with the government, but also how the unions were corrupt/ineffective and how a general strike wouldn’t solve anything. I thought the calculations by the government were correct, and that the popular rage against them had been exhausted by all the previous actions. I can’t be entirely certain, but I think what ended up causing a successful strike, more so than even the one in March, was a matter that had been making itself felt in society, more quietly than it deserved, and which led to a qualitative change: foreclosures.
Since 2008 when the crisis hit Spain, unemployment has caused a tragic increase in foreclosures and evictions. People have lost their homes, but are, due to an archaic and dysfunctional law, still burdened with a large part of the debts they incurred. A popular association by the name of “Stop desahucios”, as well as consumer organisations like FACUA, unions, and some of the left parties, have been calling attention on this situation. Our civil procedure for foreclosures is so summary, that it only permits a handful of grounds for objection to suspend the procedure. For example, if there was bad faith, abuse of law, manipulation of the interest rates–important on the light of what we have learned about LIBOR–and so on, this must be raised on a separate declarative procedure, which does not suspend the execution of the mortgage, resulting in eviction. Needless to say, such an opportunity is of little use to people still burdened with up to 50% of the debt, who just lost their home. As saving institutions merged with each other to become banks and the state had to nationalise one of them, funding them to the tune of tens of billions of euros, the contradiction of a financial system collecting public money with one hand because people don’t pay while evicting them with the other became too much to bear. A wave of suicides committed by people as they were about to be evicted ended a situation of relative social peace.
A social consensus now exists that the laws regulating foreclosures must change. This state of affairs, which took place a few days before the strike, may have galvanised support for it and the attendant demonstrations which took place, and which were of unusual size. The failure of the political class is patent: the PSOE did nothing about it in power, and even in opposition refused to vote for proposals coming from the left that the debt should be cancelled by virtue of repossessing the home. The Spanish judiciary, which is often a wild card–it never was cleansed of its fascist members, but it can sometimes be obstinate in upholding social needs–had long been complaining that they were reduced to ordering repossessions, unable to properly protect consumers by adequately delving in the whole history of the contractual arrangements. Some of them had refused to issue such orders on the basis of exceptional legal principles such as abuse of law or the rebus sic stantibus clause, which is also of application in domestic law. The most effective of these measures may well be the reference for preliminary ruling issued by a Spanish judge on whether the existing law, which doesn’t provide for a full examination of the merits in cases of foreclosure, guarantees the rights bestowed to consumers by EU law. This case seems to be just about to set the European Union in the strange condition of being at odds with itself: the non-binding opinion of the ECJ’s advocate general, a qualified juridical report on the issue to inform the court and which decision is often followed, asserts that the law does not conform with EU consumer protection directives; yet at the same time the EU is about to loan untold amounts of money to the Spanish financial system in order to recapitalise it, probably through the ESM, and the Commission is putting pressure on the Spanish state not to reform the law to give broader rights to mortgage debtors, since the likelihood of recovering that loan would considerably decrease in such an event. In the meantime, the banks themselves have been lobbying for a cosmetic change, to calm the people down, to be agreed on by PSOE and PP, but such a change as wouldn’t significantly affect their assets. The PSOE, to my pleasant surprise, has not fallen in this trap at least as of yet, and has negotiated with the government but failed to agreed to the proposed substanceless change, which was urgently passed by the cabinet, and justly received as a useless reform, dead on arrival, like the code of good conduct previously approved for banks.
It appears that where unemployment, the erosion of public services, and the losses of civil and labour rights may not have been sufficient to delineate the class struggle, when it comes to losing one’s home, even an anesthetized and demoralised population knows on which side of the barricade they belong. Hence, the strong support for the general strike, and the extraordinary size and militancy of the demonstrations. Another matter is whether this will lead to any electoral consequences at all. It is the opinion of some socialists that bourgeois democracy has little formally wrong with it, and that the whole reason why a workers’ party hasn’t attained state power is reducible to the fact that there’s no popular support for such policies. I would say the current conjuncture in Spain clearly demonstrates a counterexample: the feedback mechanisms between the popular will and state power are so broken and laggy that all the electorate can do is aimlessly flail and attempt to change the people in charge, without thereby managing to significantly realign the state to their actual wants. Hence, increasingly one-sided majorities for the right, and a growing popular mobilisation, popular discontent, and militancy. That much of this has been organised outside–and perhaps even turning its back on–the traditional structures (political parties, labour unions…) should alarm us and relieve us in equal measure: on the one hand, because of the obvious fact that disorganised resistance to state power will lead nowhere; and on the other hand because, notwithstanding a just scepticism for politics and organised parties, the people are attempting to find their own vehicles to channel that resistance. The left cannot limit itself to the electoral game, though it should of course not be given up, if it wishes to have any relevance to the future direction of such resistance.