Letter From Spain: The November 2011 General Elections in Spain: Indignation Trapped in the Ballot Box

Barcelona, December 6, 2011

There have been doubts about the reach and penetration of the “indignant” (Sp: indignados) democratic citizens’ movement which began on May 15. The outcome of the November 20 elections helped to clarify things. In a way, the general election of November was a test to see how well the “indignant” could demarcate themselves from the electoral system, that is, to see how widespread and ingrained their slogan “they don’t represent anyone,” directed against politicians, parties and trade unions, really was. The slogan gave the impression that there would at least be an increase in conscious abstention.

However, this did not happen. Abstention increased by only two points over the previous general election of 2008, but fell by over four percentage points from May’s municipal elections (2011). There were slight increases of null and blank votes (the indignant movement debated electoral formalities, such as the significance of blank and spoiled votes), but it was completely irrelevant. We must also say that some of the organizations and “personalities” of the indignant movement campaigned openly for a shift of the vote to the left (which explains, for example, the increased vote for Izquierda Unida)[1]

Either way, the democratic and conservative horizon, characterized by the preservation of social guarantees under the current system of representation (as mentioned in our previous installment), was the dominant movement for most of the indignants. This was reflected in the election results. A part of the movement clearly opted to give its vote to “left-wing” parties (the substantial rise of Izquierda Unida) and other minor parties (Anti-capitalist, nationalist, Amaiur), and to the center-right (UPyD). This dispersion reflects the ideological spectrum of much of the indignation movement and its character as a democratic regeneration. Of course, this does not mean that the whole movement starting on May 15th wound up in the electoral system. The significant level of abstentions (around 28 percent) was indeed a conscious abstention, pointing beyond the indignants, and is involved in unspectacular but real actions at the level of neighborhoods (defense of housing occupations) or in workplaces (action against cutbacks).

The nature and composition prevailing in the indignant social movement (i.e., a middle class in accelerated decomposition) explains its functionality within the system of representation. It is a heterogeneous social segment of the working population (precarious, retirees, students, unemployed young men and women, trade unionists, civil servants, etc.). Nourished by democratic ideology, its political culture of humanitarianism comes with the NGO label and from the ideology of the traditional left, and is not leaning, at least for now, toward philo-fascist positions, as was the case at other stages of capitalist development, when the impoverishment of the middle class was the incubator of fascism and Nazism. This is because the explicitly xenophobic and racist mass has a very minor presence in public life, and because the PP (Partido Popular, the major center-right party) incorporates it within its structure,[2] and on the other hand, because everyday racism and xenophobia, as suffered daily by the immigrants, do not count in the electoral circus. All this means that the indignation movement wound up legitimizing democratic totalitarianism and particularly the restrictive measures of social rights pushed through by legitimate electoral institutions.

A prime example is Artur Mas, president of the autonomous government of Catalonia (the Generalitat), whose coalition’s (CiU) electoral mass increased in the elections of November 20. Mas hardly had time to appear in the media, during the electoral euphoria, to say that the support obtained by his coalition showed that people understood the cuts (in health, education, welfare, etc.) that the Catalan government has put in place and which are causing quite a few protests by workers and different collectives affected over the last year.

The paradoxes of the democratic system are such that the dominant financial-industrial-commercial oligarchy and its apparatus of political representation, are based on an “apolitical” voter population (i.e., the by-product of the Franco tradition made up by people who “are not involved in politics “), while the active sectors advocating institutional changes, such as the indignant, are doomed to impotence and protest actions “bearing witness” within an institutional framework. One of the government officials of the autonomous community of Madrid spoke dismissively of teacher demonstrations in Madrid a few days ago, claiming they had been repudiated by the majority of citizens (given the electoral victory of the PP).

Be that as it may, neither during the campaign nor in the week after the election did the winning party dare to present its program of social cuts. Until now, the future Spanish prime minister (Mariano Rajoy) has met with bankers, businessmen, etc., as well as with the union leaders which, as we are accustomed, have negotiated on behalf of special interests, relating to grants, and access to training funds for the union apparatuses (CCOO and UGT), the latter being increasingly alienated not only from the entire working population, but also increasingly alienated from their own bases.

It should be noted here that the mobilization of public employees—where the highest level of union membership is concentrated—continues, and the unrest threatens to increase if, as advertised in Catalonia, for example, there is a new reduction in the salaries of public servants.

The central government is also committed to a restructuring that will reduce the enormous burden of bureaucracy in state administration, which in many cases is double the administrative structure of the regions (3.2 million public employees out of a workforce of 17.2 million).

Although the current relative social peace does not suggest serious problems for the next government of the PP, no one can deny the groundswell of social unrest that fear and helplessness will not be able to hold back if, as expected, the dynamics of deteriorating living conditions continues.[3] In this sense, the statements a few days ago by a senior manager (J. Alemany) of the multinational company Abertis, closely linked to La Caixa (a Catalan savings bank), are especially significant; Alemany spelled out in detail that the measures necessary to deal with the current situation could not be limited simply to reducing wages, but also had to include measures of containment (subsidies) to avoid a progressive social decay that would eventually lead to greater instability and adversely affect the conditions for an eventual economic recovery.

Such statements coincided with the announcement, by a charitable organization, of the results of a survey, showing that 1.5 million people are below the poverty level in Catalonia (out of a population of just over seven million).

It is well known that social peace is needed for business to operate as usual. And such social peace cannot be guaranteed solely by repression, especially in a situation of the precariousness we are living in. But the instability which a PP government might unleash under the present circumstances suggests (as inferred from the words of the director of Abertis) a social polarization leading to an escalation of conflict.[4] Moreover, the union apparatuses will be unable to hold back such a conflict if the tradeoffs amount only to perks for union professionals. With 22 percent unemployment (more than 5 million) and no prospect of improvement, the new government has a real hot potato on its hands.

However, the social passivity, despite mobilizations, in face of these maneuvers of a great capitalist restructuring, continues to surprise. On the immediate micro level, closures and the degradation of outpatient health care (e.g., indefinite lengthening of waiting lists for operations and diagnostics), do not result in the kind of response that might be expected. People seek out private solutions, making use of contacts, recommendations, friends, etc., to get by, but the democratic cloak of the managers allows them to proceed with the dismantling of the social safety net (it would be real poetic license to call it by the Spanish government’s term “welfare state”), through legislation and arrangements that, once set in motion, are irreversible, if there is not a break with the inertia that has led to this situation, which would mean a radical movement so far is nowhere in sight.

Thus, a real impotence spreads, although the discomfort is just as real, but irrelevant, while the perception of social decay advances not only in macroeconomic indicators, but also in the daily life of the street; it is noticeable in immediate experience (friends, neighborhood) and by a diffuse solidarity which nonetheless has not (yet?) acquired a significant political dimension. Attempts to reopen clinics, for example, involving the complicity of medical personnel and of those who use them, are merely statements of protest, because they quickly come up against the impossibility of self-management.

But it is not only repression or fear that restricts mass action. One must keep in mind the still-existing leeway (family savings, charitable assistance, friends, etc.) that allows people to find urgent solutions to critical personal situations. Of course these possibilities are fading as social breakdown advances, but for now these mechanisms of resistance cannot be dismissed when attempting to understand why there are no relevant initiatives of mass action.

Moreover, at the political level, the election results in the Basque Country, with the victory of Amaiur (a coalition of abertzales, i.e., hardcore separatists) ahead of the PNV (Basque Nationalist Party) and the other parties, opens up a period of uncertainty and of anticipated instability, with immediate implications for the overall management of the state. European nationalism, and of course Basque nationalism along with it, have been adopting more and more administrative (and fiscal) features. We are not dealing here with ethnic, cultural or linguistic nationalism, but with one that is directly economic. The rich regions, in the current context of widespread contraction of the accumulation of capital, are trying to preserve their situation at the expense of solidarity with other Spanish regions. This administrative nationalism, which is attempting to renegotiate its contribution to the national budget, means that Basque nationalism, much more than its Catalan variant, will be a factor of political destabilization. Municipalities and autonomous regions are accumulating substantial debts, which has led the central government to set a ceiling for the deficit and has created new tensions. We recall that the autonomous regions and municipalities have resorted to uncontrolled deficits, as well as to EU funding, to guarantee governability, i.e., subsidized social peace, through Keynesian policies that offer public jobs and favor the formation of a clientelist base of support.

These policies of public initiative (or public-private collaboration) were not only job creation schemes to buy the loyalty of voters, but also and especially devices to transfer public funds to large public infrastructure and service companies, behind which stand the banks. This has led to the proliferation of airports and roads, train stations and high speed railroads without any purpose except the enrichment of business groups, industrialists and financiers, and project managers.

Meanwhile, pressure from international speculators is forcing the Spanish government to issue debt at historically unprecedented interest rates. The background of the Spanish problem, i.e., the specificity of the impact of global economic crisis, is not so much sovereign debt (around 65 percent of GDP) or the private debt of firms and households (which exceeds 100 percent of GDP), but is above all the fact that the Spanish economy is in a subordinate position in the transnational accumulation process, with substantial structural weaknesses (less so in the Basque Country) that make it difficult to provide a solution to the crisis without incurring social costs (immiseration) whose dimensions precisely call into question the possibility of an eventual economic recovery.

Even in the context of the relative social peace we are living in, and despite the transfer of private assets and savings to the economic sphere, offsetting the decline in social assistance (erosion of family assets to cope with the crisis and with unemployed children), the forecasts point to a recession in 2012. In addition, the announcement of a new step forward in labor reform, whose concrete measures the new president has not dared to make public while he seeks a consensus with employers, the unions and the media, is an omen of deepening crisis where the living conditions of people are concerned.

The new government’s proposals, as can be inferred from the election campaign, come down to reducing labor costs, liquidating previously won rights, reducing corporate taxes and corporate contributions to social security, etc., i.e., to a series of measures which had disastrous consequences, as was shown in Argentina at the beginning of this century.

Either way, the “outrage” expressed in the Spanish streets, deflated after the electoral ritual, is confronted with the limitations of the movement’s citizen-based abstractions (electoral reform, the affirmation of democracy, denouncing corruption, etc.) when confronted with the reality ( labor reform, social cuts) imposed by capital and its democratically elected administrators. Or, perhaps, indignation has completed its cycle and we are at the beginning of the emergence of a new type of mobilization.

  1. [1] Translator’s Note: The “United Left” Party, a regroupment from the old Spanish Communist Party, which normally gets about 8-10 percent of the vote nationally.
  2. [2] Badalona, for example, a city of 100,000 inhabitants on the outskirts of Barcelona, with a strong contingent of Spain’s immigrant population since the 1960s, and part of the red belt of Barcelona, has since last May had a mayor from the PP, whose campaign featured an openly xenophobic discourse directed against recent immigration (Chinese, Cashmiri, Romanian). It is an example of how the xenophobic right, like the LePenists in France, remains within the auspices of the PP. The CiU, counterpart of PP in Catalonia, their only difference being different nationalistic obsessions (Spanish for the PP and Catalan for the CiU), tries to dissimilate its xenophobia with all sorts of ambiguities, although its representatives periodically fall into line with the PP.
  3. [3] A report by the business association indicates an increase in the theft of food in supermarkets in the last year. Also noteworthy is that the same report acknowledged that, in many cases, employees and guards turn a blind eye to such “criminal” acts.
  4. [4] One anecdotal, but meaningful fact. On December 2, around 200 officials from the Modelo prison in Barcelona, members of the UGT and CCOO, blocked the access gate to the prison to protest wage cuts. Riot police responded with the same brutality normally reserved for squatters or the indignant. If the fissure increasingly opening on the social level is being extended even to such institutions, it can be supposed that governability is slipping out of the control of the managers of the capitalist order if they do not resort to other measures beyond the purely repressive.

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