Eight ways to read the Spanish Crisis (part 2)

March 15, 2013
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Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo leading an occupation of a farm estate near Osuna, Andalusia, Spain. Photo AFP, Cristina Quicler.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series. For the first part, click here: English version; Spanish version.

(Versión en castellano.) The economic crisis in Spain, which many thought short-lived, appears to have no end in sight. In a desperate attempt to understand what has happened and what the near future may bring, almost everyone has adopted a narrative that helps explain the situation and charts some way forward. In my first article I considered at narratives that have been losing popularity since the beginning of the crisis. In what follows I take a look at stories that have emerged, or gaining strength, since then. Much like the narratives in decline, these new stories tend to identify one or more guilty parties, propose a particular reading of Spanish history, and end up proposing a prescription for “pulling ourselves out of the crisis” and/or to move toward a better society. Many of these newer narratives are closely interrelated. They are also very much in flux; new elements and nuances emerge constantly. (Just like in my first text, I will italicize what I consider to be the narratives’ key terms and concepts.)

Narrative 5: “The problem is the political class”

This account is more prevalent in Spain now than it has ever been before, particularly in the wake of the latest corruption scandals. It presents the picture of a political caste that is under-qualified, fully dependent on the party system, and marked by a lack of moral integrity. The situation has inspired the return of nineteenth-century notions such as caciquismo (the corrupt rule by local bosses) and turnismo (the system whereby two major parties agree to take turns in power through rigged elections). Yet the most commonly heard terms today are political class or, more precisely, extractive elite.

A montage parodying Prime Minister Rajoy's penchant for screen-mediated press conferences.

This notion emerges in different levels of complexity. The simplest possible version–“They are all thiefs and liars” or “the political parties are nothing more than employment agencies”–is driven home by the mass media but also confirmed through people’s personal experiences with nepotism and the inefficiency of local governments. Other positions, which appear on both sides of the political spectrum, argue that the root of the problem lies in the hierarchical and closed structure of Spain’s major political parties, in an electoral system that favors two-party rule, in the weakness of the Madrid-based parties in the face of the different nationalisms (e.g., in Basque Country, Catalonia, and Galicia), or in the disconnect between elected officials and their voters. In recent months this distance has emerged more clearly in the ruling party’s handling of press conferences (Prime Minister Rajoy gives very few of them, won’t allow for questions, and sometimes even presents himself through a television screen) and attempts to thwart any form of debate in Parliament. Politicians, this narrative argues, just seek to line their pockets, to live off of doing nothing. This account is so powerful that it sometimes gives rise to more or less mean-spirited mistakes or exaggerations. Some politicians respond to the attacks by underscoring that “we are not all the same.” Others invoke data about the widespread culture of fiscal fraud to argue that corruption is endemic in Spanish culture, and not limited to its political classes.

In response to this situation, sectors of civil society have decided to put on the pressure by calling out the guilty and attempting to shame them in public. This explains the popularity of the Argentine term escrache (which can involve protests in front the houses of the powerful), particularly in the wake of the PP’s initial refusal (later withdrawn) to admit the People’s Legislative Initiative (Iniciativa Legislativa Popular, ILP) presented by the Platform of People Affected by Foreclosures (PAH) in an attempt to resolve the urgent social and economic problem of massive foreclosures.

In a parallel development, “anti-political” parties have seen their ranks grow exponentially. These parties generally adopt some of the most popular ideas from the majority parties while underscoring the need to reduce the number of politicians, the length of their time in office, or their salaries. The largest of these parties, currently very much on the rise, is UPyD, which is also markedly centralist (that is, critical of the semi-federal arrangement put in place in the late 1970s).

Narrative 6 (a): “The problem is the boss.”

This account really has two versions, both of which blame large corporations for the crisis. The first version derives from a Marxist reading of history, centered around the notion of class struggle. In this narrative, the owners of the means of production—regardless of the size or kind of the enterprise—are by definition exploitative because they extract surplus value from their workers’ labor, in the process alienating them from the fruit of their sweat and hands. This has been the dominant framework to understand  the recent confrontations between landless laborers (or day laborers, jornaleros) and large landowners. Proposals to solve the problem of structural exploitation include the creation of a strong public sector and laws to protect workers from their bosses. Within this account, these goals can be reached through labor parties or workers’ parties that gain power through elections or a revolution, or by working through the unions, whose most powerful weapon is the strike. Another alternative, less common in the second half of the twentieth century but on the rise since the crisis, is cooperative ownership and management of production. On the rise, too, are land occupations.

The Marx-inspired version of the narrative has gained force in the wake of the draconian labor reforms implemented by the PSOE and PP and the general strikes organized in response. At the same time, the image of the PSOE as a labor or workers’ party has continued to erode. Those disenchanted with the PSOE have been joining the growing ranks of Izquierda Unida (the United Left).

Narrative 6 (b): “The problem is the multinationals.”

The second version of this account does not consider all corporations equally bad. Rather, it distinguishes between small, autonomous businesses on the one hand, and large, multi- or transnational corporations on the other. In this version, the rise of globalization has moved capitalism into a new, more complex phase in which a handful of corporate conglomerates control both economic and political power. The small businesses themselves turn into victims of exploitation, through subcontracts or unfair competition from the conglomerates. In this version, even the large landowners can appear as victims of exploitation at the hands of the transnational food distributors.

Multinational conglomerates and the brands they control.

Transnational corporations come to figure as autonomous entities that work against the public good and are barely subject to regulation of any kind. Not only do they exploit their labor force; their pursuit of maximum profit also destroys  the environment,  while thwarting research and development of more advanced products that may compete with theirs (such as electric cars or more effective drugs), and propagating a consumerist ideology that turns ruthlessly commercializes the common good, shared ideals, and individual citizens. The economic crisis is understood as an attempt by these corporations to take advantage of the social state of shock to expand their markets as they work with politicians to further privatize public services such as healthcare.

In this version, the target of critique and action shifts. It is no longer primarily the corporate leadership, nor the political elites that are singled out. Politicians are still criticized, but they are mistrusted: they are easilty bought, thanks in part to the system of revolving doors (between government positions and corporate boards, for instance). Traditional strikes have lost much of their punch in a service economy whose industrial workers are either not organized in unions or geographically dispersed due to outsourcing. The focus of political action shifts instead toward the power of consumers and civil society, and initiatives like responsible consumption, fair trade, consumer strikes, or campaigns to discredit multinational brands.

Narrative 7: “The problem is Madrid.”

Catalans take to the street to demand independence from Spain.

This account construes the history of the Spanish State as a long series of aggressions directed by the center at the periphery. The center is Madrid. In most cases, the city’s name signals the seat of the central, oppressive government—but sometimes its inhabitants are included, too. What regions exactly make up the periphery that is victimized by the oppressive center is not always clear. For some, they are primarily the so-called historical nationalities (Galicia, the Basque Country, Aragón, the Community of Valencia, and Andalusia); sometimes more regions are included (Asturias, Navarra) and sometimes fewer. Regardless, the basic notion is that the periphery has suffered with regard to the autonomy of its self-government, its access to economic resources, or its cultural manifestations, the most important of which is its own language.

The economic crisis could be solved— this account maintains—if only the electorate of each region had the freedom to decide for itself. For some, this means a push for increased self-government; for others, though only in a couple of regions, it means a fight for independence. Still, the arguments wielded in favor of independence are of many different kinds. Some, driven by nationalist sentiment, seek to distinguish their collective identity from that of the stereotypical Spain of flamenco and bullfights (often associated with the Franco regime), although this does not always imply a sense of cultural superiority. Others see independence primarily as a way to boost the power of regional politicians and businesses over those in Spain (i.e., the rest of the country). For yet others, independence is an important tool for strengthening democracy and popular sovereignty at the local level. In all three cases, Madrid is seen as the source of the problem and not as part of any solution.

Narrative 8: “The problem is the system.”

The “system” in this account is understood to be both the political and the economic system. For many, changing the political structures is a first step toward changing those of the economy. This is why the economic crisis has given new force to long-standing political demands. One of the basic tenets of this narrative is that Spain’s current democracy is not a real democracy, if by democracy we understand a government through which the people exercise their sovereignty. Instead, the democratic process has been hijacked by the markets and the troika (The Central European Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund), thanks to the complacency of a governing class kept in power through an outdated political system. Historical analysis tends to take a backseat in this narrative, which focuses on the present—although its proponents sometimes allude to the defects and unsettled accounts of the transition to democracy, which were left unaddressed  in subsequent decades. Critiques of this kind, which target the very origins of Spain’s current political system, inevitably spark generational conflicts.

The alternatives to the current political system vary. They range from proposals for electoral reform that would make Spain’s elections more proportional, to proposals promoting participatory democracy: not only classic models such as referendums and People’s Legislative Initiatives, but dozens of new ideas that include participatory budgeting, sortition chambers, and, especially, the democratic potential of the internet. Some want to give a greater role to assemblies, which began on a testimonial basis but have proliferated across neighborhoods and towns in Spain ever since 15-M (the protest movement born around the elections of May 15, 2011). The country has also seen the emergence of assembly-based parties.

"Crisis? Swindle!"

In this account, the so-called “economic crisis” is construed as a massive swindle, a gigantic transfer of wealth from the 99% to a tiny elite of politicians, bankers, and speculators. This one percent takes advantage of the widespread fear and the fact that a large section of the population is in a state of shock following the rapid loss of rights and opportunities, and the erosion of the communal and social fabric.

It is clear that much of the economic critique in this narrative overlaps with that of narrative 6. Yet the spread of social protest and indignation has drawn the general public’s attention to phenomena that it did not concern itself with before: the abuse at the hands of oligopolies, the assault on small businesses,  deindustrialization, the lack of consumer protection, planned obsolescence, the environmental unsustainability of economic growth, and so forth. Problems, in other words, that reveal the contradictions and defects of the system.

Responses to the crisis have been practical—including economic alternatives such as social currencies, time banks, bartering, local consumption, communal gardening, etc.—but have also generated public debates at the level of ideas and theoretical systems. In both cases, the response has ranged from more moderate attempts to recover the ideas of John Maynard Keynes to more radical breaks with existing distinctions between the public and the private, in search of alternatives that strengthen notions of the commons and privilege cooperation over competition, or value over price. One thing they all share is their enemy: neoliberalism.

Jorge Gaupp holds a BA in Political Science from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid (UCM), an MA in International Development from the Instituto Complutense de Estudios Internacionales (ICEI) y an MA in Secondary Education from the UCM. He currently works at Oberlin College, OH.

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