All the Pain in Spain

EUROPE, 16 Apr 2012

Pepe Escobar – Al Jazeera

Millions refuse to lie down and see their lives smashed for the benefit of a few bankers, says Escobar.

The longing for rest and peace must itself
be thrust aside; it coincides with the acceptance
of iniquity. Those who weep for the happy periods
they encountered in history acknowledge what
they want: not the alleviation but the silencing
of misery.

–Albert Camus, The Rebel, 1951

Make no mistake; the future of the euro is being played in Spain. The euro may win – but at a price; millions of Spaniards as “collateral damage”.

It took less than 100 days in power for the right-wing Popular Party (PP) government led by Mariano Rajoy to face its first general strike, on March 29.

The strike was mostly called by minority unions; the major ones, the opportunistic and bureaucratic CCOO and UGT, have been in bed with the powers that be for years.

The strike was a response to Rajoy’s EU-imposed labour market reforms that, according to Antonio Carretero from the CGT union, are “a counter-reformation that erases with a single stroke many labour and union rights acquired by the working class in decades and generations”. That includes extremely harsh cuts in health, education and social services.

Predictably, the spin war was relentless. Madrid insisted “only” 800,000 workers took part in over 100 demonstrations nationally. According to unions, 900,000 people marched in Madrid, 800,000 in Barcelona and hundreds of thousands more in 111 cities, especially Valencia and in the Basque country (the unionist vanguard in Spain). In Zaragoza, a city of 700,000, at least 150,000 people may have been in the streets; it certainly looked like it by late afternoon.

The country virtually stopped – at a 77 per cent overall rate (much higher than the 18 per cent predicted by corporate media). In the manufacturing sector, it was 80 per cent; in mining and construction, a whopping 97 per cent. Only 30 per cent of the national transportation system was active. And even though scores of cities kept the streetlights on all day – or used other tricks to bump up the numbers – consumption of electricity in Catalunya, for instance, fell by 24 per cent.

Austerity ergo sum

The catalogue of Spain’s “austerity” is the usual catalogue of neoliberalism in trouble. A previous, nominally socialist and now an ultra-conservative government have furiously decimated unemployment, retirement and severance benefits; turned virtually all labour contracts into precariousness hell; steeply raised fees for education and transportation; vastly militarised the police; and spent fortunes to bail out banks.

Spain inevitably follows the post-modernist mantra that democracy controls protest and rebellion by managing it – sort of. That’s where the cooption of those unions, CCOO and UGT, fits in; as they had already tamed rebellion in exchange for funds from Madrid, they called the strike virtually at the last minute.

Corporate media – and Spain is a small market run by monopolies – also fit in with the usual script. There will be violence by “anarchists”. The strike will be bad for tourists. Everyone has the right to work. No one will show up for this strike.

In Zaragoza, repression was harsher in the dead of the night and in suburbs, with no cameras watching. Morning pickets concentrated on banks across its mini Wall Street, driven by Brazilian-style samba drums and demonstrators dressed up as bankers. That sparked an internal debate among the protesters; with many shouting that this was not a party, in the end the samba drums were sent packing.

By late afternoon, during the massive main demonstration that crisscrossed the city centre, everyone and his neighbour seemed to be there – immigrants, whole middle-class families, the unemployed, the precariously employed, anarchists, socialists, progressives, and every indignado in town.

In powerhouse Barcelona, there were riots but mainly sparked by people’s rage against infiltrated cops [SP], some of them chased down and beaten up.

Significantly, more people in Barcelona took part in a spontaneous protest in landmark Catalunya square than in the official union protest. In Barcelona, and to some extent in Zaragoza as well, it was clear that the strike was not a union thing, but a collective effort of a loose network; neighbourhood assemblies; workers’ assemblies; smaller anti-authoritarian unions like the CNT and CGT; groups that sprang up out of the indignados movement – the precursor of Occupy Wall Street.

In Zaragoza and Barcelona, there were flyers, posters and stickers all over town. Neighbourhood assemblies and average workers went door to door – and shop to shop – to talk about the strike; and crucially, there was as much criticism of the major unions as criticism of the government.

The Harpies are coming to get you

The destruction of Greece may eventually be seen as an Aristophanes comedy compared to the Sophocles tragedy in store for Spain. Spain is the fourth largest economy in the eurozone. If it goes down, the EU goes down.

The infernal mechanism is the same; more “austerity” is followed by steeper Wall Street-engineered interests rates on Spain’s debt so every single euro in budget cutting is diverted to higher interest payments – and then some.

Of course Madrid will never have the guts to tell Spaniards that this budget-cut hysteria has less than zero chances of improving their lives. For 2012, Madrid has budgeted a whopping 29 billion euros for interest payments alone; that’s 30 per cent more than in 2011. On top of it Rajoy offered an “amnesty” for major tax cheaters – thus encouraging future tax cheating.

And this in a country with a staggering 6 million unemployed. The official unemployment rate is 24 per cent – higher than Greece and the highest in Europe. In reality it’s more like 30 per cent. Among young people, it’s between 45 per cent and 50 per cent. An extra 600,000 Spaniards will definitely lose their jobs in 2012.

The US has a budget deficit of 10 per cent of GDP. Its colossal $4 trillion-plus national debt is already 100 per cent of GDP. Compare it with Spain a few points above the EU’s debt ceiling of 3 per cent of GDP, and a national debt of 79.8 per cent of GDP. Of course, if you are Washington/Wall Street you can get away with anything.

The rebel Spanish middle and working classes are feeling in their own skin how European governments bend over backwards to allow the economic rape of their own countries. Spain is being subjected to the tightest fiscal squeeze ever imposed on a European economy.

Their budget deficit must fall from 8.5 per cent of GDP to 4.5 per cent this year, and 3 per cent in two years. Rajoy, who is not suicidal, negotiated with the “Merkozy” entity (Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy) and got 5.3 per cent for 2012. The Masters of the Universe way to reach the target is for businesses to fire at will and slash severance pay – the main reasons that led to the March 29 general strike.

Spain is hostage to the Three Harpies – the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Commission and the IMF. The mainly Brussels/Berlin axis of austerity fanatics has made it sure after the general strike that the “reforms” are untouchable.

Make no mistake; these European Masters of the Universe hate democracy and protest like the plague. For them, Spaniards on strike are the equivalent of terrorists. The usual, shady, anonymous sources of the European banking lobby in Frankfurt will keep stressing, not so subtly, that national sovereignty is garbage; what matters is their diktat.

So the concept of “democracy”, in Europe, is now a travesty; what matters is to install bankers as heads of state – as in Rome and Athens; impose a reactionary social and labour counter-revolution; and intervene at will to service the Lord, also known as “the market”.

And it gets worse; it won’t work. As in Western corporate media spinning the same scratchy CD – “the new austerity plan hasn’t won investors’ confidence”.

Now start an ola

My gracious hosts in Zaragoza – university professors and researchers, students, activists, NGO leaders – never ceased to point out Spain’s forty years of Franco’s fascism and thirty years of democratic façade to explain some of the current malaise.

Yet now the going gets much tougher. Greece 2010 is Spain 2012. A Greek tragedy is already visible – with widespread social degradation and no future for the young (scores are leaving to South America, immigration in reverse).

But even if Spain is now a barely disguised protectorate, still elections, strikes and a powerful concept of citizenship are kept alive. There’s serious talk of organising a European general strike. After all, the indignados started their movement in Spain, in May 2011 – the inspiration for Occupy Wall Street, a new, self-organised push for a global solidarity culture, way beyond the old, tired institutions of the organised Left, and the washed-up categories of Left and Right, East and West, North and South.

The future may be grim, but a global ola of rebellion may still be at hand. As I left Barcelona’s airport back to Asia I couldn’t help erase the verse of a classic Echo and the Bunnymen song ringing in my head: “See you in the barricades, babe.”


Pepe Escobar is the roving correspondent for Asia Times. His latest book is Obama Does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

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