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Darío Corbeira, "Hermeneutic Antidisturbios: 25S, the Anti-Eviction Movement and the 14 November General Strike in Context "

Hermeneutic Antidisturbios: 25S, the Anti-Eviction Movement and the 14 November General Strike in Context
Darío Corbeira

Last autumn, a new and awful form of protest came to Spain. A string of homeowners on the verge of eviction by court orders and the riot police (antidisturbios) committed suicide by leaping from the windows of their mortgaged houses. The growing anti-eviction movement has altered the dynamic of social protest in Spain, broadening and deepening the opposition to austerity already manifested in the 15M and 25S movements. In the general strike of 14 November, called for by the largest unions, ‘everyone except the Partido Popular and Basque nationalist unions’ poured into the streets. Darío Corbeira, editor of Brumaria, sends the following reflection on the context of the unfolding social struggle.

On 25 September, several thousand citizens responded to an anonymous call to surround Madrid’s Congress of Deputies: ‘Surround the Congress, remain there indefinitely. Desert and break with the current regime, demand the dissolution of the entire government, courts and heads of state, and abolition of the existing Constitution. Begin constituting a new system of political, economic and social organization.’ The gathering citizens aimed to convey to the parliamentarians their deep opposition to the austerity program of Mariano Rajoy Brey’s governing Partido Popular (PP) and to the interventions of the European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund and European Union. Framing it was a radical critique of the parliamentarism that came out of the so so-called Transition to democracy. As made clear in their manifestos, proclamations and chants, the protesters saw that form of democracy as utterly bankrupt. What began that day has become known as the 25S movement, distinct from but clearly related to its predecessor 15M and the other movements that have emerged from the neighbourhoods, universities, hospitals, cultural centers, and manufacturing areas. All were questioning the perverse effects of neoliberal policies designed by financial capitalism and applied to the letter by the governing authorities. Those effects have shaken the fragile ‘welfare state’ slowly built up since Franco’s death and have undermined all it has achieved by way of diminishing the gaping social and economic disparities that persist in Spain despite the governments of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party/PSOE).

The peaceful and festive demonstration of 25S, which only pretended to circle the public building and deliver a text addressed to the deputies, was blocked from entering nearby areas of Congress by security fencing and a force of more than 2000 riot police – the antidisturbios. A small attempt to force the fences was enough for the riot cops to unleash a repressive violence not seen in Spain since the last gasps of Franco’s dictatorship. It is worth noting that the Interior Minister, responsible for the State’s security forces, is a prominent member of Opus Dei. Days before the call, both the General Secretary of the PP and the Government Delegate in Madrid were warming up by condemning the foreseeable protestors as ‘violent and anti-system’. This formula, the insult of choice of the authorities and the more reactionary media, now acquires a new and strong semantic value. The demonstration on 25 September ended with more than a hundred protesters wounded or arrested. The latter were packed off to the National Court, a tribunal specifically convened to try crimes of terrorism. This court, however, decreed their release, and the case against them was filed by a writ in which the judge, in an unprecedented act, adopted the words of those who had convened the demonstration: ‘the agreed upon decay of the so-called political class.’ What today is a known secret had burst into view: holding diverging views about the causes and proper administration of the economic crisis of 2008, the executive and the judicial powers are heading for a confrontation. Police brutality and the judicial response gave wings to the protesters, who now began to call themselves the 25S movement.

From that point on, in the media and in the spheres of power and its opposition, a debate was generated that was as false as it was unproductive: the debate on ‘violence’- a violence that among the demonstrators was clearly non-existing. Without running away from court dates and futile debates, the activists of 25S continued to convoke new demonstrations to circle Congress, also peaceful, albeit with thinning numbers. By this it gave practical proofs that the crux of the protest and disobedience was not violence, but the subsidiary role that politicians accepted for managing a crisis whose authors were sleeping soundly in the clouds of the financial firmament. The protesters of 25S, as those of 15M had done a year before, were provoking a discussion about the limits of Spain’s capitalist-parliamentarian democracy – about its obsolescence as an instrument for representation. At the same time, demands for new forms of exercising citizenship were put forward, aiming for greater participation in decision-making.

In Spain, as elsewhere, the population had experienced growing rates of unemployment, poverty and precarious employment, in conjunction with cutbacks and the privatization of public services. While public money counted in astronomical figures is being injected into bankrupt banks, the government promulgates a nineteenth-century labour reform, devastates the job security of civil servants and arranges fiscal amnesty for all those who have looted the public treasury. In the middle of it all, the desahucios (foreclosures) erupt, making visible the exemplary struggle of anonymous citizens, supported by a Left recomposing itself outside the countours of Social Democracy. The desahucio is a perversely materialistic legal concept through which citizens are expelled from their houses when they cannot make scheduled payments on the loans they acquired in buying their first longed-for home during the property boom.

From Parliamentary Democracy to Godfathers and Galactic Entrepreneurs
To understand how it has come to this, we must go back to the beginning of the two presidencies of José María Aznar (1996-2000 and 2000-2004), as well as the two of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, (2004-2008 and 2008-2011). In the expansive cycle spanning the period from 1996 to 2007, the Spanish economy registered an average annual GDP growth rate of 3.5%, driven mainly by the construction sector. During these years, more housing was built in Spain than in Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom put together. And there was in addition an exponential growth in works of infrastructure and public buildings. All this development took place under the shelter of low interest loans subsidized by the European Union, in conjunction with the neoliberal fiscal policies pursued by the parties in the Spanish government (the PP and the PSOE), and with the Euro as exchange currency. José María Aznar was the architect of the transformation of the PP, a drifting party in the beginning of the 1990s, into to what it is today: the largest political party in Europe. An explosive mix of residual franquismo, Chicago/Harvard neoliberalism and Italian Cosa Nostra, the PP operates an extensive clientelist network of ‘militants’ who occupy, thanks to the method of direct appointment, prominent places and positions in Central, Autonomous and Local administrations. All of this endows the party’s leadership and propaganda apparatus with an hegemonizing power to impose its reactionary and hyper-liberal discourse on political life.

In the expanding cycle of 1996-2007, fiscal and monetary policies were applied in accordance with the so called ‘property boom’. Public entities, banks, construction companies large and small, families and private individuals all entered into a perverse game in which housing prices rose steadily and home ownership produced wealth and guaranties for the future. By 2006, the paradoxical character of this bubble had become visible: more than 2.5 million houses, excessively priced and unsold, sat empty, while at the same time millions of young people, professionals and families were priced out of access to even a small-sized first home. Public housing initiatives were merely nominal, and the big construction companies, supported by indulgent building codes and a continuous flow of cheap money, had a free hand to inflate a rampant market. Meanwhile, taxes on millions of real estate transactions provided the Local municipalities and Autonomous and Central administrations with the economic resources to alleviate public deficits, restructure budgets and increase social expenditures. To supply the vast labour needs of the brick and concrete industries, now growing at an accelerated rate, a cheap low-skilled workforce was needed. And so Spain, which until the middle of the 1970s was still exporting workers to Switzerland, the UK, Germany, Netherlands and Holland, now became host to immigrant labourers from Latin America, North Africa and Eastern Europe. The construction sector, whose motto was ‘more’ – more growth, more money, more public and private works - kept going like this until it ventured into the financial markets, into telecommunications and new technologies, into the oil sector, and into the realm of sports, above all football.

As a tragic anecdote, it is worth recalling that José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, while still in office, declared that midway through his first presidency, Florentino Pérez (a major construction tycoon and at the time president of Real Madrid C.F.) came to see him at the Palacio de Moncloa and told him: ‘Either you make the Emigration Law more flexible or I’ll go directly to the boats to hire Blacks.’ This disclosure, uttered by Zapatero with his characteristic idiot smile, reveals both the illegal labour practices of an unscrupulous builder and the whole poignant tragedy of the thousand of Sub-Saharans who, seeking places in this overexploited labour market, drowned in the Straits of Gibraltar while trying to reach the Spanish coast.

That Florentino Pérez was also president Real Madrid C.F. is no trivial factoid. It is crucial for understanding this historical period, its suprainstitutional latticework and modes of interaction between economic power and the State – in short, the whole process that led from parliamentary democracy to financial oligarchy. For the third issue of Brumaria (2003), one of the most prominent architects of the PSOE offered this commentary on the already disproportionate property bubble: ‘A central laboratory for decisions was missing, a think tank of neo-conservative thought, and they found it: the box of Real Madrid, the urban cathedral for the new economic and political power, the transversal cockpit of the new order. There they sit together: the politicians (those who let themselves, which are many), the major entrepreneurs of the buddies capitalism that the PP has provided, the King if needed. And there, the politicians of PRISA rub shoulders with recycled unionists, while politicized journalists and galactic businessmen [the Real Madrid football team is called ‘the White Galaxy’ by its fans] cheer the super-transfers that indicate that the network is prospering. In that dammed box, between scores, building floors are reclassified, public works are awarded, companies are sold and decisions are made concerning which candidate from which party is more convenient for the team of the football fans.’

‘The Madrid administrations have gone mute about what makes the discourse public and compensatory in matters of the common, and in that box there is no talk about Madrid (what belongs to all) but of business in Madrid. To them, the city is a cow that needs to be milked and the greatest effort in imagination they are willing to make, consists in packing the cow with more tits than the poor animal naturally has. It is about having enough tits for all the friends of the galaxy. Goal!!’

In that football box, in fact, the sacrosanct alliance was made between financial capital, political power, monarchy and all kinds of monied upstarts. As I write this text in early December 2012, the media are spitting out non-stop the news of the arrest, by order of the National Court, of Gerardo Díaz Ferrán, president of the Spanish Confederation of Financial Organizations(CEOE) from 2007 to 2010. He is accused, among other crimes, of money laundering and concealment of assets following the bankruptcy of his business empire in 2010. Díaz Ferrán was a friend of top politicians in the PP and PSOE, and an overly qualified representative of the predation-and-ruin entrepreneurship that led the growth boom of new-millennium Spain. To him we owe the famous formula, addressed to the unions, for solving the crisis: ‘You have to work more and charge less.’ Some argue that capitalism does not know how to solve the current systemic crisis. But one wonders if this repulsive formula of Díaz Ferrán is not proof that it intends to resolve this crisis as it has all the others before it. The Sunday before his arrest, Díaz Ferrán went to Madrid’s Royal Theater to attend a production of Verdi’s Macbeth. There he met Alberto Ruiz Gallardón, current Minister of Justice (The Godfather, Part IV). The now-incarcerated businessman certainly took note of the dying Macbeth’s final aria in Act IV: ‘Bad for me that I trusted the prophecies of hell.’ Remembering the final sequences of The Godfather, Part III, on the stairs of Palermo’s Opera House, where Michael Corleone’s and Don Altobello’s hitmen resolve their differences with the dialectics of weaponry while Pietro Mascagni’s Cavelleria Rustica plays in the background, one cannot help imagining a group of radicalized militants splintered from the movements, gathering armed and hooded outside Madrid’s Opera to deliver their political message to the powerful thieves who are afflicted by Verdi while they plunge into ruin the Kingdom of Spain.

Money, Death and Desahucio, or The Right to Housing Negated
All through the boom years, works were undertaken on a pharaonic scale: airports were built, high speed trains, universities, museums and contemporary art centres, all drawing on the cheap money dictated by the European Central Bank. In 2008 the sub-prime mortgage crisis erupted and began to spread, exposing the volatility and fragility of social and economic policies steered by hegemonic financial capitalism. Now dragged into the light of day: the criminal activity of its executives and the genuflections before it of the media and the executive, legislative and judicial powers of the Western democracies.

In Spain, the social effects of the crisis continue to be lethal: 9000 new unemployed every day, one in two young people unable to find a job, the steady rise of public and private debt, the technical bankruptcy of most of the financial institutions, negative economic growth, the systematic dismantling of an already weakened welfare state, the widening of income disparities, and, most dramatic of all, the resurgence of a poverty and misery absent since the late 1950s.

In Spain the narratives (and the portraits) of financial economy, politics and culture coincide; they fade and reappear in the time- and space-unities of the present, tracing the ideological substratum of late neoliberalism. The appearance, subsidence and hibernation of the 15M movement, the eruption of 25S, and the proliferation of social forums and assemblies only confirm that the wretched of the earth have yet to find their Paradise. And what has the long boom to show for itself now: more than three million empty homes, new airports that have closed or that never became operational, high speed train lines shut down for lack of travellers, new university buildings empty and without students. And the museums and contemporary art centres (over 100 museum infrastructures built and launched during the same period)? Like ETA they refuse to die, not wanting to realize that the crisis of 2008 had been preceded, with regard to art and culture, by the exhaustion of the post-Franco model of cultural production. In the context of neoliberal privatization, art no longer fulfils its role as agent of metaphor construction, polltaker of reality, and interrogator of unjust and improvable conditions. Art, as system and institution, emerges now as an integral and collaborative part of the ideological apparatus of a State that administers as it can the disasters of a growth pursued heedless of cost.

In the devastating conjunction of forced judicial evictions, millions of empty houses and the unmet need for housing, all the corrupt and contradictory strands of the crisis and its preludes are woven together. The 1978 Constitution guarantees the right to housing in unequivocal terms: ‘The whole of the Spanish people have the right to enjoy fair and adequate housing. The public powers will promote the necessary conditions and will establish pertinent measures to enforce this right, by regulating the land use in accordance with the general interest to impede speculation. The community will participate in the capital appreciation generated by the urban action of public Entities.’ (Article 47)

However, the facts, including all the administrative measures and policies carried out since 1996, violate this article point by point, and ‘the public powers’ have done nothing legislatively or economically to guarantee the right enshrined in it. Consequently, millions in Spain have no access to fair and adequate housing. The successive building laws of the different Autonomous regions have turned all Spanish territory into ‘developable land’, with the exception of specially protected areas. Speculation has been actively encouraged. And of course, there has been no participation whatsoever of the community (what community?) in the capital gain that was generated during the bullish period – the diabolic relation between public administrations, banks, and construction and real estate firms has seen to that. A strict and disorderly speculative relation, in short, sponsored and promoted from the misted heights of the financial framework.

Already this autumn, more than ten people, behind in mortgage payments and facing forced eviction from their homes, have killed themselves. Money and death, hand in hand, are returning us to a tragic Spain that, naively, we thought we had overcome. Are money and death the same thing perhaps? Once more in our heads, that line from Godard’s great Film Socialisme is resounding: ‘Money was invented so that men cannot look each other in the eye.’ The poor wretches who are ending their lives when threatened with eviction by court orders are doing it in the most brutal, poignant and significant way: by throwing themselves from the windows of their own unpaid homes. Before a judge can expel them, they go out by themselves, out of their homes and their lives. Each time he gets drunk, which is quite often, an art critic friend has been declaring, ‘Since the death of Stalin, the working class gets disrespected.’ Years later Alain Badiou tells us, ‘If I can admit Stalin for something, it is because the capitalists were afraid of him.’ Wouldn’t that, exactly, be part of it? That the agents of capitalism have lost their fear of the wretched of the earth?

But the evictions, in numbers that surpass half a million, haven’t appeared from one day to the next. It is at least demented that in a country like Spain, where the rate of private mortgage nonpayment is actually incredibly low, the evictions are being counted in hundreds of thousands and have become a political nucleus of action and reaction that has ended up drawing in all segments of the population. The origins of the desahucios (evictions) must be sought in the years of economic upturn, the era of the real estate boom, when economic, social, demographic and legal factors intersected, ultimately becoming an explosive mix of conflicting interests. The vast amount of housing built with cheap loans and lenient legislation had a referential basis in the Spanish collective imaginary: the dream of owning a home instead of renting it. The growth of mortgaged home ownership led to inflated housing prices and a market in speculation. The majority of the Spanish population, whether to buy a first home or for investment purposes, embarked on property purchases with the fast and cheap money put at their disposal. Some of these buyers were (and are) immigrants who came to Spain seeking their promised land. Already before 2007, the boom should have been seen for what it was - a balloon that could be punctured. Neither the Aznar nor the Zapataro government did anything to slow or deflate it, not even slightly. On the contrary, they encouraged the pumping of more air into it.

In 2007, the first winds of the coming storm appeared in the form of bankrupted financial institutions, millions of empty houses with no buyers in sight, high speed train lines carrying 16 commuters a day, closed airports, technically bankrupt universities and a population of unemployed nearing four million. The ones who first saw the magnitude of the crisis were the banking institutions that had, with cheap money, structured their business on credits and investments in the construction sector, with no hedges on the risks entailed. The results: families and individuals unable to meet monthly mortgage payments, indebted public and private corporations soon in the same predicament, and insolvent public administrations that had constantly to go to ‘the markets’ to raise the money to service their debts. In the media, the big subject of the past four years made its appearance: the ‘risk premium’, in the spotlight of an uncertain future. As the State stepped in to cover private sector debt – that of the banks, primarily – the public debt, initially eight times smaller than private debt, started its upward climb. Meanwhile the Kingdom of Spain (in the last days of Zapatero and during the first year of Mariano Rajoy’s government) obediently implemented the measures imposed by the Troika, namely, the wish list of borderless financial capitalism. This delegation of governance and sovereignty to Brussels showed how far Spain’s democracy had become an anachronistic ideological souvenir.

All of this should matter little to those citizens who, after losing their jobs and falling too far behind on their mortgage payments, stood facing a judicial and administrative magma that in the end would expel them from their houses: no home, no job, no future. The evictions triggered by mortgage default have been piling up with no distinction made between first homes and housing investments. In force is a Mortgage Act dating back to 1909 and partially reformed in 1946, when the relationship between banks and homeowners was radically different from that of today. In it, all possible guarantees are given to the credit institution for collecting their receivables on the value of the asset in dispute, in this case the home. It is astonishing but true, in fact a real infamy, that if a homeowner cannot pay three instalments of his mortgage, the interest on late payments becomes 29.5%, and applies to the whole of the pending credit, while for that same money the banks have paid a mere 1.5% interest to the European Central Bank. And these same banks, of course, are being rescued and bailed out by public money. In the past four years, banking institutions, supported by this unjust and outdated law, have turned mortgaged property into a surplus-generating commodity, and in this the justice administration has played a key role. The issue now is that the banks, in their drive for capital accumulation and their propensity to usury, have in the last two years begun to lose control over the politics of mortgages and evictions. The articulation of civil solidarity, the 15M movement and the judge’s strike is confronting financial power and the government of the Kingdom of Spain with a new message and demand: evictions are not a Parcheesi game, and the interests of the most vulnerable must be safeguarded. Grounded in the remains of neighbourhood associations and mildly supported by the Izquierda Unida (United Left, IU), civil solidarity found a new impulse in the 15M movement. Militant actions against police and judicial measures began to proliferate.

Now, the protests and political actions of associations like ‘Stop Desahucios’ (Stop Evictions) and ‘Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca’ (Platform of Those Affected by Mortgage) are manifesting a popular power that exceeds by far the merely symptom-signalling discourse of the 15M movement or, more recently, 25S. As the movement against evictions soars, the government and its allied media respond with a smear campaign: they are ‘violent and anti-system’, they are from the extreme left, banks have a duty to collect. Until the matter explodes in one of the three chapels of the system itself: judicial power. The judiciary is of course a traditionally conservative institutional network – the most liberal judges estimate that one in three Spanish judges are members of Opus Dei. But faced with the avalanche of eviction cases, the judges are saying, in effect, ‘Stop, these foreclosures and evictions are turning us into the banks’ collection agency.’ In Valencia, País Vasco and Madrid, the judges are requesting the government to change the laws; threatening to freeze pending cases, they are even calling for a moratorium on evictions. What no one would have dared imagine is happening: the four professional associations of judges and the three associations of prosecutors are all in agreement that the dynamic of evictions must be stopped. Moreover, although for different reasons, they are questioning Minister of Justice Albert Ruiz Gallardón, that wrecker of Madrid, ultraliberal and opera amateur. Even if without fully intending to, those selflessly struggling against the evictions are proving to be anti-systemic insofar as they collide with a System whose supports are crumbling. Rousseau and Montesquieu go on holidays could be the title of the movie. Regarding the Rajoy government’s program of austerity and cutbacks, the Minister of Justice has stated ‘Sometimes the government must distribute pain.’ Were Foucault to resuscitate in this moment, he would kill himself. As one of the fellows at Brumaria puts it, ‘It’s as though we were being governed by the Marquis de Sade.’

Questions: Re Pacifism, General Strikes and the Working Class
The Internet, as undiscriminating and random as it is empowering, is full of information and videos about the evictions. Just type the words ‘desahucios’ and ‘antidisturbios’ into any search engine and you will soon be watching clips that constitute the narrative documents of the current social and economical situation in Spain. These documents can and must be interpreted in political terms. Hence, the title of this text: Hermeneutic antidisturbios. The political actors, institutions and subsidiary elements on the ground can all be specified. On the one side, the evicted families, neighbours, anonymous citizens, activists and militants who try to block the progress of the other side, the legal secretaries and experts, locksmiths and officials duly accompanied and protected by units of anti-riot police. Again and again, the story is replayed: action and reaction, peaceful protest answered with violence, screams, running, beatings, people dragged through doors, blows, punches, arrests. Repressive force lurching reflexively to defend public order and, of course, guarantee that each home-commodity returns to the bank.

In all these small unfortunate episodes, the excesses of institutional and police violence are unmistakable. Beyond the interpretation of the obvious, in the functions and character of this violence, the need now is to ask questions about, and perhaps to set some limits, at least theoretically, to the pronounced pacifism of the new movements (of 15M, 25S and others). Similar questions and limits can be posed about the tendencies to treat the assembly-form as a panacea, to discuss horizontality as a paradigm, and to advance anti-politics as new political formula. But all that exceeds the limits of these reflections.

In this context, the largest unions called in mid-October for a general strike against the government austerity program. In the event, on 14 November, the traditional Left party, the anti-parliamentary Left party, the minor unions, the new movements, social forums, everyone joined this call – everyone except the governing PP and the Basque nationalist unions. At a time when the schools, universities, and above all the health sector are in continuously mobilisation, one in every three active workers joined the general strike. Two in every three who did not were prevented from doing so by pressure from employers. And finally, very important, the strike was followed 100% in the large factories and industrial belts. The question that now poses itself is as obvious as it is relevant, and as clear as it is difficult, not to say impossible, to answer: Where is the working class – had it not died, or mutated, or disappeared or been displaced?

Or must we, compelled by the evidence of events, speak of the working class as referent, even if without knowing very well (or any more) what we are referring to? Maybe should we forget about its strictly historical meaning, or talk more calmly of proletariat? Or erase it from the counter-hegemonic lexicon, as the inheritors of the inheritors of Autonomia Operaia have been doing? Isn’t it possible that the Working Class after all is refusing to die, even as the Multitude – despite the forceps work and c-sections that Occupy has been performing on the embarrassing pregnancy of political practice – has still not quite yet been born? In a last-minute paraphrase of Jacques Lacan, we are beginning to need a new mode of organizing around this void.
Madrid, December 2012. // Posted to “Scurvy Tunes” by Jehan Alonzo, Monday December 24, 2012
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