Katharine Ainger

My writing

The Spanish crisis – from private sadness to public indignation


The indignado protests that flared up two years ago have become a Spanish state of mind


“You have taken everything from me!” These were the words of Inocencia Lucha, a 47-year-old Spanish woman who recently walked into her bank in Almassora, Valencia, poured petrol over her body and set herself on fire. She was indebted to the bank, living on €360 (£303) a month, and had just received an eviction notice. Behind Spain’s new unemployment figures, with 27% of the population now out of work, lie many such stories of desperation: in the last three months there have been 14 suicides where economic hardship was a factor reported in the media.

It is nearly two years since the indignados (“the outraged”) took over public squares around the country to protest against the economy being run for the benefits of the banks and not the people. Now, from the Mortgage Victims’ Platform (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca) to the Citizens’ Tide – (Marea Ciudadana) a coalition of 350 organisations, from health workers to trade unions and youth groups, that have mobilised hundreds of thousands against privatisation and austerity – more people are making the journey from private sadness to public indignation. There is a dawning realisation that recovery is not, as the politicians promised, just around the corner. All signs point to a “lost decade”; figures published last week show a large increase in the number of those out of work for more than two years, indicating a newly growing underclass. The unemployment rate is a staggering 40% for some regions in Andalucia and 57% for young people; one in five people live below the poverty line.

Spinoza says that sadness arises from a disconnection from our potençia – our power to act. It is no coincidence, then, that the powerful use the language of shame to keep us impotent: unemployment and debt are the fault of the individual alone, they say, and social sadness a private affair. This is no doubt why María Dolores de Cospedal, general secretary of the ruling Partido Popular (PP), recently boasted that its supporters “would go hungry” rather than fail to pay their mortgage. (This, it must be pointed out, is one way to weaken your voter base.)

Cospedal was targeting the Mortgage Victims’ Platform, which, through its campaigning, is transforming the isolating stigma of eviction into a groundswell of popular outrage that is fuelling practical action. Widespread mis-selling of mortgages contributed to the huge foreclosure crisis – running at 500 eviction orders a day – that is leaving families destitute and homeless. In just a few years the PAH has defended hundreds of homes from eviction and forced banks to renegotiate. Ada Colau, its spokesperson, is now a household name after calling the representative of the Spanish Banking Association “a criminal” during a hearing in Congress: “He is not an expert,” she said. “The representatives of the banks are the cause of the problem.”

The PAH trudged pavements for more than a year to gather 1.4m signatures, forcing the government to debate its proposal to change the draconian mortgage law where you can lose your house and still carry mortgage debt with you for life. Its other demands include a halt to evictions and social rent. This week the PP gutted the legislative proposal, despite a recent ruling by the Luxembourg court of justice that found Spanish mortgage laws contravened EU directives. Huge popular support for the PAH demands have put PP politicians on the offensive: politicians have described the group as “Nazis” and “terrorist sympathisers” because activists were doorstepping them in their homes to pressure them to pass the new law.

But it is the Spanish political class itself that is close to being discredited. Corruption scandals have implicated many key members and former colleagues of the government, including the prime minister, in taking undeclared money from the construction and property development industries responsible for the housing bubble. Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister, has become known as Mariano Plasma after giving press conferences via a TV screen so the media could not ask questions; during last Friday’s sombre economic announcements he made no appearance at all.

Given the lack of accountability in the political process, social movements are finding other, creative ways to give voice to those suffering from the crisis, including the young people who have been forced to look for work abroad. According to El Pais, 260,000 people aged between 16 and 30 left Spain last year. An indignado group, Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without Future), is collecting portraits of these young Spaniards, holding up signs detailing their stories of unemployment, exile and insecurity under the slogan: “We didn’t leave; they threw us out.”

Meanwhile Madrilonia, an indignado blog, declares the entire economic model broken; the authors are not waiting around for someone to fix it but building their own alternatives, from the Catalan network of co-operatives to the Casa Precaria in Madrid that advises people on how to go about creating their own jobs through worker co-operatives.

Couple social deprivation with a democratic process that most people feel alienated from and you have a recipe for social unrest. The only question is whether protest will successfully create meaningful forms of political participation and democratic control over economic decision-making. The Citizen’s Tide coalition, for example, is pushing for an audit of Spain’s national debt under the slogan “We don’t owe, we won’t pay”, and a referendum that will allow the population to register its opinion on austerity measures and privatisation. On 1 June it will join other social movements across southern Europe in street mobilisations against austerity and the Troika. Meanwhile, PAH members are increasingly turning to civil disobedience. The number of repossessed, bank-owned blocks of flats occupied by evicted families is growing.

Two years ago the indignados occupied the plazas of cities across Spain to protest against the crisis and demand a “real democracy”. Now, it seems, indignation is becoming a generalised condition.

The Spanish public won’t accept a financial coup d’etat

People give their reasons for protesting at Congress. orianomada.net ; http://www.enmedio.info/


Tuesday 25 September 2012 12.47 BST

Spain’s government is right to fear the public reaction to this new round of suffering mandated by the financial markets

The attempt by the Spanish “Occupy” movement, the indignados, to surround the Congress in Madrid has been compared by the secretary general of the ruling rightwing People’s party (PP) to an attempted coup.

Spanish democracy may indeed be in peril, but the danger is not in the streets. According to the Financial Times, the EU has been in secret talks with the economy minister Luis de Guindos to implement further austerity measures in advance of Spain requesting a full bailout. On Thursday the government will announce structural reforms and additional spending reductions, on top of the already huge cutbacks in health and education.

Pre-empting the bailout conditions means the government is able to retain the illusion of sovereignty.

In reality, Spain is on the brink of insolvency and under huge pressure to accept a rescue package. In return, Europe’s fourth largest economy will have to surrender sovereign and financial control to the IMF, the European commission, and the European Central Bank.

If talk of a financial coup d’etat sounds far-fetched, consider this statement from a recent Goldman Sachs report: “The more the Spanish administration indulges domestic political interests … the more explicit conditionality is likely to be demanded.” That’s banker-speak for, “We can do this the easy way, or the hard way.”

Meanwhile, in his heroic denials that a bailout is even necessary, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy increasingly resembles Saddam Hussein’s information minister continuing to insist the Americans were fleeing and committing suicide by the hundreds at the city’s gates, even as Baghdad was falling. Rajoy’s strategy of denial has form. In June he insisted Spanish banks would not need to be bailed out, two weeks before they were. This paternalistic, old-fashioned attempt to mould public opinion in the face of reality seems to indicate that, as many local commentators have observed, the Spanish administration is operating “as if it didn’t know the internet existed”.

Maintaining the illusion of sovereignty is important, because Rajoy does not want to go down in history as the author of Spain’s humiliation. There is an infamous picture of Indonesia’s President Suharto signing away economic control in 1998, as the head of the IMF looms over him, arms folded, smiling. Rajoy is desperate to avoid such a scene, all too aware that the governments of Greece, Portugal and Ireland fell after being forced to ask for bailouts that imposed further austerity on their populations.

The PP also wants to avoid asking for a rescue package before crucial elections in Galicia and the Basque country on 21 October. But if Rajoy further delays in asking for a rescue, he could suffer the same fate as Berlusconi, removed from power last year and replaced by a an ex-Goldman Sachs technocrat after a run-in with the European Central Bank.

The main problem for Rajoy is that what Goldman Sachs calls “indulging domestic political interests” the rest of us call “democracy”.

The government is right to fear the Spanish public’s reaction to this new round of suffering mandated by the financial markets. Already many protest signs say: “We can’t take any more.” With a 26% unemployment rate, 22% of Spanish households now live below the poverty line and a further 30% cannot “reach the end of the month” as they say here.

Hundreds of thousands of trade unions took to the streets of Madrid again last week. Loss of sovereignty is fuelling desire for Catalan independence with huge protests. Spanish citizen movements, like those in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy and France have demanded a debt audit, to see who really owes what to whom. Opposition politician Cayo Lara is asking for any bailout conditions to be debated in parliament, while a group called Judges for Democracy are looking at whether the virtual deconstruction of the social state could be unconstitutional. And the Spanish indignados are rattling the gates of Congress today against the betrayal of political parties and the undermining of popular democracy by the troika and the markets.

They are up against some of the most powerful forces on the planet. But they may take comfort from their counterparts in Portugal. Recently the Portuguese government announced it would raise social security payments from 11% to 18% in a country which cannot absorb more salary cuts. In response an unprecedented 600,000 people swarmed the gates of parliament and 40 city centres across the country, shouting “thieves!” and “cowards!” and demanding the government’s resignation. In response the Portuguese government has done a U-turn.

Goldman Sachs and their ilk will find Spaniards at least as fiery in defence of their sovereignty.

The return of the indignados



The recurring image of the indignados – the Spanish movement that protested against the “economic dictatorship of the markets” – is a kind of democratic Mexican wave of upraised, waving hands. Rippling in a crowd of thousands, the emotion that moves with it can be charged and palpable.

This contagious symbol of agreement, which was used to build consensus in public assemblies as the movement erupted last year to occupy plazas across Spain, seems to say that democracy is a living being; something you do, not something you have, and that people are here to reclaim it.

On the 12th May the waving hands of the indignados will return to the streets and plazas across Spain, and the Mexican wave will ripple outwards as part of a global day of action for the 99% in hundreds of cities worldwide, from Athens to Santiago.

The Spanish indignados grasped early on that the economic crisis was also a political crisis, and their struggle is for a fundamental renewal of democratic politics. While the markets can destroy livelihoods in milliseconds, the slow, halting meetings in plazas, and the smaller devolved local assemblies that the indignados created after they spread into neighbourhood after neighbourhood last year, embody forms of participatory democracy.

And in the wider context of loss of political legitimacy in Europe, where decisions are made by technocratic meetings filled with finance officials and austerity is being locked into the EU consitution with the new Fiscal Compact that delivers a body blow to the model of the European welfare state – not to mention the rising appeal of the far right from France to Hungary to the Netherlands – their commitment to genuine democracy is more important than ever.

One year on from their beginning, the mood of the indignados is more sombre and mature, with a real sense of the difficulty of the endeavour and the stakes involved. The movement will return to the streets in a three day encampment in Puerta del Sol in Madrid and in other squares across the country to make visible their numbers and their demands. These include “not one more euro to rescue the banks”, “quality education and health” and “dignified and guaranteed housing”.

This is in a context of palpable rising frustration and anger among the general population, where a bailout for Spain is looking ever more likely. Savage cuts mean those over 26 who have never paid into the social security system (that includes all illegal immigrants) are denied free health care, youth unemployment is over 50%, university fees doubled, and Bankia, a bank with assets that come to almost a third of the Spanish economy is about to receive €7 to €10 billion of public money. Many people who would not normally particpate in social action are reaching the limits of their tolerance, and the protests will be huge.

Meanwhile repression by the state is increasingly fierce. Police shooting rubber bullets during the recent general strike in Barcelona caused two people to lose eyes, and gave another a ruptured spleen. A proposed new law would make it “an offence to breach authority using mass active or passive resistance against security forces and to include as a crime of assault any threatening or intimidating behaviour”, and simply blockading traffic or using social media to organise protest could land you in jail for a minimum of two years.

Recent attempts to criminalise the movement have been met with the trending hashtag on Twitter, #HolaDictadura (“Hello Dictatorship”). The Transition from the 1970s out of Franco’s dictatorship means that many in the country retain the historical memory that democracy is something you have to defend, that it is something it is possible to lose. As social rights that took decades of struggle to win are being wiped away in moments, a group of activist grandparents who will be taking part in the 12 May protests invoke their long memories: “We refuse to lose the rights we once fought so hard for.”

The indignados are not just defending health, education and social security or resisting bank bailouts. They are demanding a popular audit of the national debt – in fact many of Spain’s problems stem from toxic private, not public debt – and their demand for a universal basic rent offers a real critique of current policy. Bailing out citizens rather than the banks might at least circulate money in the economy, in contrast to banks given public money who have not started lending.

Meanwhile, the Platform for those Affected by Mortage Default [http://afectadosporlahipoteca.wordpress.com/] has not just been resisting evictions with direct action and campaining for a moratorium on foreclosures, but as their spokesperson Ada Colau explains, demanding “a social audit that, following the example of Iceland, investigates who was responsible for the housing bubble and especially clarify who were the main beneficiaries and where all the money has gone”.

The indignados are not just looking at what has gone wrong, but beginning the attempts to construct concrete alternatives on the ground. They have published a Manual of Economic Disobedience, and are working on solutions that return economic control into local hands. Over 200 time banks exist across the country, with an estimated five new ones springing up a month, and local currencies, barter markets and networks of co-operatives are slowly developing.

Filling the gaps in the current system with these nascent alternatives not only offers practical ways for people to actually survive the crisis; they embody the fundamental idea of the indignados that democracy is something you do, not something you have. On the 12 May, they hope once more to make this idea globally contagious.

Spain’s general strike is also a day of action for the 99%

Activist grandparents call for a strike for the 99%.


27 Mar 2012
Polls say only 30% of the employed will take part on Friday, but it will also be what the Occupy movement calls an ‘invisible’ strike.

Spain is about to experience huge austerity cuts that may prove explosive. On Friday Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister, is set to announce what even he describes as a “very, very austere budget” to reduce the deficit. According to El País, the EU is demanding cuts larger than those of Greece, Ireland or Portugal: “There is no comparable adjustment in [our] economic history,” says the paper.

As a result of this and recent changes to labour laws, only four months after the new conservative government took power, Spain’s two largest unions have called for a general strike on the day before the budget announcement.

On top of €15bn cuts already announced in December, it is estimated Rajoy will cut about another €40bn. Many are expecting drastic cuts to health and education, not least the financial markets, who are waiting to see whether Rajoy will deliver what they require. This is on top of existing cuts to social spending, wage freezes for public employees, and privatisations, in a context where 40 home evictions a day are taking place across the country.

Response to this austerity has already been fierce. Hundreds of thousands protested across the country in February against labour law changes described by the unions as “the most regressive in the history of the [Spanish] democracy”. Thursday’s general strike will be much larger, seeing hundreds of planes grounded, public transport on a skeleton service, manufacturing at a virtual standstill, and even fresh bread from the bakeries in scant supply.

Polls suggest 30% of employed adults say they will participate, but this figure hides the true size of what the indignados movement is calling the “invisible” strike. With the highest unemployment rate in the developed world – 23% are out of work and 49.9% of those under 30 – there is a vast, invisible precariat of students, temp workers, the unpaid, immigrants and older people, looking for ways to meaningfully participate in and expand the political possibilities of the general strike.

This is the natural constituency of the indignados, who launched the global Occupy movement last summer with their city encampments and an emphasis on openness and direct democracy.

Many have been instrumental in continuing struggles around the Spanish state against what have already been drastic cuts. For instance, the “iaioflautas” are retirees and grandparents who occupy bank lobbies against bailouts, buses against price hikes, and health departments against cutbacks. Their name is a play on the “perroflautas“, Spanish slang for crusty, to show how impossible it is to stereotype those taking part in protests as typical activists.

Meanwhile in Valencia, one of the worst-hit regions, students and schoolchildren took part in recent protests against government cuts that had left their schools without adequate heating, many sitting in blankets in classrooms during the cold. The protests were brutally repressed. The sight of schoolkids being arrested by police galvanised a whole wave of solidarity protests around the country from outraged citizens.

These are only the most visible actions. All over the country small groups of determined everyday acts of resistance are taking place, like the villages where people blockade the highway weekly because their emergency clinic is closing down.

In this context, the general strike will be a kind of creative laboratory for the indignados who will be exploring new ways to exert social pressure. They hold the traditional unions at arm’s length but join the dance, calling for participation in what they describe as “a strike for the 99 per cent“. Many of the actions on the day will start with activists massing in defence of the homes of those about to be evicted for mortgage default; local indignado assemblies will hold popular lunches in the public squares to draw new people into the discussion.

Few are expecting the unions to win immediate concessions, for there are larger forces at work. The EU will be sending officials in April to make sure Rajoy doesn’t back pedal in the wake of the strike. Meanwhile the indignados are building for renewed mobilisations in May, taking part in global day of action for the Occupy movement, and for the struggles beyond. For, as Madrilonia, an indignado blog puts it, “a defensive strike is not enough”: ultimately this is a struggle for a new social contract for the 99%.

The Spanish indignados look beyond the election for their politics


A middle-aged man with a marker pen registers his disgust at the elections.

Proposals for voting strategies proliferated in the runup to Sunday’s general election in Spain. People wrote “ballot box” on drains and toilets; others suggested cutting out the middlemen and depositing votes directly into bank machines. This campaign of ballot spoiling wasn’t a subcultural anarchist prank, but a reflection of extraordinarily widespread popular disaffection. A typical sight during a pre-election protest was a respectable middle-aged man with a cigarette in one hand and a marker pen in the other going from municipal bin to municipal bin writing “Vote here” on the lids.”They don’t represent us” and “They are all the same” – the slogans of the indignados (the Spanish progenitors of the Occupy movement, who have mobilised hundreds of thousands across the country) – are now mainstream.

In contrast to the political parties, the indignados (the “outraged”) say: “They want your vote; we want your opinion.” They question the very legitimacy of electoral politics, seeing a hollowing out of representative democracy that the eurozone crisis is rendering critical. In their words, “the polls are in the safe custody of the European Central Bank”.

On election day the indignados got protest-voting trending on Twitter with a three-pronged strategy: to abstain, spoil one’s ballot, or attempt to break out of the bipartisan system by voting for a minority party. Rather than just staying at home, people actively registered disgust at the choices on offer, and the number of spoiled ballots on Sunday was double that of the last election in 2008 – numbering, with abstentions and blank votes, 11 million: more than voted for the rightwing victors, the Partido Popular.

Electoral disaffection reflects the harsh economic climate of Spain, with an unemployment rate of 46% for those under 30. Since the crisis voters have seen the socialist PSOE government renege on social policies and adopt the harsh austerity programmes of the right; as with New Labour, its traditional voter base turned away in disgust. It wasn’t so much a case of the PP winning a mandate on Sunday, but of the PSOE losing 4.5 million voters.

Meanwhile the rhetoric of the indignados – that democracy is being eroded by the markets – has received unwelcome validation as the world of finance pummels Spain. Just before the election, borrowing costs had jumped to a 14-year high. In the words of Carlos Delclós, a Barcelona indignado: “[The incoming prime minister] Mariano Rajoy’s task, at this point, is to try to guess what Merkel or the IMF want him to do before they tell him, so that his decisions look more like his own brilliance, and not the imposed will of dominant supranational institutions. The movement knows this, and I don’t think they’re going to be fooled into thinking that these elections change anything besides, perhaps, the scale of repression the government is willing to impose.”

Leónidas Martín, artist, activist and professor at the University of Barcelona echoes this concern: “The results are perverse, a reflection of the disaffection with democracy.” Martín perceives a real danger in this popular disaffection, however. He is “worried by the model of technocratic governments imposed by the markets as in Italy and Greece,” he says, because “the markets are incorporating the popular disaffection into their own interests. They say: ‘You don’t like politicians? You don’t like democracy? Very well, we understand you, and we want to help you. Just leave everything to us. We are experts.’”

In the short term, the reality of a rightwing government may well dampen the mood of the indignados. But it is also setting the stage for a massive new wave of protest that will strengthen the movement. By next spring those made unemployed by the crisis will start running out of unemployment benefits. This, combined with stringent new austerity measures and angry unions – whose hands had been tied by their connections to the socialist government, but can now come out fighting – will usher in what looks to be an enormous and potent wave of direct action.

The indignados are playing the long game. Inspiring Occupy tactics in other countries, they have been taking over empty bank-owned properties across the country from Galicia to Andalucia and Madrid to Barcelona. The general assemblies of the encampments they held in the summer are now devolved to local neighbourhoods; the occupied buildings are being used to hold assemblies through the winter months and house those evicted through mortgage defaults. “The answer to the crisis is not apathy or cynicism,” says Kike Tudela, a historian and activist. “We have four years of struggle and resistance ahead, and the question is: what will we have after four years? Do we want the socialists back with more neoliberal policies, or something new?”

The indignados are now exploring ideas that go far beyond party politics or even changing electoral law, such as participatory budgets, referendums, election recalls and other forms of citizen-initiated legalisation. “It’s a debate we have to have within the movement, but perhaps we can create new political forms from below. We are interested in Latin American models,” Tudela says, referring to governments that have resisted the onslaught of neoliberalism in tandem with social movements that hold them to their promises.

This new form of politics that creates effective pathways between social movements and government is vastly ambitious. But as the indignados say: “We are going slowly, because we are going far.”

Occupy protests: a movement taking root

General assembly at occupied building in Spain by Enrique Flores


The Occupy movement, from Madrid to Wall Street to London, asks: “Why are the bankers in charge when nobody voted for them?” Like its predecessors in the anti-globalisation movement, it is struggling with the thorny question – how do you create economic democracy in an era of global financialisation?

The anti-globalisation movement‘s answer was blockades at economic summits and global finance centres. Occupiers are proposing the direct democracy of general assemblies – consensus-based meetings of active listening and proposal in which anyone can speak – against the tyranny of the financial markets which, having crashed the economy, now demand fealty in the form of austerity, privatisations and bailouts.

But while global networks can be extraordinarily powerful at mobilising these kinds of movements, they can be swept away as quickly as they are created. From Paris 1968 to Seattle 1999, liberatory movements can create powerful mobilisations and change political discourse. Yet despite often winning the argument, after the initial euphoria has passed the energy that launched them retreats, leaving the entrenched power structures of capital to regroup.

So what can give the Occupiers deep roots to weather the storms coming their way and make this vital movement sustainable? For one, the Occupy movements are setting the agenda: rather than being reactive at summits where the powerful determine the terrain, they are occupying in their own neighbourhoods at times of their choosing. And they are staying. With the encampments comes a higher level of public engagement that encourages people to look beyond lazy cliches of protesters, creating what has the potential to be a truly democratic, plural, open space.

And the current cycle of struggle is not taking place in an economic boom: there is a level of antagonism between capitalism and democracy that is being made more and more visible to everyone. It’s easier to convince people that markets are calling the shots when the IMF is dictating not just to Sierra Leone and Nepal but to Portugal and Ireland.

Crucially, then, the Occupiers aren’t movements of people in the north protesting in solidarity with those from the global south labouring under unpayable debt or privatisations that put healthcare and education out of ordinary people’s reach. They are populations in Spain, Greece, and the UK that are, in the terms of the IMF, being “structurally adjusted” too. For the most enduring successes of the anti-globalisation movement were when affected populations took action themselves: when Bolivians who could not afford 400% price hikes de-privatised their water company, or when Argentina’s outraged populace got rid of an entire political class, threw out the IMF and defaulted.

While remaining globally networked and visible is crucial, it is in engaging too with these livelihood-based struggles that the Occupy movements can build deep roots and popular support. For instance, in Spain, the movement did not disappear when the tents were cleared in June. The “indignados” took the model of the general assembly and spread it through the city.

These local assemblies have broken out of the activist ghetto. Full of ordinary citizens, they organise against emergency ward closures, occupy university departments against cuts and prevent evictions of those who cannot keep up mortgage repayments. This has kept the movement plural and grounded, because people of all political persuasions understand the language of solidarity.

To take a recent example in Barcelona, a local assembly working with homeless associations occupied a vacant block of flats that had been repossessed by a bank five years before and moved eight homeless families in. The public assemblies held in the square outside are a moving and respectful interchange between activists, the homeless families and neighbours. Donated mattresses pile up on the pavement outside, and debates about the ethics of a bank holding repossessed property empty for years during a social housing crisis go on into the night.

These transformational moments move the argument from antagonism to radical proposition – the window-smashing public image of the anti-globalisation movement is inverted. Here it is the banks who are the wreckers, the destroyers of people’s sense of safety, social order and dignity, literally smashing doors at dawn to evict people.

Replicating the local assembly from neighbourhood to neighbourhood in this manner sounds impossibly utopian. Yet the only thing strong enough to rein in the power of finance would be for this movement to join with others and win so much support that governments are more scared of the people’s sheer numbers than of the markets.


The tactics of these rogue climate elements must not succeed

Thursday 27 August 2009

A small, unaccountable group of climate activists of uncertain provenance and nefarious purpose are plotting widespread destruction in the City of London this week. Yes, it was business as usual for the corporate lobbyists who are in overdrive in the run-up to the Copenhagen climate summit in December. For, as Nasa’s leading climate scientist James Hansen recently (…)


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