Why the Spanish Are Indignant

Louis Esparza

Students led anti-austerity protests in Barcelona in February. With youth unemployment over 50 percent, students are one of three major forces in Spain's uprisings.

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Edward Hernandez Vivas and his daughter are worried about eviction from their apartment in Madrid. Since losing his job in 2009, Hernandez has not been able to find another one. With unemployment at 25.1 percent, it is not easy to find jobs in Spain these days. As a result, between 2007 and 2011, half a million families have lost their homes. Protests have swelled, unions are threatening strikes and the former middle class has discovered dumpster diving. The prospects for young people are even more dismal, as they face a youth unemployment rate of 53 percent.

While Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is in an unenviable position, his approach thus far has been to cut into the state budget, reducing the social safety net when it is most needed. These austerity measures have sparked several rounds of protests over the year. And now, regional governments are threatening secession, with a plurality approving of such measures for the first time in Catalonia.

Are these cuts a necessary reigning-in of a socialist binge during good times? Or is this an opportunity to impose an economic shock doctrine in Southern Europe? The Spanish newspaper El Pais recently ran an editorial arguing:

It does not look as if obtaining another advantageous finance package is the only motive for this kind of politicking for short-term gain. There is something more that has to do with the prevailing ideology in the post-World War II Western world that seeks to end the hard-fought gains that social democrats have attained in that period.

That might sound familiar to union families in Wisconsin who came under attack during an economic crisis that had nothing to do with them. Spanish debt had been perfectly normal until the excesses of the finance sector caused a half million families to lose their homes.

The Occupy Congress” protests covered in this blog last week were just the latest public response to this madness. Protesters were met with a massive security apparatus that has now become typical of the frightened, reactionary Western capitalist democracies. The U.S. media is beginning to pay more attention to the increasing severity of the protests, as an increasing number of Spaniards feel that the effects of batons and rubber bullets can’t be worse than their current economic pain.

So who is it that constitutes the boisterous and growing protest minority we see in Spain? While the protests are increasingly middle-class, they are not spontaneous and disorganized. As I have written elsewhere, protests rarely are.

  • Labor unions continue to be a major force in the country. In June, 8,000 miners from around the country marched on the capital to protest a planned 63 percent reduction in subsidies that would have cost thousands of jobs. Converging on Puerta del Sol, the point at which Spain’s radial highway system originates in the center of Madrid, they were met with thousands of sympathizers. They tied up major thoroughfares for hours, causing the city’s many tourists to pause between museums and statues to watch men and women in hard hats march down la Gran Via. In July, unions organized large marches in cities around the country to protest the wide array of cuts Rajoy has progressively unfurled. The Occupy Congress” protests have emboldened labor to instigate and threaten a campaign of general strikes of the kind that, for days, crippled Portugal and Greece.
  • Students are a second major actor on the streets. The Indignados, or 15‑M movement, fueled by the fact that fewer than half of young people are able to find work, have a political platform that is more ambitious than resistance to austerity. Angered by public education cuts and bank bailouts, their movement has maintained a steady level of activity since at least May of 2011 (and some place their origins earlier). They are horizontalists, meaning that they practice and advocate a collective form of self-organization. Their movement is responsible for over a dozen occupations in Madrid alone, turning vacant and abandoned buildings into cooperatively run bike shops, bars and community centers.
  • Separatists, mostly in Catalonia and the Basque country, are a third player in the protests. Spain’s constitution grants its regions much autonomy, a negotiated outcome after decades of ruthless dictatorship by the Franco regime. In September, a Catalan nationalist demonstration in Barcelona attracted more than 1.5 million people. Never before has this annual event drawn anything close to such huge numbers. Dissatisfaction with how Madrid handles taxes from the region and with the increasing influence of the European Central Bank in national budgetary priorities has led to widespread disaffection. A third of the Basque region still supports secession. While it is unlikely that these movements will attain independence in the short-term, this political instability reflects a lack of confidence in the Rajoy government’s ability to manage the economy sensibly.

We should expect to see more of these kinds of protests. The European Central Bank has been inflexible about the conditions under which it will grant further loans. Rajoy’s 2013 budget seems to underestimate how much the economy is expected to shrink and further cuts may be on the horizon. Labor unions, students, regional groups, and the working and middle-classes are up against an ideological agenda to reduce social spending and pass on private investment losses for the average Spaniard to absorb. They have every right to be indignant. We should all be.

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Louis Edgar Esparza is Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State University, Los Angeles and Secretary-Treasurer of the Human Rights Section of the American Sociological Association. His essays and research on social movements have appeared in Qualitative Sociology, Societies Without Borders, Environment & Society, and Human Rights & Human Welfare. Learn more at www​.louis​es​parza​.net.
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