If the past week’s tumultuous events in Spain have shown us anything, it is that there are two realities vying for influence and attention. There is the reality of the “markets”, those wonderfully benign, miraculously self-regulating, self-correcting natural organisms that help to ensure the free and efficient movement of goods and assets while, as if by magic, making a tiny handful of hyper-connected people and companies fabulously wealthy.
Suffice to say that according to the global markets, the Spanish economy is on the mend and well on its way to a spectacular recovery.
And then there is the increasingly grim on-the-ground reality in which millions of Spaniards — some with precarious, low-paying jobs, others with no jobs at all — are struggling to make ends meet. It is a reality that continues to worsen yet is often ignored, hidden or obfuscated by the political and business leaders and their loyal servants in the mainstream media.
Normally these two realities co-exist relatively peaceably, barely cognizant of the other’s existence. Every now and then, their paths may intersect, only to quickly decouple.
But this week they suffered a full-on clash.
Rajoy’s Triumphant Return to America
The week began with news of Rajoy’s latest visit to the United States, where he was praised at the White House for his “great leadership” (a subject on which President Obama is naturally a respected authority).
Rajoy was also courted at Congress and feted on Wall Street. Clearly, things have changed since his last visit to the Big Apple, when he was subjected to an unusually feisty grilling from Bloomberg’s Sarah Eisen on the many scandals implicating his government. After stumbling and bumbling his way through one unconvincing untruth after another, Rajoy’s lackeys tried to browbeat the broadcaster into cutting out the most embarrassing parts from the interview — to no avail.
This time around, everyone who is anyone in Washington and New York seemed determined to shake Rajoy’s hand and congratulate him on a job well done. And for good reason: not only have his government’s eager embracement of the Troika’s neoliberal agenda and its profligate bailout of Spain’s financial sector (to the tune, so far, of 280 billion euros) helped to steady (at least temporarily and superficially) the EU’s sinking economy, it has also presented rich pickings to many of the world’s biggest corporations — in particular, Europe and America’s too-fat-to-fail banks, private equity funds and vulture capitalists.
While in Washington, Rajoy also met with the perma-tanned head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, who a few days later announced the final withdrawal of the organisation’s suited-and-booted troops from the Bank of Spain. Presumably, their makeshift work spaces in the country’s now-toothless central bank will remain in place, just in case the bad times return — which, considering they never went away in the first place, should be pretty darned soon.
As a matter of fact, as this week’s tumultuous events in Spain’s parallel dimension — i.e. its bread and butter communities — have shown, not only has the recovery long trumpeted by the government and parrotted by the financial media failed to materialise, conditions on the ground are arguably bleaker than ever.
Burnin’ & Lootin’ in Burgos, Spain
While Rajoy was being wined, dined and serenaded in the gilded chambers of American power, Spain’s northern city of Burgos was hit by a wave of violent protests. What began as a simmering dispute over the city’s semi-bankrupt council’s plans to convert one of the busiest thoroughfares into a largely pedestrianised boulevard boiled over last Saturday night (Jan. 11) into pitched battles between local residents and riot police (click here to view images).
A staunchly conservative provincial capital of middling size, Burgos is hardly the sort of place you’d expect to find protestors burning rubbish bins and smashing up the windows of a Santander bank. But first appearances are often misleading: Gamonal, the predominantly working class neighbourhood at the center of the dispute, is in many ways the perfect microcosm of what is happening in less prosperous communities across Spain.
Of its 60,000 residents (one-third of Burgos’ total population), 18,000 are unemployed. What’s more, over the last five years a whole gamut of local social support mechanisms and public services have been skinned and gutted, all to help pay for the fallout from the construction bubble and collapse of the country’s savings banks.
One of the most common grievances voiced by protestors is that local, publicly subsidised nursery schools — a vital lifeline for hard-strapped working families — are being closed down due to budget shortfalls of a few thousand euros a piece. Meanwhile, the council intends to splash out 8 million euros on a largely unwelcome urban redevelopment project, 5 million of which will go toward the construction of an underground car park that will charge users extortionate fares.
According to Ignacio Escolar, the senior editor of El Diario and a former Burgos resident, the project’s primary beneficiary would be the city’s most powerful businessman, Antonio Miguel Méndez Pozo (a.k.a. el jefe [the boss]). A local construction magnate and owner of Burgos’s biggest-selling newspaper, Méndez Pozo is the epitome of Spain’s other reality, a world in which business empires are built through the most dubious of means — in the early 90s Méndez was imprisoned on charges of bribery — and where multi-million euro public contracts are won or lost on the basis of the depth of your pockets and the strength of your connections with local and national officialdom.
Two Worlds Collide
In Gamonal the hard-fought protests have succeeded in forestalling the city’s development project — at least for now. Pressure is being applied from opposition parties within the council to have it scrapped indefinitely — something the PP-controlled administration seems dead set against.
But what with public protests spreading like wildfire across the country, the costs of such obstinacy are mounting fast. On Friday night demonstrations in support of the Gamonal protesters were staged in more than forty Spanish cities, some of which turned pretty ugly.
Violent clashes erupted between riot police and protestors in the country’s two largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona. As is becoming increasingly common, bank branches are bearing the brunt of the vandalism. In Barcelona a hard-core of protestors even briefly laid siege to a police station on the Ramblas — the beating heart of the city’s tourist district — using restaurant tables and chairs as weapons and barricades, while in Madrid firemen clashed with riot police.
In a perfect echo of recent French and English riots, any attempt to link the violence in Spain with deteriorating social and economic conditions is nipped in the bud by the government and media — in particular the all-but-official government mouthpiece, Televisión Española, which seems more interested in trying to divine how many eggs have been thrown at the windows of Burgos’ City Hall than trying to explore the actual causes of public anger.
The result is that the mere concept of cause and effect in the current social upheaval is consigned to the fringes of debate. Just as David Cameron spoke unchallenged of “ferral youths” and “mindless criminals”, Mariano Rajoy’s government has insinuated that much of the violence in Gamonal was perpetrated by professional protestors who travel the land in search of a ruckus with men in helmets and padded uniform — a claim that is not only patently absurd but is directly contradicted by the police’s own arrest reports, which show that almost all of the people detained in last week’s riots live locally.
In the wake of the London riots the British government and opposition parties came together to express their faux shock and outrage at the actions of the looters. However, as the Daily Telegraph‘s chief political commentator Peter Oborne wrote at the time (in what I believe is one of the best mainstream media articles written about the post-crisis reality), “the moral decay of our society is as bad at the top as it is at the bottom”:
“I believe that the criminality in our streets cannot be dissociated from the moral disintegration in the highest ranks of modern British society. The last two decades have seen a terrifying decline in standards among the British governing elite. It has become acceptable for our politicians to lie and to cheat. An almost universal culture of selfishness and greed has grown up.“
While Oborne wrote of the hubris of London’s business elite and the petty greed and hypocrisy of politicians implicated in the 2009 MPs expenses scandal, the Rajoy administration and his party, the Partido Popular, have taken corruption to a whole new heretofore unimagined level. And whereas a small number of British MPs have had to resign and even go to prison for their crimes, Spain’s senior bankers, ministers and deputies routinely scoff at the mere thought of justice prevailing.
As Elpidio José Silva, the judge who faces potential expulsion from the bench for daring to prosecute a senior banker, told the Spanish online daily Publico, “The news in Spain is not that there’s corruption at the top, it’s that there’s outright impunity.”
And it’s this culture of impunity, entitlement, hubris and wretched excess that has taken grip among Spain’s business and political elite that ultimately threatens the long-term viability of Spain’s fragile (some might say, phantom) recovery. More worrisome still, as the world of this elite repeatedly collides with that of the growing ranks of the abandoned, disenfranchised, desperate and resentful masses, the tenuously woven fabric of Spain’s post-Franco civil society continues to unravel at a disquieting pace.