Whatever happened to the Indignados? 2: Regime crisis

by · March 24, 2014


After the weekend’s million and a half strong “March for dignity” in Madrid, once again showing that the wave of radicalisation that has swept Spain since the 15-M protests of 2011 is far from over, LUKE STOBART returns to Left Flank with the second instalment of a special three-part analysis of the Indignados movement and its consequences. Here he provides an examination of the growing crisis for the institutions of “democratic Spain”, including the drive for Catalan independence, and the way a general regime crisis is igniting a flammable social situation.


The scale of the Spanish political crisis

In my previous piece I outlined the qualitative transformations to the social struggle that occurred since the mass square occupations across Spanish cities in May 2011. As spectacular as some of these have been, arguably a bigger transformation linked to the 15-M movement has been the subsequent shift in the consciousness and culture of the majority of the population and the way this has fed a potentially historic crisis for the Spanish state.

One sign of this is that support for the two main parties has fallen to historically low levels. The 15-M explosion was followed by the victory in the 2011 general elections of the right-wing Partido Popular (PP). The size of its vote, 44 percent, led some commentators to mistakenly announce the limitations of the movement, and there was some demoralisation among activists. Since then support for the Spanish Right has dropped to around 30 percent. More dramatic, however, has been the poor performance of the party that has governed for most of the post-fascist period, PSOE. Despite the viciousness of the current PP administration, support for this social-democratic party, led by the technocratic Alfredo Rubalcaba, has remained stuck around the 30 percent mark since 2011. This poor performance has led supporters to talk of the “decline of the social-democratic cycle”. Parties to the Left have increased their share of support, particularly in the case of left-nationalists in the Basque Country, Galicia and Catalonia.

The polls do not reflect the extent of rejection of the mainstream establishment as they require comparison between “options to govern” and express negative voting as well as positive. In more detailed surveys we find that nine out of ten citizens distrust both Rajoy and Rubalcaba, and people regularly identify “the political class” as one of “the country’s biggest problems”. (In contrast, a year after 15-M, 68 percent of people expressed sympathy for the movement.) More fundamentally there is a deepening rejection of the institutional setup. In a December poll 53 percent said that the Spanish constitution had “become out of date” and needed “deep reforms” (a figure that rises to 75 percent in Catalonia, whose independence and even national status is denied in the constitution). At the beginning of the crisis such negative general sentiment towards the constitution was only shared by 29 percent of people.

One central part of the Post-Franco institutional framework that is increasingly questioned is the monarchy. King Juan Carlos was (unfairly) credited as having helped guide the country away from far-right dictatorship after the death of Franco and was tolerated even by many people with Republican sympathies. This has changed abruptly after a series of scandals, including an embezzlement case currently in the courts against the Royal son-in-law involving public funds, and in which his wife Princess Cristina is being investigated. The King himself was caught using the same purse to fund a secret trip to shoot elephants in Botswana. In an age in which the King himself has asked ordinary people to “tighten their belts”, both acts are seen as unforgivable and even the Royal household has acknowledged the deterioration of its public image. A debate continues as to whether the King should abdicate — something even regional Socialist leaders have suggested. Other public institutions whose legitimacy is questioned include the legal system (after a series of corruption cases) and the police (which has been exercising violent and even lethal “crowd control”).

Aggregation of opinion polling since the 2011 general election

Aggregation of opinion polling since the 2011 general election


Adeu Espanya?

The biggest crisis for the Spanish state, however, is territorial, with a serious crisis evolving between Catalonia and Madrid that many feel will split the Spanish state. The state has a long history of territorial fragility. Native capitalism developed first in Catalonia and the Basque Country, which both had substantial histories of independence from Madrid. Meanwhile Spanish nation-building only really developed in response to the Napoleonic invasion and suffered a major crisis when the Empire lost its final colonies in 1898 (a loss that contrasted with the imperial success of other European states which carved out much of the world between themselves in the same period). Over the next few decades there would be a successful drive to gain autonomy for these territories, and one Catalan president even announced the creation of a Catalan state. The defeat of the Republic at the hands of Franco’s (Spanish) Nationalists meant minority nationalism was pushed underground for decades, and the Catalan language and identity suffered serious persecution. New mass movements emerged in the 1970s and during the post-Franco settlement, both territories were conceded regional autonomy, but the effect was watered down by awarding the same to all of the “peoples” of the State (including those, such as the region of Madrid, which had to be invented for this political purpose).

Since then regional populations and politicians have been relatively successful in rebuilding Catalan and Basque identity (and normalising the Catalan language) and in both territories the majority of the population identify themselves firstly as a member of their minority nation, and only secondly as “Spanish” (an identity that a great many reject completely). Under the highly-centralist Aznar government (1996-2004) and in response to the effective quashing by the Zapatero government and the courts of a new Catalan “Statute” that would have given greater self-rule to Catalonia, a growing fracture emerged between ordinary Catalans and Madrid. Many hundreds of thousands demonstrated in the Catalan capital (Barcelona), and activists organised a series of municipal referenda on independence.

The crisis and austerity added new fuel to the growing desire for independence — in Catalonia in particular. Both Catalonia and the Basque Country are relatively rich territories, but whereas the latter won the right to raise and distribute its own taxes, the former performs a substantial net transfer to the rest of Spain. The desire of most of the mainstream Catalan political spectrum (including the governing CiU) to negotiate a new “fiscal agreement” has collided with a conflicting drive to roll back regional spending (recentralise the state), using the crisis as a pretext to achieve objectives long held by the Spanish Right.

In such a context ordinary Catalans stepped in to demand independence — turning the traditional march on Catalonia’s national day (la Diada) on 11 September 2012 into a giant clamour for independence. They were driven by the progressive demand for cultural respect (for example against recent rulings by the Spanish courts against Catalan-language immersion policies in schools) and the regressive demand to keep wealth in Catalonia (which CiU and other mainstream nationalists promise would make all Catalans richer — by around 8 percent, according to one study), as well as having the historic memory of ruthless Spanish oppression in their minds. After la Diada, and feeling squeezed between the street and the harshness of Madrid, the erstwhile conservative-regionalist CiU government responded by launching an official process to gain sovereignty and statehood, calling a referendum for the coming November. Despite attempts by Catalan big business to bring the “two sides” together, horns remain locked, leading to talk of a slow-motion “train wreck”. Although Catalan president Artur Mas, whose party has always limited its catalanisme to gaining greater regional powers, clearly wishes for a way out (through a constantly repeated process of “dialogue”), people power remains a key factor. This was shown when in the most recent Diada ordinary Catalans formed a human chain across their 1000 km territory and by the strong advance of pro-sovereignty forces in the latest elections and polls (which for the first time situate the more pro-independence Catalan Republican Left, ERC, ahead of CiU). Rajoy’s heavy-handed talk of stopping the referendum, and his education minister’s stated desire to “Hispanicise” the Catalan education system, mean the growing gulf could continue — with massive repercussions in a State with several other national fault-lines.

Catalonia 11 Sep

Neoliberalism and regime crisis

The drive for Catalan sovereignty is not just fed by “local” factors. The large Diada protests were probably encouraged by 15-M (somewhat contradictarily because the pro-independence Left was under-represented in Plaça de Catalunya, and ERC leaders denounced it for speaking too much Castilian). The initiative by radical Left supporters of independence to set up a “Procés Constituent” (PC) to shape the sovereignty process in a social direction has drawn wide support and active participation, suggesting that for many independence is seen as an opportunity (or short cut) to achieve an alternative model of society broadly along the lines articulated by the 15-M movement. The beginning of the sovereignty process did not represent a turn away from radical Left politics — as shown by the election to the Catalan parliament in November 2012 of 3 members of the anti-capitalist and pro-independence la CUP (with 3.5 percent of the total vote, which included a significant number of voters ambivalent about or opposed to independence). Both la CUP and the PC shall be examined further in my next and final article of this series.

In a debate on constituent processes across the State the young Galician activist Brais Fernández argues that the drive for Catalan sovereignty reveals the fragility of the post-dictatorship territorial framework and that it is merely the most advanced example of a crisis for the whole (Spanish) “regime”. “Regime crisis” is an idea used fairly commonly on the radical Left, and is even used by moderate and elite commentators. Former president Felipe González has said that the “institutional crisis” is more severe and probably will be longer lasting than the economic crisis and is “galloping towards a dissolving anarchy”. His prediction is partly motivated by scaremongering in response to Catalan sovereignty (acting, as he done so often in the past, in the interests of the Spanish “1%”), but González is no fool and his diagnosis overlaps with that carefully laid out in the fascinating book Hipótesis Democracia by Emmanuel Rodríguez. In this, the member of Observatorio Metropolitano concludes that we are in “systemic crisis that affects the whole of the economic and political order”.

There is much agreement on the radical Left that an essential ingredient of the regime crisis has been the deep collapse of the Spanish economy, which has been on a scale close to the 1930s. The present slump has been much talked about in the international media but it is worth restating how serious it remains and how much continuity (as well as hardening) there has been in economic policy.

In the Spanish State the pre-crisis speculative frenzy that masked underlying economic decline was particularly pronounced. As an illustration, in 2007 a price bubble in housing — encouraged by historic levels of lending by banks — encouraged a million housing start-ups. This was more than in France, Germany and Italy combined, despite Spain having a population considerably smaller than each of the other states. This production collapsed almost overnight, coinciding with the international credit crunch. Real estate firms went bust, dragging much of the banking system with them, and housing and finance continued as a motor for the wider economy but now by driving it into reverse. Because of the stagnation of the underlying economy a generalised slump resulted.

A major ingredient in the building and lending frenzy was the political backing this received from different governments. The Aznar government passed a law allowing enormous discretion for Town Halls to reassess whether land could be developed. Town Halls increasingly became financially dependent on income from land sales, and rampant corruption has developed among local politicians from a range of parties. The Zapatero administration did nothing to reverse the situation, denying that construction bubbles were emerging even when these were regularly identified in the international financial press. The Socialists’ initial policy response to the crisis was to give millions to building firms to fund public works. Right-wing central, regional and local governments have since followed an economic recovery strategy seemingly centred on attracting multi-national investments in theme parks and other “tourist attractions”. Recently the Catalan Generalitat and Madrid regional government were competing to build “Euro-Vegas” — an enormous European casino complex based on its American namesake that would have cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of euros — sparking protest campaigns by environmentalists and others.

Similarly lax regulations have benefited the banks which were able to sell “life-long” mortgages to low earners, knowing that if the latter defaulted on payments, they would recover both the property and “charge the difference” if the property was resold for less (as the banks make sure occurs). Despite widespread acceptance that the banks were responsible for the crisis, PSOE and PP have bailed them out to the tune of hundreds of thousands of millions.

Partly the cosiness between the two parties and the housing and banking sectors is due to the very substantial party funding received from these sectors, but it is also due to the political atrophy of late neoliberalism and its inability to do anything but extend previous policies. This has led Rodríguez to argue that “the crisis is of an essentially political nature”. The economic consequence is the socially disastrous cuts program demanded by the Troika, but followed, normally willingly, by the Spanish government and employers. This has massively worsened the social crisis.

Unemployment has mushroomed from one in ten persons (before the crisis) to one in four, and is still rising (despite government talk of recovery). There is constantly increasing poverty, malnutrition and homelessness. Hundreds of thousands of people unable to keep up mortgage payments have been evicted. Some 400,000 young graduates have had to emigrate to Europe or Latin America. In the first two years of austerity, which included savage labour reforms curtailing unions’ bargaining power, real wages were squeezed by 12 percent and they have dropped substantially since.

Describing how the severe recession and its economic management opened up a political crisis, the observant social democratic commentator Josep Ramoneda wrote in El País in 2012:

As if Marx were right, chaos in the economic infrastructure is causing growing disorder in the political superstructure. Thus we are seeing … a generalised crisis in political distrust … [regional autonomy] being seen as exhausted; a deep moral and cultural crisis; an institutional crisis at the highest level — affecting the head of state — and a diplomatic crisis with Argentina — that has shown Spain’s limited weight in the world.


How recent history was cut in half

Like Ramoneda, Fernández uses Marxist ideas to provide a more specific account of “regime decomposition” –and he does so avoiding any ridiculous disclaimer (!) For the activist, decline stems from a combination of “a crisis of the mechanisms of material integration in capitalist society — meaning some mechanisms that integrated in the regime an important section of the subaltern classes” and the collapse of the financial mechanisms that (through lending) allowed growth while lowering wages. He adds that rather than emerging from “an insurrection of the subaltern classes” the crisis has been “forced from above by the ruling class” by accelerating the neoliberal reorganisation of recent decades and “unilaterally” breaking the post-1978 agreements (between unions and employers, and Left and Right).

This is a useful starting point, but there are three nuances (or clarifications) we could make here. Firstly, if there was any integration of the working class into the regime (as is implied) this was far more of the bureaucratic structures of its organisations (both unions and parties) than of workers themselves. Fernández rightly points out that real wages in fact stagnated in the pre-crisis period in which the Spanish economy grew considerably. (In every country) non-precarious workers are in a fundamentally exploited relationship vis-à-vis capital and thus the state, and have in certain conjunctures played a central role in insurrectional and near-insurrectional struggles (such as the several-week general strike in France in 1968 and a long series of twentieth-century revolutions). If such a level of struggle has not been the norm in recent decades, it is more likely to be owing to some restructuring in sectors with strong union organisation, the decline in the culture and confidence to perform collective self-action, improved control techniques by management (although there are limits to this), and the greater absorption of workers’ organisations (both party and union) into the ruling-class hegemonic project. No doubt many of these mechanisms have been undermined in the last few years; for instance, the power of the union bureaucracy to defend conditions without mobilising members, a return of the culture of struggle — partly inspired by the 15-M — and the weakening of the dominant ideological and political hegemony we are discussing here.

Secondly, there are other non-material factors behind the mass revolt of 2011. In the first installment of this analysis I discussed the centrality of rejection of “really-existing” politics (or “anti-politics” for short). Another clear inspiration was the recent Arab revolutions that overthrew Mubarak and Ben Ali. Sometimes the link was made explicitly, such as when the first square occupiers renamed the location “Tahrir Square”. But it is likely there was a larger less-conscious link. Although in Egypt it took a wave of workers’ strikes and occupations to turn the army command against Mubarak (something hardly reported in the international media), it was the occupation of and battles over Cairo’s central square that became for millions the visual incarnation of the initially victorious Egyptian revolution. Tahrir also was identified as an inspiration for the international Occupy movements and related mass struggles such as the Turkish Gezi Park resistance.

Arguably a further subjective factor that has shaped the forms and ideas of the latest incarnation of what Fernández rightly identifies as class struggle is the historic weakness of the radical Marxist Left. This likely has encouraged the process of delinking radical struggle from the workplaces — a notable feature of contemporary struggle in the Spanish state but present in many of the large radical movements of this century (particularly in Latin America: Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, Brazil,…). Of course there is geographical as well as political overlap between the decline of the revolutionary Left and neoliberal victories against the working class (which I previously identified as holding back traditional forms of working-class struggle). Yet it is likely that the weakness of a Left with an orientation on the workplace struggle has probably aided the location of much struggle beyond the point of production (a shift that has led some Marxists such as David Harvey to see “the city” as having re-conquered the stage for revolutionary transformation.) It is important here, however, not to over-egg the pudding. Mass struggle under capitalism has often started on the street before spreading to factories and offices (as happened in 1968), and, as I described in part 1, crossover has developed in the Spanish case. In Egypt, Tunisia, Greece and France (at least temporarily) mass radical union action has been at the centre of recent struggle from the beginning.

Where I would significantly depart from Fernández’ interesting analysis, however, is over the role of the struggle in the evolution of the political crisis. It should be highlighted here that all of the cracks and fractures in ruling class hegemony are in a progressive direction (favouring Republicanism, anti-authoritarianism, feminism, grassroots trade-unionism and a mainly left-wing pro-independence movement in Catalonia). There was nothing inevitable about this direction at the beginning of the crisis. Indeed we can see from other countries how political crises can open the door to anti-politics being shaped by far Right forces. This particularly has been the case in Eastern states such as Hungary and Ukraine, where the Left has been more marginalised due to the memory of Stalinist totalitarianism and the mistaken support for that system by the larger chunk of the international Left. In the coming European elections fascists and hard-xenophobic parties are expecting to gain a third of all seats — a chilling prospect. If politics in the Spanish state has followed a different trajectory and the immigrant scapegoating that PP and PSOE governments have encouraged has not encouraged strong extreme-right forces to emerge, it is probably to a substantial extent due to the progressive impact of the 15-M on mass consciousness. In Catalonia this has also been aided by united anti-fascist campaigning, in which 15-M activists have played a part, which has helped stall the one major electoral advance of a fascist party on the peninsula.

In a similar vein, Rodríguez argues that the 15-M and the similar struggles in the US and Europe have played a key role in “cut[ting] recent history in half” and even now open up a chance for the movement to intervene in the institutions of the “1%”. The Madrid writer adds that these have intersected with serious financial and political disjuncture: concretely the weight of financial interests in the economy and institutions, and the fundamental mismatch between the increasingly international or regional economic organisation of capital and a national and only partial internationalisation or regionalisation of its institutional regulation. This diagnosis deserves a deeper critical analysis than is possible here, suffice to say that the continued national structures of capitalism and the inequalities between states probably better explain the suicidal policy responses to the debt crises in the EU periphery than any clash between financial and other capital interests. Nevertheless, Rodríguez does offer strong logical and empirical arguments to back his radical conclusion.



The analysis thus far suggests that the growing crisis in ruling class hegemony is owing to a combination of long-term disaffection with neoliberal politics and the struggle against what has been aptly termed “neoliberalism on steroids” (austerity). Thus the political dimension to this is just as important as its economic side, and both should be seen as integrated and reinforcing. This observation has some universal relevance because it underlines the need to avoid economic reductionism — for example understanding contemporary struggle purely in terms of “crisis-austerity-struggle” (as some Marxists have done, including this author until recently!) It reminds us to keep our analysis thoroughly political, and ensure keeping the ideological and political dimensions at the centre of our perspectives and strategies. More concretely, it also can help us see how radical mass struggle can emerge in countries less affected (or relatively unaffected) by the economic crisis, such as has occurred recently in Turkey, the riots and protests over public-transport price hikes in Brazil, or the radical student protests in Chile. It discourages us from mechanically tying our perspectives to the latest fall (or rise) in the stock exchange or unemployment statistics. When this mistake is made, however tightly or loosely, it is bound to lead to disappointments or missed opportunities, something the fragile and fragmented revolutionary Left can ill afford.

The approach advocated here also allows us to see and predict better how the political feeds into the social struggle. Since the late 2012, broadly coinciding with the calming in the bond markets (following the announcement by the ECB to provide Spanish and other banks with a safety net for their losses) there has been a slowing in the escalation of social struggle. Isidro López has predicted that this situation shall be a parenthesis, as the global economic recovery is centred on new unsustainable bubbles (and, we could add, slowing Chinese expansion and a related end to the boom in primary exports from “emerging markets). This is probably accurate, except that during this “calmer” period there have been qualitative advances in social struggles and regarding the popular sympathy these have encountered.

A good example of the shift is the exciting March of Dignity that this week arrived in Madrid, and which involved tens of thousands of working-class people marching from a range of territories across the State. Over a million and a half people met them in the capital, including those arriving from poverty-stricken Andalusia in hundreds of coaches. Leaders of this struggle, such as Diego Cañamero, the inspiring Andalusian Workers’ Union (SAT) leader, presented it as a march to “take Madrid” — as the centre of political power ­— and kick-start a “popular uprising”. As I am writing, those who have marched thousands of kilometres are planning to march on the stock exchange. These struggles are clearly not the mild-mannered kind of protest we saw in the squares in 2011 (although neither are they the violent protests alleged by the authorities as a pretext to savagely attack them). The mass active support for the March suggests growing anger among the population, including in the relatively conservative Madrid.

Another example illuminating the degree of bitterness developing was in relation to the riots between locals and police in Gamonal, a crisis-hit neighbourhood in the traditional northern town of Burgos. These angry protests, which continued for several nights, followed demonstrations and peaceful direct action to stop a builder who had been jailed for bribing local officials from constructing an expensive new boulevard in which parking would be privatised. The riots won an important victory but also were admirably popular across Spain — gaining backing from the majority of the population according to polls. Even the popular radio station La Ser felt obliged to give them some sympathetic coverage — something that is normally flatly ruled out for non-peaceful social protests. Again, Ramoneda put his finger on what was happening, writing:

Why has Gamonal, a local conflict, had such a public repercussion? Because of its circumstantial character: the malaise is so big that the fuse can be lit at any moment, due to the most unexpected cause. And because the crisis is revealing the manoeuvres and complicities between politics and money.

Here he pinpoints both the intense anger across society and the perceived union between politics and an abusive economic system.

Since Gamonal, there have been eruptions of street fighting between large groups of neighbours and police in Madrid and Barcelona, and in the latter city, traditional neighbourhood associations have joined radical activists in blocking public transport in response to exorbitant price hikes. Encouragingly, radicalism is also spreading in the workplace. In recent months, indefinite strike action has been called by hospital cleaners in Madrid, coach drivers, cement workers, bread factory workers, and Coca Cola has been forced to stop “opening happiness” due to a national indefinite strike! Some of these strikes have already won major victories, such as the cleaners and gardeners in Madrid who prevented 1,134 layoffs! Such struggles remain relatively localised and are usually defensive but there is clearly a positive pattern that could lead to generalisation, particularly after this week’s mass March.

To sum up, the current context is one of deepening economic woes for most people (despite small signs of recovery in employment), bitter distrust of the political establishment, a questioning of many if not most of the institutions, a serious drive for sovereignty in Catalonia — partly propelled by struggle from below— and a population increasingly ready to combust. This surely must be close to Gramsci’s description of an “organic crisis” (a long-term, multi-level structural crisis in which the ability of the whole system to reproduce itself is questioned). Such a scenario is perhaps what brings a writer as thoughtful as Emmanuel Rodríguez to state that “the current moment is and should be recognised as a ‘revolutionary’ moment” in which revolution becomes “not an ideological alternative” but “unavoidably… our task”. It is into such a context that new left organisations — strongly linked to the struggles of the last three years — are emerging. It is these to which my analysis shall next turn, and whose evolution, I argue, probably shall shape the outcome of the regime crisis.

Discussion1 Comment

  1. […] of social resistance that has transformed similar long-term political hollowing out in places like Spain and Greece into full-blown regime crises. Yet the parlous state of politics here suggests that if […]