Finally, after years of delay, the last few months have brought something like a Spanish Spring, complete with surprising changes but also with political “volatility and instability,” as El Confidencial put it recently. Briefly, very briefly, this spring seemed to promise real possibilities for progressive transformation. But within weeks, things became more complicated, and now it is hard to tell what will come of the effort to maintain an informal governing coalition between the two parties of the left, the ruling socialist PSOE and Podemos. Issues such as the politics of austerity, the Catalan crisis, and the Europe-wide migration crisis threaten to derail the progressive program before it can develop any real traction.
A History: In May of 2011, a mass movement eventually called “Los Indignados,” inspired in part by the Arab Spring, took possession of the Puerta del Sol plaza in Madrid in protest against the ruling Partido Popular’s corruption and the brutality of its response to the “Crisis,” Spain’s particularly painful version of the Great Repression. Like the “Occupy” movement, which it inspired, the Indignados movement was unable to break the grip of the established economic powers and their political wing, the Partido Popular. Nor could it bring about the resignation of the PP’s leader, Mariano Rajoy, even as more and more PP officials and cronies were indicted on charges of egregious corruption. But the uprising of the Indignados did lead to the creation of Podemos on the left and the growth of Ciudadanos on the center right. These parties have battled over the last three years with the PP and PSOE, with each other, and in Podemos’ case, internally.
At first it seemed that Podemos might come away the winner from this many-sided struggle. But, dogged by internal errors and a relentless campaign of defamation by the established parties and their press, it rarely mustered more than 20% of Spanish voters. Nor could the socialists, crippled both by their history of capitulation to neoliberal demands and by an internecine battle in which the old guard tried unsuccessfully to oust the new and outspokenly progressive party leader, Pedro Sanchez. As recently as this May, Rajoy and the PP still controlled the government. Their power was threatened, but not from the left. Ciudadanos, their restive ally, seemed poised to overtake them and install a new social liberal version of corporate conservatism in Spain.
Then, in a flash, everything changed. The judicial investigation of the PP’s corrupt dealings, initiated in 2009 by Spain’s crusading public prosecutor, Baltasar Garzón, had produced indictments of a web of PP figures, well-placed fixers, and wealthy businessmen for influence-peddling, contract-rigging, bribery, money laundering, and the regular payment of “sobresueldos,” (illegal over-salaries) to PP officials from a slush fund provisioned by large contractors and banks. On May 24, after nine years of investigation and trials, Spain’s highest criminal court convicted numerous PP officials on charges of corruption, sentencing many of them to long terms in prison. And it also convicted and fined the PP itself, finally putting the lie to the party’s claim that only individuals were to blame.
In the wake of the convictions, Ciudadanos’ leaders, who had supported Rajoy’s administration, tried desperately to get him to resign and call elections, believing with reason that they would win. But he refused and the PSOE, with the help of Podemos and the Basque and Catalan nationalists, passed a motion of censure that expelled Rajoy and the PP and brought the socialist’s Pedro Sanchez to power. Suddenly, unexpectedly, Spain had a government of the left, and the rival parties of the left, the PSOE and Podemos, after years of acrimony, were actually cooperating. It’s worth noting, given the situation in the US, that while Spain’s people, its legislature, and its press played crucial roles in this changeover, the indispensable element here was the judiciary and its commitment to the rule of law.
Spanish progressives were heartened by this sudden change of fortune, which enabled them to begin chipping away at the legacy of the PP’s six-year reign. Although the socialists, with only 84 seats in the 350-seat parliament, can muster with their allies only a razor thin and fractious majority, they began making changes where they could. PSOE’s cabinet is the first ever in which women are in the majority. One of the party’s first acts was to decree that the bodies of Franco and his closest henchmen should be removed from the Valley of the Fallen, ostensibly a memorial park to all the dead of the Civil War. (Franco’s faithful, gathered at his tomb, bid their leader farewell with fascist salutes). Another was to reach out to the newly elected and still emphatically independentista heads of the Catalan parliament. And the socialists allowed Podemos, their unofficial ally, to choose a new manager for the national public television and radio network.
Yet all is not well. While the PSOE placed first in the most recent polls, far ahead of its conservative adversaries, it is still attempting to rule from a position of dramatic parliamentary weakness. The parties of the right are determined to take back power. And as El Confidencial reported in late July, “the relation between Podemos and the socialist government is beginning to give signs of an accelerated deterioration.” The widening split reflects deep differences in policy and tactics. But it is also the result of Podemos’ fear that its supporting role will cost it votes, a fear borne out when the party lost twenty percent of its followers to the PSOE in the same polls. At the moment, in early August, it remains unclear both whether Podemos will rebel and whether the PSOE will try to keep the present government afloat for the next two years, as planned, or will call elections in the near future. Here, briefly, are some of the most vexing issues facing Spanish progressives.
Economic Programs: Podemos and PSOE have both condemned the politics of austerity and promised to repair the damage done to Spain’s health, education, welfare, and pension programs by Rajoy’s conservative government. But as the socialist government tries to frame a budget for the coming year and Podemos looks to initiate new programs of social spending, they are at odds over where to set “el techo de gasto”—the ceiling on spending. Podemos casts this disagreement, with some plausibility, as a test of the PSOE’s commitment to breaking decisively with the path of austerity. “The General Budget is the most important legislation of the year, a party secretary, Pablo Echinique, explained recently; it defines almost all of the public policies that a government can use to improve the life of the people.” The limits on spending laid down in Sanchez’s budget, another party leader declared, are “clearly insufficient . . . to finance a social agenda and put austerity behind us.”
Alberto Garzón, the head of Podemos’ sister party, Izquierda Unida, makes the same argument:
If the PSOE wants our support they have to reject neoliberal policies. We are opposed to the very idea of a ceiling on expenditures. It’s part of the neoliberal package that the EU imposed with the complicity of the PSOE government in 2010.We are opposed because we believe that the economy needs stimulus policies and not policies that go on reducing public spending.
What is at stake here, beyond the immediate consequences of more austerity for the Spanish people, is the survival of Sanchez’s government and the future of European social democracy. Podemos’ goal is to compel Sanchez to put an end to social democratic complicity in neoliberal economic policies, policies that were employed, during the Crisis, to dismantle social services, legitimate massive layoffs, and drive down wages. If he refuses, Podemos, which has long been skeptical about his promises to turn the PSOE to the left, will most likely withdraw its support and by so doing bring down his government.
Yet it is by no means clear that deficit spending alone, or changes to the tax codes that presently favor the rich and the corporations, would provide the funds for a rebuilding of the “estado de bienestar.” Spain’s austerity-driven recovery has finally, after 10 years, brought joblessness down to pre-Crisis levels and secured the country’s credit internationally. But the economic recovery is built on the very pillars—tourism and construction—which crumbled in 2008, and on the PP’s elimination of rules that provided job security and generous benefits for millions of workers. Today’s newly employed are almost all very precariously employed indeed, at least by Spanish standards.
It follows, then, in the absence of popular support for a transition to some non-capitalist order, that Spain’s economy will have to be redesigned if the country is to produce the new businesses, jobs, and tax revenues required to provide the services and security its people want. This will entail a great deal of creative thinking and, among other things, a thorough remaking of the regulatory culture that presently discourages Spanish entrepreneurs from creating new businesses and industries. In the 2018 World Bank “Doing Business” report Spain ranked 86th out of 190 nations under ease of starting a business and 123rd out of 190 in the category of dealing with construction permits.
Yet Podemos in particular has until recently tended to view the private sector with suspicion, hostility, or indifference, paying only lip service to the need to “modernize” Spanish capitalism and acting as though the funds required to secure the bienstar of Spain’s workers could be extracted from other sources. Its leaders are mostly trained in political theory rather than economics, and it has never put together a strong team of economic thinkers to wrestle with the challenges of forging a progressive alternative to actually existing capitalism.
Susan Watkins called attention to this deficit of economic thinking in the New Left Review two years ago. Sanders’ American and Mélenchon’s French movements, Corbyn’s Labor Party, Tsipras’ Syriza, and Iglesias’ Podemos all agree, Watkins writes, “in condemning austerity.” They agree as well that “deficits should be lowered slowly, through ‘sustainable growth’, stimulated through national investment programmes in social and physical infrastructure, with a green and new-tech slant.” But they have made no effort to “grapple with the scale of the profitability problems facing the world economy—manufacturing overcapacity, labour surplus, debt limits—which would seem to render ‘sustainable growth’ unfeasible on capitalist terms.”
On the other hand Podemos, once in power, has shown an impressive capacity to deal pragmatically with Spanish capitalism. In Madrid, one of several major cities governed by Podemos-led coalitions, mayor Manuela Carmena is pushing through a huge redevelopment project, Operation Chamartín or Madrid Nuevo Norte. The project has been in the works for some 20 years. Now, thanks to Carmena’s bargaining skills, it will provide not only badly need jobs and business-focused revitalization but also social housing for thousands of ordinary Madrileños caught in the city’s real estate tornado. It will also give residents of the district some much needed green space and commuters a much-improved urban rail system, thus making it easier for workers exiled to the outer suburbs and ring cities to get to their jobs every day. (For a useful overview of the Madrid Nuevo Norte project go to “Madrid to Get the Tallest Skyscrapers in Spain” in the August 12th digital El Pais in English.)
To get Madrid Nuevo Norte approved, Carmena had to struggle not only with private interests and the parties of the right, but with the “Anticapitalist” faction within Podemos itself, which was appalled at her readiness to cut a deal with the giant construction firms and banks. Podemos’ leaders, Pablo Iglesias and Iñigo Errejon, stood with her in this internal confrontation.
Catalonia: Nobody knows what is going to happen in Catalonia. The headlines change vertiginously from day to day. Sometimes they proclaim that the Catalan independentistas are ready to set their dreams aside and settle for greater autonomy within Spain, something the socialists and Podemos (unlike the PP) are ready to offer them. But on other days it seems that the autumn may bring instead some sort of second October 1st, the day when the Catalan Parliament voted—by a slim majority and with the region split nearly in two over the issue–for independence. There is very, very little support in Spain for Catalan secession and a good deal of patriotic saber rattling on the far right, so a second unilateral declaration of independence could produce real strife.
Meanwhile, the Catalan issue, like the issue of spending caps, has the potential to destroy the informal left coalition. While the socialists sided with the PP and Ciudadanos last year in insisting, correctly, that Spain’s constitution prohibits any region from declaring independence on its own, Podemos argued that the Catalans had the unilateral “right to decide” whether to secede from Spain, even as it encouraged them to remain. This spring, after it became clear that this position was widely and deeply unpopular with the Spanish electorate and had won them few friends in Catalonia, the party seemed for a moment to be stepping back, if only into silence, on this matter of self determination. But the argument still gets made by party officials from time to time, and its reemergence as a major theme could make ongoing cooperation impossible.
Migration. Arguably, though, the greatest challenge faced by the governing Spanish left is how to address the politics of migration at a moment of renewed crisis. Josep Borrell acknowledged as much when he declared the “migrant problem . . . the most powerful force for disintegration in the EU” because the “mental structure of European societies isn’t prepared to face a disorderly expansion of the flows of immigration.” Borrell isn’t a right winger; he’s the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Spain’s socialist government, and his grim proclamation reflects a growing consensus across the EU in the wake of the events of recent years. Polls show, the Guardian reports this summer, that immigration is now EU “voters’ number one concern.” (See Jon Henley’s very useful summary of the key issues in the June 27th issue.)
Spain largely escaped the fierce anti-immigrant backlash produced across Europe in 2015 when “open arms” and “open borders” policies led to the arrival of over a million undocumented immigrants, the straining of institutions of reception and social services, the resurgence of the far right, and the reestablishment of border controls in the supposedly borderless territory of the EU’s Schengen zone. Until now the public mood regarding immigrants has largely remained generous. “Many of us were economic migrants in the lean years of the fifties, sixties, and seventies,” friends have explained, “and many of us are again, after the diaspora of the Crisis years. We need to welcome others in turn.” But the Conservative government quietly took a harder line. With the tacit approval of the socialist opposition, it built a sophisticated electronically guided system of identification and interdiction in the Straits of Gibraltar and sponsored official and unofficial programs in Morocco and Mauritania aimed at keeping would-be immigrants from setting sail for Europe. The program of quiet interdiction has helped keep immigration mostly off the table in Spanish politics since 2015.
But in the spring and summer of 2018, with the closing of access routes in Italy and Greece, the number of illegal immigrants reaching Spain has risen dramatically again, rekindling simmering debates over migration policy.
Things came to a head on July 26th. Already, over 22,000 immigrants had crossed into Spain in 2018, more than in all of 2017. (At least three hundred had died attempting the crossing.) Now over 1,300 had arrived in just three days. Morning news programs and headlines in the Spanish press announced that the surge of undocumented immigrants crossing the Straits had overwhelmed immigration officials’ capacity to determine which individuals should and which should not be granted entrance. (That is, broadly speaking, which were legitimate refugees and which “economic migrants.) Many, it seemed, were not even being held until their right of asylum could be evaluated. They were simply released into the general population. And of course there was no knowing how many more had slipped into the country without notice.
There were reports that morning, as well, of busloads of undocumented immigrants showing up in Malaga with no idea of what to do and tales of bands of immigrants wandering through Andalucian towns such as Medina- Sidonia and Chiclana. The ubiquitous images of groups of young, half- dressed black men, mouths agape, arms stretched wide in joy, exacerbated the picture of an unruly invasion by cultural others. The climax came when, later in the day, the news broke that hundreds of migrants had stormed the border fence at Ceuta, Spain’s enclave on the African coast, cutting holes in the wire, firing homemade flamethrowers, and throwing, as one source put it, “shit and quicklime” at border guards who tried to stop them. Some 600 succeeded in breaking through and 22 border guards were injured.
Those who fought their way into Ceuta that day, it was reported, made no attempt to slip away. Instead, they headed straight for the local Center for the Temporary Housing of Immigrants, which was already full to overflowing. And from there, as Spanish law requires, the majority of the newly arrived—fresh from storming the border fence and fighting it out with the border police, would be released, 72 hours later, into the general population, uncharged, unprocessed, and unidentified.
This schizophrenic combination of responses (vigilance and harsh physical refusal at the border versus bureaucratic negligence and carelessness at the refugee centers) has characterized the new PSOE government’s approach. We see it when party leaders host public pageants of welcoming even as they push forward with less widely publicized programs of interdiction and summary return. Many progressive Spaniards were delighted this June to see the Sanchez government provide the Aquarius, the refugee rescue ship turned away by Italy, a port of entry in Valencia. “Welcome Home,” read the banners that greeted the hundreds of would-be immigrants. But the very government that welcomed the Aquarius is pursuing policies of “prevention through deterrence” (a term coined by US immigration services) and “devolution en caliente,” or summary return.
Even Podemos, which regularly castigates those who support stricter controls as xenophobic, racist, and fascist, occasionally acknowledges that some control is necessary. “We don’t live on the moon,” Pablo Iglesias said recently, “We aren’t renouncing a politics of the control of flows.” But his party’s interventions in the debate seem designed to make the work of control even harder for Spain’s already overstretched immigration system. Podemos, for instance, demands the immediate dismantling of the much- criticized network of Centers for the Internment of Foreigners. (These Centers, according to El Pais, were created in 1985 in order to “detain and hold in custody” illegal aliens and “guarantee their deportation.”) But the party offers no fresh thought on how, in the absence of some form of detention, the government can keep those destined for deportation from simply disappearing into the general populace. Podemos also insists that Spain abide by intricate international regulations for the treatment of refuges without suggesting that these regulations, which have caused gridlock and breakdown on many fronts, also need to be reviewed and revised. Otherwise they will be selectively ignored, as is now the case elsewhere in the EU, or jettisoned altogether.
Opponents of increased control are equally disingenuous when they cite figures that show a sharp diminishment in the number of immigrants actually coming to Europe since 2015 in order to dismiss the clamor for controls as mere right-wing hysteria. If fewer immigrants are coming, it is to a large extent because Europe has made it much harder for them to gain entry. This trend is subject to reversal: as conditions grow more intolerable in much of the Middle East and Africa, Borrell’s prediction of ever increasing migratory movement makes grim sense.
Tragic Thought and the Politics of the Possible: One understands, of course, the bind the left is in: refusing refuge to people in need of sanctuary from devastating military, political, and economic forces violates basic humanitarian and religious imperatives. And this refusal is even harder for progressives to contemplate when the people turned away are also victims of Western imperialism, as many are both in Europe and the U.S.
For a haunting dramatization of the moral binds produced by this sort of situation, see Satyajit Ray’s brilliant Distant Thunder, at once a heartbreaking account of the Bengal famine in India during World War II and a dramatization of the potential for full out, spiritually-imbued generosity to sponsor a form of collective secular suicide. By depicting a village being overrun and ruined by the starving refugees its increasingly saintly leader would save, the film reminds us that generosity’s path can lead, when the need for generous help is overwhelming, to fatal double binds and disaster. The current migrations from Africa and the Middle East may never prove as overwhelming as some believe. But they are already producing, among many Europeans, a reaction that has roots both in irrational fears and in actual experiences of the difficulties of welcoming.
At this moment, then, I’d suggest, Spanish progressives (and US progressives as well) need to make it clearer—to themselves and to the larger community–that they are looking for ways to strike a tremendously difficult balance between the extremes of unqualified welcoming and sweeping exclusion. And I’d go a step further: they need to acknowledge the tragic dimensions of the situations at hand, first and foremost for the rejected immigrants themselves and then, in a far more abstract but still existential sense, for European and American progressives, who as the number of would-be immigrants climbs will have to face the bitter contradictions of generosity. Only the forthright declaration that refuge is being denied to people (“economic immigrants,” for instance) who in every ethical sense deserve it will enable progressives to articulate an effective politics of the possible, one that acknowledges the tragic reality of the present but points beyond it. We do not live on the moon, such a politics would proclaim, we will set the controls necessary to preserve our communities. But neither do we salve our consciences by denying the humanity of those we refuse, as does the xenophobic right. They are fellow humans; refusing them entry is morally abhorrent, and we will continue to seek ways to make their lives less desperate.
A great deal is at stake. If progressives fail to develop this capacity for tragic thought, they will only bring on greater social tragedy. The far right will take power in Spain, as it has in the States and elsewhere in Europe. Immigrants and native-born citizens alike will lose precious freedoms. The wretched of the earth will be abandoned to their misery. And foreign policy will devolve, as it is doing today in Trump’s America, into imperial posturing and the brutal projection of power.