Spain: reactionary, anti-government demonstrations polarise political mood

In December, left-wing party Unidas Podemos (UP) entered the Spanish government as junior partners of the Social Democratic PSOE. This coalition rested on a slim and shaky parliamentary majority comprising a motley assortment of nationalist and regionalist forces. Two years of rudderless Spanish politics after the fall of Mariano Rajoy thus came to an end. Pablo Iglesias, the leader of UP, hailed this coalition as “the most-progressive government” in recent Spanish history. Yet recent events have dispelled this euphoria. Spain gazes into the abyss of a devastating depression, which will dramatically narrow the government’s room for manoeuvre. It is increasingly hard to reconcile the radically contradictory demands of workers and bosses. Right-wing protests are further polarising the mood in society. Relations between the ruling parties are becoming strained.

The most-progressive government in Spanish history?

When Podemos was born, it stood out as a radical alternative to the establishment parties. It vowed to overturn the regime that had issued from Spain’s transition to bourgeois democracy in the 1970s. The party thus tapped into the seething discontent that existed among the working class and the youth. It became extremely popular. However, the party leaders sought power at all cost. Its history is the quest for shortcuts to public office. Initially, Pablo Iglesias and his team sought to outcompete the PSOE, which had traditionally monopolised the left-wing vote in Spain. At first, they also turned down the offers from United Left (the electoral brand of the Communist Party) to field a joint slate, until events forced them to rectify in 2016, when UP was founded. Driven by their lust for power, they hindered the formation of a PSOE government after the 2015 and 2016 elections. They were confident they would soon turn from kingmakers into kings. They levelled correct criticisms against the Social Democrats, who shroud their bourgeois policies in left-wing demagoguery. However, these sectarian obstructions simply galvanised the PSOE’s base of support. The Social Democrats thus reverted their decline. This policy allowed Rajoy to weather the storm despite losing the popular vote. In the meantime, the PSOE was all too happy to be relieved of pressure from its left flank. The Social Democrats put the blame on the foolhardy podemitas for the failure to put together an alternative to Rajoy, who, in fact, they helped hold onto power through their abstention.

Sánchez y Pablo Iglesias Image Carlos DelgadoPablo Iglesias hailed UP's coalition with the PSOE as “the most-progressive government” in recent Spanish history. Yet recent events have dispelled this euphoria / Image: Carlos Delgado

As the prospect of sorpasso (overtaking the PSOE) drew away and UP lost steam in opinion polls, Pablo Iglesias effected a radical somersault. After 2016, he insisted the solution to the country’s political stalemate lay in a coalition, in which UP would join the PSOE as its junior partner. This new course was accompanied by more moderate rhetoric. The Spanish constitution, previously execrated as the linchpin of the hated 1978 regime, was now hailed as a quasi-socialist charter. The party flies the red-and-yellow flag of the monarchy, appeals to national unity, and seeks good-neighbourly relations with the so-called “progressive bourgeoisie”. Calls for self-determination for Catalans and Basques were conveniently swept under the rug. Pablo Iglesias and Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the PSOE, collaborated in bringing down Rajoy in June 2018 through a no-confidence vote. Sánchez’s caretaker government enjoyed the enthusiastic support of UP’s deputies. Understandably, the PSOE rose in opinion polls, as it recovered its tarnished left-wing credentials with the accolades of UP.

Pablo Iglesias’ political zigzags in 2015-19 bear the mark of the impatient reformist that looks down on the working class. Incapable of unseating the PSOE in one stroke, he concluded that workers are irretrievably conservative and conformist. Rather than facilitating a PSOE government but remaining in the opposition, and thus maintaining political independence, confident that time and events would prove him right and that experience would teach workers to distrust the Social Democrats, he swung from sectarianism to opportunism. Neither policy helped whittle away the PSOE social base. At no point did Pablo Iglesias mobilise his followers to try to change the balance of forces. Instead, he chose to manoeuvre in the corridors of power, purging his party of those who refused to dance to his tune.

However, in calling for a coalition, Pablo Iglesias set himself a trap. Pedro Sánchez was in no mood to share power with these unpredictable partners. The elections of April 2019 failed to deliver a government as Sánchez refused to enter a coalition, leading to yet new elections in November where the left-wing was punished by demoralised voters. This corrective impelled Pedro Sánchez to bring four UP-aligned ministers into his cabinet, including two Communist Party members, and to appoint Pablo Iglesias vice-president. The formation of this government in January 2020, on the eve of the pandemic, was accompanied by much fanfare. The leaders of UP believe they can tack the PSOE towards the left. In reality, it was these junior partners that were driven rightward. In the minority, sharing power with a party that, for all its left-wing rhetoric, is firmly in the pocket of big business, shackling themselves to the government and thus losing the right to independent criticism. Having abandoned the streets and attempting to outplay the ruling class in its own game of bourgeois politics, and standing atop a state machinery that was inherited wholesale from the Franco dictatorship and is linked by a million threads to the ruling class, UP was put on a slippery slope of capitulations.

No room for class collaboration

The economic crisis has hit Spain hard. The country’s economy plummeted by 5.2 percent in the first quarter of the year. The government predicts a 9.2 percent fall for the whole of 2020. It is predicted that the unemployment rate will approach 20 percent by the end of the year. As in 2008, it is the youth, migrants, and the poorest layers of the working class that are bearing the brunt of the crisis. Youth unemployment has already reached 33 percent, according to the latest figures. Public debt has spiralled as tax revenues drop and the pandemic forces new expenses. It is expected to increase to around 115 percent of the GDP in the coming months, according to the government’s own estimates. Other forecasts place it at 125 percent by the end of the year. The budget deficit will more than treble to 10.3 percent of the GDP, according to the most conservative forecasts.

As in all countries, the state is called to step in to save capitalism. Although the government has carried out some measures to protect workers, such as increasing the minimum wage and a basic income for the unemployed who have run out of social security benefits, and implemented a strict lockdown that helped overcome the pandemic, it has also funnelled public funds to the private sector. Around 3.6 million workers have been temporarily laid off, meaning that the state now pays their wages, which are reduced to a maximum of 70 percent, while companies are exempt from paying social security contributions. Although businesses are formally obliged to re-employ these workers in the course of six months, the law is full of loopholes that will allow for mass redundancies. The Spanish Central Bank has already warned that years of harsh austerity measures will have to follow this inordinate expenditure. And, as always, the question is, who will foot the bill, the workers or the capitalists?

Inglasias Image GUE NGL FlickrDespite Inglasias' ambition, UP is treated as an annoying fifth wheel in government that the PSOE brandishes when it needs to prop up its left-wing credentials / Image: GUE NGL, Flickr

Pablo Iglesias is fudging this question. He is under the illusion that we are all in the same boat, and that the crisis will be overcome through the patriotic efforts of labour and capital. In a recent interview, he stated: “It is necessary to establish an alliance with the employers that take care of their workers, that produce wealth and pay their taxes in Spain, as opposed to the vultures and speculators.” Yet the crisis makes class collaboration impossible. This truth will come down on Pablo Iglesias’ head with a bang.

The irreconcilability of class antagonisms was evinced by a major controversy over the suspension of Mariano Rajoy’s 2012 reactionary labour law. Despite the alliance between the PSOE and UP, the government does not command a majority in parliament, which is extremely fragmented, and the executive rests on fragile combinations. The renewal of lockdown laws in May required complicated negotiations with different parties. The defection of Catalan nationalists from the ruling bloc forced Pedro Sánchez to look for new allies. He found them in the battered remnants of Ciudadanos, an erstwhile-powerful liberal party that was virtually wiped out in the last elections. At the same time, the coalition needed to renew the support of the left-wing Basque nationalists of EH-Bildu. On 20 May, the government announced it had reached an agreement with EH-Bildu, who are in the midst of the Basque election campaign and are thus particularly fastidious. In exchange for their votes for the extension of the lockdown, they secured the complete abolition of Rajoy’s labour laws. This was trumpeted by EH-Bildu, and by Pablo Iglesias, as a major victory for the working class.

However, on that very same night, the indignant representative of the bosses’ union rang the PSOE ministers and demanded the agreement be rescinded. The Social Democrats, led by pro-capitalist finance minister Nadia Calviño, duly complied, bowing their heads before the bosses as behoves these lackeys of capital. The PSOE announced a modification of the agreement which meant that only some aspects of the labour law would be modified. They were not abashed in the least by this turn of events. The Social Democrats, whose entire social function is to beguile workers into the capitalists’ embrace, are experts in the art of making high-flown promises that they will later water down or simply discard. Their current honeymoon with Ciudadanos facilitates these capitulations. The Basque nationalists of EH-Bildu took the blow rather soberly. They envisaged the agreement as a propaganda coup and were under no illusions it would actually be implemented. Pablo Iglesias on the contrary blustered, as his foolish belief in the letter of the law was exposed. He was the only one who took the agreement seriously. Not even Communist Labour Minister Yolanda Díaz believed in the pact. Indeed, even before Covid-19, she considered the abolition of the PP labour laws “impractical”. However, after an initial outburst, Pablo Iglesias’ has had to bite his tongue. As a coalition partner, his capacity to criticise the government has been curtailed. Ironically, Íñigo Errejón, who represented the most-opportunistic wing of the early Podemos and who defected from the party in 2019, has emerged as a prominent critic of the government. He is simply exploiting the political independence that Pablo Iglesias exchanged for the Faustian sinecures of public office.

Increasingly, UP is treated as an annoying fifth wheel in government that the PSOE brandishes when it needs to prop up its left-wing credentials, to be shrugged off when important matters are discussed; that is, when capital has to impose its will. The ruling class, through their mouthpiece El País, demands unity and discipline from the government – that is, unity and discipline in serving the capitalists. In truth, considering the depth of the crisis, the bourgeoisie would prefer a grand coalition between the PSOE and the main right-wing party, PP. But this is currently unfeasible, because the right is gripped by a reactionary delirium.

Reactionary demonstrations

Even before the end of the lockdown, rabid reactionary demonstrations were organised by right-wing and far-right elements in the rich neighbourhoods of Madrid and soon spread to other regions. Their slogan: freedom! Their symbol: the red-and-yellow Bourbon flag. These outbursts were capped by a motorised parade against the government organised by far-right party Vox on 25 May.

The crisis brought about by the pandemic is raising to its feet all the social refuse in Spain. Petty businessmen and greedy landlords; Francoist hags and pious Catholics; ruined hidalgos and despotic landowners; stockholders, financiers, speculators, swindlers, and rentiers of all stripes; bullfighters, philistine footballers, and yellow press celebrities; gilded youths donning gaudy shirts and puffy vests; pimps and drug dealers and their wealthy customers; libertarian entrepreneurs and corporate vultures; notaries, judges, and other privileged paper pushers; active and retired army men, police, and Civil Guards; neo-Nazi thugs and demented Carlists; lumpenproletarian bootlickers and déclassé Uncle Toms – such is the physiognomy of the current protests. What the sundry elements of this Goyaesque mass have in common is that they all leech from the body of the toiling nation (or long to do so). They call for freedom: to exploit, plunder the state coffers, and extract rents more freely. When they hail Spain they hail their profits, their rents, their entitlements. The crisis has thrown this mass off balance, condemned to oblivion by history and thus ever insecure and paranoid about its own privileges. They worked themselves into a frenzy against the government during the lockdown. Any move by the government is immediately branded as communist. The minimum wage is communism. The reform of the labour law is communism. The lockdown is communism. This paranoia is but a negative reflection of the impotence and rottenness of Spanish capitalism and its entire superstructure. The slightest quiver threatens to bring down this worm-eaten edifice.

The reactionary masses clench onto the symbol of their regime, the red-and-yellow flag of the Bourbons. They hail the police and the army, which in turn salute and mollycoddle the right-wing bands. This affinity is born out the intuition that they are beneficiaries of the same system of oppression and exploitation. When left-wing activists have attempted to confront the rightists, the police kettle, arrest and beat them up. Encouraged by the permissiveness of the police, far-right groups have been carrying attacks against left-wing activists with impunity. For instance, in Granada, the house of musician Javier Cuesta was assaulted by fascist thugs simply for having a republican flag on his balcony. In Málaga, a UGT trade unionist was beaten up by a gang chanting “long live Franco, long live Hitler, long live Vox”.

Justice Minister Grande Marlaska was forced to dismiss Civil Guard chief in Madrid, Colonel Pérez de los Cobos, who has links to the far right and was in charge of the repression against the Catalan referendum in 2017. De los Cobos sabotaged the government’s measures to protect officials from right-wing lynch mobs. He also fabricated reports about the executive’s handling of the pandemic that right-wing judges were to use for legal frame-ups against the government. This timid reaffirmation by the government has been met with wrath by the state apparatus, with the resignation of prominent Civil Guard officials. Yet, as Minister Marlaska pulls the tiger’s tail with one hand, he feeds it with the other. He has announced a wage rise of 20 percent for Civil Guards to sweeten the mood in the barracks. He is right in inferring that the patriotism of the armed forces is ultimately a question of cigars and champagne, cold poultry and garlic sausage. But the trough will never be full enough for these uniformed gluttons.

The most-prescient bourgeois in Spain regard these marches with contempt and fear their polarising effect. Yet less-intelligent sectors of the ruling class, such as retail oligarch Juan Roig, sympathise with them. The Spanish bourgeoisie is notoriously parasitic and voracious. It has been challenged by the people many times in history. It only feels comfortable if it has full and direct control over the state apparatus, if it wields the whip in its own hands. It holds the current coalition in disdain. The political force that most accurately expresses this mentality is Vox. The Catalan referendum of 2017 radicalised the Spanish right and allowed it to trumpet its ideology unashamedly. The fear and inaction of UP facilitated this process. The ground was thus prepared for the rapid rise of Francoist party Vox in 2018-19.

The traditional party of Spanish conservatism, the PP, is now locked in competition with Vox. It has gradually veered towards the right. This has blocked any attempts at collaboration with the PSOE, as a sector of the bourgeoisie would wish. Most worrisomely, if these right-wing protests go too far, they might elicit a powerful reaction from the left. Predictably, UP has reacted to these marches with fear and paralysis. The youth and the working class are once again leaderless. But in many working-class homes, teeth are bared and fists are clenched at the images of reaction running amok. Spontaneous counter demonstrations have taken place in numerous working-class neighbourhoods, starting with Vallecas in Madrid. Any provocation might provoke a powerful, spontaneous outpouring of anger that will sweep away reaction, reveal its superficial character, and cow it into silence. In some ways, the protests by the right have been very formative. The flag of the monarchy is now firmly connected to reaction. The close links between the repressive state apparatus and reaction have also been exposed. Yet not only will Spanish workers and youth mobilise against the far right, they will also attack the regime in general, and demand a revolutionary way out of the crisis.