Spain: how can workers respond to an economy in dire straits?

See also :

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

The working class in Spain is facing particularly harsh austerity measures. The explosive economic crisis is making the social situation equally tense. The past year’s struggles in response have often been an inspiration to others. In particular the 15M movement of the Indignados followed the Arab Spring and in turn inspired struggle in Greece and the USA, for example. The anniversary of the 15M and the events surrounding it was followed by the start of a strike by 8,000 miners, mainly in Asturias, against the withdrawal of EU coalmining subsidies which will totally undermine the industry, threatening 40,000 jobs in a country that already has 24% unemployment overall and where half those under 25 are without jobs. This article aims to contribute to the discussion on what we can learn from both the anniversary of 15M and from the miners’ strike.

The difficulties of struggling when they plan to lay you off

The Asturian miners have a proud tradition in the working class, notably in the revolt of 1934, and it is no surprise to see their determined response with a strike that started on 31 May. There can be no denying their courage as they have set up numerous road blocks with tyres and logs, used improvised weapons to repulse the Civil Guard who came to clear one of these on highway N-360, and stood up to beatings, arrests and rubber bullets when they went to Madrid. All this has clearly been an inspiration to contributors on libcom (http://libcom.org/news/coal-mines-ignite-asturias-10062012?page=1http://libcom.org/news/coal-mines-ignite-asturias-10062012?page=1) and from the ICT (http://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2012-06-19/the-struggle-of-the-asturian-miners).

This is very reminiscent of the miners’ strike in Britain in 1984/5, when this militant sector, deeply respected and in many ways carrying the hopes of the whole working class, engaged in a courageous and bitter strike, and engaged in numerous confrontations with the police when faced with unprecedented levels of repression. Like the Spanish miners they faced plans to close many mines in a period of high unemployment. It ended in a defeat that weighed heavily on the working class in Britain in the following two decades.

In the discussion on libcom Fingers Malone raised the difficulty the Spanish miners face due to the nature of the attack that will essentially close their industry: “just striking by itself wouldn’t get them anywhere”. He sees this as a reason for mounting the road blocks as well as the desperate measure of occupying the mine underground in conditions that are unhealthy as well as unpleasant. But does this take them any further in effective struggle? In our view the problem is not just that striking by itself is insufficient, but that struggling by themselves, isolated from other sectors of the working class, puts them into a weak position faced with the might of the state and is likely to lead to defeat. The general strike of 18th June organised by the unions (CCOO and UGT) and the left (PCE and PSOE) was certainly not going to break their isolation, confined as it was to the areas and industries affected by the cut in subsidy. And their demand for a ‘plan for coal’ in Spain, reminiscent of the NUM slogan ‘coal not dole’, is clearly going to increase the strike’s isolation.

In this sense the slogan “we are not indignant, we are pissed off” actually epitomises the limitations of the struggle, with its illusions in their strength as miners capable of fighting off the Civil Guard. In some ways the miners see themselves as expressing a more radical position than that of the Indignados, which was one of the key struggles in the past year, not just in Spain but internationally. But for all their sense of class identity, the isolation of the Asturian miners is a key weakness that could result in a significant set-back for the struggle as a whole.

One year on, what is left from 15M?

However much difficulty the bourgeoisie have in managing the economy we should never underestimate their experience in confronting the working class – as shown by their isolation of the miners, and the union-organised general strike of 29 March (see WR 353) which was followed immediately by the announcement of a further 27 billion euros of cuts.

Their ‘celebration’ of the anniversary of 15M is another example, a parody of the original events designed to erase, or at least completely distort, the memory of the original events – just when we need to reflect on, discuss and inwardly digest the lessons of this experience. This year the events were called by a cartel of leftist and union organisations, and not the assemblies, which no longer exist, and they have emphasised the democratic and reformist view of the ‘citizen’ as opposed to the working class.

The false alternatives offered by the right wing PP government and by the left complement each other very well. The former has aggressively threatened repression, and accused the Indignados of being a ‘submarine’ for the PSOE. Meanwhile the PSOE, which a year ago misrepresented the 15M movement as petty bourgeois, no-hopers, like a dog walking on its hind legs, now welcomes it as a ‘triumph’, with a great future and a weight in society. The bourgeoisie always denigrate a real movement, but they also love to glorify its memory when they can turn it into an empty shell.

 The anniversary demonstrations were massive, but not as large as at the height of the movement in June, July and October last year. Assemblies were revived in Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Valencia, Alicante and elsewhere. However, if the assemblies were greeted with interest and curiosity on the Saturday, they were gradually deserted afterwards, and there was no strength in the movement to resist the control by leftist organisations – people preferred to drift away. Nevertheless there were signs of working class life: massive participation by the young; a healthy and joyful atmosphere; and some good contributions to discussion. In Madrid there was a good discussion on the question of health; voices were raised to support what we have called the proletarian wing of the movement, even if they were less confident than last year. But overall the movement could not break out of the shackles imposed by the bourgeoisie, and it remained a caricature of the 15M, with the air of a day out at the weekend before returning to daily life.

The perspective for the working class

The social movements that took place in 2011 were a very intense experience for the working class with their international dimension, the use of the streets, the assemblies at the heart of the movement where lively debates were held (see ‘From indignation to hope’ in WR 353). In Spain there were massive mobilisations in the education sector in Madrid and Barcelona, in health in Barcelona as well as the young in Valencia. The union strike on 29 March and the miners’ strike are also important experiences to reflect on. (See ‘General strike in Spain: radical minorities call for independent workers’ action’ in WR 353).

Our comrades in Spain have noted that after all these experiences there is a feeling of the movement being checked, of its weakness and the difficulty of developing a struggle that is sufficient for the gravity of the situation and the level of the attacks. This process of questioning is absolutely essential, a vital contribution to the development of understanding in the working class that will prepare the ground for a response that is both a broader movement and goes deeper in putting capitalism itself into question.

There is a growing recognition that capitalism is a bankrupt system, that it has no future, that after five years of crisis the ruling class has no answer and that the system needs to be replaced. For instance at one assembly in Valencia, a woman spoke up to support an ICC contribution arguing that the 15M movement had a revolutionary and a reformist wing and that we need to support the former. But there is also a search for immediate answers or actions, which can lead to sterile or even ridiculous proposals, such as the notion that if we all withdraw our funds from the nationalised Bankia it will “really hit capitalism”.

So, while the question of the need to replace capitalism is raised, there is also the difficulty in seeing how this can be done, and also a hope that perhaps the bankruptcy of the system can be reversed. Here the left and extreme left put forward all sorts of ‘solutions’ to reform capitalism, such as taxing the rich, eliminating corruption, nationalisation, etc. In fact the centre and right can even join in with these ‘radical’ campaigns on corruption and tax avoidance.

It is vital to avoid the trap of reformist alternatives. It is equally vital that disgust with politicians as a whole, and the lies of the left in particular, does not tempt us to retreat into local and isolated groups suspicious of all outsiders. Only by avoiding these traps can we advance the process of reflection on the crisis of capitalism, the need to overthrow it, and how the working class can take its struggle forward, all of which is essential to the preparation of future struggles. 

Alex 30/6/12