The criminalisation of social protest: the authoritarian escalation in Spain

From Evernote:

The criminalisation of social protest: the authoritarian escalation in Spain

Following on from the last post, here is a translation of a piece by Arturo Borra, from his blog Archipiélago en resistencia, published last Saturday, also published at Rebelión.

The criminalisation of social protest: the authoritarian escalation in Spain.

There is no adjustment policy that does not involve simultaneously, as its necessary counterpart, a policy of repression aimed at the domestication of social protest. With the inevitable rise in social conflict, in light of radically one-sided decisions in the distribution of privileges and risks, the national government attacks civil liberties, including the right to demonstration and assembly. Anti-popular measures such as the labour reform, the brutal cutbacks in social spending whilst budgetary privileges of the crown, the Catholic Church and the armed forces are maintained, the of a regressive fiscal system, the roll-back in terms of rights for women, the barring of a judge as emblematic as Garzón from practice (for investigation of crimes against humanity and of one of the so many rings of corruption in existence) or the public bailout of the private banking system, among other measures, have as their corollary the establishment of a police state that operates out of the laws of exception it institutionalises so as to act beyond any democratic control, generating the temporary suspension of rights in the name of a situation of emergency.


Effectively, in the name of this emergency, the Spanish governmental right-wing –pressured internally by its most ultraconservative factions and externally by a European union co-opted by global financial power- has no other response to the diverse social demands than the criminalisation of the participants in social demonstrations and the usurpation of public space by police in the name of social order. The ideological confrontation itself places the ruling party in the dilemma of whether to baton charge the demonstrators and stir up collective outrage or allow their mobilisation and go against the wishes of a significant part of its electorate.


The resolution of the dilemma has not taken long to arrive: the commitment to judicialising social conflict is clear. That this task should involve wide scale use of the police, charging demonstrators with offences of public disorder, resistance and disobedience of authority (despite the evidence to the contrary), should not allow us to lose sight of something much more serious: not only was the repressive apparatus built up during Francoism never dismantled but what is underway now is a pan-European policy, the product of the replacement of a more or less benevolent social democratic variant of capitalism with a far more virulent neoliberal variant.


The multi-million euro acquisition of riot gear foretold this intensification of repressive policies in Spain. That there are thousands of citizens protesting (from the unemployed to students, from leftist politicians and members of smaller unions to public sector workers and pensioners) does not move the new ruling block in the slightest. The authoritarian escalation has just begun. Under the supervision of European political institutions subordinate to financial oligarchies, the ruling party has via libre to pursue the direction that was already apparent in the previous national government: to destroy the remaining pieces of the welfare state, discipline the working classes and consolidate big business and financial capital.

Raised to an absolute majority by an anti-democratic electoral law that legally solders bipartidism as state policy and –despite being a first minority- (remember that the PP barely got 30% of the votes of the electoral register), the present government knows that the policies of adjustment and bailout of financial entities will not be carried out without considerable social resistence. Hence the determined commitment to criminalise contestatory groups and social movements that put collective unrest on display. Their political objective is not so much to remove social protests from the public realm (an objective that can only fail miserably) but to domesticate them, this is, to regulate their movements and channel their appearances, in sum, to try and control a future that might otherwise lead to the unpredictable, to the acting out of the spectre of revolt or what there is of uncontrollable spillover in the event. 

It is not merely a problem of arrogance nurtured by a parliamentary majority (otherwise manifest in police baton charges so disproportionate as to be clumsy in foreseeing the negative effects); what is in train is the construction of a para-statal sovereign power to consolidate a model of accumulation based in the concentration of wealth and social disciplining. That for this end a “total mobilisation” of the dominant bloc should not be surprising, starting with the unfolding of a cynical rhetoric that recalls the worst anticipations by Orwell in 1984: from this perspective, there is no hesitation in turning the labour reform upside down as a “guarantee of employment”, the shameful barring of Garzón as an “example of the rule of law”, the (selective) cutbacks as a “measure to preserve the welfare state” or the salvaging of private banking entities as a “defence of the general interest”. That the spokespersons of the ruling classes insist in limiting the right to strike without the slightest democratic sense of decency forms part of this authoritarian escalation required to alter the anatomy of a capitalist social formation used until relatively recently to a regime of small privileges (based on the promise of an unlimited access to consumption). That this regime has sustained itself historically through the transfer of unrest to peripheral countries, as the most lucid left forces have been predicting for decades, does not deny the illusory character of this promise. Chronic indebtedness, widespread poverty and the metamorphosis of the labour markets (casting millions of people into unemployment and super-exploiting so many others) make visible what in a previous phase operated in a latent manner; to wit, that the capitalist model of growth structurally presupposes class inequality, and, in the final instance, the pauperisation of ever wider social groups.

At any rate, the authoritarian cant of the ruling right-wing is a sign of the weakness of their hegemonic power when it comes to legitimating changes that have already been predetermined by international credit organisations and their EU spokespersons. The salvaging of the financial and business bourgeoisie has as its counterpart the precarification not only of the work but also of the living conditions of the Spanish middle and popular classes, preceded by the labour-related and institutional marginalisation of the immigrant and refugee population. The destruction of multiple economic, social and cultural rights, the heavy restrictions on access to public services and the trend towards their privatisation (including the management of pensions, of health and third level education) are some more necessary consequences of a political system ever more subordinate to systemic imperatives. That this savage metamorphosis of society should be carried out in the name of the “public interest” does not change things. As Laclau stresses, “society does not exist” in the sense of a presumed unified order. What persists, rather, is a split social fabric, in which the ruling classes have started an unprecedented global offensive. We should not dismiss the idea that we are reaching a point of no return, in which the destruction of the environment and the impoverishment of social majorities leads to the elimination of what is considered “human surplus”, not just through wars led by the transnational military-industrial complex, but also through local famines, which are perfectly avoidable with minimum controls over the global system of speculation.


That this point of no return should be systematically unknown through the mass broadcasting media, this is, that the hegemonic news reporting policies should be nothing but another form of chronic disinformation, serving a media-business complex that is ever more concentrated, is another sign of the authoritarian escalation we alluded to earlier. The systemic crisis of legitimacy is transformed into the planning of deception. Economic neoliberalism –we have known this since the Latin American dictatorships of the 1970s- has always been fond of the ‘iron fist’. Political authoritarianism and cultural neoconservatism are its best allies. That in Spain these traditions refer to the perverse Francoist heritage does not seem in doubt, but this should not stop us from recalling that the political-economic dynamic goes beyond this historical heritage and entails capitalism in its current phase, not only as a mode of production of surpluses, but also as a mode of planetary destruction.

If what is underway in an economic dimension is a vertiginous concentration of social wealth, what is manifest in the political system is, to use the expression of Rancière, an authentic ‘hatred of democracy’. Besides being a radical affront to the demands of justice, the new world (dis)order has activated a gigantic machine for grinding human lives, indifferent to any external regulation (or limitation). That this machine should have certain beneficiaries does not negate its out-of-control state. Its beneficiaries, in the final instance, are nothing more than gears and hooks trapped within its mechanical functioning.

In the final instance, in light of this dynamic, not even the most totalitarian right-wing proposes forbidding every manifestation of dissidence. It could not manage it however stubbornly it tried. The logic of terror is too burdensome and, in consequence, it is reserved for those collectives that sovereign economic-financial power deems cannot be ‘integrated’ by other means. When it cannot be ‘integrated’ by other means. When market coups do not go far enough, they are complemented with a controlled use of police violence. Impose fear on bodies, fix them into the grid of the politically predictable, in sum, put a lid on their revolutionary energy, are some of the various systemic modalities for holding back this dissidence, assimilating it as part of the (theatrical) representation of the “democratic game” (reduced to the logic of alternating parliamentary elites).


Under present conditions, the thesis, that we are living at a threshold where the borders between ‘democratic state’ and ‘totalitarian state’ are becoming ever more diffuse (which does not mean that they fully coincide), becomes all the more plausible. There are amply reasonable motives to suspect that we are entering that murky zone where ‘democracy’ and ‘totalitarianism’, ‘self-determination’ and ‘dictatorship’ no longer make up formal alternatives in a political dichotomy but elements of a systemic combination. One could even argue that it is not at all a combination but a gradual swallowing up of the first term by the second. What is at danger, in both cases, is the project of a society in which individual and collective autonomy are not a mere projection of an administered society.


Although this danger is not strictly new, its present intensification in the European context may be an index of an unprecedented offensive. Against the politics of fear that they wish to institutionalise, the reply of the radical left can be no other than the radical politicisation of the present institutional forms. Against the restructuring of capitalism our commitment should be the destructuring of its hegemony, rendering its everyday violence visible. To defy fear, at this point, becomes the active practice of dissidence.

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