This is a translation of an article by philosopher Juan Domingo Sánchez Estop, originally published today, 15th of May, on Voces de Pradillo. It analyses the social and political dimensions of debt, and the reluctance of left political parties in Spain to make debt the major issue in their campaign for the European elections. It is particularly relevant in Ireland not only on account of the common issue of debt –the debt burden is in fact far greater in the Irish case-, but also the pitfalls of a narrow focus on corrupt political elites. You can read my dialogue on democracy and the republic with Juan Domingo here and here.
Debt: present in our lives, absent from the election campaign
One of the big issues absent from the current election campaign is that of debt. Little is said about debt, and what does get said is said timidly, as if it were a difficult and delicate question that people were unable to understand.
However, debt, both private and public, constitutes the very epicentre of the permanent crisis in which we are immersed. Debt evicts, debt fires people, debt cuts wages and pensions, debt removes rights, debt redistributes wealth upward and fills the envelopes of the corrupt, it is debt that feeds the ‘politico-business caste’, and reproduces it.
Thus to speak about corruption, or the political caste, without speaking at the same time about what sustains it, is simply to remain on a superficial level of discourse, which can of course unleash ‘justicialist’ passions, a will to re-establish justice and the rule of law and punish those who get rich by violating the legal order.
However, we have already seen how in other countries, ‘justicialist’ political operations, intended to put an end to corruption by energetic means, by not intervening upon the causes, merely served to reproduce the corruption and even widen it. Such is the case in Italy, where the political-media-legal operation Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) imprisoned, or at least brought before the courts, a large section of the Christian Democrat and Socialist political caste accused of the gravest acts of corruption. We know that the result of this operation was the emergence of a regime of corruption that was even more systematic and operated with even more impunity, during the twenty years of Berlusconi rule.
The point here is that you cannot treat as an offence, a crime, or an anomaly, what is in reality a perfectly normalised and stable system, one that exists to pillage society’s wealth. Neoliberalism, from the end of the 80s until 2008, functioned through ‘speculative bubbles’ (dotcom, construction, food, etc.) based on easy credit. Thanks to the big credit facilities that allowed many people to buy houses or cars or fund their holidays, the capitalist regimes of the richest countries achieved what had seemed impossible: to maintain or raise the consumption levels of wide sectors of the population while freezing and even reducing real wages.
Nowadays, finance capital is calling in the “easy” credit of the previous phase, which, for the population, has been turned into a mountain of debt. Not only for the population, but also for the State, which, at the service of the banks, saved the banks, when according to sound liberal logic they ought to have gone bust. Indeed, when the speculative activities of the banks and other financial actors (the property bubble was the last major one, and in Spain, the decisive one) failed, the Spanish State, along with the other major capitalist States -opted to ‘bail them out’ through big injections of public funds obtained by getting into debt (issue of public debt and other loans). This made the Spanish State, whose public debt was one of the lowest in the EU, along with others, raise their levels of indebtedness spectacularly. At this moment, the Spanish State is the debtor of the very banks it saved with public funds. To pay this debt, or at least its interest payments -since the debt has become unpayable- the State is resorting to the liquidation and privatisation of public services such as education.
On top of the cuts there is a steep rise in indirect taxes such as VAT imposed equally on all citizens independent of their level of income.
Once the crisis was declared, private and public debts became unpayable. Private debts on account of a lack of waged income -due to the mass unemployment caused by the crisis- public debt on account of the fall in the State’s tax take, also originating in the crisis.
Every attempt to cut public spending through cuts in social provision or tax increases lowers the ability of the population to consume and raises the debt. There is no longer any economic rationality behind the measures intended to reduce the deficit and pay off the debt, since these very measures are what cause the debt and the deficit to rise to unprecedented levels. However, the debt, this unpayable debt that rises when there are attempts to reduce it, has another purpose: to subject governments and populations to a political rule that corresponds to the interests of finance capital, to place society as a whole and every sector of production under an inexorable discipline.
According to the real powers that be, one of the things that governments and citizens must be clear on is that the main priority must be the payment of the debt.
However, what seems a common sense idea and an elementary moral principle is beginning to be questioned by wide sections of society. Whoever refuses to be evicted from their home puts their right to housing over and above the payment of debt, and thereby calls into question the legitimacy of a credit system that cannot allow access to even a good as elementary as housing. The user of public services who puts their health and the education of their children before the payment of debt implicitly calls into question the idea that this payment should take precedence over the conditions for a civilised life. Widely representative social movements such as the PAH (Mortgage Victims Platform), the Marea Verde (Green Tide, in defence of public education) and the Marea Blanca (White Tide, in defence of public health care) thus stand opposed to the debt by not accepting its consequences.
What is needed now is for these relatively disperse demands: housing, health education, public services, etc. to be united under a general demand that comprises them all. This can only be the repudiation of the payment of illegitimate debt, the debt acquired by the State in order to save the banks, the debt acquired by individuals on the basis of abusive credit contracts, the public debt that originates in corruption. There must be an urgent evaluation of this illegitimate debt and its payment must be stopped, since it is on this non-payment that the safeguarding of a civilised life for society depends: one where there are no children going hungry, where old people have decent pensions, where economic activity is reborn on new foundations and generates income for all. The demand for the repudiation of illegitimate debt is a perfect cross-sectional demand that is neither of the left or the right but rather strict common sense. If it is extreme, it is of extreme necessity.
It is worrying, then, that the parties of the Spanish left have, in this European elections campaign, placed to one side this demand that ought to form the basis for every other demand, since it is only by liberating ourselves from the burden of this illegitimate debt that it will be possible to practise a different politics, to govern in favour of the 99% of the population.
In Greece, one party, Syriza, has made this repudiation its banner, without remaining on the margins as a consequence: right now it is the first party in the country, which means that the majority of society understands perfectly well what the debt means nowadays. A left that seeks to move out of the margins, out of adolescence and out of a rhetorical void must understand this. The sooner it does, the sooner we will be able to put a stop to the disaster unfolding.