Dan Hancox writes: When Ernesto Laclau passed away last April aged 78, few would have guessed that this Argentinian-born, Oxford-educated post-Marxist would become the key intellectual figure behind a political process that exploded into life a mere six weeks later, when Spanish leftist party Podemos won five seats and 1.2m votes in last May’s European elections.
Throughout his academic career, most of which he spent as professor of political theory at the University of Essex, Laclau developed a vocabulary beyond classical Marxist thought, replacing the traditional analysis of class struggle with a concept of “radical democracy” that stretched beyond the narrow confines of the ballot box (or the trade union). Most importantly for Syriza, Podemos and its excitable sympathisers outside Greece and Spain, he sought to rescue “populism” from its many detractors.
Íñigo Errejón, one of Podemos’s key strategists, completed his 2011 doctorate on recent Bolivian populism, taking substantial inspiration from Laclau and his wife and collaborator Chantal Mouffe, as he explains in this obituary. To read Errejón on Laclau is to take an exhilarating short-cut to understanding the intellectual forces that are shaping Europe’s future. Syriza’s victory in Greece, for one, has been directly driven by the ideas of Laclau and an Essex cohort that includes among its alumni a Syriza MP, the governor of Athens, and Yanis Varoufakis. Syriza built its political coalition in exactly the way Laclau prescribed in his key 2005 book On Populist Reason – as Essex professor David Howarth puts it, “binding together different demands by focusing on their opposition to a common enemy”.
On the Mediterranean side of austerity Europe, the common enemy is not hard to discern. During Spain’s massive indignados protests and encampments of summer 2011, one of the principal slogans was the quintessentially populist “We are neither right nor left, we are coming from the bottom and going for the top”. It is, in Laclau’s terms, “the formation of an internal antagonistic frontier” like this, between a broadly defined sense of “the people” and a ruling class unwilling to yield to their demands, that readies the ground for a populist movement like Podemos.[Continue reading…]
Yiannis Baboulias writes: Prior to the financial crisis of 2008, anyone familiar with the Greek nation and its politics would have been surprised by the events of Sunday night. Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras addressed a crowd of thousands who had gathered in central Athens to celebrate his party’s general election victory. The new Greek Prime Minister—state educated, young and not related to previous prime ministers—is unlike any of his predecessors. His party is a coalition of the radical left, that was born as a fringe party six years ago.
“The Greek people gave us a clear, indisputable mandate to end austerity,” said Tsipras. But despite the fact Syriza is the outright winner, it didn’t quite manage to get the seats it needed to form a majority government (increasing its share of the vote from 4.6 per cent in 2009, to more than 36 per cent now.) Yesterday we learned that it would form a coalition with the populist right, anti-austerity party Independent Greeks.
Analysts rightly point out that the parties will be uneasy bedfellows. Syriza comes from a breakaway faction of the traditional communist party, and is itself a coalition of smaller entities that range from the centre-left to anarchism. The Independent Greeks on the other hand broke away from the centre-right party New Democracy when it signed up to austerity after its election in 2012. [Continue reading…]
Vice News reports: Three women and a man, accused of recruiting young women for the Islamic State through social media and WhatsApp forums, were sent to prison by a Spanish judge on Thursday. They were allegedly part of a jihadist network that has managed to send 12 women to join the terrorist group in Syria and Iraq.
Spanish National Court Judge Santiago Pedraz “ordered unconditional detention for membership in a terrorist organisation,” according to a judicial source.
Police arrested seven suspects this week — four people in Melilla and Ceuta, Spanish territories in northern Africa, a Chilean woman in Barcelona, and two men in the Moroccan town of Castillejos. Two women arrested in Barcelona and Ceuta were apparently about to travel to the Middle East. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: The Spanish government has warned the US that revelations of widespread spying by the National Security Agency could, if confirmed, “lead to a breakdown in the traditional trust” between the two countries.
The diplomatic row followed a report in Spain’s El Mundo newspaper on Monday, based on a leaked NSA document, claiming that the US had intercepted 60.5m phone calls in Spain between 10 December 2012 and 8 January this year.
In the latest revelations from the documents leaked by the US whistleblower Edward Snowden, El Mundo published an NSA graphic, entitled “Spain – last 30 days”, showing the daily flow of phone calls within Spain. On one day alone – 11 December 2012 – the NSA reportedly intercepted more than 3.5m phone calls. It appears that although the content of the calls was not monitored the serial and phone numbers of the handsets used, the locations, sim cards and the duration of the calls were. Emails and other social media were also monitored.
The White House has so far declined to comment on the El Mundo report. Spain, however, expressed its concern. José Manuel García Margallo, Spain’s foreign minister, warned of a breakdown in trust between Madrid and Washington at a press conference in Warsaw, where he was on an official visit. [Continue reading…]
BBC News reports: More than 500 years ago, tens of thousands of Jews fled Spain because of persecution. Now their descendants are being invited to return.
Before the infamous Spanish Inquisition of the 15th Century, some 300,000 Jews lived in Spain. It was one of the largest communities of Jews in the world.
Today, there are about 40,000 or 50,000 – but that number could be about to swell dramatically.
In November, Spain’s justice minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon announced a plan to give descendants of Spain’s original Jewish community – known as Sephardic Jews – a fast-track to a Spanish passport and Spanish citizenship.
“In the long journey Spain has undertaken to rediscover a part of itself, few occasions are as moving as today,” he said.
Anyone who could prove their Spanish Jewish origins, he said, would be given Spanish nationality. [Continue reading…]
Paul Mason writes: “Independence for Catalonia? Over my dead body… and those of many soldiers.” That was how Francisco Alaman reacted to the 1.5 million strong demonstration in Barcelona last month, with many calling for independence for the region.
It’s a view. Quite strongly held not just on the right in Spain but on the centre left. However Alaman is a serving soldier: a colonel. And it wasn’t the only incendiary thing he said.
In the week tens of thousands of protesters surrounded parliament, he told the website Alerta Digital:
“The current situation is very similar to 1936, but without blood. Unfortunately, the data indicate that the situation will only get worse in the coming months and years.”
Economics journalists have learned, (thanks to the work of the FT’s Gillian Tett), to ask a very brutal and searching question as we parachute into the latest theatre of crisis: look for the social silence. What is staring you in the face but nobody wants to talk about it?
Well Colonel Alaman has answered it.
During the early years of Spanish democracy, forgetting about the Civil War (1936-39) was not just a psychological necessity – it was a political choice.
The “pact of silence” instituted after the fall of General Franco was seen as a price worth paying for rapid, peaceful transition to a functioning democracy – a democracy that, moreover, found space to accommodate a strong, previously clandestine Communist Party alongside the rapidly moderating socialists of the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party).
The approach was codified into law, with the 1977 Amnesty Law guaranteeing a blanket immunity from prosecution for those suspected of crimes against humanity during the Franco era and the Civil War.
With Spain now reeling from austerity, its riot police dispensing truncheon blows and rubber bullets against demonstrators and passers-by, the “pact of silence” is falling apart. [Continue reading…]
Following protests in Madrid which turned violent on Tuesday night, Giles Tremlett writes: Even before the march, government officials had loudly claimed that protesters were troublemakers from both the left and the right.
Perhaps that is why riot police felt they could hide their identity badges – a move that protesters say proves they feel themselves to be above the law. A startling example of police culture came in a tweet from José Manuel Sánchez of the Unified Police Union (SUP). “We support them not wearing badges for violent demonstrators,” he said during the demonstration. “Give it to them hard.” Television pictures of baton charges and rubber bullets suggest they did exactly that.
Organisers had said the attempt to ring the parliament building would be peaceful, but they also clearly expected arrests. Authorities said on Wednesday they had found 260kg of rocks that had been hurled at police – not indignado behaviour.
Opposition politicians warned the protest could not be ignored. “The country is slipping out of the government’s hands,” the socialist opposition leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba said. “After yesterday’s demonstration it would be a mistake for politicians to talk only about public order.”
But while events in Madrid caught headlines, the settlement between Spaniards that has allowed them to enjoy almost four decades of democracy since the 1975 death of dictator General Francisco Franco was crumbling in a more serious fashion elsewhere.
In Barcelona it was legislators, not demonstrators, who were challenging the post-Franco settlement. Artur Mas, leader of the Catalan regional government called early elections for 25 November as politicians of all colours adapted to a game-changing demonstration for independence that brought hundreds of thousands of Catalans onto the city’s streets earlier this month.
Mas has called for Catalonia to have its own state. The upcoming elections will be seen as a plebiscite on that, however much his nationalist Convergence and Union coalition wraps itself in euphemisms and refuses to actually use the word “independence”. Once let out of its cage, the independence tiger may now prove impossible to put back – with polls showing a slim majority now in favour.
The New York Times reports: On a recent evening, a hip-looking young woman was sorting through a stack of crates outside a fruit and vegetable store here in the working-class neighborhood of Vallecas as it shut down for the night.
At first glance, she looked as if she might be a store employee. But no. The young woman was looking through the day’s trash for her next meal. Already, she had found a dozen aging potatoes she deemed edible and loaded them onto a luggage cart parked nearby.
“When you don’t have enough money,” she said, declining to give her name, “this is what there is.”
The woman, 33, said that she had once worked at the post office but that her unemployment benefits had run out and she was living now on 400 euros a month, about $520. She was squatting with some friends in a building that still had water and electricity, while collecting “a little of everything” from the garbage after stores closed and the streets were dark and quiet.
Such survival tactics are becoming increasingly commonplace here, with an unemployment rate over 50 percent among young people and more and more households having adults without jobs. So pervasive is the problem of scavenging that one Spanish city has resorted to installing locks on supermarket trash bins as a public health precaution.
A report this year by a Catholic charity, Caritas, said that it had fed nearly one million hungry Spaniards in 2010, more than twice as many as in 2007. That number rose again in 2011 by 65,000.
As Spain tries desperately to meet its budget targets, it has been forced to embark on the same path as Greece, introducing one austerity measure after another, cutting jobs, salaries, pensions and benefits, even as the economy continues to shrink.
Most recently, the government raised the value-added tax three percentage points, to 21 percent, on most goods, and two percentage points on many food items, making life just that much harder for those on the edge. Little relief is in sight as the country’s regional governments, facing their own budget crisis, are chipping away at a range of previously free services, including school lunches for low-income families.
For a growing number, the food in garbage bins helps make ends meet. [Continue reading…]
El País reports: Con la que está cayendo…” This expression – which literally means “With this downpour,” but metaphorically is used as “With things as bad as they are” – keeps cropping up in conversation, as Spaniards spend their days with one eye on the stock market and the other on the risk premium – “which seems like a member of the family right now,” according to the sociologist Daniel Kaplún, an expert on public opinion.
It’s been like this for many months, and nobody knows when it will end. The economic and financial crisis has brought with it a cloud of social pessimism; a mantle of gloom; a lack of expectations that is cutting deep into the average citizen’s state of mind. There truly seems to be no way out.
“There is no future, and therefore no present either,” says sociology professor Enrique Gil Calvo, from Madrid’s Complutense University.
“We’ve gone from concern to anguish,” adds his colleague José Juan Toharia, from the capital’s Autónoma University. La que está cayendo reflects a collective feeling and individual emotions, as well. The triple whammy of anxiety-anger-depression can easily shoot out of control, warns the psychologist Antonio Cano. General practitioners have already noticed it.
Is there a way out, given the lack of ways out?
“We’re experiencing a situation of generalized fear, and rarely were there so many reasons for it: the economy is in free-fall, and jobless claims have grown from 1.8 million to 5.6 million in just four years. Besides, just when we thought we were getting out of a V-shaped crisis, it got worse, and it turns out that it was actually a W,” says Gil Calvo.
This has created a “nightmare” feeling ever since the spending cuts were first introduced in 2010. The bad dream comes with a sense of helplessness that feeds a “general despondency.”
“There is no cure and nobody there to provide a cure. The Socialist Party failed. The Popular Party [PP] is failing too, and there are no firefighters left,” adds Gil Calvo.
And then there is “the Friday syndrome,” says the psychiatrist Julio Bobes. As in, let’s see what cuts the government makes this time at Friday’s weekly Cabinet meeting.
The main victim is the middle class, essentially “those who have lost their job or their source of income, such as small business owners and the self-employed, including those who are unable to collect the money they’re owed. Many of them are on the verge of social exclusion, or already there,” says Kaplún, who calculates that these individuals make up “over a third of the population.” [Continue reading…]
Lorna Scott Fox writes: On 20 March, a Spanish judge gave prosecutors leave to proceed with a case against an 80-year-old nun charged with kidnapping. According to lawyers for victim groups, as many as 350,000 babies were stolen from poor, single or left-wing mothers between 1938 and the late 1980s. Sister María Gómez Valbuena, who had links with a maternity clinic and put ads in the paper offering help to unmarried mothers, is the first person to be prosecuted for it.
Accused of selling a baby to an infertile couple in 1982, she allegedly first told the mother that the child had died; then that it was going to be adopted, and that if she made a fuss she’d be accused of adultery and lose her other child (never mind that adultery wasn’t a crime). When the child grew up and, with the help of her adoptive father, tracked Sor María down, the nun apparently told her that her mother had been a prostitute who didn’t want her. But after watching a TV programme about the daughter and her search, the mother came forward and DNA tests confirmed the relationship.
The case against Sor María is unusual only in that it has got so far. In the last few years, hundreds of cases have been dismissed for lack of evidence: systematically destroyed records make it hard to prove how this traffic persisted long after democracy was restored. The WHO seems never to have noticed the surprising levels of reported infant mortality in Spain. The San Ramón clinic in Madrid allegedly kept a baby in a freezer to show mothers as the ‘corpse’. A culture of female submissiveness and respect for the Church prevented poor and vulnerable women from acting on their suspicions.
What became a business began as a Fascist experiment in biopsychiatry. In 1938, Franco set up a Gabinete de Investigaciones Psicológicas to conduct Nazi-inspired experiments on prisoners (men from the International Brigades, Republican women) to try to identify a ‘red gene’ or the ‘psychophysical roots of Marxism’. The precise nature of the experiments remains obscure. In 1939 it was concluded that children would have to be taken away from their degenerate (or executed) parents, and re-educated in nice Catholic families.
A Spanish judge today found 21 people guilty – but acquitted seven – of the Madrid train bombings that killed more than 190 people in one of Europe’s worst terrorist atrocities in recent years.
To the consternation of some survivors and relatives of the victims, one of the accused masterminds, Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, known as “Mohamed the Egyptian”, was acquitted along with six others. He is in prison in Milan, Italy, after being convicted of belonging to an international terrorist group.
A representative from a victims’ association said he was unhappy that some of the accused were still walking free. [complete article]