Spain: a social coup d’etat

[originally published in Spanish on the 4th December 2010. Translation by Jan]

In the Spanish constitution the role of the army is described by article 8: “to guarantee the sovereignty and independence of Spain, to defend its territorial integrity and the constitutional order“. I always thought that if the Spanish army were to be deployed inside the country, it would be for defending the sacrosanct “territorial unity” – the threat of nationalist secession, in other words. But surprise, surprise, none other than the socialist government invokes this law for the very first time since it was approved, by militarizing the airspace and decreeing a “state of alarm”. All of this with the invaluable help of the mass media, of course.

Some context is needed to understand what happened. The previous day, the government had approved a new adjustment package that included the partial privatisation of the national airport and navigation organisation, Aena. It joined new legislation that eliminated the 426 euros of unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. For the traffic controllers, a decree was issued that annulled all previously earned holidays, sick leave, maternity leave and so on. By doing so, the government violated its own rules, namely the limitations to traffic controllers’ working hours, set by a previous decree. Moreover, the choice for publishing the decree on friday the 4th of December was not an innocent one, since the following Monday and Wednesday are bank holidays, and many Spaniards take a long weekend off. Behind it there is a battle of wills between Minister of Public Works José Blanco and the traffic controllers, who had been refused staff increases while waiting for complete privatization. I don’t know whether he trusted that the traffic controllers would not dare to leave hundreds of thousands of passengers and their families stranded, or that it was a strategy of provoking a wildfire so that First Deputy Prime Minister Rubalcaba could present himself as the Presidential firefighter.

Whatever the strategy behind it, the result was that the government imposed military discipline to knock down a labour insubordination. The government prefers to force the traffic controllers to go back to work, but it does not discard the use of military personnel to control air traffic. In France – where the traffic controllers went on strike 4 times this year, one because of pension reforms – they have stopped using soldiers as scabs after the plane crash of 5 March 1973, when a DC-9 of Iberia coming from Palma de Mallorca collided in Nantes with a Convai 990 of Spantax coming from Madrid. The investigation showed that the accident was caused by the bad training of the militaries replacing the civilian traffic controllers.

As the economic crisis deepens and European capital takes the offensive, the State is showing its true colours, and Wikileaks has nothing to do with it. We are witnessing a profoundly anti-democratic process that even in its imagery resembles an authentic social coup d’état. Last week we witnessed an important cabinet meeting with representatives of the biggest corporations, warning of new cuts and reforms (of the pension system, for example). Today the sovereign State shows off its exceptional powers, violating its own laws and collective agreements when it is necessary to maintain the existing order and the trust of international creditors.

We should ask ourselves why it is that the decision of a collective to abandon their work post lead to such an exaggerated reaction with strong Thatcherite undertones. The contrast with the government’s reaction to the general strike of 29 September is striking – a day, by the way, on which the traffic controllers worked and guaranteed the “minimum service” (sic) of 100%. Several reasons occur: traffic controllers are workers with an enormous responsibility in a strategic sector; the strikers acted within the margin of the nullified right to strike and by doing so they questioned the demands of the market. Those are the terms the Royal Decree 1673/2010 that declares the state of alarm uses: it wants to guarantee the right of free circulation – a right that the very same government denies its immigrant workers, or transnational demonstrators. In the productive metropolis no action is more disturbing than the blockage of the flows of goods, money and (some) people, as the Italian students demonstrated a few days ago when they blocked the Bolonia highway.

The traffic controllers are perfect scapegoats. Are they not spoiled brats, with huge salaries usurping the taxpayers’ money, as Aena and Minister José Blanco declared? I have lost count of all the insults the traffic controllers had to suffer from many other workers. Even those that criticize the exceptional measures felt the need to call them “disgraceful”, and other such niceties. Softer but no less offensive was the reaction of Izquierda Unida, Spain’s communist party. They considered it “a grave and inacceptable precedent to declare the state of alarm to resolve a social conflict” but stressed that they “did not agree with the demands and the methods used by the traffic controllers“. Salvador López Arnal, in a strange article published in Rebelión, talks for this reason about a “rightist strike” and refers to the traffic controllers as “a movement of the privileged”, with no links to the “class-based trade unions”, that had not given signs of “wanting to belong to the Iberian workers movement”. “It is not necessary to take sides” he adds. A sad way to rid himself of the proverbial rock in his ideological shoe, that moreover takes an easy stance towards the “users’ populism” the government champions.

If we start a demagogical “witch hunt for the privileged” it will never end. If it is not because of the salary, it is because of a permanent contract, social benefits, or nationality: from functionaries that have guaranteed lifelong employment to the unemployed that still receive their benefits, passing through executives, engineers, commercials or professors like López Arnal. All of these positions reproduce within and amongst them differences in status, taxes, benefits, and working conditions, non of them static. All are “privileged” with respect to someone else, with one glaring exception: all are subjected to capital. Neoliberal governance operates on this continuum “crossed by discontinuities, thresholds, divisions, and segments that allow the technologies of security to govern it as a whole” (M. Lazzarato). It does so by on the one hand individuating and on the other hand juxtaposing a series of inequalities against each other, managing fears and petty hatreds that can include police interventions intended to prevent “radicalization”.

How much money these traffic controllers may make, it is peanuts compared to what the 37 businessmen, who met the government last week, make. The controllers remain salary men, highly qualified, and yes, they are indeed isolated from other collective organisations, and their trade union’s activity indeed centres on the defence of corporative interests – like so many others whose life and existence is under siege. They share the same contradiction between waged work and financial rent that the majority of workers live, albeit multiplied by factor x due to their social position and the particularities of their profession. Despite everything, the traffic controller’s action is a forceful response against the privatisation of the airports and the unilateral regulation of the working day – much more so than a general strike. Those that accuse the traffic controllers of a lack of “class conscience” do not shy of using arguments like “that in times of crisis we all have to buck up”, or at best, that we should protest but in such a form that is unobtrusive.

At this moment the traffic controllers have been subjected to military hierarchy, accompanied by the applause or silent satisfaction of the majority of the people. This government that, when convenient, never hesitates to opt for right-wing populism while hypocritically denouncing it, has announced disciplinary action and sackings. For the moment, we have learned several things: where we can hurt them, to what lengths they will go to stop us, and how hard solitude can be.

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