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Orwell returns to Spain

The state aims to criminalize protest with a troubling ‘citizens’ security’ law

April 10, 2014 5:00AM ET

It is perhaps fitting that I was in Barcelona — a city intimately associated with George Orwell’s participation in the Spanish Civil War — when I first learned of Spain’s forthcoming Citizens’ Security Law. A decidedly Orwellian item, it proposes fines of up to 30,000 euros ($41,000) for “offensive” slogans against the country and up to 600,000 euros ($824,000) for unauthorized street protests.

I arrived in Barcelona on March 29. Thousands of people — students, trade unionists, pensioners — were marching against this law and other oppressive measures that the Spanish government is currently pursuing. These include a reinstatement of archaic abortion regulations and the continuation of the austerity program, conceived after the 2008 financial crisis to meet the European Union’s demands, that has ever since been the subject of protests nationwide. (The crisis has intensified calls for secession from Spain in the region of Catalonia and its capital Barcelona — an effort that could presumably also be considered “offensive” to the country.)

The draft law — also known as “the Fernández law” after Jorge Fernández Díaz, Spain’s interior minister and a member of the ruling Popular Party — was approved by the Spanish Cabinet in November. It hit some minor snags earlier this year when the General Council of the Judiciary and other state entities deemed a few of its components unconstitutional. But it continues to make its way through parliament, with Fernández declaring himself “open to all kinds of suggestions” regarding possible modifications. It would take a serious amount of modification, however, to alter the bill’s anti-protest focus.

The original draft of the law covers a lot of ground, including fines of up to 30,000 euros for “participating in the disruption of citizens’ security while using hoods, helmets, or any other article of clothing or object that covers the face, rendering identification difficult or impossible,” or for “disrupting citizens’ security at gatherings in front of the Congress of Deputies, the Senate, and regional legislative assemblies, even when these are not in session.” Fines of up to 1,000 euros ($1,400) are prescribed for hampering pedestrian traffic, losing one’s identity document more than three times in five years and circulating images of members of state security forces that might infringe upon their “right to honor.”

To justify the law, Fernández has claimed that there are “radical and violent elements” among the nation’s protesters. But news reports of Spanish police firing rubber bullets and tear gas at anti-austerity protesters and passersby tell a different story about citizens’ safety — and who, exactly, is compromising it. (Ironically, Spain recently decided to suspend the sale of riot control equipment to Venezuela.)

With high unemployment, rampant evictions and deep austerity cuts, Spaniards really are facing a lot of insecurity, albeit not of the variety advertised by the government.

Add to this soaring unemployment levels (as of January, more than 55 percent of youth were unemployed), rampant evictions and homelessness, and the slashing of funds for health care and education, and it starts to appear that Spaniards really are facing a lot of insecurity, albeit not of the variety advertised by the government.

Eviction of justice

It is logical, given the sheer number of reasons to protest in Spain at the moment, that Fernández & Co. would prefer to quiet down the crowds. A primary rallying point for protesters has been home evictions; in 2012, The Associated Press reported that the government was tallying 500 evictions per day.

In his 2013 book “The Village Against the World,” journalist Dan Hancox conveyed the grim extent of the problem:

Nationally, up to 400,000 families have been evicted since 2008 … Under Spanish housing law, when you’re evicted by your mortgage lender, that isn’t the end of it: you have to keep paying the mortgage. In final acts of helplessness, suicides by homeowners on the brink of foreclosure have become horrifyingly common — on more than one occasion, while the bailiffs have been coming up the stairs, evictees have hurled themselves out of upstairs windows.

No matter that, as of last year, Spain reportedly boasted 3.4 million empty homes — in part the legacy of the housing bubble and construction boom that helped steer the country into economic ruin. It’s thus obviously not for lack of space that people are forced out of their homes by the very banks that had a hand in the collapse. It’s also pretty difficult to argue that shelter isn’t a critical component of “citizens’ security.”

The unique story of Marinaleda, a communist-inspired village in Andalusia in southern Spain and the subject of Hancox’s book, offers an example of an effective protest movement — and of a more humane and just society. Through decades of strikes, roadblocks, marches and occupations of farmland, airports and palaces, Hancox writes, Marinaleda defied the regional aristocracy and political elite, eventually winning a concession from the Andalusian government in 1991, which granted the village 1,200 hectares of land on which to establish a farming cooperative — a self-proclaimed “utopia toward peace.”

As of 2013, Marinaleda’s unemployment rate was between 5 and 6 percent, while casitas — family homes built by the villagers themselves with government-provided materials — entailed a mere 15 euro ($21) monthly “mortgage” payment. Against a backdrop of staggering unemployment, widespread evictions and mortgage-induced suicides, Marinaleda is thriving.

As Hancox notes, many of the town’s amenities — which include “the leisure opportunities and facilities of a village at least five times its size” — were obtained through sustained protests and “strident, substantial financial demands” made of both the central and regional governments.

The moral of this historical example — for the state, at least — may be that a ferocious clampdown on protests and curtailment of civil liberties is imperative, lest Spaniards begin to think an alternative, happier existence might actually be possible.

The creation of an inclusive system in which human well-being trumps elite and corporate profit is easier said than done. Muffling criticism of the state makes this even more difficult.

But some damage has apparently already been done. As Hancox explains, after the financial crisis, Marinaleda became an alibi for anti-austerity protesters: “‘What are your demands? What is your alternative?’ barked the dogs of capitalist realism. And, especially in the south, [protesters] were able to respond: ‘Well, how about Marinaleda?’”

Challenging capital

Austerity measures function to make the poorer segments of society pay for elite-engineered economic crises, which ensures that the underclasses remain oppressed, politically unorganized and unable to overturn existing power structures.

How to avoid such an outcome in Spain?

The acclaimed writer and filmmaker Tariq Ali offered his own analysis. “The mass movement against [Spanish] austerity — the indignados — are frightened of politics and of challenging bourgeois hegemony in the political domain,” he wrote to me. “The result is disaster. What we need is the Bolivarianization of European politics — the creation of new political instruments that challenge capital.”

To be sure, the Bolivarianization of Venezuela, characterized by a vastly more equitable distribution of state resources, drastically reduced (PDF) poverty and unemployment while enabling significantly greater access to health care, housing and education. But the creation of an inclusive, Hugo Chávez–style sociopolitical system in which human well-being trumps elite and corporate profit is easier said than done. Spain’s Citizens’ Security Law, which seeks to muffle criticism of the state, makes this even more difficult.

The criminalization of protest, in addition to stifling mass opposition to austerity, would also presumably facilitate cheery Spanish government economic pronouncements, even those that appear to be egregious miscalculations. According to a February article in the English version of El País, Spain’s highest-circulating daily newspaper, the Bank of Spain “has estimated that wages in Spain have fallen by double the amount indicated by official statistics.”

Interior Minister Fernández’s claims of “radical and violent elements” among the nation’s protesters have created a justification for the law. But as a Reuters article reported in November, the crackdown on unauthorized protests “belies the peaceful record of the anti-austerity protests of recent years,” which have remained relatively devoid of violence “despite unemployment of 26 percent, rising poverty, and changes in labor laws that make firing easier.”

And while it is true that a negligible minority of protesters has indeed engaged in such acts as throwing stones and smashing bank windows, after five years of suffocating economic policies, one might be forgiven for wanting to throw stones and smash bank windows.

A video of a recent protest in Madrid in which riot police charged through a banner and battered the people behind it with batons underscores the state’s utter hypocrisy in accusing others of violent behavior. The banner reads “No pasarán,” the anti-fascist slogan of the Spanish Civil War meaning “They shall not pass.”

In 1946, seven years after the end of that war, Orwell wrote: “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’” I’ll thus refrain from using the F-word. But I will say that the proposed Citizens’ Security Law is nothing if not undesirable.

Belén Fernández is the author of “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work,” published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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