Spain goes Left: Britain turns Right

I’ve just come back from a week’s walking in the Axarquia mountains in Andalucia.  My trip didn’t allow much time for blogging, or for any commentary on the remarkable results of last weekend’s Spanish municipal and regional elections, but it was thrilling and inspiring to witness Ada Colau on television acknowledging her victory over the conservative-nationalist mayor of Barcelona Xavier Trias.   After all, it’s not everyday that a former anti-poverty activist who has previously been arrested for taking part in anti-eviction sit ins goes to win a mayoral election in one of the great European cities.

The triumph of Colau’s coalition Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common) was one of a series of victories for the Indignados-inspired Podemos (We Can) or Podemos-supported leftist coalitions in regions and cities across Spain.   In Madrid the conservative Partido Popular failed to secure a majority for the first time in 20 years, paving the way for a marriage-of-convenience between between the Spanish Socialist Party and another Indignados-inspired coalition Ahora Madrid (Madrid Now), that could end up with the 71-year-old former communist Manuela Carmena becoming mayor.

Across Spain Podemos or its new centre-right counterpart Ciudadanos (Citizens) came  in  third or fourth.    These results have been described as a ‘political earthquake’, which is something of an exaggeration when you consider that the two main parties still won 55 percent of the vote – a drop of only ten percent from the last elections in 2011. Both parties have been punished by the electorate, but not decisively so.

The Partido Popular remains powerful, despite a series of high-level corruption scandals, and the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) has not yet undergone the process of  ‘Pasokification’ despite the challenge to its left from Podemos.

Nevertheless the main establishment paper El País has described  – with more alarm than enthusiasm –  the results as an ‘important change in the national political map, with a clear turn towards the left’.  A staunch support of the Spanish Socialist Party, El País has issued a stern warning  to  the PSOE not ‘to allow itself to be carried away by the winds of radicalism’ towards Podemos, on the grounds that such a drift would further imperil Spain’s ‘stability.’

The problem is that for growing numbers of Spanish voters, ‘stability’ is not what it is cracked up to be, and a restive population sickened by corruption and austerity is beginning to dream bigger dreams than the two-party establishment wants them to.

The principal driving forces behind this transformation are clear: the economic crisis and the social consequences of ‘austerity’ – all of which has highlighted the mindboggling corruption of the Spanish ruling classes and the collusion or acquiescence of the two main parties that has made both things possible.   This has opened up  new spaces for progressive politics across the country to an extent that has not been seen since the early years of the post-Franco transition or even further back to the Spanish Republic.

This is not a revolutionary left – whatever that concept even means nowadays.   Podemos’ program has been criticized by the right for being utopian and unrealistic, and from the left for not being  sufficiently anti-capitalist.    There is a very real possibility that it will go into coalition with the PSOE – a party that Podemos has always described as a ‘fossil’ in the Spanish political ‘caste.’

That will not be a comfortable relationship, and may end up watering down a political program that is is already vague and a little quirky, such as the ‘secret post office box’  that will enable civil servants to denounce corruption without exposing themselves; a ‘parallel administration’  over the public sector that will ‘restore powers that have been privatised or outsourced’; and a ‘law of popular normative instruments’ that will ensure that extraparliamentary ‘popular legislative initiatives’ are dealt with in the Spanish parliament.

Others Podemos  proposals are  pretty radical in the current context: the restructuring of the national debt; a change in the ‘current conditions of governance of the euro’; a commitment to full employment; a 35 hour week; increases in public spending; greater accountability of the European Central Bank; debt ‘pooling’ between countries; a moratorium on the national debt; restructuring or cancellation of mortgage debts including financial repayments to anyone whose property has been seized by banks; economic sanctions on property owners with ten more empty properties; the closure of Spain’s grim immigrant internment centres (CIEs).

This is hardly a revolutionary program, but it is already enough to cause unease amongst the rulers of a country where the ghosts of the Civil War are always lurking in the background, ready to be brought out to terrify voters who look too critically at the status quo.  There is, for example, a striking conceptual similarity between the anxiety of  El País regarding  a Socialist/Podemos threat to ‘stability’ and the suggestion its great rival  El Mundo – virtually the Partido Popular’s house organ – that the PP and the PSOE might have to govern as a coalition in order to ‘protect the constitution.’

Right now it is difficult to guess who will go into coalition with whom or what the results might be.   But whatever the parties do, it is clear that the Spanish electorate is turning left, not right, in search of solutions to the catastrophe of ‘austerity’, and the fact that it has done so through temporary alliances and ad hoc coalitions between different groups may also point towards a new progressive future, shaped by  the muliplicity of voices that formed Ada Colau’s Guanyem Barcelona (Let’s Win Back Barcelona) civic movement, with its call for‘  a genuine metropolitan democracy, which forces political representatives to obey while they lead. A decentralized democracy with direct elections of councilmen and women in each district, with oversight of budgets, in which citizen initiatives and binding referendums are used to make shared, legitimate decisions.’

This desire for a deepening and widening of the democratic process is crucial to Spain’s leftward drift, where inequality and austerity are producing new forms of popular mobilisation and participation in local, municipal and national politics. All this could not be more different from the UK – with the exception of Scotland – where the political momentum has shifted towards the right and the rebellion against ‘the establishment’ has taken the form of rightwing populism.

Here  an unbound Tory government is now proposing to eliminate the ability of working men and women to defend or improve their pay and conditions.   It is proposing to carry out welfare reforms that will force some 40,000 children into poverty.  It is about to introduce draconian and irrational restrictions of free speech to prevent ‘extremist’ views from being expressed without even taking the trouble to define what extremism even means.

These developments must be resisted, but it is clear that the principal  ‘left-of-centre’ opposition has no interest in doing so.   On the contrary the contenders for the Labour Party leadership are engaged in a frantic, embarrassing and intellectually vacuous attempt to grovel at the feet of ‘business’ and the rightwing press rather than fight for the people they should be fighting for.

In David Hare’s The Absence of War, the Kinnock (Miliband?)-like contender describes the Labour Party as ‘ the only practical instrument that exists in this country for changing people”s lives for the good.’

Whatever truth there may once have been in such an assertion, the current leadership debate makes it clear that it no longer has any, and the dire quality of the contenders now jostling for power is the reflection of a dying and clueless party  dominated by careerist politicians  that is now prepared to trade its  better traditions for a few Tory marginals.

Many on the left have looked forward to the death of the Labour Party, as if its downfall will open the floodgates for progressive politics.  That collapse now looks more likely than it has for many years, and it may not produce the desired result.   But regardless of  whether Labour ‘Pasokifies’ or not and regardless of what the benefits of that outcome might be, its current intellectual and political bankruptcy means that resistance and opposition to Lord Snooty and His Pals must come from elsewhere.

And in these depressing times, the new combination of street-level protest and participatory democracy that is now unfolding in Spain can point to where such resistance might come from, and the different forms that it might take.



Jacques Peretti’s Gilded City

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a good documentary on the BBC, let alone an essential one.     But for those who haven’t seen it, I really recommend Jacques Peretti’s outstanding series on the super-rich, which you can still see on podcast here.     I watched the first of its two parts this week and it’s a really powerful piece of work; elegant, disturbing and reminiscent of Adam Curtis, in the way that it combines   archive footage, clever choice of music and striking imagery to create an infuriating, mesmerising and oddly bewitching exploration of the conspicuous consumption of the one percent.

Peretti is an excellent presenter, coolly ironic, intelligent, attentive and amused as he drifts in and out of garden parties, millionaire houses, and joshes with salesmen flogging watches worth a quarter of a million pounds.   But Louis Theroux he isn’t.     And his programme isn’t one of   those fascinated and half-admiring ‘gosh look how much the rich spend’ pieces that you regularly find in the Daily Mail.     On the contrary it’s a forensic and remorseless analysis of how Britain was transformed into tax haven for the super-wealthy with the collusion of successive governments.

Inequality is sometimes described by some of its mainstream critics as if it were an unfortunate but accidental process.     Peretti shows how both Conservative and Labour consciously used the ‘nom dom’ tax loophole to convert the UK into a tax haven and converted the London property market into a dumping ground for speculative international capital.

The story he tells amounts to a real-life Hunger Games dystopian fable, in which ‘trickle down’ economics became a pretext for a vast transfer of wealth upwards; in which a tiny economic elite was able to amass unimaginable wealth while the majority of the population saw its incomes fall or stagnate; in which the property market boosted prices to the point when Londoners on low or median incomes cannot afford to buy a home or rent property; in which officials from Inland Revenue went on to advise millionaires and celebrities on how to reduce their tax bill.

Interviews with economists like Ha Joon Chang and the social geographer Danny Dorling add real weight to what is effectively a tele-essay on the disastrous consequences of an economy organized for the benefit of a super-rich class that is unaccountable and uninterested in anything but its own interests.     Along the way there are some priceless and essential quotes, from the American millionaire who tells Peretti that the UK is one of the best tax havens in the world, to these chilling observations from Peter Rees, former head of planning at the City of London:

‘We have a housing bubble   in London that is fuelled by an almost limitless swathe of international capital.   There’s no end to that supply.   It’s constantly being generated from Russia, and China and the Middle East….Investors in the residential real estate market in London is perceived even better than gold bricks, which you have to hide in a gold vault and you can actually keep an eye on them.   But inside these things are just containers for this capital that you would otherwise put in a bank vault, which is why I refer to these as safety deposit boxes.’

Peretti’s analysis of London and Thatcherite economics reminded me of the early 1980s, when I wrote one of my first ever pieces for the now defunct Labour Party magazine New Socialist, about the gentrification of Docklands.       That piece will forever be associated in my mind for the immortal response from the magazine’s editor when I asked him if I would get paid for that piece, only to be told ‘ The Labour Party doesn’t pay little people.’

But what I also remember was how the new quango created by Thatcher to oversee the gentrification/regeneration of Docklands with luxury flats and private airports was looking even then, to reconfigure London as a pole of attraction for foreign investment to take its place alongside Hong Kong.   This was what globalisation meant, and the plans were already in place for the transformation whose consequences   Peretti analyses so well, even before the word was being used

Not all the millionaires and billionaires who Peretti interviews are comfortable with the results.     Some of them like the amiable director of Phones4U are quite happy to pay taxes.   Others share the anxieties of Dorling, Ja Joon Chang and others that inequality has reached dangerous and economically and socially destabilising proportions.   One American compares inequality to watering flowers – a little bit helps them grow while too much drowns them – and then speculates that the ‘pitchforks’ might be coming for men like him.

Others clearly couldn’t care less and are quite happy for the situation to continue just the way it is.     Like Kevin Green, king of the buy-to-let market, who owns 700 properties and holds ‘wealth seminars’ for wannabe property owners, and would have had to be made up if he wasn’t real already.   In one jaw-dropping but comical scene he tells his audience how he gets up each morning and self-motivates by telling himself ‘If I wasn’t me, I would so want to be me’, before getting them to chant the same slogan, like Tom Cruise’s deranged sex guru in Magnolia.

Green means it and his audience clearly want to be him too.   Watching Peretti’s film did not inspire this particular viewer to want to become Kevin Green at all, but whether in the end the situation that Peretti analyses isn’t just a question of whether the rich are obnoxious or appealing individuals.     What the gilded world that he describes so well is the product a systemic transformation in society,       and it is difficult to watch his documentary without a growing sense of outrage and revulsion that it was allowed to happen.

And that’s precisely why anyone concerned with the kind of world we have built ought to watch this brilliant and illuminating contribution to a debate that will ultimately determine whether or not we are able to achieve a better one.


In the kingdom of TINA

One of the most depressing things about the grotesque and brutal fraud known as ‘austerity’ has been the ability of its proponents to convince so many people to accept its basic assumptions.     Once you begin to believe in There Is No Alternative (TINA), so many things that might otherwise have seemed cruel, immoral, sadistic, corrupt, and inhuman begin to seem logical and inevitable.

In the kingdom of TINA it appears totally   normal that people in Spain who were once encouraged by banks to take out mortgages that were only barely within their reach in better times should be put on the street as a result of the crisis; that Greek pensioners should be rooting around in dustbins for their next meal; that millions of young people across the continent cannot find work and millions of unemployed men and women in their fifties will never work again; that those in work have their salaries cut back till they find themselves in poverty; that thousands of men and women in Britain should be dependent on handouts from food banks.

Once you enter TINA you don’t really question these things, because you are expected to leave your conscience at the altar of the bleak and arid economic rationalism that insists that all this was necessary.     The most you are expected to do is shake your head at the endless misery that has been inflicted on so many people who didn’t deserve it, but you are also expected to accept that all of this was necessary.

Because the politicians and the newspapers and television and the European Union and the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are all agreed that There Is No Alternative if there is to be growth and prosperity again, if the Eurozone is to be saved, if capitalism is to be made well again.

Some of them talk about sacrifices and hard work, and tell us we are all working together towards the same goal.   They   promise us that our efforts will be rewarded, but even when those rewards don’t come, or come too late to save the people whose lives and futures have already been destroyed, or when they only seem to go to those who are already wealthy and have never felt any pain at all,     we are constantly reminded that There Is No Alternative.

In this way the system corrupts so many people.   It convinces its victims that they should accept their victimhood and their servitude. It convinces those who are not victims to blame or despise those who are.     It convinces us that Greeks and Spaniards are lazy and wanted something for nothing,   that it was their quaint southern European customs that have brought them into debt.     It convinces us that that debt must be repaid, even if entire societies are ripped to shreds in the process, even when fascism once again begins to cast its shadow across the European Promised Land.   It convinces us that the poor are feckless and must be punished for their fecklessness, that cruelty is kindness, that amorality is moral.

When immigrants drown by the hundreds in the Mediterranean we are taught that in a way it’s their fault too, because they should not have come to take resources that were needed for ‘our own people’ in a time of austerity.   We believe this to the point when few people even question the British government’s decision not to participate in search-and-rescue operations because it says that such efforts will only encourage more people to come.

Such indifference is essential to There Is No Alternative.       And now Greece has kicked open the door and provided us with a glimpse of another possibility that we were not expected to think about, and which the powers-that-be had clearly not expected, and the joyous faces in Athens last night are a testament to the revitalized political aspirations that have burst from under the moral ruins of the past five years, and which now offer at least the possibility of a different kind of Greece and a different kind of Europe.

Of course I know that it could all go wrong – though people who utter such warnings should remember that for millions of Greeks things couldn’t have got much worse than they were already.       Syriza has an enormous task on its hands, its enemies are powerful and determined to restore TINA’s dominance.

But for now I congratulate the Greek people for taking this giant leap into the unknown and voting in the first government in Europe with an explicitly anti-austerity agenda.   I wish them well, and I hope that what they have done will encourage other countries to leave the dismal world of TINA   and remember not just what it was like to be radical, but what it was like to be human before we were taught to act and feel like heartless automatons.

Kevin MacDonald’s Black Sea

Submarine films are always tense experiences, whether they consist of the black & white war films that I watched as a kid, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or the   claustrophobic U-boat epic Das Boot.   Tension, anxiety and claustrophobia are intrinsic to the cinematic world of submarines, whose components are broadly similar almost to the point of cliché.   Go to a film with submarines in it and you can expect to find a great deal of sweaty masculinity and few if any women.     Expect close up visuals of unshaven men in stained vests in tiny rooms biting their lips and peering nervously upwards; captains in rollneck jumpers peering through periscopes.

You can almost guarantee that there will gushing water, burst pumps and valves; accidents and explosions from depth charges or collisions; metallic bangs and men being tossed about and drowned or nearly drowned;   lots of silent watery shots of submarines cruising through inky depths to the sound of sonar bleeps.   You know that sooner or later the oxygen will run out or nearly run out unless the crew performs some impossible technical feat that is mostly incomprehensible to landlubber audiences.     You understand that at some point engines will fail or get seriously damaged; that the submarine in question will go too deep or too shallow; that there is likely to be a race against time.

You know before you enter the cinema that things will go wrong, because no cinematic submarine ever leaves its port without things going wrong.   These expectations aren’t necessarily a a problem, because submarine flics are a genre like gangster films, and fulfilled expectations are the whole point.

That said, it’s not a genre that you easily breathe new life into, so hats off to   Kevin MacDonald for his nail-biting and utterly compelling account of yet another underwater venture gone badly wrong in Black Sea.     The film tells the story of an ill-starred attempt by a laid-off Aberdonian submarine Captain, played by Jude Law,   to recover a U-boat filled with Nazi gold from the bottom of the Black Sea.

Summarily dumped onto the dole queue by his company after years of service, Captain Robinson thinks he sees a way out of an impoverished dead end life when a mate tells him about the sub.     After getting funding from a dodgy venture capitalist,   he assembles a British and Russian crew of 21st century desperadoes.   Most of them are blue collar divers and submariners who are similarly down on their luck, but they also include a seedy little banker who accompanies the mission on behalf of its financier and a homeless Scots teenager.

Robinson and his crew set off for the Crimea, where they get old of a rusty mothballed former Soviet sub in Sevastopol, and then they’re off.       To say it doesn’t go well doesn’t even begin to describe it.     All the standard ingredients of the submarine flic are present, together with some additional sources of tension in the shape of a psychotic diver, lethal rivalries between the Russian and non-Russian crew, and corporate treachery and malfeasance which I better not say anything more about without revealing more than IU should.

MacDonald orchestrates the underwater tension brilliantly,   but Black Sea isn’t just a thriller.   It’s also a strikingly angry film with a strong political message.     Most submarine films are about men in extreme situations, but Captain Robinson and his crew are already way out on the edge even before they go underwater.   All of them are skilled blue collar workers who have been thrown on the scrapheap and are facing an old age of poverty, unemployment and debt.   Most of them have been shafted or exploited by their employers and recognize the essential truth spoken by one of them that ‘ you’re dogshit in this world if you don’t have money’.

They are desperate and bitter, particularly Captain Robinson, who is played with real passion and conviction by Law in the best performance I have ever seen from him. Robinson rails at corporate greed and the arrogance of bankers, and the presence of the corrupt banker Fraser on the sub provides him with ample opportunity.

You don’t normally expect social comment from the bottom of the sea, but there is a great deal of political invective in Black Sea against corporations, power, powerlessness and global inequality.   In this sense MacDonald’s film recalls another much less-known cinematic genre, which for want of a better title we might call the blue collar-vengeance-against-the system flic.

I’m thinking of films like Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar, Clouzot’s magisterial Wages of Fear, Treasure of the Sierra Madre or some of Raul Walsh’s movies, and also of the worlds that the great proletarian novelist B. Traven depicted in novels like Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Death Ship.  MacDonald apparently got his scriptwriter Dennis Kelly to watch Wages of Fear and Treasure of the Sierra Madre while writing the script.

Kelly has done his homework well, because Black Sea can take its proud place within this tradition. He and his director have come up with a movie that is dark and angry, gritty and tense as hell,   and which is simultaneously a powerful statement about the world we have created.