There is currently a generation of young workers in Spain who have no idea what “prosperity” means. Those who acquired a consciousness of their surroundings after the 2008 financial crash, which in the Spanish State saw an enormous real estate bubble bursting, from which the financiers and bankers had massively profited, have seen nothing but worsening working conditions, cuts in public services, and massive unemployment.
The young generation, who are now in their late teens and early twenties, probably is the generation that has the least fear of the upcoming recession, as they have known nothing else than their current situation and the many defeats of social or political movements against these conditions. One fears fewer things getting worse if they don´t know that they can ever be good. One would be tempted to see in the youth a detached generation, that feels powerless and thrown into doom and gloom. No matter how strong this feeling of impotence might be rooted in the youths of the Spanish State, it is wrong to think they are not able to mobilize and fight for their futures. The current economic situation, which dictates them to think less about living and more about surviving, also gives them less to lose, and the lesser the potential losses the more willingness there is to fight. The role of Podemos (a political formation, founded in January 2014, out of the anti-austerity movement in Spain), in failing to act as a pole of attraction and method of organization for these youths, is not an impassable obstacle but merely delays potential explosions of youth and working-class anger, and the dawn of new movements and organizations.
For working-class people in the Spanish State, the situation could not be direr. Early this year a University of Barcelona study concluded that one out of ten Spaniards requires assistance from either their relatives, public administration,s or a charity to be able to feed themselves. Since then, the war in Ukraine has meant a disruption in the importation of corn into Spain, which can only mean a worsening of this already dire situation. Access to food is also hampered by an acute rise in inflation (8.5% at the moment of writing), driven primarily by the price hikes of electricity.
Energy in the Spanish State, one of the countries with the most expensive energy in Europe, has always been a sore point. Issues such as disruption of supply in gas due to the Ukraine war are but only one piece in the puzzle of why 4.5 million Spaniards are unable to pay their energy bills and electricity has gone up by 80%.
Even before the war and the pandemic, approximately 7.6% of Spaniards could not afford to heat their home during winter. Even more relevant than any disruption of supply is the well-established lobbying of energetic companies, evidenced by the rotating door between political seats and management boards. Many former ministers (including two former prime ministers and a former president of the Catalan regional government) sit in the administration councils of private energy companies, perceiving comfortable salaries and benefits for little effort.
The high office holders of both the conservative People’s Party (PP) and the social-democratic Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) know that if they help the energy companies, the energy companies will help them personally. This has been going on for decades and is the main cause of the inaction of the government to reign in the private energy sector. The most grotesque expression of this submission to electrical companies came in 2015 with the infamous “Sun tax” (made illegal by the European Union in 2018) taxing those who installed solar panels in their homes to produce electricity for themselves, to the point of making installing solar panels more expensive than buying electricity from the grid. Instead of taking advantage of the climatological conditions of most of Spain and promoting clean energy, the government acted to protect the stranglehold that energy companies have in this country.
Another show of force of the power of energy companies in the Spanish State was the Castor project, a gas extraction project on the Mediterranean coast that had to be paralyzed in 2014 because it was generating earthquakes. When the project was stopped the government had to compensate the platform’s leaseholder, Florentino Perez’s Escal, with 1,350 million euros. It is no wonder that the Spanish State has one of the most expensive energy bills in Europe, there is nothing stopping energy companies from gouging the country!
More Spaniards are having increased difficulties in the current situation to light their homes and bring food to their tables. One can only imagine the horror they must feel when the chair of the US Federal Reserve (whose decisions can have an impact on most western economies) says that in order to control inflation it would be expedient to go through a “soft” recession. In the Spanish State, the word “recession” brings about very sadly familiar images: long lines in front of job centers and armed police breaking into people’s homes to evict them.
Unemployment has always been a chronic problem in the Spanish State since the 2008 crisis burst the construction bubble. Currently, unemployment is around 13.5%, but for those younger than 25 years old, it goes up to 30%. Three out of ten young workers are not able to find employment. The employment situation of young workers before the pandemic was the same, which, combined with high prices of housing and rent. Around 65% of those between 16 and 34 years old could not afford to live separately from their parents, even if they had a job.
The dire situation of young workers reaches almost farcical heights. Employers demand more specific qualifications to access jobs, from professional certifications to serve coffee, to specific master’s degrees to teach at schools, which means that 16 years old is making decisions that will determine whether they will be employable for the rest of their lives. Young workers often have no other alternative but to find short-term employment through ETTs (Temporal Work Businesses) with low wages and mediocre conditions that render them unable to achieve any sort of personal stability. No government has addressed the massive problem of youth unemployment. They have followed the philosophy of former Catalan regional government minister, Francesc Xavier Mena, who, in 2012, had the gall to say “let them go serve coffee in a London cafeteria” in response to demands to address youth unemployment.
Evictions are another grave problem. Since 2008, it has been a relatively common sight to see police evicting tenants from their homes, some of them having lived there for decades. Some of the most combative action against austerity and cuts has taken place around the issue of housing. For years, to stop evictions, activists have been rallying in front of the apartments of people about to be evicted, where they sometimes face brutality from the police. Access to the dación en pago (the cancellation of any outstanding debt from a mortgage when the residence it is tied to gets repossessed) is still very limited, and only possible, at all, because of years of social struggle. Therefore, many people not only are evicted from their homes but they still have to keep paying their mortgage for a home they do not have.
But it is not only people being kicked out of their homes, it is also people not being able to afford even rent a home. In some tourist areas, such as, for example, Barcelona, the local neighbours are being forced out of their homes not to install new tenants but to make tourist apartments and high-luxury residences. Young people looking for a place to live often cannot afford to live in the area they grew up in, and have to go farther and farther away from urban areas, where most jobs are, to find any sort of housing. Landlords and real estate agencies extort renters for all they have. Currently, the median monthly rent per square meter is 10€ (approximately £8.52 pounds sterling). Therefore, a small 70 square meter flat can cost 700 monthly euros. The median wage for someone under 29 years old is 975€ per month. It is plain to see that it is practically impossible to be able to afford rent, bills, and basic expenditures with a young person´s wage. According to the Youth Council of Spain, a young person living alone has to dedicate 92.2% of their wage to rent alone. High housing prices and high rents combined with high unemployment is a recipe for disaster, leaving many Spanish homes at the border of indigency.
This dire and unstable social situation will inevitably bring about wrath and indignation on the part of society. Big social movements might spring up at any moment under the right circumstances. However, this new situation might be different than the indignados experience of the early 2010s. Spanish youth not only distrust their government and institutions, who have cast them aside for decades, but they are also distrustful of the very left-wing and workers’ organizations, from political parties to trade unions, that have betrayed them time and time again.
Steps back in democracy and the failure of institutions
With this economic situation, the institutions of the Spanish State, instead of trying to mend the grave economic problems that have the Spanish youth paralyzed, have opted instead to focus, as always, on putting the “right people” in the right seats. The “dynastic” parties, PP and PSOE, resemble less traditional political parties and more social networks of the elite competing for public stipends, with no regard for the population, and show a willingness to even openly attack democracy to further their interests. The recent revelation of the Villarejo audios, which are damming recorded conversations between the former police commissioner José Manuel Villarejo and various politicians and high offices of the police, just goes to show what was already known for decades by many Spaniards; the State is full of corruption, based on an economy of favours, and that the State is willing to do anything to fulfill its own interests and those of the Spanish bourgeoisie, even undermining democracy. If the allegations, put forward by Villarejo, that the intelligence agency of the Spanish State, the CNI, was allowed a terrorist cell that carried out the 2017 terror attacks in Cambrils and Barcelona, in order to allow them to create “a small scare” in Catalonia, is ever confirmed, it will show the extent the State is willing to go to further the interests of its beneficiaries.
The way the State has dealt with Catalonia, in general, showcases very clearly the authoritarian tendencies at play at the heart of government. This is made especially clear in the repressive activity of the State toward the Catalan independence movement. It wasn´t enough for them to go against politicians; they targeted civil activists and even artists. Especially glaring is rapper Valtonyc´s case. He is currently in exile and has recently won a court battle in Belgium against the Spanish State, with Belgium refusing to extradite him. Valtonyc´s crime? Writing and performing a rap song critical of the Spanish monarchy.
Another case is that of Tamara Carrasco, who in 2018 was detained for provoking public disorder because she had sent a Whatsapp message to an activist group. Using a provision usually reserved for gender violence cases, the judge had Carrasco confined in her hometown until her trial. She was absolved in January 2021, but only after being inflicted with unnecessary and immense distress and suffering by the Spanish State. Recent allegations of an officer of the Policia Nacional infiltrating organizations in the independentist left just go to show what the State is capable of in order to quell dissent.
Who rules the Spanish State? Sometimes it feels that the government has only so much power and that the real power behind the throne is groups of powerful ultra-conservative Spanish oligarchs, senior civil servants, and judges. The so-called “sewers of the State”, who are always in power no matter who sits on the presidency of the government, are the ones who wield the real influence in the running of Spain. These elements are now represented by the far-right nationalistic party, Vox. This party has few roots in the working class. Instead, it emerged as both a political party and lobby representing the interests of the “sewer” cabal. Fighting Vox in the streets is only a part of the equation to defeating them. There is also the need of fighting Vox in the ballot boxes and struggling against their patrons.
What does the future hold for workers and youth?
Spaniards, at first glance, seem to have ‘surrendered’ and accepted this state of affairs as unavoidable. The apparent lack of fightback is due to the failure of those groups on the left that should have been at the forefront of the current social and economic crisis. The major trade unions in the Spanish State are mockeries of trade unionism, with a leadership that can outcompete most politicians in corruption and profiteering. Podemos, once the poster child of the indignados movement, is now little more than a crutch for PSOE. There is a distinct lack of an alternative; a mass party for the working class in the Spanish State.
Where is the Spanish State going? The dire situation of most of the population and the “business as usual” attitude of the institutions point towards social movements emerging in order to make the first attempts at a fightback, attempts more borne out of desperation than a clear programme or perspectives. The lack of proper mass organizations for the working class will mean that most of these fightbacks will be local and to some extent disorganized. But they can be the seed for more organized resistance, and for more effective action.
In the coming months and years, the Spanish State is poised to see a struggle between an oligarchy trying to preserve the status quo and an impoverished working class that has nothing to lose and embraces more militant positions and actions due to their desperation. It is important that the working class in the Spanish State is made aware that they have the strength to organize and fight, and that they do not fall for the siren calls of a far-right at the service of the sewers of the State. Militant socialists and trade unionists in the Spanish State should begin organizing the long and arduous process of establishing a mass alternative for working class people.
In the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) we stand for a mass working class party, for the right to affordable housing, for good jobs with good conditions, against State oppression, for the right to self-determination, and for the organized struggle of workers and youth in order to move away from capitalism and to a socialist society.