The major success of Thursday’s general strike in Spain hails the maturation of the movement and the emergence of a new type of networked labor action.
By Raimundo Viejo and Carlos Delclos
Predictably, most of the neoliberal media’s coverage of the general strikes in Spain focuses on the targeted property damage that took place during the protests in Barcelona, where hundreds of masked citizens seriously damaged several major banks, a Starbucks and the Opus Dei-related, upper-class hypermarket El Corte Inglés. It is no mistake that conservative representatives of that country’s eroding institutions are resorting to desperate terms like “criminal instinct” in order to paint the protests as some form of violence. Faced with a situation in which property destruction is increasingly accepted as legitimate, and having exhausted their repertoire of fear-inducing discourse and repressive measures in the weeks prior to the mobilizations, the only thing left for a proto-fascist like Felip Puig (the Catalan Minister of the Interior) to criminalise is that human instinct which favours life over property.
These attempts to divide citizens through an abstract debate over “violence” clash with the reality of what took place all over Spain yesterday, and what’s been happening in that country in recent months. There were certainly a number of violent acts directed towards people on Thursday, but none of them were carried out by protestors. In Torrelavega, Cantabria, a shop owner attacked a picketer with a knife. In the Basque country, a 19 year old was left in the ICU with serious head injuries after the Ertzaintza (Basque national police) beat him down with clubs and fired a rubber bullet into his head from point-blank range. In Barcelona, 20 people were injured by rubber bullets, one 22 year old is in the hospital with a ruptured spleen and one man lost an eye. And on a broader scale, Spanish banks and their complicit government kicked 58.200 families out of their homes in 2011 alone, with no support and heavily indebted (since foreclosures in Spain do not pay off mortgage debts and, in fact, simply increase interest rates).
The fact of the matter, and what is so terrifying to Spain’s elite, is that Thursday’s strikes were another success for movement-based politics. The ruling Partido Popular proved this when the city governments in their control chose to turn the streetlights on during the day to offset the effects of the strikes on energy consumption (the indicator by which strikes tend to be measured in the media). They also demonstrated how clumsily they manipulate the basic rules of the game.
Yet, when we say “strikes” and not the singular “strike” it is because, in reality, this general strike contained two different types of strikes. On the one hand, it was a traditional general strike called for by the often timid mainstream labour unions, which are generally prudent to a fault when it comes to mobilizations and have, over the course of the last three decades, allowed successive governments and parties to take the lead in the bargaining process over labour rights. On the other hand, it also contained an emerging form in the repertoire of collective action which has only recently begun to take its first steps, but which, if we look back to the previous general strike of 29 September 2010, appears to be maturing remarkably fast. What we see is that the general union strike is giving birth to another kind of strike: the metropolitan strike, protagonised by the precariat and animated by networks of activists who are constantly learning, aggregating and experimenting with a variety of tactics.
The metropolitan strike goes beyond the old repertoire of transport paralysis, factory paralysis and the collapse of production from inside the workplace to reveal another innovative and dynamic repertoire that is capable of synergistically projecting movement-based politics beyond their traditional forms and achievements: strategically located universities had been occupied since Monday to strengthen transport blockades, a consumption strike which gave people who couldn’t strike a chance to participate, metropolitan picket lines made up of women, youth, immigrants or senior citizens, and black bloc-style anonymity facilitating targeted property destruction (including the a small-scale casino heist) all contributed to the success of 29M. Once again, the tactical richness of a multitude that ignores the institutional limitations of the concerted social action favoured by mainstream unions proved surprisingly effective (surprising, at least, to the ruling elite).
The evolution of this new repertoire is no easy task. It has yet to be institutionalized or clearly define a common strategy. And the traditional left, after years of focusing on resistance and defensive positions, has on many occasions viscerally and ideologically attacked these types of actions without offering any alternatives beyond those traditional forms of action and representation over which they maintain a certain hegemony. But this matters less and less, and the wave of mobilizations continues to leave a trail of successes in its wake: the 29F and 17N educational mobilizations, the 15O global day of action, the birth of the indignados movement on 15M and the general strike and Bank of Spain occupation of 29S are just some of these landmark moments of its still recent history.
This wave is unstoppable, at least as long as the political regime does not change course, which doesn’t seem likely. In fact, this past summer the Partido Socialista and Partido Popular agreed to shield the regime against all possibilities of change by modifying the Constitution of 1978 to include a balanced budget amendment that was not submitted to public debate or referendum. Despite the indignados’ persistent calls for a substantial modification of electoral law, the ruling parties, obscene beneficiaries of the status quo, are apparently willing to uphold this fundamental component of their dominance for as long as possible.
In effect, the only form of mass opposition available to people in Spain is in the streets. Through mobilization, dissociation and the emergence of new types of actors, distances are opening up between the formal constitution of the government and the material constitution of society to reveal new possibilities for the future. As each day passes, breaking with the current regime and establishing an alternative are less the ideological desires of revolutionaries and more an issue of necessity for the average person in light of the dire circumstances they face daily. Those who wish to work will have to do it through cooperatives. Those who wish to learn will have to organize their own alternative universities. Those who wish to inform themselves will have to look to the alternative media. And those who wish to have cultural goods will have to share them. This is the politics of the common that we saw in action in our streets today, and which we will see in the alternative institutions of tomorrow.