Just as we who live in Spain learn that the recently nationalized Bankia is asking for a 20bn euro government bailout (a total that doubles both the original amount reported and the amount being slashed from public health care and educational budgets), the New York Times publishes a piece detailing a wave of transfers away from Spanish banks that the local media has gone to great lengths to sweep under the rug.
“It is only a trickle so far, and not nearly enough to constitute a classic bank run,” writes Landon Thomas, “but these growing transfers of deposits out of troubled Spanish banks reflect a broader fear that the country’s problems could make it hard for Spaniards to get to their money if banks fail and cannot be supported by the government.”
Even more alarming is Thomas’s assertion that “while many Spanish consumers may still be trusting the government to protect their money — perhaps not realizing that the country’s Deposit Guarantee Fund has been depleted and now exists mainly in name only — the in-the-know money is heading for the border at an increasingly brisk pace.”
Perhaps it was being ‘in-the-know’ which led one La Caixa Bank employee to steal one million euros and flee the country, leaving behind his wife and two daughters. Or perhaps not, and that was just one more example of thievery in a country where the President of the General Council of the Judiciary and head of the Supreme Court can use public funds to pay for 20 extravagant extended weekends in the resort town of Puerto Banús, file away the case and claim that he has nothing to explain to the press. What is certain, however, is that the bank-imposed media blackout is not keeping everyone in Spain out of the loop:
As it turns out, there are a lot of people dealing with Spanish banks who do not need the mainstream media to tell them that they have a bone to pick with their local branch. The most striking case is that of the approximately one million pensioners, workers and unemployed customers affected by the plummeting value of preferred stock and subordinated debt, toxic assets typically reserved for financial firms which were popularized by 53 Spanish banks starting in 2009.
According to the Estafa Banca platform, once their values started to fall, customers saw their savings accounts deteriorate and tried to pull their money, only to find that their accounts had been blocked and would remain so for up to ten years. To make matters worse, the explanations bankers gave these angry customers were often surreal. As Pedro recounts in an informative video (in Spanish), one bank teller told him:
‘No, no, I mean… If necessary, we can give you a loan.’ And I said, ‘A loan of my own money? What are you talking about? How am I going to take a loan of my own money out if it’s my money?’ ‘Well, we’re going to pay you part of it in March.’ ‘Pay me? What are you going to pay me? When a person talks about paying someone, it’s because they worked for it. We’re talking about my money. You’re not paying me anything!’
It was only a matter of time until people started to take action. On the night before the first anniversary of the indignados movement, an idea proposed by the neighborhood assemblies began to circulate around the web. After a year of hard work and small payoffs, it was time to recuperate the bold, autonomous gesture and broad appeal which had sparked the 15-M uprising.
This gesture would reaffirm the radical common sense that captured the world’s attention and voiced our indignation at the commercialization of human life by targeting those least affected by austerity measures, foreclosures, the erosion of democracy and the media’s navel-gazing. It was time to talk about the banks.
The action began with a popular ‘trial’ held outside La Caixa Bank’s famously ominous headquarters. This served to explain the role of banks in the current crisis and underline how little they have paid for their wrongdoings compared to the average citizen. But the qualitative leap came when people called for a permanent cacerolazo starting the next day.
Since then, thousands of people have joined the protest, whether it was by showing up with their pots and pans and banging them until they were reduced to abstract works of contemporary art, playing samba drums, or vigorously honking their car horns and adding to the simultaneously infernal (for the bank) and sublime (for the protesters) racket surrounding what had come to be known as #OccupyMordor.
It is this protest that appears in the photograph that introduces the aforementioned New York Times article. And it is no mistake that the photo features a black tarp over the company’s logo. Banks exemplify what Franco Berardi Bifo calls semiocapitalism: the mode of production in which the accumulation of capital is achieved mainly through the production and accumulation of signs or symbols which, in turn, accumulate value.
This form of capitalism is highly susceptible to rumour, reputation and confidence, which makes a Situationist-style ‘communications guerrilla’ an especially effective approach.
In a communications guerrilla, words, signs and symbols are weapons. And, at least in the European imagination, equating a well-known bank with Mordor is as direct and explosive a hit as you can get. This is why La Caixa Bank decided to threaten Catalan and Spanish media outlets with pulling their advertising if they mentioned the expanding protests.
What La Caixa Bank’s heavy-handed response shows (aside from its apparent ignorance of the existence of the internet) is that, while window-smashing and burning tires may transmit the romance of resistance, it is often peaceful, artistic and even humorous intervention that hits power where it hurts the most. Our stories, our jokes and our common sense are all weapons that can be used against global capitalism. And given the globalized nature of power in the 21st century, there is probably a Mordor near you.