On Tuesday, some 200 members of the Andalusian fieldworkers’ union (the Sindicato Andaluz de Trabajadores, or SAT) went to two supermarkets (the WalMart-esque Carrefour and Mercadona), filled up ten shopping carts with milk, sugar, chickpeas, pasta, rice and other basic necessities, and walked out without paying. They proceeded to donate that food to 26 families in La Corrala Utopía (Sevilla) and three civic centers in three towns in the province of Cádiz.
Described by the SAT as an expropriation, the action is a spectacular example of the type of civil disobedience people all over Spain are engaging in to resist the government’s simultaneous imposition of neoliberal austerity and their pardoning of financial criminals and kleptocratic elites. Citizens refusing to pay outrageous fees for public transportation and toll roads, doctors refusing to deny free health care to undocumented immigrants, and police refusing orders to assault protesters are just some examples of how, like the budget cuts, the Spanish regime’s crisis of legitimacy extends to all sectors of Spanish society.
Until now, most of the widespread civil disobedience against austerity in Spain has been carried out by average citizens active in or inspired by movements like the indignados. What makes the SAT’s reaction so remarkable, however, is that it was spearheaded by a labor union and led by… a politician? Andalusian Rep. Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo is a member of the Izquierda Unida party (IU) and mayor of the mythical farming village of Marinaleda.
Described by the New York Times as a “communist enclave”, the town started in the 1980s as an occupation of a local aristocrat’s estate with the idea of becoming a “utopia for peace”, with no police, no mortgages, a job for everyone and astoundingly affordable housing. As the most visible face of the SAT’s action, Sánchez Gordillo has been fiercely criticized as a populist and a demagogue by both the conservative Partido Popular (PP), the liberal Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) and even his own party’s orthodoxy, which currently governs Andalusia in coalition with PSOE. But despite the establishment’s adversity to the SAT’s action, popular support remains extremely high, even in the conservative press.
Perhaps this support is especially high because austerity is affecting Spaniards at the most basic, biological level. According to a recent report by the Catholic charity Caritas Internationalis, 350,000 Andalusian families are currently under-nourished. Meanwhile, 1.25 million Andalusians are out of work (roughly 34% of the working- age population), nearly a quarter of the Spanish population is under the poverty line, hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers are about to stop receiving their meager unemployment pay, corruption amongst elites with access to public funds remains rampant and unpunished, and hundreds of billions of euros are going to buy up the toxic assets circulated by Spanish banks. To add insult to injury, several prominent supermarket chains took the charming initiative of pressuring regional governments to start closing dumpsters outside their stores with locks and chains, ostensibly due to the health & safety concerns arising from fights over their near-expired contents.
“In this situation, we feel that the media and the government need to see that the crisis has first and last names, faces and ID cards,” Sánchez Gordillo explains after reciting a litany of numbers in a television interview at La Turquilla, a plot of land owned by the military which the SAT has been squatting for over two weeks (they were evicted today). “Enough statistics. Look at people, look them in the eyes. If the government can’t look its own people in the eyes, if it always imposes austerity on the poor, then it’s illegitimate and should step down. It presented itself to elections with a program, and it’s imposing exactly the opposite.”
Of course, the political establishment is hostile to this sort of talk. Like most regimes undergoing a crisis of legitimacy, the government has opted to reaffirm the state’s authority through a histrionic application of repression. Pointlessly, undercover police officers showed up at the homes of several SAT members, handcuffing them and throwing them in unmarked cars in front of their neighbors without letting anyone know where they are headed, as one might expect police to do with terrorism suspects (or as one might suspect terrorists to do with hostages).
In an interview with Público.es, Sánchez Gordillo says that he finds these measures “a bit ridiculous” and “a stupid expense”, since in cases like these, police normally just arrest the culprits and take them to declare in front of a judge, instead of keeping them in custody for several days or even months, as was the case with Laura Gómez of the anarcho-syndicalist CGT union after the general strike on March 29th.
If the last few weeks in Spain are any indication, this heavy-handed use of state violence against Spaniards will do little to stop people from engaging in acts of civil disobedience. The SAT has already called for more expropriations, bank and farmland occupations, and marches from rural areas into the cities to connect the plight of the rural poor with that of the urban dispossessed. People all over the country are referring to taking a Robin Hood stance on shop-lifting as “pulling a Gordillo” (via the hashtag #HazteUnGordillo).
In the extreme social climate that permeates everyday life in today’s Spain, what seems to be changing is more than just some political affinities. Through resistance to neoliberal austerity, a new common sense is taking shape, and it’s doing so from a position that is antagonistic to the self-destructive, de-democratizing impulses that reside in the heart of global capitalism. Isidro López, a sociologist at Madrid’s Observatorio Metropolitano, has an especially compelling take on this shift:
Years ago, communiqués signed by ‘the black block’ described their actions as urbanism. Burning a McDonalds was the correction of an error in urban planning. The Yes Men maintained a communications guerrilla website called GATT.org that fooled several people into thinking it was the official page of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. On some occasions, they were even invited for interviews on CNN and gave talks at OECD conferences, where they explained that the GATT/WTO’s objective was to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. They called this personality correction: the speaker said nothing more than what the GATT/WTO really did. In this sense, what Sánchez Gordillo and the SAT are doing is a ‘public policy correction’. An action which should be routine in public administration, redistribution, and the guaranteeing of access to material reproduction is criminally omitted, and somebody, an activist group, must come along and symbolically correct this error.
In a sense, this is exactly what we see when societies respond to toxic policies and authoritarian imposition by taking their lives into their own hands, against unjust laws. We should never forget that democracy means “people power”, and that correcting a lack of democracy means exercising power from the bottom-up, occupying the cracks in the architecture of repression, and breaking it open like rhizomic roots shattering concrete.