On the “decline” of Madrid, the state re-appropriation of public space, and strange hope

 A pensioner who lost his life savings in the Caja Madrid /Bankia protests in central Madrid. October 8, 2013. Photograph: Cristina Flesher Fominaya

A pensioner who lost his life savings in the Caja Madrid /Bankia protests in central Madrid. October 8, 2013. Photograph: Cristina Flesher Fominaya

Cristina Flesher Fominaya

During the Global Justice Movement the constant refrain in Madrid’s movement network was how to break out of the activist ghetto, how to reach out to the people on the streets. With 15-M it seems those dreams were fulfilled beyond our wildest imaginings. And yet…I recently attended a protest against corruption in Madrid. Everyone in Spain, and I mean everyone, is aware of the corruption scandals that have rocked the PP, and also now two of the large unions, added to which are scandals involving the royal family and recurring urban political scandals encompassing both major parties. I therefore expected many outraged citizens to fill the square. Instead very few people were there, in fact, it felt a lot like the “manis” we used to have before 15-M, before 13-M, when we still were quite happy if 50 or 60 people showed up. Of course, just because not many people were there does not mean they don’t care. Maybe they simply had not heard about it. Or maybe they were too busy fighting on the frontlines of the attack on the victims of the crisis, defending people from evictions, or organizing against the privatization of our hospitals in one of the many citizen tides (mareas). I asked someone in one of the groups I know if he was surprised at the low numbers. He seemed surprised by the question. “No, if the big unions don’t call for the mani, then this is what there is”. All movements have ups and downs and there is definitely a sense of protest fatigue after the exhilaration of the large 15-M mobilizations. 

Part of the reason, I imagine, is the relentless and inflexible response of Spain’s ruling parties, who continue to act as though the people of Spain had never taken to the streets at all. The feeling of having exhausted all legal, media, and mobilizing resources and yet not being able to slow the inexorable advance of the dismantling of the public good by the “PPSOE” (the acronym used to denote the largely indistinguishable nature of the two major parties by many activists that combines the Popular Party-PP- and Socialist Party-PSOE-acronyms) has to be deeply depressing. It certainly is to me and the same feeling has been expressed by many in the past days. El País recently published a piece called “The decline of Madrid” cataloguing the effects of “austerity”, the dirty streets, the cuts in funding for cultural and other programs, the drop in tourists, the corrupt politicians. The article describes how deeply indebted city leaders refuse to cede a city theatre for a few nights, forcing the last minute cancellation the up to now annual jazz festival that would have brought 40.000 spectators, and place all their hopes and dreams on a Eurovegas casino project. Yet, the city still pulses with the life and chaos of any great city, with new surprises around each corner, however many times you might have walked down the same streets. For me the decline, depressing as it is, is of an even deeper nature. It is a corruption of the city’s spirit by those who govern it. Madrid’s council is proposing an  ordinance whereby itinerant musicians will now need to pass an audition to be able to perform on the streets. Musicians not certified will be subject to a high fine. Probably they will need to play Wagner to pass. Jokes aside, it is ironic to say the least that such stanch advocates of private enterprise as Madrid’s city leaders should seek state regulation of an activity that more than any other I can think of requires the free market system to work. After all, if no one likes the music the tips are not likely to keep the musician on the streets. It is a self regulating system par excellence, a perfect example of Adam Smith’s assertion that human nature is to truck, barter and exchange. One street musician said on the news that she was not a particularly skilled musician but that she juggled and did a few other things to engage her public, and that for her sense of pride she wanted to be able to do that to earn her daily crust. She does not want to beg, she said, but the city ordinance might force her to in order to get by. Not so fast, lady. A few days after the news about the required auditions, another ordinance under consideration was made public, this time against public begging, which will incur a 750 Euro fine. Since people have now resorted to searching through the garbage to forage for food, I expect the city to pass an ordinance that will also make this a fineable offense. Many other “anti-social behaviour laws” or what I prefer to call anti-social laws full stop are being proposed, including forbidding using a bench for any purpose other than sitting. But the city’s leaders are working hard to find a legal loophole for one law that actually protects citizens’ and workers’ health—you guessed it, they want smoking to be allowed inside Eurovegas.

I think what disturbs me most about this is that it is not subtle or cunning or dressed up in any sort of padded language. Not because I want to have the wool pulled over my eyes, but because what it means is that we are past that stage. It is blatant and brutal with no attempt to hide that fact. How much clearer can the message be when the Puerta del Sol, historic central plaza of Madrid, de riguer end point of protests of every ideological stripe, emblematic agora of 15-M, is now Vodafone (logo) Sol. I am not making this up. Every sign in the metro now reads Vodafone Sol and the announcer voice, which sounds exactly the same as it always has, now says “Next stop Vodafone Sol”. Every map of the metro also reads Vodafone Sol, and the red line (Linea 2) is now Vodafone 2. If you have Vodafone you can get a mobile signal on Line 2, excuse me, I mean Line Vodafone 2, and if you don’t, well, too bad. At first I thought it was a culture jam—a profound commentary on the privatization of public space. Then I realized that no, there was no jam involved, that what might have been a jam years ago has now just become a depressingly banal description of reality. Although I note with satisfaction that a few people have drawn black lines through the “word Vodafone”, there are countless “Vodafoned” signs and logos throughout the metro system. Someone told me the city got a million Euros from Vodafone. It probably cost that just to change all the signs. If they were going to sell off the name of the Puerta del Sol they could have at least gotten more for it.

What relevance does this have for social movements? It has to do with a re-appropriation of the public sphere by the state, a move which cannot be understood independently of the crisis and crucially the public response to the crisis. Not content with privatizing public goods such as education and healthcare, the public sphere itself needs to be regulated, not only by repressing marginalizing and criminalizing protest, but by making it clear that those victims of the crisis unable to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and tighten their belts at the same time need to be excluded from the public sphere or punished. It is a systematic alienation from our humanity, a denial of the spirit of solidarity, the same impetus that makes it a crime for the citizens of Lampedusa to rescue drowning immigrants, the same inhumane spirit that forces sailors to violate the first rule of the sea, which is to rescue shipwrecked people, and leaves our shores with piles of bloated bodies. It is the same spirit that tosses thousands of people on the streets when they cannot meet their mortgage payments or rent, offering them no alternatives, while houses sit empty, repossessed by banks bailed out with public money. If not too many people were in the squares, plenty of people are organizing to stop the evictions, putting their bodies on the line to show solidarity to their fellow citizens. But stopping evictions, important as it is, is a measure of last resort, and everyone knows it. The spirit that compels those evictions marches on, slowed but unimpeded.

And yet…My sense of anger and shame in these ordinances and laws is tempered by the strange hope I find in the actions of the old age pensioners I have been speaking with lately as part of my research. Strange because in reality I have no basis for expecting anything to change and yet I find them deeply inspiring. Two days after the protest in the Puerta del Sol, some pensioners chained themselves to a post—in the Puerta del Sol. The next day I went down to Bankia to speak with the pensioners who call themselves simply “swindled by Bankia” or “afectados por preferentes” (affected by the “preferential” investment scheme). According to the stories they tell me, many of them lost their life savings through an aggressive marketing campaign conducted by the bank managers who would call them at home, one, two, three times and encourage them to shift their savings into an investment product called preferentes without explaining the risks. As one recounted to me the bank manager said  “Why do you want your money only earning 3 % interest? Here shift it over here and you will get 7.5%”. The scheme was called “preferentes” as in preferential clients and they were told they had been chosen because of their long association with the bank. One told me he had been saving since 1965 for his old age, and now his savings are gone. Since they had their savings in Caja Madrid (later Bankia) they had every faith in their bank manager. They believe they were deliberately targeted because of their low level of education and their age, both factors making them vulnerable to signing contracts they did not understand, or in the case of one blind pensioner could literally not even read. He kept telling me, “They say we were investors. Liars! We were savers! We saved for years! We did not want to be investors! We would have left our money where it was”. Bankia was bailed out with millions of Euros of public money, but they still have not got their savings back. (Meanwhile the ex-director of Bankia, Rodrigo Rato, who was accused of fraud, has been given a lucrative job at Telefonica, one of Spain’s largest companies). The pensioners meet every Tuesday and Thursday in front of Bankia and blow whistles and make a lot of noise, holding signs reading slogans such as “Bankia steals from its clients” and “PP + Bankia = Stealing from Old People. Give us back our money”. Then they decide collectively where to go from there, sometimes blocking city traffic or occupying other bank branches. They don’t ask for permission, they don´t decide in advance, they have no weekly assembly. They don’t have internet. Somehow, they give me hope.

(This article originally appeared in Interface Journal. It was written in October 2013. The original is available here http://www.interfacejournal.net/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Interface-5-2-TNI.pdf)

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