Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Cows of death unknown

Did they jump or were they pushed? Last Saturday, sixty-one heifers fell to their deaths off a cliff near Aragüés del Puerto, a village in the Pyrenees off the Hecho road. (Beyond that is la Selva de Oza, one of my favourite places in Spain.)

Nobody knows how they came to do this. It's been assumed that somebody or something chased them off the cliff, and the immediate suspect was a bear, of which there are two on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, neither of whom the farmers are fond of. But the bears have been ruled out as suspects, seeing as their movements are monitored.

Or mostly ruled out, depending on which paper you read. El Periódico de Aragón is a Zaragoza paper, while Diario del Alto Aragón serves Huesca province, where the ganaderos, the cattle farmers, live. As do I.

It's been described as the biggest disaster in the history of Pyrenean cattle farming, which it no doubt is, though the disaster would be smaller if more than twenty of the sixty-one dead cows had been insured. Insurance costs, apparently, a little more than four Euros per head of cattle.

The ganaderos are demanding the regional government solve the mystery, insisting that you couldn't chase sixty-one cows off a cliff with twenty men. Or with forty dogs. Meanwhile the carcasses are lying at the bottom of a cliff, where their most likely fate is to be food for the vultures. A common theme in contemporary Spain.

Cows do not normally do this even if you have forty dogs

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Emotional rescue

I wake to find that Moody's have severely downgraded twenty-eight Spanish banks, including ours. Which is thoughtful of them. We might of course ask where they were when these banks were blowing ginormous great holes in their own balance sheets. But we can ask that sort of thing all we like, and never get an answer.

Our bank is, like most Spanish banks, a largely regional bank, bigger than some, but not too easy to access if you're outside Aragón or Guadalajara. There's no sign of any response to Moody's on their website, which is not such a surprise: just a few weeks ago their directors voted to merge with two other banks and there was no front-page notification of that either. Or, for that matter, anything sent to customers to tell them this important news.

One suspects that in Britain the merger would have provided an opportunity for all sorts of mailshots and adverts telling customers how it would improve not only their bank accounts but their lives, while the downgrading would have been met with a blitz of rebuttals and denials.

Either be told nothing, or be told buckets of horseshit: perhaps it's a cultural question more than a question of better or worse. Particularly as it has not been a splendid week for my British bank either.

Still, Spanish society is undeniably less open than British, in certain important respects, which fact has consequences, perhaps the stolen babies scandal among them. Try and make a complaint to an organisation, state or private sector, and see how you get on: if you get a reply you'll be lucky and if you're even luckier, you'll be invited to phone an expensive 902 number to find out why your complaint has been rejected. Expats tend to go mad at this sort of thing. Spaniards tend to accept it.

That said, there has been some discontent at the near-invisibility of the Prime Minister in the present crisis. (I say "present crisis", but it has been going on for four years now.) Nobody-telling-us-anything is not quite so acceptable when it's the elected leader of your so-called democracy who's gone missing. He's not been entirely invisible, it's true, but it's also true that one sees a lot less of Rajoy than one sees of De Guindos or Sáenz de Santamaría or Cospedal.

This is the sort of thing that almost entirely escapes international news coverage, since journalists are kept informed through regular press conferences and don't necessarily notice, or care, if the voting public are not similarly privileged. (One thinks how few Westminster village journalists cared that Tony Blair had an appalling attendance record in the House of Commons.) But in truth these things are quite important, for democracy and politics and the faith of the electorate in both: if, for instance, the government jacks up VAT when it had promised not to, both in the election campaign and afterwards, this does actually matter. It probably matters more than De Guindos' latest press statement or what some clown from a City equities firm has to say about it. But of the three, it's substantially the least likely to be reported.

Rajoy did, however, show up at the Congress of Deputies last week, in order to be taunted by his various opposite numbers about his refusal to use the term "rescate" about Spain's formal appeal for funds to support its banks. (Which, in passing, makes me wonder why Moody's would downgrade a sector that's likely to receive very shortly a huge wallop of cash. But I am just a humble punter.)

Personally I don't care very much whether Rajoy uses the term or not. The politics of the matter is that any claim Rajoy makes to be in charge of the situation is rendered a nonsense by the rescate, which is true enough, but as I never thought he was, or could be in charge of the situation, I'm not so bothered.

Nor do I particularly care for the term rescate, which literally means "rescue" although contemporary English tends to use "bailout", a term I like even less. But it seems to me that the whole point of a rescue is that you are pulled out of the water. And it also seems to me that not only are we deeper in the water than we were before, but that they are attaching fresh weights to us.

I wake to find that Moody's have done this. Or the financial markets have done that. Every morning I wake to find somebody has done something that makes me want to go back to sleep. Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Syriza like Monday morning

Syriza didn't win, of course. It would have been a good thing for Spain if it had, but it didn't. I almost wrote thought of writing therefore it didn't, on the general principle that the better something would be, the less likely it is to actually happen. But anyway. It didn't happen.

Of course it didn't happen. It's nearly always possible for the Right to win an election if they want to badly enough: if they deploy their gigantic financial advantage, if the media is sufficiently skewed towards them, crucially if the element of fear is abroad, that sufficient voters are inclined to believe that everything will collapse unless power gets its way.

Perhaps they were right. Or perhaps everything will collapse anyway. Or perhaps the reason Syriza aroused such opposition among the European political and financial establishment was that they didn't accept the role it is insisted Greece should play. The real sin of Syriza was to say the unthinkable, the unacceptable, that it is not all the fault of the Greeks.

As it goes, I'm not entirely opposed to we-are-all-guilty views about the crisis. (Perhaps I will get back to that question in a future post.) But the view that there is some entity called "the Greeks" who can be collectively and solely blamed for the problems of their country is a disgusting one.

This is not to say that corruption in Greece has not been rampant: nor that corruption beyond a certain degree doesn't, ultimately, implicate and involve everybody, because it does. But as a narrative to explain the destruction of Greece, especially as a narrative told by the political and financial establishment, as a moral narrative allocating and demarcating blame, it's a nonsense. Come to that, it's a moral nonsense.

There are two reasons why - two obvious, glaring reasons why - neither of which is apparently mentioned within that establishment, or within mainstream commentary, let alone accepted.

The first is that if corruption and the fiddling of accounts was widespread within Greece, which of course it was, then other states, banks, and companies working within Greece must have known this. What they did not actually know, they must have suspected. But they chose to say nothing, because it was not then politically expedient to say so, and because they were happily making a great deal of money. Because the milk was flowing and the honey was sweet.

They went along with it happily until it turned out that their money was at risk. Then they were completely shocked at what they found was happening. But they still wanted to collect their winnings.

This is bullshit, of course. But the fact that it is bullshit is very rarely spoken. "The Greeks" are at fault, collectively at fault and solely at fault and this narrative must be the only one.

The second is that in their horror, their rejection of the old system of political corruption, the political and financial establishment (which is a clumsy phrase, but what can I do?) have openly and repeatedly expressed their support for the old system of political corruption in their campaign against Syriza.

We can take as an example the pre-election analysis of Holger Schmieding of Berenberg Bank, who manages repeatedly to refer to a "responsible government", by which he means a government of the old corrupt parties, and to describe PASOK as "responsible centre-left" when we have been led to believe that PASOK is at the centre of a network of patronage and corruption.

This, too, is manifest bullshit. But it is not given that name.

And the relevance of all this to Spain is that Spain is next in line: the next to be punished, the next to be demolished. But you cannot punish somebody without making it clear that they are guilty.

So watch, as along with the burden of paying for the crisis, the responsibility for causing the crisis is shifted to the Spanish. Watch, as the crisis turns out not to be about construction bubbles but about public sector pensions and employment rights. Watch, as the role of international lenders in financial profligacy is forgotten and the blame falls entirely on Spanish banks and political interference in those banks. Watch, as the blame falls, like Plymouth Rock, on Spain. Or on "the Spanish". Because we all know what they're like.

As we all know what "the Greeks" are like. That's the story. No other story will do. And that's why Syriza had to lose.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

He who controls the present controls the past

Towards the end of last week, Moody's, the ratings agency, downgraded Spain's government debt to some point barely above junk. This was on the day before my forty-seventh birthday, which we spent in Val d'Aran, passing through the five-kilometre tunnel which connects it with Aragón and the road to Lleida.

Without the tunnel, the route south doesn't exist: the valley is easily accessible from France, but the rest of Spain would only be reached by a long and difficult road through the Catalonian Pyrenees. Within Spain, when geography would place it immediately in France, I expect the valley shortly to be discovered by British journalists and employed as a metaphor. Here is where we are. And over there is where we would like to be.

Moody's. I remember Moody's. I am forty-seven now, and was forty-six at the time, and my memory is creaking like the finances of a Spanish bank. But I seem to remember Moody's. Back in January, when one wave or other - there have been so many - of market panic was breaking all over us, Mariano Rajoy announced, or was set to announce, to announce, ten billion Euros' worth of cuts. Immediately, up popped Moody's, who I had not previously realised considered themselves managers as well as bookmakers. No, pronounced Moody's, that was not enough. Ten billion Euros simply would not do. Forty billion Euros was what was required. By the afternoon, Rajoy was back again, giving Moody's and the financial markets the forty billion.

Something like that. Something mostly like that. It's an incomplete recollection, but at least I remember something.

Because nobody else appears to. At least, when Moody's carried out their downgrade on Thursday, I didn't see a slew of stories recalling Moody's previous demands. I didn't come across a lot of commentary asking Moody's whether they thought their previous advice looked quite so good in retrospect.

Perhaps it never happened. Perhaps nothing ever happened and time always begins at the point we are now occupying, the past existing differently in our different memories and having, other than that, no existence and no meaning. We had an election at the end of last year. Did the winners run on a manifesto, with any specific promises and pledges? I thought I remembered it. But no-one else remembers it. In the past few days I have seen no reference to it.
The belief that nothing exists outside your own mind -- surely there must be some way of demonstrating that it was false? Had it not been exposed long ago as a fallacy? There was even a name for it, which he had forgotten. A faint smile twitched the corners of O'Brien's mouth as he looked down at him.

'I told you, Winston,' he said, 'that metaphysics is not your strong point. The word you are trying to think of is solipsism. But you are mistaken. This is not solipsism. Collective solipsism, if you like. But that is a different thing: in fact, the opposite thing. All this is a digression,' he added in a different tone. 'The real power, the power we have to fight for night and day, is not power over things, but over men.' He paused, and for a moment assumed again his air of a schoolmaster questioning a promising pupil: 'How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?'

Winston thought. 'By making him suffer,' he said.
Previous government promises and manifestos: they do not exist. The previous demands and previous errors of the ratings agencies: they do not exist.

And shortly, too, the previous three years of austerity will not have existed, because austerity is always something that is required, just as structural reforms are always something that is absolutely necessary.

But I remember. I think I remember. I think I remember Moody's telling the government what to do. Asserting their power over another.

I also have another memory, even less reliable. I think it used to be considered morally reprehensible to punish another for carrying out the instructions that you gave them.

But that was in the past. And the past does not exist.