Sunday, 5 May 2013

Krugman doesn't know the half of it

Mario Draghi is as ambiguous a figure as a public executioner can be. A strange thing to say, since unlike most executioners he doesn't wear a mask: but unlike most executioners, he has the power to stay the execution even as he carries it out. He kills you with one hand and saves you with the other.

If it were not for Mario Draghi, Spain would probably, by now, be subject to a bailout: it is only his implicit guarantee of support that has brought down the cost of government borrowing to the point where it is almost sustainable. On the other hand, Mario Draghi has exacted a price for this: and the price, in cuts and the devastation that they cause, keeps Spain in a desperate position and one from which it cannot escape.

Perhaps the metaphor of the executioner is the wrong one. Perhaps a better one is the man who catches someone who is falling, but will not pull them up. Hence their survival depends entirely on the catcher - and in saying and doing exactly what he wants.

Krugman, who one reads in much the same spirit as one might take an antidote to poison, wrote on Friday, in passing, about Draghi. The occasion was a press conference in Bratislava in which Draghi announced the lowering of the ECB's interest rate, on the one hand (saved!) and called for more cuts and fewer tax increases (killed!) on the other.

Watching this on the following morning's news bulletin I was distracted from precisely what Draghi was saying firstly by the sight of Olli Rehn, as wicked and stupid a man as holds power anywhere in Europe, and secondly by the sight of my stepmother, a wicked and stupid woman, sitting on Olli Rehn's right. But I caught up later on with what Draghi had been saying: firstly in the Spanish press and later when I took my shot of Krugman. Cut more, says Mario. Taxes are too high: what you need to do is cut.
Unfortunately, many of the fiscal consolidation measures were implemented in an emergency situation, with most governments choosing the simplest route, which was to raise taxes. And here we are talking about raising taxes in an area of the world where taxes are already very high, so it is no wonder that this had a contractionary effect. However, now that there is more time, there could be a shift towards reducing current government expenditure and lowering taxes.
You would think, from this, that there had been no cuts, that governments in Spain or Italy or elsewhere had simply raised taxes ("most governments choosing the simplest route, which was to raise taxes") rather than cut. Draghi must know that this is not true.

Nobody says this to him in the press conference, which is worth reading, if not worth going out of your way to read: not because Draghi has anything very interesting to say, but because the questions asked him are so gentle, so over-courteous, that one can easily understand how the Rehns and Draghis are able to live in a bubble where they are managing the crisis as well as they can and the problem is that governments have scarcely cut at all.

Perhaps it is not the done thing to cry out Mr Draghi, what are you talking about, half of Southern Europe is a disaster area. But as it is, the Rehns and Draghis are not even in the position of Great War generals who kept to the same course while hundreds of thousands were dying. They're generals who keep to the same course and do not even understand that there are casualties.

So, Draghi didn't say anything that interesting, as a man who is asked nothing interesting might very well not. But Krugman was interested enough to ask what Draghi was implying, as well as what he was saying outright, and detect an implict threat - that he wasn't just saying to cut spending rather than increase taxes, but to do so or else. Draghi, says Krugman,
is inserting himself into domestic policy in a way that he really shouldn't.
Indeed he is. But Krugman doesn't know the half of it. It isn't implict at all. Because the last time Draghi took it on himself to give a lecture on cutting spending rather than raising taxes, he inserted himself into Spanish domestic policy literally. He came to Madrid and addressed the Congress of Deputies personally. Personally and secretly. In a closed hearing. A closed session of an independent country's parliament.

Perhaps that is why journalists express no outrage. Because they are allowed, for a few minutes, to sit in front of Mario Draghi and ask questions. They are. But the Spanish people are not. So nobody will ask Mr Draghi, when were you crowned king of Europe, when were you appointed God?. Because nobody is king, or God, if you can ask them questions. And nobody is your executioner, when it is not you hanging by their highly-conditional thread.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

The cleansing and the pure

En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor.
I sometimes observe that when you're in your forties, it is frequently impossible to distinguish satire and reality. I had one of those impossible moments last week, watching the morning news on April 23, which is Cervantes' birthday and hence celebrated across Spain as El Día Del Libro, the day of the book. A day of particular interest to those of us in the bookselling profession.

The previous day had been the first in a three-day continuous reading of Don Quijote at the Círculo de Bellas Artas de Madrid. The famous opening sentence was read by Soraya Saénz de Santamaria, the three-year-old who is Vice-President of the Government. Other readers included José Iganacio Wert, the Minister for Education who can be compared to Michael Gove in his politics (though he is neither quite so smart as Gove, nor quite so stupid) and in the degree to which he is loathed by nearly everybody whose lives he affects.

Anyway, not a fortnight before this reading, I heard on the news that book sales in Spain had fallen 20% in three years, the three years being roughly the amount of time which Spain has been suffering from severe austerity and the 20% being roughly the difference between a reasonable living and an unsustainable business. The people in charge of this process include Soraya Saénz de Santamaria and José Iganacio Wert. But there they were, rejoicing in their promotion of a practice, the reading of literature, which they are busy strangling to death. One reaclls not so much Don Quijote as El Cid, sent out into battle when in reality he was already dead. And one struggles unsuccessfully to distinguish reality from satire.

The last book I read was Paul Preston's The Spanish Holocaust, written about the days when Spanish rightwingers tried to kill readers and schoolteachers as well as reading and schools.

Preston's thesis - and the reason for his title - is that Franco was fighting not just to defeat the Left but to exterminate it. The murders and brutalities of his troops weren't just part of the cycle of retaliation that occurs in any civil war, but a deliberate and premediated attempt to extirpate a whole set of people and their ideas, ideas perceived as Jewish in origin and constituting a conspiracy to weaken and destroy Spain.

As such, Franco's atrocities were not just more extensive but qualitatively different to the atrocities committed by their opponents - to which Preston nevertheless devotes considerable space - which were objected to, restrained and finally all but ended by the authorities, in contrast to the rebel side where it was the authorities that organised them. (Preston also provides numerous examples of rightwing prisoners in Republican areas being saved from potential lynch mobs, a practice much less visible on the other side of the lines.) Whether this was true of the actions of the anarchist columns in Aragón, who often did have a near-exterminist approach to the clergy and the bourgeoisie, is not so clear. But his thesis, as regards Franco's intentions, is surely indisuptable.

Oddly, Preston (p. 5) describes Martov and Dan, who were Mensheviks, as Bolsheviks, and there is a strange passage on (p. 251) which appears to locate Rubielos de Mora to the north of Teruel, which it is not, but if there were other errors, I failed to notice them. His book is not a hard one to read, but it is less a narrative than a succession of masssacres and murders. With good reason, since part of the very purpose of writing such a book is simply to acknowledge the killings that took place, to try and put dates and details and names to them, a process actively impeded by the Spanish government of Wert, Saénz de Santamaria and all.

Preston writes (p. 450-1) of:
...the village of of Concud, about two and a half miles from the provincial capital. Here, into a pit six feet wide and 250 feet deep, known as Los Pozos de Caudé, were hurled the hundreds of bodies of men and women, including adolescent boys and girls. Few of them were political militants. Their crime was simply to be considered critical of the military coup, to be related to someone who had fled, to have had a radio or to have read liberal newspapers before the war. Throughout the years of the dictatorship fear prevented anyone from even going near the pit, although occasionally at night bunches of flowers would be left near by. In 1959, without the permission of the relatives of those murdered, a lorryload of human remains was taken to Franco's mausoleum at the Valle de los Caídos. Once the Socialists acheieved power in 1982, people began openly to leave floral tributes. Then in 1983 a local farmer came forward and said that he had kept a notebook with the number of shootings that he heard each night throughout the Spanish Civil War. They totalled 1,005.
There are many thousands of unidentified people buried in mass graves in Spain. Were their names to be recorded and read out at the Círculo de Bellas Artas, it might very well take three days.

Given the exterminist nature of Franco and of the Nazism which it imitated, as well as the deep connection of both these exterminisms with concepts of purity (Franco's extirpation of the Spanish Left was referred to as la limpieza, the cleansing) one might expect a minister of the government not to use terms like "pure Nazism" without prior thought. Alas thought, whether prior or otherwise, appears to be beyond María Dolores De Cospedal, who is herself from La Mancha and whose name I do not much like to remember. Cospedal recently saw fit to use the term to describe los escraches, protests outside the houses of government ministers, often by members and supporters of PAH, the movement against mortgage-related evictions.

Escraches originated in Argentina in the period after the dictatorship, but when those guilty of crimes under the dictatorship enjoyed pardons and immunity: the object was to identify, shame and make uncomfortable those who would otherwise have gone unquestioned, unnoticed and untroubled either by justice or by guilt. To my knowledge not a single person has been hurt in any way in a Spanish escrache: I am not personally fond of them, but they are legal protests and have recently been reaffirmed as such by the courts. But Cospedal, a particularly shameless member of a particularly shameless government, refers to them as pure Nazism.

So, while we are obviously not back in the Thirties - though never even in the Thirties was there unemployment like this - the habit remains: the use by the Spanish Right of the most hysterical and exaggerated language about their political opponents. Spain may have a Bourbon on the throne, but it is not necessarily he who has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

So, if are referring to the Thirties, and failing to forget, we might remember that Cospedal's party has its origins in Spanish fascism. It also operates a policy of preventing people uncovering and commemorating the exterminist crimes of that very same fascism: rape, torture and murder on a mass scale used as instruments of policy. This is not to be investigated. This is not to be spoken of. But let a peaceful protest occur outside a minister's home, and that is spoken of as "pure Nazism". As I was saying, the difference between satire and reality is impossible to discern.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Everybody still talks about how badly they were shocked

It was a fait accompli. They had made their decision before the meeting had even begun. They don't care. They want Cyprus to be the guinea pig. They want to see if this thing works. If it does, then perhaps Spain or Italy will be next. If it doesn't, then who cares about Cyprus? 1
As it happens I'd been meaning to transfer most of my savings out of Ibercaja and into the NatWest. Not because I'm expecting an imminent economic collapse (far from it, I'm expecting our slow economic collapse to carry on happening) but because the amount of money I need for a holiday in Wales this July is roughly equivalent to the total of my savings.

Life would be so much simpler if we none of us had any money. Alas, we do, in the shape of a business account, most of which we can't really transfer out of the Eurozone since it's largely needed to pay bills in Spain. In euros.

We did transfer a few thousand to a UK account last May, when Bankia was failing and we thought this might be the point where the economic collapse accelerated, and the bailout might happen, or the Euro might disintegrate or something. What actually happened what that none of this occurred and the Euro spent most of the next ten months gaining strength against the pound.

I'm not a currency trader: I'm a bookseller, and I can't be expected to possess knowledge, and act upon that knowledge, as if I were something else. I know a little economics, perhaps more than the next guy, but a bank account is where I put my money. It's not an investment, any more than a house is an investment rather than the place I live. Less so. Much less so.

This is what's wrong with the Cyprus nonsense. It's not the complexities that matter here so much as the simplicities. A bank, for most of us, is simply where you put your money. There's no "moral hazard". You're not seeking to get something for nothing. It's a necessity. You can scarcely operate as a citizen, and not at all as a business, without one. You are not making a bet with it. You're not buying shares with it. You're not making any statement about the soundness or prospects of the bank, which you are simply not in a position to know about. It is not supposed to be an act which entails any responsibility. Making a bet with it is precisely what you are not doing.

So that money cannot just be taken away from you overnight. There is no moral case for that occurring. You are entitled to believe it both safe and untouchable.

There is something barmy, beyond barmy, in the spectacle of people who have done something sensible, like save their money in a bank account, being told by people who have been reckless, like Europe's financial and political leaders, that in the name of responsibility they must see their money disappear overnight like a bike under a blizzard. I mean whose responsibility is it?
What you won't get is any explanation for why Cyprus was accepted into the euro just five years ago [or] why Brussels never tried to clean up the island's financial system.2
When I go to Ibercaja, I'm not going to a casino. I am looking after my money, not speculating with it. It's an old-fashioned place, really. In my local branch you even used to have to check down the village bar to see if the manager - is it a manager, if only one person works there? - had gone for a coffee.

It's bureaucratic. Occasionally they do stupid things like close your account to payments without telling you because some clown in Zaragoza has misunderstood something in your records. If you complain, they will say "no hace falta" ("it's not necessary") which is not a concept compatible with modern customer service. The hours (0815-1400, except Thursday) aren't very customer-friendly. Sometimes if you ask for a packet of 25 one euro coins you check it later and there's only 24. This is not the fault of Wolfgang Schäuble.

But it is not a casino, nor does it belong to Casino World. It's a world in which people from the local town use the local bank and people who work at that local bank draw a modest but secure salary. On their way home from work they stop for a coffee with the friends they've known all their lives who probably have their money in the bank for which their friend works.

This is Spain. It is, particularly, provincial Spain. Or it was. And for all its shortcomings it was a world of security rather than risk, one where the primary function of a bank was not, in fact, to make speculative property investments in order to make money very quickly and then fiddle the accounts to try and hide your sins.
A suspicion will linger in places like Italy and Spain that, although European officials insist this was a one-off deal, depositors elsewhere might face a tax on their accounts.3
So what do we do, if and when the troika come calling here, insisting that the account-holders in Spanish banks take a haircut to pay for the costs of gigantic speculation and entirely inadequate supervision, both of which were very much the troika's responsibility and neither of which had anything to do with the customers? They already stiffed the small investors in Bankia. Are small depositors in banks like Ibercaja next?
And here I sit so patiently Waiting to find out what price You have to pay to get out of Going through all these things twice4
I don't know. And I don't particularly care. Because there is nothing I can do about it, and because it's not my job to know. Don't ask me, I only bank here.

If I don't bank here, I have to bank somewhere else. The mattress doesn't accept cheques and electronic transfers. And I have no way - no way - of knowing whether it is is any safer than the bank I have. The prevailing state of existence, when you live in Sourthern Europe, is one of helplessness.

It seems to me that the nature of the present crisis is that political and financial institutions, who by and large are responsible for the disaster, are using their power to point the finger at the citizens, who and and large were not. I mean we weren't. We weren't the fucking gamblers, were we?

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Wheel of fortune

Visiting central Madrid today is like being in London in the Eighties. No row of shops is complete without at least one crumpled person in a doorway, with a cardboard sign in hand and a hat or a cup, almost empty of coins, in front of them. The difference is the graffiti: political graffiti has never really caught on in the UK, but I remember it from holidays in France when I was a child, and I see it in Spain now that I am middle-aged. We ate our lunch in the Paseo del Prado, just south of the Plaza de Cibeles, sat opposite a graffito reading
which is a tempting thought, but not actually true. No doubt the Spanish electorate voted for a different programme to the one they got, but the did vote for the people who are implementing it.

We should have been working, but we had a cancellation and therefore had a day off to visit the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and particularly their Impressionism and Open-Air Painting Exhibition, in which Monet's painting of poplars on the Epte reminded me of the Thames between Oxford and Abingdon. I wonder if anybody else will ever have the same thought unbidden.

Beggars in shop doorways, political graffiti, an art gallery on an unhurried afternoon. When you're looking out at Cibeles from the Thyssen, you can barely even hear the traffic, let alone see anything disturbing. There were police officers and barriers in the street, but they were merely preparing for the influx of Real Madrid fans if their team won at Old Trafford - as indeed they did - as Cibeles is where they go to celebrate. (There was a guy in a Manchester United top going round the exhibition with us, and I wondered if he had got his dates mixed up, confused the ida with the vuelta and found himself in Madrid when he should have been in Manchester.)

Next day we were back in reality and working in Alcorcón, a suburb of Madrid that barely existed seventy years ago but is now not very far short of 200,000 inhabitants, a little smaller than Móstoles, the poorer suburb to its west where we were staying. Móstoles, which reminds me of Stevenage on no basis better than the small shopping precinct near the Metro station, is more likely to remind a Spaniard of the Empanadilla de Móstoles sketch from a New Year's Eve television special years ago.

I'd like to claim that I know this because of my wide knowledge of Spanish popular culture: in fact I heard of it by accident while watching the Spanish equivalent of Wheel of Fortune. Talking of gaming wheels, the present-day population of Alcorcón is less than the total number of jobs promised by the Eurovegas project, a gigantic Las Vegas-style gambling complex which Sheldon Adelson has agreed to build in Alcorcón, provided it is exempted from the usual tax laws, gambling laws, employment laws and smoking laws.

Naturally it would be unfair to assume that this was a corrupt operation, just as it would be unfair to asssume that its model in Las Vegas was corrupt just because it was founded by the Mafia. It's merely unfortunate that just last week, while we were working in Alcorcón, Adelson's empire was accused of having been engaged in bribing overseas officials. This appears to have been in Macau - rather than Spain, as some Spaniards naturally at first assumed - but nevertheless there was an immediate political ruckus in Madrid, with the opposition essentially expressing the view that bribery and corruption are what projects like Eurovegas are for.

There must be some law about this stuff in the unofficial field of Capitalism Studies: the more ambitious the project, the more dubious the individuals concerned. It's not the first Las Vegas In Spain we've heard about: a few years ago there was Gran Scala, which was to be situated not in Madrid but in Los Monegros, the arid region north of a line between Zaragoza and Lérida and not at all far from where I live.

According to its Wikipedia entry, this project "has construction work beginning in September 2008" while "opening is planned for mid-2012", an entry which could really do with some revision since although it is now 2013, construction work has not yet begun and opening is likely to take place never.

Not to my surprise: the scheme's backers, in so far as one could find out anything about them, never seemed to have the money to go ahead with the scheme on their own, and I kind of assumed that they would try and kick off the project regardless, then leave the regional government with no option but to throw good money after bad if and when the entrepreneurs ran out of capital on the way.

In fact it never even got that far, though there was a fanfare in the regional media when some of the old boys in Ontiñena - unsurprisingly big supporters of the project given they were promised very good money in exchange for very poor land - received, as I understood it, the first tranches of their money in a public ceremony. Alas for them, that was all they were to see, as the project appeared to collapse shortly afterwards.

This was partly because of the crisis and partly - in so far as it is a separate reason - because the backers clearly couldn't find enough other chancers to stump up cash for their manifestly iffy project, though allegedly efforts to find new investors are continuing.

But it was also because one of the backers went home to London and murdered his wife. He was jailed for life.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Badly received

"It is hard to get a receipt in Spain."
I read this claim in a piece on the BBC a couple of weeks ago, written by one Pascale Harter. It was a surprising thing to read, because it is not hard to get a receipt in Spain. I get at least one every time I go shopping.

It is not even hard to get an invoice in Spain, the distinction being important to some people, notably those of us who incur a lot of work-related expenses, some of which can be claimed back, in part, in deductions from our tax bills. We spend much the year away from home, which involves staying in hostels, hotels and campsites, buying meals, using diesel, maintaining our an and so on. A proportion of the costs involved is deducted from tax, provided we have proper documentation to justify our claims.

This involves getting an invoice - una factura - for any given transaction, rather than a simple receipt. The factura, as well as being numbered and dated, must carry our address, the name of our company, its NIF (Número de Identificación Fiscal, a registration number, much like the code carried on identity cards) and the similar details of the issuing company, be that a restaurant, a hotel, a petrol company or what you will.

It's worth, as an aside, observing that this is a very large subsidy from the public purse to a private concern. It may well be necessary in order to allow business to take place, but it is a subsidy nonetheless, yet one rarely remarked upon. When I eat out, the taxpayer shells out a proportion of the bill. When I decide to have a coffee at the end, the taxpayer divvies up some of the extra.

Leaving that aside aside, the main point for today is that these facturas are not, in fact, hard to get hold of. Or only very rarely. I am in a position to know this, because in any given term, we will have to ask for dozens of them.

They are not always given with good grace, not least because people are often busy. They are not always given straightaway. We have been told Ms Harter's story about the malfunctioning printer a number of times. We have been told the boss is not in and only they know what to do. We have been told the accountant (gestor, or gestora) will do it. We have been told to come back later, we have been told it will be sent by email, we have been told it will be sent in the post.

Yet although I rarely believe it until it happens, I am rarely justified in my cynicism. It does happen. The factura is given us. Or it arrives in the post, or by email. We have worked, or stayed, in Aragón, Cantabria, Asturias, Extremadura, Madrid, Navarra, La Rioja, the Balearics, Valencia, Murcia, Catalunya, Castilla-La Mancha and Castilla y León, which provides us with a fairly wide experience from which to speak. Sufficient experience to say that the generalisation "it is hard to get a receipt in Spain" is manifestly not true.

There have been exceptions, albeit rare ones. There was a restaurant in Pamplona which while we were there, told us the printer story, and in subsequent phone calls told us a succession of different lies. (Eventually we gave up.) There was another restaurant in Pamplona which told us even before we ate that they didn't issue facturas, a version which, for its candour and its preference for not wasting our time, I much preferred to the other one.

But other than that, it is hard to think of a time when we have been refused, openly or otherwise, a factura. Even in the hostal outside Cuenca which didn't appear to operate a register, quite likely for tax purposes, gave us a factura. A factura for customers they didn't even officially admit existed.

This is not the entire story. There are many plumbers who insist on working cash-in-hand, as indeed there are in the UK. I'm sure there are taxi drivers who don't issue receipts, but then again untrustworthy taxi drivers are not a peculiarly Spanish phenomenon.

There are open fiddles in Spain that either do not exist in the UK, or if they do, are hidden, and presumably much more easily hidden precisely for their rarity. For instance, if one purchases a house or a flat in Spain, it is not unusual, at the moment of signing contracts, for the purchaser and vendor to be invited to step into the next room, where the purchaser pays over a large sum to the vendor in excess of the published sale price. This takes place so that tax may be evaded on part of that price. Clearly such a thing could not occur unless it was known to everybody and tolerated by everybody.

Yes, for sure, the level of tax evasion, at street level as well as in business and politics, is higher than it is in Northern Europe. But as I wrote before:
The black economy in Spain is about one-fifth the size of the official economy - about twice as high, if I follow the paper, as the figure in Germany. That's a difference, but it's not the difference between good and evil, between a healthy society and a sick one. There is more corruption, and more tax evasion, in Spain than in Germany or the UK, but Spain is not properly described as "corrupt". It is not an all-pervasive element in everyday life.
It is not. And it is not, in most circumstances, hard to get a receipt in Spain. There are occasions where it is hard to get one, but that is not the same thing at all.

I insist on this partly for the simple reason that I have seen somebody write something I know not to be true, but also because the narrative of "corruption" is often used to justify austerity, or to pretend its effects would be much less harmful were it not for a corruption in which the population are complicit. (I'm reminded of the effects of sanctions on Iraq, effects blamed, by the supporters of sanctions, on the corruption of the régime, as if the sanctions themselves played no role.) But when you are on the ground, you know that the people imposing austerity are generally those most complicit in corruption, and those who are protesting most about austerity are the loudest voices against corruption too.

This is not a fault of Ms Harter's piece, which is a perfectly good one other than the bizarre claim about receipts. And it's true to say both that there's always an element of popular complicity in corruption, and that more thoughtful Spaniards understand and accept this.

But "corruption" is a term that needs to be properly defined, its nature and extent explored, rather than applied, as it often is, tout court, as a mark of damnation against peoples, societies and countries. "The Greeks" are not corrupt, nor is Greece, and though there is much corruption in Greece, involving many Greeks, you cannot thus define a country. Not Greece, nor Italy, nor Cyprus, nor Ireland nor Portugal. Nor Spain.

Because it's not like that. And it is not hard to get a receipt in Spain. But many people will have read the contrary on the BBC and if, as a result, they believe it, they will believe something which is not the case.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

What we did and didn't see

Yesterday morning I was working in a school in Zaragoza, right on the northern fringe of the city, outskirts that weren't even outskirts until a very few years ago. At morning break I went to find a bank, and I thought I could hear a protest march. There was chanting, like the chanting of slogans, but nobody was there. Aside from me, and a couple of empty trams, the streets were deserted.

I expected a march to come round the corner without warning, like the car in Blow-Up, but it never did. From where I was, high up on a hill, I could see down into the city centre, and across to the ludicrous, overblown station with its disused cable-car connection to the park where the Expo took place, and I even wondered whether the sound had carried up the hill from some other part of the city on one of Zaragoza's characteristic winds.

It hadn't. When I got back into the school I could hear gunfire, and after a short time bothering myself as to whether I had imagined two sounds that morning, I realised that both had come from the officer training school just to the north. You drive past it if you come off the motorway at that end of the city: a huge barracks with a man in uniform, on the gate, carrying a sub-machine gun, stood next to what appears to be a small pile of cannonballs. I've never got close enough to see.

You don't have to be a Guerra Civil buff to find you can't go into Zaragoza - not from the north, anyway - without thinking about the army. On 23F, the 23rd of February, you can't avoid it at all, this being the anniversary of the coup of 1981, the failure of which ended the era in which the Army was a powerful and quasi-independent force in Spain, and began the era, not of democracy as such, but of stable, guaranteed democracy. For thirty years since then it has been assumed that there would be, and could be, no more coups.

I remember it. Not well, but I remember it, from television news in Britain at the time, when I was fifteen. Ths man in a funny hat coming into the Spanish parliament and firing a gun: I ever remember knowing the name, Colonel Tejero, and being puzzled as to why somebody who wasn't even a General was apparently in charge. I'm not sure I knew, at the time, that there had been a period of forty years in which Spain had been ruled by a General, though if I didn't know, I was to find out soon enough.

This 23F is the day of the Mareas Ciudadanas, The Tide of Citizens Against The Coup Of The Markets, a series of demonstrations all over Spain against the cuts and for a democracy that has been rendered farcical by the corruption of the political parties and the demands of the financial institutions.

I nearly went, though I have been ten years retired from active political involvement. But every time I see Olli Rehn dictating its own self-destruction to another country I think seriously about taking to the streets again. If Rehn and his friends are going to throw Spain back a generation, as they are surely going to do, and if they are going to render the will of the Spanish people as irrelevant as Colonel Tejero tried to render it, then perhaps they will take me back a generation too, back to what I was in 1981 - angry and idealistic and wondering what could be done about the capitalists.

Of course, el golpe de los mercados is not the same as the coup of Tejero, let alone that of Franco. But the contempt for the population is the same. And there is always the fear that economic collapse will lead to social collapse, and that will lead to a new conflict, a new Franco or Tejero. They were defeated in 1981, and everybody thought they had gone away for ever. But we are travelling backwards so fast in Spain, as they are in Greece and Portugal, that the past is not, for certain, a different country any more.

Even after 23F in 1981, they didn't go away completely. Not straightaway. Just the other day I was in the bar of a hotel above Calatayud, a place we often stay when the journey home, or to the city where we're working, is too long to be managed without an overnight stay. Reading the Heraldo de Aragón, I came across the story of the mock-execution in Abena, which took place in 1984, and which I had not previously heard of. According to El País a week later, on the 6th of June 1984:
Un grupo de militares 'fusiló' al alcalde de un pueblo de Huesca durante unas maniobras.
A group of soliders "shot" the mayor of a Huesca village during manoeuvres. Firing blanks, it turned out, but a bizarre and nasty event all the same. Having gathered the locals in the main square, they accused the mayor and the odd-job man of being collaborators, and "shot" them. Up against a wall, with all the normal ceremony attending a real execution.

Nobody knows why the soldiers did this, and that is not the only mysterious aspect to the event. As the El País story reports, that same evening, the local radio station was robbed and equipment destroyed. The "executed" mayor fell over himself to say that it had all been a practical joke and that he forgave everybody involved. And everybody in the village developed amnesia. According to another piece later that same month:
Ninguno de los habitantes de Abena que ayer se encontraban en el pueblo admitió haber estado en la plaza cuando el pelotón de las COE fusiló a Galindo y a Ara. Todos parecían ser víctimas de una fuerte amnesia que les impedía recordar nada de lo sucedido. Sin embargo, recordaban perfectamente "las barbaridades y mentiras que habéis escrito los periodistas".
"None of the inhabitants of Abena that we came across admitted having been in the plaza" when the shooting took place. "All of them seemed to have been victims of a powerful amnesia preventing them remembering anything at all of what had taken place." However, as the writer snarkily adds, "nevertheless, they recalled perfectly the nonsense and lies that the journalists had written".

Very strange. The piece alludes to some stories in the press that the village had been a hideout for the maquis, Republican guerillas behind Fascist lines, during the Civil War, and the vehement denials of the villagers that this has been so. The very fact of their vehemence says a great deal, as does the comment of a thirty-year-old man, who had been there to help his parents with the harvest (June is not early for the harvest, round these parts) that he had been asked to say nothing to anybody, and that
Aquí la gente, la gente mayor especialmente, tiene mucho respeto, casi temor, a los militares.
"Here, people, expecially older people, have a great deal of respect for the military. Fear, almost."

When I say that this says a great deal, I don't assume that it says they were lying about the maquis. I mean that it demonstrates the effect of civil war, mass executions and two generations of military dictatorship upon the people who lived through it: their keenness to say nothing and to have nothing said about them, to see nothing that they should not have seen, to just want to be left alone. Most importantly, nobody should ever complain. (The absence of a complaint was, the following month, advanced by the lawyer for the soldiers involved as a reason for asking the military court to drop the case. In the end minor punishments were applied. The lieutenant in command was recently promoted to Brigadier-General, which is what prompted Heraldo to recall the 1984 events.)

I've been to Abena. It's in the northeast corner of a remote, hilly and mostly wooded area between Jaca, Ayerbe and Huesca, which one passes through on the spectacular train ride between Huesca and Canfranc, the old station of which is permanently closed and almost permamently due to be restored.

Having taken a the train a couple of years ago, we went thought the area by car last summer, turning off the main road just after the bridge over the Embalse de La Peña, then eastwards, if direction means anything in describing a winding passage through the practically-deserted hills. Then, just before reaching the main Huesca to Sabiñanigo road, turning northwest towards Jaca, and stopping, by coincidence, in Abena, which like so many other villages in the area is on a hill - one we climbed to see if we could see a house, between there and Sabiñanigo, where a friend of ours had been working.

On the map, it's just a couple of miles from the town. But you can't see the town: there's a mountain in the way. On the ground, as opposed to the map, everywhere in the mountains is a long way from everywhere else. Everywhere feels isolated. During decades of military rule, everywhere and everybody feels isolated.

One can understand, from this, why the Pact of Forgetting was not just a matter of political convenience, both for the Right who wanted the protection it gave them, and the Left who wanted the democracy for which the Pact was their side of the bargain. It also allowed many people to persist with the amnesia which they had learned, and which, in many different ways, they felt protected them.

In Abena, at least, the agreement was to forget the fusillado as soon as it had taken place, democratic era or not. In fact, when I read about the story a couple of weeks ago, it didn't even appear on the Wikipedia entry for the village.

Mysteriously, just in the past fortnight, the entry has been revised - maybe by somebody who saw the same newspaper story that I did - and the village's memory has been restored. (It is more accessible than the Heraldo story, which online, at least, was behind the subscriber-only barrier.)

The reason why we learn the art of amnesia is because we don't forget. The reason why we learn the art of seeing nothing is that we see. The only people who do not see are those who do not want to. As I write, there are people on the streets of every Spanish city. People who can see. But the country is run, within and without, by the blind. By the wilfully, the ethically and the culpably blind.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

You'd know what a Draghi it is to see you

I was sick last weekend. Nothing important: just some spluttering and coughing and a day spent mostly in bed, the consequence of travelling too far and working too long hours in the winter cold. Somewhere in the six hundred-plus kilometres between Valdepeñas and Huesca, on the Friday, my immune systems broke down, just as our headlights were to do the Monday after, a little north of Zaragoza. The latter problem was fixed with a screwdriver and a couple of new bulbs. The former, with a little rest and time. If only all recoveries could be so swift.

On the Tuesday, we were in Madrid. So, as it happens, was Mario Draghi, addressing the Congress of Deputies, the Spanish equivalent of the House of Commons. This, you would think, was an important event, and so it was. This, you would think, was important enough to be broadcast to the Spanish people, the electorate. But it was not.

The speech took place in closed session. No microphones were allowed. No cameras were allowed. The president of the European Central Bank came and spoke to the Spanish parliament - the representative, elected body of the people of Spain - and nobody was officially allowed to film it, or record it.

The individual responsible for this outrage - and it was an outrage - was, strictly speaking, Jesús Posada, the President of the Congress of Deputies. Posada, son of the fascist civil governor of, successively, Soria, Burgos and Valencia - and a civil governor of Huelva himself in the days when such an office still existed - has a background in authoritarianism more than sufficient to explain why he thought this a proper way to proceed. However, as it couldn't have happened without the consent of both the Partido Popular leadership and Draghi himself, one needs to look more at contemporary trends in governance, rather than the legacy of Franco, to understand how such a thing could have occurred.

Perhaps this is best done by explaining what Draghi wanted. Draghi, who said he came to listen, an unlikely claim given the circumstances under which he was speaking, was here to demand a timetable from the Spanish government. A plan, a detailed plan, stating what cuts they proposed to make and what tax rises they proposed to implement.
Es importante que haya un plan fiscal a medio plazo, con información detallada con los recortes en de gasto y los potenciales aumentos de impuestos.
Un plan fiscal. Whose plan? To whom is it to be delivered for their consideration? Evidently, not the Spanish people: this is not something on which they are to be consulted. This is for the approval of Mario Draghi and the financial community, on whose behalf he travels to Madrid - and invisible to the Spanish people, although he is in their parliament, insists on being given a specific list of cuts, at their expense, at the earliest convenience of the government which they elected, supposedly to represent them.

I said that the office of civil governor no longer existed. No indeed. These days we have somebody similar, but much more powerful. Every bit as arrogant. And even less accountable.

It is hard to imagine such a thing happening in the House of Commons, but even if it were suggested, you like to think that there would be a scandal. No news programme would lead with anything else for days. Last Tuesday, however, the evening news on TVE, squeezed into half-time in the Valencia-PSG match, led with the resignation of the Pope, a gigantic story in its way but one that was already a day and half old.

They then proceeded to cover protests in the Congress of Deputies (yes, the same one) over repossessions, the suicide of a retired couple in Mallorca when their house was repossessed, the government's attempt to declare bullfights "patrimonio cultural inmaterial" and Rajoy's appearance at a conference organised by The Economist. All these items, before mentioning that just that day, Mr Draghi had come to tea. Oh, and that not everybody was pleased that his visit occurred in bizarre, insulting and undemocratic circumstances.

All of these stories were important in their way - the struggle against evictions is quite likely the biggest movement, and biggest issue, in Spain - but the imposition of draconian measures in parliament, to allow an unelected foreign official to make a secret speech dictating policy to that parliament - you would have thought this was more important than sixth or seventh place in a truncated news bulletin. I mean a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable. Now it's actually happening, you'd have thought it was more important than anything else.

Now TVE news has a reputation, fairly well deserved, for presenting the news in such a way that the PP government are not unhappy with it. They did, after all, following the election of 2011, put their own man in charge to make sure that this was so. But maybe it's also that we're getting used to this. Perhaps the whole idea is to get us used to this.

We have had Papademos and we have had Monti. Prime Ministers have been foisted onto countries without those countries having any opportunity to vote for them - if Prime Ministers, why not economic programmes? Why not insist on them at closed and semi-secret meetings? What Rubicon would that cross that has not been crossed already?

Democracy is a habit, which it has taken some time to learn. It is a habit we are being made to unlearn, now that disastrous and gigantically unpopular economic programmes are being foisted on most of Southern Europe, programmes to which their populations have not consented and against which they have protested in huge numbers. In such conditions, meaningful consultation is impossible.

This is not necessarily something that inconveniences the governments involved. What better excuse for taking unpopular decisions that that you have no choice, than that a bigger boy told you to do it? There are advantages in being a rubber stamp, and other governments, with more experience than Rajoy's in doing what they are told, have found it comfortable to become civil governors where they were previously more than that.

Show me a bully, and I'll show you a bumkisser: show me a bumkisser, and I'll show you a bully. In an article today in the Sunday Independent, Gene Kerrigan, talking of the Irish government - which has never shrunk from taking orders from outside, and never ceased to like it - writes thus:
The Cabinet doesn't take its policies from the Dail and Seanad, after open debate. Quite the reverse. It uses a whipped parliament to rubber stamp policies drawn up with the counsel of unelected "advisers" and outside bodies (such as the ECB, and business interests it "consults").
We have, in Spain, our whipped parliament, with (unlike Ireland) its absolute majority. We have the outside body, whose representative arrived on Tuesday. We have a parliament whose majority is already prepared to act as a doormat - what substantial difference is there between that and a rubber stamp? And as it is, already, a bought-and-paid-for party which possesses that majority, what difference does it make, to a reputation it will never again have, if it behaves like a bought-and-paid-for party for somebody else?

The truth is that although in one sense, in an important sense, Draghi is dictating to Rajoy, they need one another. Draghi needs somebody to present him with the cuts and the timetable that he wants. Rajoy needs somebody to tell Spaniards that, in contrast to everything they can see around them, we are in fact on "un buen camino" and recovery will be with us soon. That is why Rajoy had Draghi over, and why he went to Germany to the week before.

The fix is not yet in. Iniciativa per Catalunya Verde were sufficiently outraged by the restrictions to ignore them, video Draghi and put it on their website.

A small, but not unappreciated act of defiance, among the many acts of defiance that are turning Spain into a permanent demonstration against austerity. Mario Draghi claims that he is listening. Perhaps he does believe in listening - people listen to him all right. But only when they are allowed to.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

We're going to catch a big one

We're going on a bear hunt. You can see us in the photo at the bottom of the poster, performing it last year: we're doing it again, but not until Monday, when I'll be pursued by a bear three times first thing in the morning. So much for "we're never going on a bear hunt again", a promise we'll have broken twice before we've been working for an hour.

Until then we have the weekend in Talavera, having spent Friday evening setting up our book fair in the school. During the Peninsular War, as the Spanish do not call it, it was the site of a battle, something I know from reading not Wikipedia but The Mill On The Floss, in which one of the characters often mentions that he fought there:
Mr Poulter, it appeared, had been a conspicuous figure at Talavera, and had contributed not a little to the peculiar terror with which his regiment of infantry was regarded by the enemy.
Talavera is best known for its ceramics, on display in shops of all the city and aslo on the walls of the Basilica, inside which the votive candles have been replaced by electonic versions, presumably for fear of fire. If one inserts a coin, a little red wick glows at the top of them, but no actual flame. Anyone who knows Dylan could hardly help but think of flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark.

Talavera was at its most prominent as a Roman city, and being situated in Castilla-La Mancha it's within the fiefdom of María Dolores De Cospedal García, regional president as well as secretary-general of the Partido Popular. If there is anything Roman about Cospedal it would be her arrogance, and if one were to compare her to, say, Crassus, one might also note their common loathing for opponents and for the plebeians in general, as well as a shared taste for power, and for wealth. As far as ability is concerned, Cospedal compares poorly with Crassus. So would most of us, perhaps - but Cospedal also compares poorly with most of us as well.

This is Cospedal, giving a press conference last Thursday.

You don't really get the best out of Cospedal from a screenshot: she has a most unnerving habit of looking all over the room, while listening to a question, yet without moving her body, as if she were looking through the eyeholes in a picture, or trapped in a sarcophagus. When speaking, however, she is decidedly less lively, her preferred technique being to repeat the same phrase several times with minor alterations, which may be effective if you are a master orator addressing an audience of thousands, but it is less so when you are addressing a press conference in a monotone. A monotone dull even by the standards of monotony.

Having used her victory at the last regional elections to do what rightwingers have been doing all over the world of late, i.e. to make gigantic cuts that appeared nowhere in their manifestos, Cospedal finds it hard to go out much in Castilla-La Mancha without being met by crowds of thoroughly unhappy and hostile people. Right now she is particularly unlikely to be made welcome in the twenty-one small towns whose medical centres she is currently trying, not entirely without difficulty, to shut to night-time admissions.

Fortunately for Dolores though she is able to spend much of her time in Madrid, performing party duties, and it was in that role that she was speaking to the press last week. This is not to say it was a wholly happy occasion, though, since the item for discussion was the story run by El País that very morning. According to the paper:
The ruling Popular Party's internal accounting between 1990 and 2008, to which EL PAIS has had access, shows that the conservative grouping's leading members were paid regular sums of money aside from their official salaries. The files, kept by former PP treasurers Álvaro Lapuerta and Luis Bárcenas, comprise a series of incoming items in the form of donations from companies, especially construction firms, and outgoing expenses, which include the payments to party leaders.

Among those who received payments on the side, according to the accounts kept by Bárcenas, is Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Good Lord. But do go on...
The PP president first appears listed in 1997, with sums of money next to his name that consistently add up to 25,200 euros a year, divided either in quarterly or six-monthly payments, and continuing up to 2008.
Bless my soul. Anybody else prominent alleged to be involved?
The party's current secretary general, Dolores de Cospedal, also figures in the papers, with two entries of 7,500 euros next to her name in the second half of 2008, immediately after she had been ratified in her post by the PP convention in June of that year. De Cospedal has publicly denied knowledge that these payments were made by Bárcenas to party officials.
That's Cospedal's name handwritten in the righthand column on El País's extraordinary Thursday front page. Rajoy's is in the lefthand column.

The handwriting is, apparently, that of Luis Bárcenas.

All this has gone round the world, of course, El País' yellow-highlighted story having found itself on many other websites and front pages since Thursday morning, and one would not need to be particularly interested in Spain to know that Rajoy denied everything in a statement at PP headquarters today: the same headquarters where Luis Bárcenas maintains an office despite having resigned as party treasurer four years ago. Outside, demonstrations.

Cospedal was there to see them, having consulted lawyers on Friday and promised legal action against El País. Many of the demonstrators, meanwhile, will have put their names to an e-petition calling for the resignation of the entire PP leadership, a petition which by the time I clicked Publish had accumulated 702,641 supporters.

This is all good fun, of course, as well as being conceivably the greatest political crisis since the attempted coup of 1981. (It's often the details, the little revelations, that one appreciates most, and I particularly enjoyed learning that others among the accused in the Gürtel case called Bárcenas "Luis El Cabrón", Luis The Bastard.) If we're lucky, it will lead to the downfall of the government and the disintegration of the Partido Popular. It ought to.

Not all of the PP's opponents are necessarily so enthusiastic, and not all of them for bad reasons. Tomás Gómez, who leads PSOE in the Madrid region, and is on the left in his party, said - before the El País story, true, but after the news broke of Bárcenas's 22 million euros in a Swiss account:
por cada Bárcenas hay mil concejales honrados
"For every Bárcenas there are a thousand honest councillors."

Why would he say so? Because, you might say, PSOE as well as PP has a lot to hide. Maybe. Gómez must know this, and must also be aware of corruption in his own party. But it may also be that Gómez is aware that the public are liable to see politics, and all politicans, as essentially corrupt, and that this is a dangerous trend in a democracy.

Moreover, what happens if the government falls - as it should - and the result is not just a political crisis but a more acute financial crisis, in which the financial markets demand to have the candidate of their choice, elected by nobody, imposed, as they did in Greece and Italy?

Gómez continued: propone sustituir el poder democrático de los ciudadanos por el poder tecnocrático de un experto se está debilitando el poder de la democracia.
"When...they propose to replace the democratic government of the people with technocratic government by an expert, democracy is weakened." Gómez asks who will oversee the representatives of money - a good question which will not be asked enough if such a turn of events comes to pass.

In the present, though, the ¡DIMISIÓN! placards are being waved in Calle Génova, and rightly so.

And I wonder - if Rajoy does have to go, who would the financial markets like to replace him? They have, of course, an ideal candidate available to them, a former government minister, a former head of the IMF and a leading banker.

They might have to give him a miss though. That's Rodrigo Rato's name in the lefthand column, just above Rajoy's.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Plight unseen

Monzón is the sort of town that looks like there's a recession even when there isn't. It reminds me a little bit of Hartlepool, where I used to go and watch football when studying in Newcastle a dozen years ago, and I would arrive to find an absence of people, even on the main street outside the railway station. Perhaps, those being the boom years, they were all down the Marina, but it was eerie nonetheless.

Monzón is not quite so deserted, not on a working day anyway, but you notice that it isn't busy. Even in better times, I've noticed that it isn't busy, and not because the pace of life is slower. Last week I noticed that it wasn't busy, and not because the wind was cold, though the wind was cold all right - cold enough to serve as a metaphor, if we didn't have enough metaphors of foreboding already.

It is not busy because there are not many people about, the reason for this being that not many people are working. I was in a bar in Monzón when the television news announced the latest unemployment figures, which are as close to five million as makes scarcely any difference. Feburary's will surely reach that score. There was a map on the TV showing where unemployment was worst: in the south, and almost all the south, with a harsh red colour indicating a figure of above 30% for Andalusia, Extremadura, the Canaries, Castilla-La Mancha and maybe Murcia as well. It is probably 30% in Monzón too, I wouldn't be surprised to learn.

Anyway, after the unemployment figures there were a couple of brief clips from Davos, with Angela Merkel saying how austerity has to be stuck to, and Christine Lagarde saying God knows what. I didn't pay attention: listening to Lagarde is like listening to the Pope, the only difference being that Lagarde's pieties are in French and English rather than Latin and German.

I am sure I remember from my teenage years, reading The Loneliness of The Long-Distance Runner, specifically a passage in which, having bought their first television, the protagonist's family get bored with it and resort to turning the sound off and making fun of the silenced talking heads. (I'm also sure I remember that three million was considered such a scandalously high unemployment rate for a country with a larger population than Spain, the government had to repeatedly fiddle the figure to get it down.) Watching Lagarde and Merkel is a bit like that, without the element of fun. They might as well be lip-synching. Or speaking in tongues. Or reciting the Lord's Prayer.

It is as if the six million unemployed did not exist. You cannot see them, of course - they are at home, behind blinds and shutters and curtains. Six million of them. They can see Merkel and Lagarde, but Merkel and Lagarde cannot see them.

During Davos, the IMF took the trouble to advise George Osborne that his economic policy wasn't working and needed to be changed. A statement of the bleedin' obvious, but a welcome one nevetheless. But I wondered, looking at my empty coffee cup in Monzón and turning to the empty faces on the television, where the similar advice was for the Spanish government. If the UK is going in the wrong direction, where is Spain going? To correct one policy and leave the other unmentioned is like pointing out the holes in a roof on one side of the street while a house on the other side is swept away by floods.

So why? Why the UK and not Spain? One explanation is that the IMF, which is anything but an objective observer where it is actually involved, has a much greater stake in Spanish economic policy than in British, having openly encouraged and praised the labour market reforms which were central to the PP government's strategy. (If you can call it a strategy. There is no proper reason to be so kind.)

Lagarde went out of her way to call them "brave", which meant what it usually means in contemporary political political discourse, which is nasty, and against the interests as well as the wishes of the voters. Having publically and visibly lined up with the reforms, the IMF - for all its rowing back on multipliers which impresses economic correspondents - is not going easily to change direction.

Cándido Méndez said it plainly last week: "La reforma laboral es una máquina de destruir empleo". The labour reform is a machine for the destruction of jobs.. If it had done as much damage to share prices as it has done to employment, the financial markets, the Troika and all the economics correspondents in Europe and North America would have been screaming for it to stop. But all it has done is to put a million more people out of work - and behind curtains and shutters and blinds - in a country where there are no jobs. This being so, it is something which, Merkel says explicitly and Lagarde implictly, should continue.

The other explanation, and they are not at all mutually exclusive, is the cant about competitiveness. In the minds of Europe's elites, I think there is a strategy to change the relationship of Northern and Southern Europe back to what it was, before the Euro, when the EU was the EEC. Rather than becoming competitive, the plan for the Mediterranean countries is that they cease to be direct competitors with the North, but rather serve as sources of cheaper, but educated labour for it. They will be poorer places: their young people will, as in Ireland, be encouraged to emigrate. The economies they leave behind will be devoted to servicing the debts incurred during the boom and the subsequent crisis. They will become exporters of people.

This sounds more conspiratorial than it is, and more than I would like it to: but I am talking about a broad picture, not a narrow plan. A direction of travel, rather than a fixed itinerary. It would suit the leaders of the Northern European countries. Come to that, it would suit the leaders of the Southern European countries, who want nothing more than to say there is no alternative, and whose lives and families are not affected.

I don't really know to what extent such a strategy exists. It may even not exist at all, in which case the ship really is a rudderless one, and one without maps and sextant either. But what other reason can there be, for ignoring the disaster of six million unemployed? Other than that this is something that Europe's leaders want?

[Photo: Radio Huesca]

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Not saving, but drowning

We were lucky to get out of Pamplona. Already by Tuesday the ring road was impassable in two places and parts of the city were experiencing flooding - if it had carried on raining until Friday evening, when we packed up our books and came back through the pre-Pyrenean mountains, we might not have been able to get back at all.

Fortunately, the rain took Thursday off, and though it came back on Friday afternoon, presumably opting against making a puente of it, by that time the waters had receded. There was not, in truth, all that much human drama on account of the rain, but earlier in the week there was a last-minute rush to save the dogs trapped in an animal shelter. Local television and newspapers carried pictures of some very wet dogs being carried to safety.

There was a lot of weather on the news this past week, what with the rain, and the snow, and in many parts of northern Spain the snow foolwed by the rain. Or the other way around. The flurries of snow vied for prominence with the flurry of corruption stories which, while rarely absent from our screens at the moment, have been particularly hard to miss over the past few days.

In Spain, these cases come with names - Caso Faisán, for instance, or Caso Campeón, and my favourite of these is probably Caso Pokémon, a case revolving around political corruption in Galicia, something about which the Galician Mariano Rajoy is strangely reluctant to speak. The most important of them, however, is probably the Caso Gürtel, which involves political corruption in the Partido Popular primarily in Valencia, but also in Madrid, and by extension, since Madrid is the capital, throughout the ruling party.

This last week, thanks to El Mundo, it transpired that we are now apparently to have a Caso Bárcenas, Luis Bárcenas being the ex-treasurer of the Partido Popular, and a man who came under suspicion during the long investigation of Gürtel. He even resigned his post, although his party were decent enough to issue a statement in his support, assuring us of their total faith in his innocence.

Confidence in Sr. Bárcenas's innocence is not being expressed quite as enthusiastically in PP circles now as it was four years ago, or indeed as convincingly, seeing as the gentleman is being accused of passing envelopes of cash to senior party figures and of having had 22 million Euros in a Swiss bank account, money which is mysterious in origin and which, equally mysteriously, is alleged to have disappeared from that account when Bárcenas found himself under suspicion during Gürtel.

El País:
Bárcenas is implicated in the Gürtel kickbacks-for-contracts scandal, which first broke in 2008. Under an ongoing investigation into the corruption ring, it emerged earlier this week that Bárcenas had a bank account in Switzerland in which he had deposited as much as 22 million euros. He also took advantage of a tax amnesty in place last year to declare 10 million euros, which had previously been kept hidden from the tax authorities.
This last point is politically explosive, since it is being suggested that the amnesty was used, perhaps even devised, in order to allow Bárcenas to put himself and his activities beyond the reach of subsequent legal action. Be that as it may, the PP are currently trying to distance themselves from their former treasurer, which is not entirely convincing either, for reasons that El País points out:
sources said that despite stepping down as a senator and leaving the party in April 2010, Bárcenas has continued to appear in its Madrid headquarters, seeking help from PP officials to find a solution to the legal quagmire in which he finds himself. He was last seen in the building – located in Génova Street in the center of Madrid – as recently as Wednesday of this week.
The story broke on Thursday, since when, outside the building - and outside other PP buildings in other cities - there have been demonstrations.

Rajoy is not too keen to talk about this case, either. But although the PP-friendly evening news on RTE didn't run the story until nearly quarter of an hour into their Thursday bulletin (to be fair, the Algerian hostage crisis was on first, but even so) it's been hard to get away from. And who, other than PP members, would want to?

While I was enjoying the news, I stumbled across a discussion on the state 24-hour news channel, 24h. This discussion, which I enjoyed a little less, was illustrated with a clipping from the Washington Post, in English, which unfavourably compared the French economy with its counterparts in Italy and Spain, which had - I forget the exact phrase, probably because I was distracted by the need to shout at the telly - made greater efforts to improve their competitiveness.

In my less intellectually generous moments, which are many, I find it hard to see anything other than cant in invocations of competitiveness when the Mediterranean countries are discussed. I mean, Good God, since the present government embarked on its reforms to improve competitiveness, the ostensible reason for which is to reduce unemployment by reducing the costs of employing people, the unemployment figure in Spain has risen by about a million.

So how can this be an obvious example of a path that other countries should follow? But apparently it is, or at least it is if it can be used as a stick to belabour the French government, or the French in general, or the welfare state or trades unions wherever they may be.

Essentially, it is cant. Not because competitiveness is a meaningless concept, but because it is evident that what has been going on in the past four years has not been some policy-led effort to regain competitiveness, but a panic-driven effort to pay back as much debt as the markets (who incurred it) may demand by taking as much off ordinary people as they can be induced, or forced, to surrender.

That has been the process. To talk about competitiveness, in that context, is a bit like burning a building down for the insurance and complaining that it should be better built. It is madness. But those whom the gods wish to be destroyers, they first make mad.

At very least, it is unreal to speak of an economy regaining competitiveness, or even taking steps to do so, while unemployment and homelessness and poverty are continuing to increase everywhere. Unreal. But these are unreal times. Money distributed in envelopes. millions going in and out of Swiss accounts. Economics discussed as if we were going in the right direction instead of living through an absolute disaster. Either they cannot see, or they are not looking.

We got safely home from the floods in Pamplona. Not everybody did. Not all the dogs were rescued, when the waters came. Two of the smallest dogs were found dead. Others were missing, believed drowned. But nobody seemed to know how many.

[PP statement: Huffington Post]

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Digging in

Now however, the circumstances have changed, the drowsy years have ended. Being a Socialist no longer means kicking theoretically against a system which in practice you are fairly well satisfied with. This time our predicament is real. It is "the Philistines be upon thee, Samson". We have got to make our words take physical shape, or perish.
I spent the last few afternoons in the garden, the huerto, a small plot in the village that R bought when she bought the house. I don't know exactly how large it is, in so far as one can say "exactly" for a ragged piece of land, sat atop a large and irregular chunk of rock below what used to be the village prison.

Why the village ever had a prison, I am far from sure, even though it used to be a much larger village than it is, perhaps two hundred inhabitants at its peak, compared to barely more than a dozen today. But it did, and the crumbling half-walls that remain form part of a pattern of gradual but massive depopulation that has affected pretty much all of rural Aragón and Navarra. Depopulation, leaving behind shrunken villages inhabited largely by the elderly. The normal pattern, when there is poverty and all the work is elsewhere.

I don't know. 150 square metres, maybe: there would be more if we didn't have the winter's firewood stashed along one side. But most of the rest is usable, open to cultivation, and that 150 square metres is what I have been digging, raking and purging in the last week before we go back to work.

What will we do if (or when) we lose our work? Everybody seems to be asking themselves that question - everybody, that is, who has not already lost their job. Everyone is fearful and everyone is insecure. Our mortgage, at least, is paid off, but we cannot indefinitely live by selling books to schools with shrinking budgets and customers with shrinking wages. Where, that is, they still have jobs at all.

What would we do instead? Hard enough for Spaniards to answer that question, when there are no regular jobs to be found. Perhaps no easier for two ingleses in their forties who aren't going to get those regular jobs even if they existed.

Manuel Castells spoke to Paul Mason last year and said some things that made me think. Or rather, it wasn't so much the things he said that made me think, it was that there was no option but to think about them, because the crunch is coming. For Spain, for much of Europe, and for two little people whose problems don't add up to a hill of beans in the face of such a crisis.

What we are not going to see is the economic collapse per se because societies cannot work in a social vacuum. If the economic institutions don't work, if the financial institutions don't work, the power relations that exist in society change the financial system in ways favoured to the financial system and it doesn't collapse. People collapse, not the financial system.

"The notion is the banks are going to be alright, we are not going to be alright. So there is a cultural change. A big one. Total distrust in the institutions of finance and politics.

Some people start already living differently as they can - some because they want alternative ways of life, others because they don't have any other choice.

What I refer to is about the observation of one of my latest studies on people who have decided not to wait for the revolution - to start living differently - meaning the expansion of what I call in a technical term 'non-capitalist practices'.

They are economic practices but they don't have a for-profit motivation - such as barter networks; such as social currencies; co-operatives; self-management; agricultural networks; helping each other simply in terms of wanting to be together; networks of providing services for free to others in the expectation that someone will also provide to you. All this exists and it's expanding throughout the world.
Maybe. But how does one get involved? I have thought about it. I have had to. My comparative advantage, where I am, is that I am English. What I have to offer is the English language. I can sell it, as conversation, where people have the money to pay for it. Where they do not, I can sell it for services, or time, or food. I come round for English conversation - in return you make me lunch. I help you with your English grammar - in return you help sort out my computer. I speak English with you for an hour - in return I bank an hour of your time for when I need it.

All this is fine in theory, though less convenient than cash, especially as your bills still need to be paid in cash rather than services. It's also more convenient if you live in the city, where there are many more people who you can engage in alternative exchange, where they can be reached without the costs in cash and time of a trip by car.

What can be done living in the countryside? Castells speaks of "agricultural networks" but a vegetable garden one-fifth the size of a penalty area is not going to produce a surplus. But it will produce a lot of vegetables. More, if we are at home, rather than working, as we now do, on the road more than half the year, and hence we have time to cultivate it properly.

That is what happened during the great Russian economic catastrophe of the Nineties, though it went unnoticed by foreign correspondents who were only interested in branches of McDonald's opening in Moscow. Back went people, unemployed as they were, or unpaid even when they were not unemployed. Back they went to their villages and their vegetable plots.

The circumstances have changed, the drowsy years are ended. Back people go. From the whims of the financial markets to the whims of soil, seed and weather. Back they go. Maybe the "physical shape" our words will have to take is the shape of carrots, leeks, potatoes. Maybe we will have to get used to digging. Maybe many people will.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Evasive answer

The Spanish financial year runs, logically enough, from January to December, and from the end of December we have a month to make sure our records are in order before presenting our end-of-year accounts to the gestora. The gestora has an office in Huesca rather more civilised than that belonging to the Loughborough accountants for whom I temped for six weeks a dozen years ago, in which four or five trainee or junior accountants worked in one small room while the partners worked in spacious offices down the corridor. It was towards the end of the year and for Xmas almost every client presented the partners with a bottle of whisky as a token of appreciation. It's the sort of perk I don't remember receiving when I worked in the public sector.

Talking of accounting, false accounting is among the offences for which Rodrigo Rato is currently under investigation, which didn't stop Telefónica appointing him a consultant this last week. Which indicates either total confidence in his innocence on the part of Telefónica, or their disinterest in the truth or otherwise of the allegations and disrespect for the judicial process which is taking place.

Meanwhile, the bank which he headed is laying off thousand of employees and cutting the pay, gigantically, of those who remain. Few of the victims of this process are expecting to be offered new jobs with Telefónica. And while that is happening inside branches, outside them, the small savers who will not get their savings back are holding demonstrations.

We put a lot of effort into getting our accounts right, which is not true of every business in Spain that, like ours, makes a large proportion of its sales in cash without having to issue receipts. Knowing this, when we went to buy olive oil the other day, and paid in cash, I found myself wondering, as we left, about the tax declaration of the vendors, and then immediately wondering whether any of our customers have the same thought about us. It would be only natural.

According to research reported in the Financial Times in 2011, the black economy in Spain is about one-fifth the size of the official economy - about twice as high, if I follow the paper, as the figure in Germany. That's a difference, but it's not the difference between good and evil, between a healthy society and a sick one. There is more corruption, and more tax evasion, in Spain than in Germany or the UK, but Spain is not properly described as "corrupt". It is not an all-pervasive element in everyday life. We do not pay bribes to doctors for treatment, nor to traffic policement for non-existent offences, nor to public servants to have our documentation processed.

At the same time, it is a sizeable difference and an unhappy one from the point of view of Spain. Nor could it exist on the scale that it does if it were not tolerated unofficially, by the public, and officially, by the political and business classes: or if it were not something that had deep and long-lived roots in Spanish life. Political corruption in any country reflects something about the society in which it takes place. The UK, for instance, had an expenses scandal, where MPs of all parties were caught fiddling their expenses claims, "flipping" their first and second homes, claiming for things they should not - and this reflects a wider culture of fiddling among the public, where, for instance, insurance claims are fiddled, where VAT declarations are fiddled.

Not by everybody. Not even by most people, nor, I think, normally with the active collusion of others. The bottles of whisky were not a quid pro quo for turning a blind eye. But by enough people, with enough toleration from other people so that if you do it, you know other people won't blab. You can probably talk about it, not too openly, and other people won't blab.

That culture produces politicans who fiddle their parliamentary expenses. Not all of them. Not even most of them. But enough - trivial though it seems from here, when one is accustomed to the Partido Popular of Valencia or Galicia. Or the Balearics. Or everywhere else.

Spain has a higher level of political and business corruption than the UK - and a larger black economy, and each of these is a reflection of the other. But what to do? It is easy, and not entirely wrong, to condemn Spaniards for being complicit in the culture of tax evasion, just as it is easy, and not entirely wrong, to condemn Greeks for being complict in a culture of bankhanders.

But the worst possible time to do either is during a gigantic recession! How does one persuade people that they shouldn't be working cash-in-hand, if that is the only work they can get? If that is the only way they see, to save their house? How do you persuade people that they should always get a receipt, if not getting a receipt may mean saving VAT that is levied at an intolerably high level? A level that they can't afford to pay? In Greece:
Economics professor Theodore Pelagides says rampant tax evasion is a case in point. With VAT at 23%, thanks to policies mandated by Greece's creditors at the EU and International Monetary Fund, withholding of official receipts has assumed proportions that even by the standards of pre-crisis Greece have become chronic.

"People have been pushed to their limits. They have calculated in a very rational way that avoidance of such receipts is a necessity at a time when they have been hit by so many wage cuts and unexpected taxes," Pelagides said. "We should not be at all surprised by the report's findings."
Well obviously! The more poverty the make, the more cash-in-hand you generate. Doesn't everybody know this? Didn't the IMF?

Since this is a time for IMF mea culpas - an unheard of occurrence, so unheard of that one almost fears that it's a portent of apocalyptic times to come - one wonders whether they may also apologise for racking up VAT to the more-than-self-defeating point where nobody will pay it. (It's funny how there is a Laffer Curve, to be invoked against rich people's taxes, but no such concept seems to exist for taxes paid by ordinary people.) But 23%? Not so very far above the upper rate of IVA, the Spanish term for VAT.

This stands at 21%, raised to that level by a government which had promised not to increase it, the sort of thing that tends to upset electorates more than it does economics correspondents. (It is not the only rate. On the books that we sell, a much lower rate of 4% still obtains.) The more austerity impoverishes Spaniards, the fewer of them are going to ask for an invoice, a factura. Not when they can save themselves 21% without one. And every time that happens, the black economy is bigger, and the country is one step further from addressing a problem rather greater than anything that might be remedied by the imprescindible labour market reform.

Of course one could and should go further, and say that it will be harder still if the country splits apart. Impossible, if society disintegrates. And probably unrealistic in any event if the crisis continues, as it will, and if further austerity is insisted on - as it will be - from outside the country, from Brussels and London and Berlin. Of course there will be a movement, a struggle, to change this culture, to insist that taxes are properly paid and to shame the people and institutions that evade them. But that struggle will be carried out by the people who are against austerity, the people who are demonstratingly daily (and it is, practically, daily) against austerity. The people through whom, with whom, the ECB and IMF will work, are the political representatives of the major tax evaders, just as, in Greece, they have worked through New Democracy and PASOK.

If Christine Lagarde had really cared about Greek tax evasion, rather than about using tax evasion as a reason to speak contemtuously about Greeks, it would have been central to the troika's demands for Greek reform. It wasn't: it was just a list, spoken about no more by the IMF than by the government which made sure to lose it. the purpose it served was and is political - the attribution of blame.

When the rescate happens, expect lots of fuss to be made about Spanish tax evasion. Ask, as most commentators will not, where this fuss was when the boom was happening, or when Spain was invited to join the single currency. That would have been a good time for the fuss to be made. That would have been a good time to deal with tax evasion, when there were carrots to be waved, rather than only sticks.

But nobody wanted to, back then. Spaniards didn't, for sure. But neither did the people who will point their fingers at Spaniards and call them "cheat". They should point their fingers at the mirror. They should point them at themselves.