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Spain Needs Social Solidarity as Well as Social Distancing

Last month’s revelations of the Spanish monarchy’s illicit financial dealings embarrassed official claims that “we’re all in this together.” Faced with COVID-19, citizens are forced to build their own collective response — replacing the empty rhetoric of “national unity” with the real practice of social solidarity.

In this handout picture provided by Comunidad de Madrid, health workers applaud at Emergency Hospital IFEMA on March 31, 2020 in Madrid, Spain. Borja Sanchez-Trillo — Comunidad de Madrid Handout / Getty

I suppose it’s the same everywhere, but Spain’s coronavirus lockdown is difficult to describe with any clarity. Filter bubbles are no longer as buzzworthy as in 2016, but their walls thicken in confinement. Since the government officially announced a state of emergency and the order to stay at home on March 14, my window into the situation here has been the same as anybody else’s: daily government press conferences, twenty-four-hour news channels, the internet, dubious forwarded text messages and anecdotes from comrades, friends, and family. Those, and my actual window.

Thankfully, my small rental apartment in Barcelona has a balcony, where my wife and I can get some sunlight for a couple of hours in the afternoon when the weather is nice. We live on the corner of two small streets in a working-class neighborhood, a quiet place with the exception of one week every summer, when a massive block party surrounds us with clashing open-air concerts, irreverent papier mâché sculptures, colorful party banners, and busy beer stands — boisterous social proximity that seems alien now.

Over the last couple of weeks, though, I’ve come to realize that this was never such a quiet place at all. By removing the ambient white noise of traffic and the occasional whine of Vespas, the lockdown has revised my idea of “quiet.” Any sound outside is now brought into sharp relief. Every cough breeds a shiver. What was once indecipherable chatter now feels closer to theater or a radio play. I notice that the gently pulsating drone of houseflies, bees, and pigeons cooing near our balcony is periodically drowned out by the cackle of distant seagulls flying deeper and deeper into the city. There is still the rhythmic clanging of the ambulant butane salesmen, still the clatter of scrap metal collectors digging in the dumpsters, still no paid time off in the city’s starkly racialized informal economy.

Our balconies have become increasingly politicized over the last decade. This is especially visible in Barcelona, where pro-independence flags outnumber those of the Spanish state. In Madrid and other regions, you’re more likely to see the latter. It’s what led Pablo Casado, the leader of the right-wing Popular Party, to build a campaign around the concept of La España de los balcones (“the Spain of the Balconies”) during last year’s interminable general elections. This was Casado’s attempt to stoke and capture enough nationalist sentiment to prop up a governing coalition with nationalist technocrats and the far right.

The Right lost those elections, twice. Unable to secure a majority, the main effect of their insistence on “national unity” has been an increased parliamentary presence of neo-fascists, the radicalization of a subset of their own voting bloc, and a shift in the balance of power in a handful of predominantly rural regions. But they are taking advantage of these new platforms to amplify their chauvinistic agenda and manufacture outrage at the Spanish government’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

Every day, far-right networks engineer a new trending topic on Twitter. A few days ago, they blamed Unidas Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias — today deputy prime minister in a government led by the center-left PSOE — for everything but the existence of the virus itself. Then they accused the government of lying to cover up the unproven contagion effects of their decision not to prohibit demonstrations on International Women’s Day. Now they are demanding that the universal health care system force undocumented people to take on the costs of their treatment — a position long rejected even among a majority of conservative Popular Party voters, not only for its moral repugnancy but also because such disincentives to seeking treatment constitute a major public health risk.

These arguments catch on because they’re expressed as an uncomplicated anti-politics. The scale and complexity of the crises triggered by COVID-19 can make one yearn for simple, rapid responses that sound like common sense. Meanwhile, boilerplate criticism of governments and politicians provides a perfect vehicle for the homogenization of popular outrage. Yet for the most part, PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez’s government has avoided an explicitly partisan discourse in public statements. It’s instead opting for a seemingly pragmatic focus on the task at hand — insisting on the notion that we are all in this together.

National Unity?

The problem is, creating the perception that you are taking the moral high ground is in itself a political move, particularly in Spain’s highly fragmented political system. In this sense, Sánchez’s description of his proposed budget as one of “reconstruction” and “national unity” might be seen as an attempt to bypass political conflict.

Yet there is no more polarizing concept in Spain than that of national unity. I have already described its use by the Right, but among the Left, it sparks territorial tensions, most visibly in the case of pro-independence Catalan forces. Quim Torra, the current president of Catalonia, has been very public in his criticism of the Spanish government, going so far as to suggest in a recent interview with the BBC that the country is not really on lockdown.

While denying the very existence of Spain’s lockdown was certainly dishonest, there are reasons to suggest it has not been strict enough. The crisis caught the Spanish government and health institutions with their guard down, despite having the experiences of China and Iran to learn from, and that of Italy to encourage a stronger approach to confinement. Officials initially claimed there would only be a handful of cases, but at the time of writing, Spain is second only to Italy in the total number of deaths. Until a late announcement on Saturday, March 28, many construction sites remained active, as employers in nonessential services could still require workers to show up in person. Unsure about their rights and facing an extremely uncertain future in the labor market, millions of Spain’s already cash-strapped workers had little choice but to punch in.

But due to their insistence that the state of emergency is little more than an excuse for the central government to intervene in Catalonia — as it did after the prohibited referendum on independence in 2017 — politicians and pundits on the side of independence are easily dismissed as crying wolf. This dismissal is further substantiated by the fact that, nearly two weeks into the state of emergency, Torra’s government hadn’t stopped construction either. The Catalan government’s cynicism is all the more frustrating because many of the demands Torra has made recently have long been causes of the Left, like freezing rent, more investment in the public health system, and a universal basic income. These are all measures his party predecessors have not only rejected but actively undermined for most of the last decade.

A similar argument might be made regarding his party’s newfound hostility toward the monarchy, a topic so sensitive that Spain’s Center for Sociological Research (CIS) famously excludes questions about it from their monthly polls. At the onset of the COVID-19 crisis in Spain, the Telegraph broke a story on the offshore accounts of abdicated monarch Juan Carlos I, which allegedly received €88 million in kickbacks from Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah in 2008. According to the Telegraph, the current Spanish monarch, Felipe VI, was named as a beneficiary of this account. How to argue for “national unity” when its main symbol acts so blatantly against the national interest?

Felipe quickly responded by declining his father’s inheritance and stripping him of his €194,000 stipend. Since then, the topic has all but disappeared from the headlines. A pot-banging cacerolada protest was organized to coincide with the royal announcement. But while relatively loud and boisterous in Catalonia, the response was lukewarm elsewhere in Spain, and the phenomenon fizzled out in about a day.

Neighborhood Solidarity

Thankfully, another collective gesture continues to grow in strength. Since the state of emergency was announced, people all over Spain have been taking to their balconies to applaud workers in the health care system and other essential services. For the time being, the appetite for solidarity seems stronger than the appetite for antagonism. On the first night, the action took place at 10 p.m. But every night since, it has taken place at 8 p.m. in order to accommodate parents with children, a small but hopeful indication that our capacity to adapt around questions of care is more agile and powerful than we might suspect.

In my neighborhood, mutual aid groups have been quick to organize, and the same is happening throughout Barcelona and beyond. In most cases, they are purchasing groceries and providing meals for at-risk populations, especially the elderly, while respecting social-distancing norms. Others, like the Popular Union of Street Vendors, are also making face masks for their neighbors. Meanwhile, tenants’ unions all over Spain are reaching out to those already affected by the economic shutdown, organizing an international rent strike to force the government to freeze rents.

The infrastructure for this bottom-up response is rooted in previous waves of struggle. Most of these groups are rooted in anarchist collectives, autonomous social movements, and the informal networks of solidarity established around the neighborhood assemblies of the indignados movement or the Committees for the Defense of the Republic (CDRs) of the Catalan independence movement. Still others come from the neighborhood organizations responsible for organizing those summer block parties I mentioned earlier.

These aren’t examples of national unity, but of cooperation and solidarity. There is a profound difference between the two. Where the former endeavors to erase differences by homogenizing sentiment and identity, the latter depart from difference to come together in practice. National unity emphasizes feeling; cooperation and solidarity emphasize action. While the former calls on the power of the state to exclude, the latter look beyond its borders. We see national unity in action when Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and Finland block efforts to mutualize European debts and face the COVID-19 crisis as equals. We see international solidarity in action when Cuban doctors deploy to Italy to care for the ill.

Presumably, Spain’s current government is receptive to these values. Indeed, the presence of Unidas Podemos in the government was intended to guarantee some degree of representation for left-wing movements. Moreover, as I write this, Sánchez is demanding more solidarity at the EU level. But, as Eoghan Gilmartin has shown, there is a great deal of resistance within the administration, and it will take a great deal of bottom-up pressure to achieve any semblance of progress.

The level of uncertainty brought about by COVID-19 is unprecedented in most of our lifetimes. What we are experiencing now, at a global level, is what the German sociologist Ulrich Beck called an “anthropological shock.” In one of his later essays, Beck describes how horrendous events provide new ways of being in the world, seeing the world, and doing politics.

As people die in growing numbers from an utterly avoidable lack of access to decent health care, the need to de-commodify life on this planet is becoming painfully clear. Let’s hope that the isolation of physical distancing breeds a thirst for the social proximity of a global emancipatory struggle.