Thursday, December 09, 2010
In the Spanish constitution the role of the army is described by article 8: to guarantee the sovereignty and independence of Spain, to defend its territorial integrity and the constitutional order. I always thought that if the Spanish army were to be deployed inside the country, it would be for defending the sacrosanct territorial unity - the threat of nationalist secession, in other words. But surprise, surprise, none other than the socialist government invokes this law for the very first time since it was approved, by militarizing the airspace and decreeing a state of alarm. All of this with the invaluable help of the mass media, of course.
Some context is needed to understand what happened. The previous day, the government had approved a new adjustment package that included the partial privatisation of the national airport and navigation organisation, Aena. It joined new legislation that eliminated the 426 euros of unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. For the traffic controllers, a decree was issued that annulled all previously earned holidays, sick leave, maternity leave and so on. By doing so, the government violated its own rules, namely the limitations to traffic controllers' working hours, set by a previous decree. Moreover, the choice for publishing the decree on friday the 4th of December was not an innocent one, since the following Monday and Wednesday are bank holidays, and many Spaniards take a long weekend off. Behind it there is a battle of wills between Minister of Public Works José Blanco and the traffic controllers, who had been refused staff increases while waiting for complete privatization. I don't know whether he trusted that the traffic controllers would not dare to leave hundreds of thousands of passengers and their families stranded, or that it was a strategy of provoking a wildfire so that First Deputy Prime Minister Rubalcaba could present himself as the Presidential firefighter.
Whatever the strategy behind it, the result was that the government imposed military discipline to knock down a labour insubordination. The government prefers to force the traffic controllers to go back to work, but it does not discard the use of military personnel to control air traffic. In France - where the traffic controllers went on strike 4 times this year, one because of pension reforms - they have stopped using soldiers as scabs after the plane crash of 5 March 1973, when a DC-9 of Iberia coming from Palma de Mallorca collided in Nantes with a Convai 990 of Spantax coming from Madrid. The investigation showed that the accident was caused by the bad training of the militaries replacing the civilian traffic controllers.
Informal discussions have already been held between US and Swedish officials about the possibility of wikileaks founder Julian Assange being delivered into US custody, according to diplomatic sources.
Mr Assange was in a British jail last night awaiting extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted over allegations that he sexually assaulted two women.
The 39-year-old Australian was refused bail at City of Westminster Magistrates' Court yesterday on the grounds there was a risk he would abscond, despite a number of prominent public figures offering substantial sureties.
His arrest earlier in the day was described by the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, as good news. The US Justice Department is considering charging Mr Assange with espionage offences after his website released classified US diplomatic files.
Right-wing politicians in the US are pressing for his prosecution and even execution.
Increasingly, protest against the authoritarian imposition of austerity is erupting outside established institutions. In Spain, with the unions on the sidelines, air traffic controllers initiated a wildcat strike, which was suppressed by government by use of the military. The strike had overtones of the kind of labor action common to Italy in the 1960s, whereby workers in large industrial concerns walked off the job at critical choke points, thereby shutting down the entire production process, as means of pressuring employers to accede to their demands.
The prime minister, David Cameron, condemned the violence as unacceptable. It is shocking and regrettable that the car carrying the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall was caught up and attacked in the violence.
Home secretary Theresa May said: I utterly condemn the increasing levels of violence and disorder that some of the protesters have been, and still are, involved in. What we are seeing in London tonight, the wanton vandalism, smashing of windows, has nothing to do with peaceful protest.
The protests followed the vote over tuition fees in the Commons when 21 Liberal Democrat MPs voted against the plans and five abstained, refusing to follow their leader, Nick Clegg, and other Lib Dem ministers in favour of a new upper limit for fees of £9,000 from 2012, the culmination of an agonising few weeks for the junior party in the coalition.
Outside parliament, as news of the vote came through, the demonstration became more heated with fires lit in Parliament Square, rocks thrown at the police, attempts to smash into the Treasury and the supreme court and a surge into the National Gallery's impressionist rooms.
In freezing temperatures, an attempt to burn down the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square was thwarted, and some Christmas shoppers had to flee the trashing of shop windows on Oxford Street. The violence, at the end of the third in a series of demonstrations against the fee rise, was condemned by the National Union of Students.
The police again penned in demonstrators saying they were dealing with a crime scene. At least eight police officers were injured including one seriously.
Here, the Spanish air traffic controllers responded to the government's unilateral action to rescind previously earned benefits by refusing to work, thus disrupting the entire network of European air travel. The Socialist government responded promptly and harshly, threatening the striking air traffic controllers with arrest by the military if they did not comply with an emergency order to return. As noted by lenin, this is a significant escalation of state repression to impose austerity, and will, no doubt, be emulated by other countries, including the US, if they face a similar situation.
Meanwhile, Julian Assange, an editor of wikileaks, and the organization's most visible public face, finds himself incarcerated in Britain on an extradition warrant issued by Sweden. His possible crimes? As far as we know, they are using a condom that broke during intercourse, and having intercourse with another sexual partner after she was asleep. But as the Belfast Telegraph so helpfully informs us, the likelihood of Assange ever being tried on these peculiar charges is slight. Regardless of whether you consider his sexual conduct criminal, US efforts to roll up wikileaks and punish Assange will take precedence. Of course, Assange is not associated with resistance to austerity, but he does challenge the oligopoly of information imposed by transnational capitalists, and for that heinous transgression, which facilitates the protests in Spain and Britain as described here, they must make the most frightening example of him to deter others.
Finally, there are the student protests in Britain over fee increases for universities that will render them even more inaccessible to the middle and lower classes. In this instance, there is a critical dynamic that has, so far, limited the capacity of the government to respond as forcefully as the Spanish government did against the air traffic controllers. First, the student protests are hard to suppress, because of their size and the ability of the students to fragment their actions so as to elude the police. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the students have a lot of popular support, and the repression of their protests by force runs the risk of bringing out a lot of other people in support of them, especially those in the trade unions. Hence, the government has attempted to exploit attacks upon property by some protesters to delegitimize the movement as a whole. It remains to be seen whether the attack upon Prince Charles' car, as well as the other actions described in the excerpt from the Guardian article posted here, will have that consequence.