The Reign in Spain

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

A version of this article appeared in the September issue of Echelon magazine.


From dictatorship to democracy to EU bailout. A storm began in 2008 and many Spaniards are still drowning.

On 2 June 2014, King Juan Carlos King of Spain announced that he would abdicate in favour of his son, Felipe, who was enthroned on 19 June 2014. Juan Carlos said, “I don’t want my son to grow old waiting like Prince Charles.”


Spaniards generally respected Juan Carlos because of his role in the smooth transition to democracy from the dictatorship of General Franco. Francisco Franco Bahamonde was the dictator of Spain from 1939 to his death in 1975. Franco came to power during the Spanish Civil War, which was a struggle between democrats, socialists and anarchists, socialists, on one side and monarchists, conservatives, nationalists, and fascists on the other.

After the Civil War Spain was bleak. Represión Franquista, the White Terror, was politically motivated violence and rape committed by the Nationalist movement during the Civil War and during Franco’s dictatorship. A friend’s parents were among many who fled Spain because they were on the losing side and they had horror stories to tell me. Many of those who could not escape lost their jobs or their rank. The country lost many of its brightest minds, and a capable workforce. Franco employed concentration camps, forced labour, death squads and executions. Historians’ estimates of deaths during the White Terror range up to 400,000.

Franco had long planned to restore the monarchy. As he approached death, he decided to skip a generation and name Prince Juan Carlos as his personal successor. He hoped to groom the young prince to maintain the Francoist ultraconservativism. In 1969, Franco named Juan Carlos heir-apparent on condition that he swear loyalty to Franco’s Movimiento Nacional, which the prince did with little hesitation. Juan Carlos publicly supported Franco’s regime but met secretly exiled opposition planning liberal reforms.

Juan Carlos’s accession met with relatively little parliamentary opposition. There was an attempted military coup on 23 February 1981, when members of the Guardia Civil seized the Cortes. During the coup, the King, in the uniform of the Captain-General of the Spanish armed forces, called for unambiguous support for the legitimate democratic government. Public support for the monarchy among democrats and leftists before 1981 had been limited; support increased dramatically because of the king’s handling of the coup.

What Kind of Spain…?

What kind of Spain did Juan Carlos hand over to Felipe? There has been a dramatic rise in poverty, and inequality since the start of the economic crisis in 2008. Spain’s unemployment rate now stands second among the euro zone countries, just behind that of Greece. Since 2008, Spain has lost four million jobs, and the unemployment rate has increased by 20 percentage points. Fully 3.5 million of Spain’s unemployed workers have been out of work at least one year, and two million have been out of work two years or more. Emigration of 280,000 young Spaniards prevented the figure being even higher.

Spain has now become the country with the most inequality of all 27 countries of the EU. The Red Cross’s Bulletin on Social Vulnerability in Spain states that 43.2 percent of people cannot afford heating in winter, while 26 percent cannot afford a meal with proteins three times a week. The Catholic charity Caritas revealed that the number of people it helped nationwide was more than a million in 2011, increasing from 370,000 in 2007.

A recent study published by the trade union CC.OO revealed that 35 percent of Spanish workers receive a monthly wage equal to or below €641.40, the minimum wage. Spain is just behind Romania in the low pay league table. The report forecasts that there will be 28 percent poverty for the whole of Spain by the end of 2012. This represents a rise of ten percentage points since 2007.

Accumulation by Dispossession

Since 2008, over 350,000 Spanish families have been evicted from their homes. According to government figures, there are still 500 evictions a day — 150 of them in Madrid. Most involve families whose main breadwinner lost his or her job in the recession and who have inadvertently fallen behind on their mortgage payments to the bank. There has been a wave of suicides by people who were about to be evicted from their homes. Marxist geographer, David Harvey, coined the term “accumulation by dispossession“. Austerity policies allow bankers and politicians to commit institutionalized theft.

The housing boom left a legacy of ruinous urban development, redundant airports and obsolete infrastructure projects. The Union of Agricultural Workers (SOC), part of the Andalusian Workers Union (SAT) has been one of the key exponents in the struggle for land and the rights of farm labourers. They occupied and worked the farm of Somonte, in Palma del Río, in the southern Córdoba province, that the regional government of Andalusia was selling, even though 1,700 people were unemployed. The aim of the occupiers is that this farm is worked by cooperatives of unemployed people, not taken over by bankers

Despite increasing poverty among the general public, Credit Suisse has estimated that over the next five years the number of Spanish millionaires will grow by 110 percent. By 2017, there will be around 616,000 of them.

Banks and Bail Out

In 2007, Spanish public debt was only 36% of its gross domestic product. Its fiscal balance was positive (+1.9% of its GDP, whereas Maastricht imposes a maximum 3% negative fiscal balance). Spanish public debt only accounted for 18% of its total debt. The private sector, namely the real estate and credit sectors, directly caused the Spanish crisis.

In May 2012, Bankia, the third largest Spanish bank, asked for 19 billion euros in government aid (on top of 4.5 billion already given). The Bank of Spain estimates that the Iberian banking system is sitting on toxic assets of 176 billion euros.


The EU presented “labour reforms” as essential to reduce unemployment. These reforms have achieved the opposite of what they were supposed to do. Austerity policies have driven down real wages and led to the creation of more precarious jobs particularly those characterised by the “zero-hours” contracts under which workers are called in as and when required, but released when work is not available. The reforms have brought wages down by ten per cent in two years. This reduction was what the Troika and the Spanish governments had in mind when they imposed such reforms.


Catalonians will be looking with interest at the referendum on Scottish independence. Spain, which was only cobbled together in the late 15th century, continues to be fissiparous. As in Iraq, a dictator held it together. Juan Carlos and the Spanish monarchy kept it together after the demise of Franco. One wonders how long it will last now Juan Carlos has left the stage.

On September 11, 2012, nearly two million people marched for the right to self-determination and independence for Catalonia. Artur Mas i Gavarró is President of the Generalitat de Catalunya. In 2010 for the first time, Mas indicated he would vote yes on a hypothetical referendum to secede from Spain. Sovereignty and Catalan independence became the central part of his political agenda. He has called for a referendum on independence for Catalonia.

The Spanish Military Association (AME), composed of former members of the army, has threatened Mas with a Council of War and has warned those who promote “the breaking-up of Spain” that they will have to answer before a military court on charges of “high treason”. Mas is a conservative financier and by no stretch of the imagination a subversive. What will happen when the left decide to fight?

Left Alternatives

Podemos (meaning, “We can”) is a political party created on 11 March 2014 by Spanish leftist activists associated with the movement that emerged from the 2011–12 Spanish protests of Los Indignacios. Its de facto leader is Pablo Iglesias Turrión a writer and professor of Political Science at the Complutense University in Madrid. In the European parliamentary elections, Podemos polled 7.97% of the vote and won five seats out of 54.

Popular protests caused the Madrid government to abandon its plans privatize six public hospitals. The regional health commissioner, Javier Fernández-Lasquetty, resigned.

Marinaleda is a small village with a population of 2,700 people,   in the municipality of Seville in the Sierra Sur southern mountain range in Andalucía. While, in Andalucía as a whole, 30% of the active population was without work, in Marinaleda there was full employment. This “communist utopia” and relies on a model of mutual aid, as local people work together to meet shared needs. It has a cooperatively-owned olive oil factory, houses built by and for the community. The mayor himself led the looting of a supermarket from which goods were donated to food banks. The village has a long history of bloody-mindedness after suffering great want and hunger as well as severe repression after the civil war. There have been many protests and seizures of land from the aristocracy. The social and political system that has been implemented in the community, and the good results obtained in terms of economic development and well-being of the inhabitants, has brought media interest to Marinaleda in Spain and internationally.

Spain’s Future in the EU

Spain’s dependency is such that one cannot realistically predict that it will exit the EU or the eurozone. However, membership has not brought happiness for ordinary Spaniards. Despite their responsibility for the economic crisis, the dominant forces in the Spanish state are achieving what they always wanted: the dismantling of the welfare state a reduction of salaries, a very frightened labour force with reduced wages and unions too weak to protect. They hide behind the excuse that the European authorities forced them to do it.

Eighty-two percent of Spaniards say that they do not like the EU. What was once a model of democracy and prosperity has proved to be a sham.


Spain went through great traumas in the 20th century. It was a great advertisement for the EU that this country should come from repression and dictatorship to freedom and prosperity. It is unfortunate that today Spain seems a symbol for the faults of the EU project – lack of democratic accountability, sadistic austerity measures, spurious “solutions” imposed by unelected technocrats- rather than an epitome of its virtues.

Perhaps the new king can utilise his father’s experience of dealing with the dictator Franco to find fresh approaches to dealing with the dictatorship of the banks and the troika. Felipe could innovate by using his influence to spread the example of Marinaleda. The social and political system implemented in that community, and the good results obtained in terms of economic development and well-being of the inhabitants, provides a good antidote to the greed is good atmosphere of accumulation by dispossession. The time is ripe in Spain, indeed in the EU as a whole, for mutuality and social cohesion as opposed to privatisation and dog-eat-dog.