Even if Rajoy truly believes (delusionally, one might argue) that he has Spain headed in the right direction, there can be no doubt that right now it is in a very, very bad way. Unemployment is at 25 percent, with no prospects for improvement, and for those between the ages of 18 and 30—probably the most educated Spanish generation ever—the statistic is more than 50 percent. The financial industry has collapsed; the giant Bankia, the latest domino to fall, which was slated to receive about $14 billion euros in state rescue funds, will now receive well in excess of $20 billion. The bursting of the construction bubble has left behind countless acres of half-built subdivisions and unoccupied “chalets,” while skeletons of unfinished high rises and abandoned building equipment litter the coastline. Debt bonds are on the verge of junk status. More than 2 million children, and nearly as many elderly people, are currently living in poverty. This list could go on—and every day, every time one opens the newspaper, it seems to get a little longer.
Rajoy has so far responded to the growing crisis in two ways. First, he has implemented a series of public spending cuts vicious enough to make Angela Merkel blush. In the past few months alone, the minimum copayment for medication and medical services has risen to untenable levels for many patients, and all subsidized medical services for “irregular” immigrants have been eliminated. (Primero, los de casa is a slogan circulating among Rajoy supporters, while some in the medical community foresee a new AIDS crisis). The price of public transportation has spiked, and the minister of education recently announced the firing of tens of thousands of teachers and professors; a university tuition increase significant enough to price out even middle-class students; and a reduction in the number of government-subsidized scholarships, grants, and loans. Rajoy has also gone on the offensive against what remains of Spain’s actually working class, passing reforms that have made it easier and cheaper for companies to fire long-term employees, not to mention those working on one-year “probationary contracts.” Meanwhile Esperanza Aguirre, the notoriously loose-lipped president of the Comunidad de Madrid and a major player in the PP, has offered personal assurances that Spain’s two major labor unions, the Unión General de Trabajadores and the Confederación Sindical de Comisiones Obreras, will soon “fall like the Berlin Wall.”
Rajoy’s justification for his slash-and-burn politics (or, rather the justification offered by the ministers and party operatives who do almost all of his talking for him) is that the only way out of the current morass is to make Spain attractive to the investors who have fled it like a house on fire—and that the only way to accomplish that is to reduce, and eventually eliminate, the public deficit, and at the same time create a more “flexible” (i.e. cheaper) labor force. Spain, Rajoy (or, those who speak for him) says, has lived beyond its means—the Spanish expression, encima de sus posibilidades, adds an aptly existential dimension—and it cannot hope to compete for investor dollars in a global marketplace unless it ceases to do so, and pays the price for having done so already. Few people take this argument seriously. As in so many other parts of the purportedly developed world, the economic crisis here has provided rhetorical cover for large-scale “liberalization” and the redirection of whatever wealth remains in this country into the hands of a transnational plutocratic class of politicians and financial operatives.