· Published in Cities versus multinationals

Debt. The straightjacket on municipalism

One of the main goals of the “municipalities of change”, elected in 2015 in Spain, was to tackle the debt problem. Drawing on the experience of civil society, they sought to develop approaches such as “citizen audits”, but found themselves facing the power of finance.

More than 300,000 families evicted, huge cuts in social budgets, a reform to Spain’s Constitution and legislative changes that have recentralised power both in Madrid and in Brussels, stealing sovereignty from citizens... The only thing that these recent events in Spain have in common is that debt has been used as a tool of subjugation.

What do we mean when we talk about debt?

The difficulty in answering this question mirrors the difficulties encountered by Spain’s anti-debt movement when they tried to achieve the social scope necessary and unite the forces required to fight this important battle. Debt is the main subjugation and domination tool used by those who have exercised and controlled power throughout history. But it is also a moralist support which has permeated every phase of human beings’ and societies’ anthropologic evolution, constituting a basis to maintain the status quo with those that have privileged positions in said social structures. Not much has changed from this point of view. The social mantra according to which “you have to pay your debts” is deeply engrained in the collective imagination, and pointing the finger at debtors who fail to meet their “obligations”, as if they had committed a “sin”, remains established in the social canons and the moral and ethical imagination of modern-day society.

Faced with a rise in atheism and decline in the power of religious beliefs (which are what often frightens debtors) new gods have been created. Under the rule of capitalism, these new deities are now in charge of enforcing the law of debt, along with other sacred commandments from the same annihilating faith, such as free trade and the rejection of state interventionism in the economy, that is, they reject any democratic decisions that may interfere with that religion. Dressed in black suits, the Gods of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organisation are in charge of inflicting their religion on others and punishing any pagan who dares to contradict it. The international financial system, the armed wing of this religion, is engaged in capturing new followers by trapping them in its web: credit.

However, this church is also losing followers. Non-believers determined to tackle the debt system and its consequences, and to attack those that control it and use it as a tool of dispossession and domination, are building a global network. This movement takes various different forms, but is united in its goal: to reject illegitimate debts, those built on the backs of citizens for the benefit of a privileged few.

With more than 20 years of activism behind it, the Spanish anti-debt movement has positioned itself among the strongest and most developed in the world, riding the wave of the 15M/Indignados social movements (2011) and the citizens’ municipalist candidacies (new citizen-based political platforms).

A million people against debt

On Sunday the 12th of March 2000, as right-wing candidate Jose Maria Aznar won an absolute majority in Parliament, another side of democracy appeared in over 500 Spanish towns. Citizens were asked three questions in ballot boxes and ballot papers. The first question was: “Are you in favour of the Spanish State Government completely cancelling foreign debt that impoverished countries have with Spain?”

This was a Social Consultation for the abolition of foreign debt – the main, but not the first, important milestone in the social struggle against debt in Spain. More than 20,000 volunteers, coordinators in more than 1,400 collectives, carried out an exercise in civil disobedience and direct democracy to draw attention to the urgency of the situation.

This consultation also triggered Spain’s first anti-debt social movement. The Red Ciudadana por la Abolicion de la Deuda Externa (Citizens’ Network for the Abolition of Foreign Debt, or RCADE), established in 2000, unites different activist strands with the aim of working towards a collective goal. In 2005, the RCADE became the campaign ‘Quien debe a quien’ (‘Who owes who?’), which widened its scope and developed a vision that goes far beyond economics. The subject of historic, ecological, social and gender debt was finally opened up for discussion. It is undoubtedly thanks to the work of the ant-debt movement over those years that the terms “ecological debt” and “gender debt” (the debt society has towards women for their role in giving and maintaining life) are now used spontaneously by social movements and political parties in Spain.

From creditors to debtors

The housing and financial bubble, which raised wages and reduced unemployment (superficially, at least), was a demobilising factor for the vast majority of social movements during that period. Until the bubble burst and, as has happened time and time again, the weight of the debt fell on the shoulders of the powerless, and the powerful were bailed out and came out unscathed. Again, debt was being used as a subjugation tool, but this time it was used on us. While thousands of people lost their homes to banks and the country increased its foreign public debt, which increased from 40 to 100% of the GDP, with its corresponding social cuts in order to save the banks themselves, a new sense of protest and rebellion began to take shape. We went from being creditors to debtors, and began to feel the pain that we, as creditors, had caused to the countries of the Global South years before. This rage and indignation crystallized on May 15, 2011 with the creation of the 15M movement, whose growing mantra was: “Don’t owe. Won’t pay”.

Debt and citizens’ audits were one of the main points of discussion for 15M. The dogma that “debt comes first” was the rationalisation behind social cuts; it was what justified changing the Spanish Constitution; it was the explanation given to the thousands of people who lost their homes while bankers were bailed out. And in the meantime, governments of wealthy countries were flying to the aid of bankers, suppressing social rights that countries of the “New South” (those bordering Europe) had fought hard for.

Many activists that took part in the ‘Who owes who?’ campaign and the RCADE joined forces to form the Plataforma Auditoría Ciudadana de la Deuda (Citizens’ Debt Audit Platform, or PACD). It didn’t take long for the new social movement to take off, with hubs cropping up in more than 10 cities around Spain. Its demands to the government were the following: analyse the reasons for the crisis and the policies applied before and after it, analyse the reasons for public debt, including the costs involved in saving the financial system, in order to identify the debts that should be repudiated and designate responsibilities. The government, however, was not interested for obvious reasons.

The PACD’s slogan “No Debemos, No Pagamos” echoed through megaphones and was written on banners during the almost daily protests in the months following the 15th of May. Discussions, debates and workshops on debt multiplied. Dozens of people from around Spain attended the PACD meetings, and reports, tools and speeches were developed which challenged the debt system. It was undoubtedly one of the Spanish anti-debt movement’s biggest achievements to date: economic concepts, which are not always easy to grasp, were translated into a language that everyone could understand. The people, fed up with being the ones to pay the consequences, broke apart the moral and dogmatic fiction on debt. The neoliberal narrative crumbled in the face of overall fatigue, in the face of people who no longer believed in the siren song or the idea that “we had lived beyond our means”. Another slogan read: “This is not a crisis, it’s a scam”, and the PACD managed to demonstrate that debt was the main tool used to carry out this scam.

Since 15M, citizens’ debt audits have been one of the anti-debt movement’s main strategies, managed by the PACD. These audits, inspired by similar processes and other social movements around the world, were not understood as a simple analysis of what happened, but rather as a process to empower citizens and provide them with a better understanding of how the system works. It was about ensuring citizens understood the workings of these clientelist networks, corruption, debt mechanisms, pressure from financial capital, the immense power of corporations and the way in which neoliberal institutions are at the service of this power. The goal was to learn how we had ended up in this situation and to join forces in order to create a future which makes it harder for these powers to go back to using the same mechanisms, and empower people to reject these subjugation strategies, and illegitimate debt in general.

The main achievement of the Spanish anti-debt movement, led by the PACD, has undoubtedly been citizen audits of political programmes, proclamations, debates and articles in different sectors (health, education and energy), as well as in the voices of those who now have a seat in the Spanish Parliament; the demand for citizens’ debt audits is now one that is heard often. It is a legacy that is likely to continue and be adopted by other social movements in the future.

The PACD’s work over the years following 15M was extremely busy. The anti-debt activists held many conferences and workshops, they built international networks with anti-debt movements in other countries and even created the International Citizen Audit Network (ICAN), which brought together citizens’ platforms from countries such as the United Kingdom, Belgium, Portugal, Greece and France. Another achievement that de- serves to be mentioned was the development and creation of the Municipal Citizens’ Observatories (OCMs). With the development of an open source software and standardised methodology, PACD activists guided growing civil society groups towards a process of transparency and citizen participation at municipal level, asking them to get involved in their city council’s accounts and demand more transparency and information on the functioning of the local public economy. Other sub-groups have also been created, such as the 15MpaRato group (which managed to put former Finance Minister and former IMF director Rodrigo Rato on the bench, involved in the IPO of Bankia, an entity that resulted from the merger of several savings banks and which had to be bailed out) as well as sectoral groups such as Audita Sanidad.

Tackling the system from the bottom-up

It was not easy to find short-term solutions to these public discussions on foreign debt, financial markets and complex economic equations. The demand to waive illegitimate debt was the ultimate objective, the utopian goal that motivated people to keep fighting, but a new intermediary strategy was needed. The PACD needed to create a more strategic plan which, even if it meant temporarily putting aside its bigger goals, could reach and entice many more people to be part of this growing citizen force. The movement thus changed tact and focused on a municipalist approach. Citizens needed to understand how debt worked on a local level in order to understand how it worked higher up. Moreover, this approach fitted into a political context where Spanish citizens were forging an attack on institutions.

In May 2015, hundreds of citizens’ coalition groups came forward at the local elections. This surge in political involvement and the “they don’t represent us” from 15M, along with the political party, Podemos’ decision not to stand in local elections explains this evolution. Parties took on the demands and needs that were discussed and debated in the squares and demonstrations, giving a voice to citizens who were tired of being a “commodity in the hands of politicians and bankers”. One thing that virtually all the parties pledged to do was “to carry out a citizens’ debt audit”. This was how the anti-debt movement’s main strategy was introduced into institutions and councils; after these parties met with success, a range of new possibilities opened up on the municipal scene.

In the months following this citizen assault on municipal institutions, the anti-debt movement featured prominently on the political agenda of many of these new parties that embodied the 15M spirit. In this very exciting context, one question that came up was: “How do we carry out a citizens’ audit of our council?” The new municipalist political parties thus sought the input of PACD activists. Political discussions and analytical reports took the form of workshops attended by not only activists, but also councillors, mayors and local officials aligned with these parties. These workshops were an opportunity to put into practice all the knowledge accumulated over years of PACD-led anti-debt activism throughout Spain. Theory became reality with groups of people finally able to access and assess the council’s audit policies, expenses and debt from past decades. This empowered citizens to reject this debt. This work also ended up as a book entitled, Deciphering Debt. A Guide to Local Citizens’ Audits. The book addresses the theoretical and practical aspects of municipal citizens’ audits, as well as the political approach required to advocate the anti-debt culture.

Municipalism takes a stand against debt

Nevertheless, the new political parties lacked a common structure that would allow them to share experiences and knowledge, as well as to join forces. Greater collaboration, training and debate on common strategies were needed. So, in November 2016, the PACD, the Committee for the Cancellation of Illegitimate Debts (CADTM) and the electoral group Somos Oviedo (“We are Oviedo”) held the first Municipalist Meeting against illegitimate debt and budget cuts in Oviedo. The Manifesto de Oviedo (Oviedo Manifesto) was presented, a text that directly rejected austerity policies imposed on local governments, called for citizen audits of previous governments as a tool to identify those responsible and repudiate the debts of a corrupt financial system. The text also demanded an end to cuts and pointed the finger at the common enemy of local and regional authorities: the Spanish Law on Rationalisation and Sustainability of Local Administrations (Ley de Racionalización y Sostenibilidad de la Administración Local) and the Organic Law on Budgetary Stability and Financial Sustainability (Ley Orgánica de Estabilidad Presupuestaria y Sostenibilidad Financiera), otherwise known as the Montoro Law, after the Finance Minister of the People’s Party at the time, Cristóbal Montoro. These laws prevent municipalities from using their budgetary surpluses for investment or social spending, obliging them to repay the debt in advance in order to boost the financial sector. It was also these laws that introduced the “austerity” of European policies at local level, capitalising on council debt in order to get their hands on municipal budgets and, in the same way that the IMF imposed restructuring measures, force local governments to cut spending and privatise public services. At the end of the meeting, the Municipalist Network Against Illegal Debt and Cuts was created. This represented another step towards fighting debt in Spain.

This network was strengthened following the meeting. More than 300 electoral groups, political parties and social movements joined in and signed the Manifesto. Politicians from all institutional levels, activists and cultural figures also signed it. The Oviedo Manifesto was followed by three others in the cities of Cádiz, Rivas Vaciamadrid and Córdoba. Campaigns and working groups tackled issues such as rejecting the cost of the bank bailout, the denunciation of harmful legislative mechanisms and other campaigns and issues related to municipalism and the constraints imposed by the debt system at local level, the closest to citizens.

Obstacles on the horizon

Taking power away from public administrations through neoliberalism and its favourite tool, debt, (an approach that dates back to Thatcher and Reagan) resulted in a situation that was “tied up and well tied up”, as Spanish dictator Franco said. Public administrations are made up of those same powers, that same legal web that acts as a wall to hinder the actions of those who enter politics with the intention of changing things. Bureaucracy, legislation, executive bodies, their mechanisms, everything is designed to ensure the liberal machine keeps running. Debt and trading contracts come before human rights. Banks come before political parties. And neoliberalism comes before democracy.

Our own “Greece”, Madrid Council, governed by Ahora Madrid during the term 2015/19, with an anti-debt activist running the Economy and Tax Department, fought a battle against the Montoro Law and the central government to reverse the dire consequences of the law on citizens and to recover the economic and social sovereignty claimed by the Network. Madrid City Council became the spearhead of the Municipalist Anti-Debt Network and the entire movement fighting against debt, austerity measures and budget cuts. The right-wing Ministry of the Interior took action and geared the whole state apparatus and media towards attacking the Madrid City Council.
The word “disobedience” was heard a lot during municipalist meetings, but the legislative framework was hanging over insurgent councils like the sword of Damocles, leaving them little choice but to obey. The administrative hierarchy (Municipality/State/Europe) granted an increasingly smaller scope of action to the lower rung, with power centralised on the upper levels, where corporate power and its lobbies hold the reins.

Following two years of media and political disputes, Ahora Madrid surrendered to the pressures of the People’s Party and accepted its conditions: an Economic Financial Plan that penalised social expenditure in favour of the amortisation of debts with banks, and dismissed the counsellor mentioned above. As what happened with Greece, the spearhead of the battle against debt was defeated by the bureaucratic machine of centralised power, which undermined the movement and network. The legislative and financial power structures revealed the extent of their power and the municipalist movement seemed unable to break the legislative shackles that keep councils chained and bound.

Although this was a blow to the municipalist movement, it was not a defeat. The Municipal Network lost several important cities in the following local elections, but the denunciation of illegitimate debt and of the almighty power of corporations, finance and an overcentralised Europe has pervaded municipal civic policy and the social imagination. For the struggles to come, one thing is clear: movements against the privatisation of healthcare or against vulture funds highlight debt as one of the main tools of power which must be fought against. Two current movements that have the potential to ripple widely, ecology and feminism, are taking the issues of ecological and gender debt under their wing. There will be more debt crises ahead, but this time the movement is well-equipped with experience and is ready to face another battle.

By Yago Álvarez Balba

Yago Álvarez Balba (@EconoCabreado), activist and journalist, is the coordinator of the economics section of the independent and cooperative media El Salto. He is the coordinator and promoter of the Municipalist Network against Illegitimate Debts and Austerity Cuts, directed the documentary «Who has mortgaged my town hall?» and published the book Decipher your debt. Municipal citizen audit guide.

Illustración: Eduardo Luzzatti.

Photo: Emma Avilés y PACD, CC BY-SA

All the versions of this article: [English] [Español] [français]
Article published as part of our investigation: «Cities versus multinationals»
More about our investigation