Profitable Poverty in Extremadura: Bailing Out Banks, Evicting Poor People

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This is a translation of a piece written by Manuel Cañada, a militant in Trastienda, a social rights collective. It was originally published in Rebelión on 30th June last year. A friend from #AcampadaMérida (manifesto here) suggested I translate it as it helps provide the context to the situation in Extremadura. However it has universal resonance, particularly so in countries living in the wake of burst property bubbles.

The discourse of social Darwinism and the ‘the kingdom of the plasma screen TVs’ cited in this translated text on evictions in Extremadura ought to be particularly relevant to Irish readers. This morning, the head of the Department of Finance has declared that it ‘is not necessarily appropriate that banks should be using taxpayers’ money to subsidise people living in accommodation, even if it is a family home, that is beyond their means’, citing an ‘unnaturally low’ level of repossessions (as if there were anything ‘natural’ about a neo-liberal state that protects the financial sector at all costs!). Meanwhile, Michael Noonan the Minister for Finance has cited, on the public broadcaster, the problem of satellite TV subscriptions taking priority over mortgage repayments.

Bailing out banks, evicting poor people

by Manuel Cañada

I ask of the political economists, of the moralists, whether they have calculated the number of individuals it is necessary to condemn to misery, to undue labour, to demoralisation, to infancy, to crapulous ignorance, to unconquerable misfortune, to absolute penury, so as to produce a rich person.

- Almeida Garret

12th of June 2012, in Mérida’s Juan Canet neighbourhood. It is not yet nine in the morning and a group of riot police, armed with plastic bullet rifles, oversee the rapid removal of furniture from a council house. It is one of 16 such evictions carried out in Extremadura in the last month and a half. Expectant rifle sights scan the doors and cots scattered in the middle of the street. A woman, until now a resident of the flat, begs unsuccessfully to be allowed in to her home to pick up the bottle so she can feed her son. No, these neighbourhoods are not reached by the psalms that speak of the greater interest of the child, nor is there room in the suburbs for affectations of compassion. “They treat us like terrorists”, says an older woman, consumed by rage. For some time now we have ceased to be surprised by the presence of riot police and special operations teams in these slums of misery. It is the silent war, the war of the rich against the poor, the coming social war.

One eviction every three days. The Extremaduran regional government (in Spanish, la Junta de Extremadura), a weatherproof homeowner and judge, has let eviction be the guide of its housing policy. 764 eviction cases are open, and of these, we are told, 90 are to be carried out imminently. This is happening in a region with near 150,000 people who are unemployed, with more than 60,000 in receipt of no benefits whatsoever, and when the number of people seeking assistance from Cáritas food programmes keeps multiplying. A tsunami of marginalisation and misery is advancing with its mouth wide open and, while this is going on, the Extremaduran government starts spinning the roulette wheel of eviction. “I only get €436 euro in unemployment benefit and I have to pay €143 in rent. How do they expect me to pay another late payment bill”, says one of the women threatened with expulsion. “They don’t want to apply the rent reductions to me because they say I have previous debts”, another neighbour complains. “Can you believe they have the right to threaten you with getting thrown out on the street for a debt of €800?”. The stories of uncertainty and fear pile up. The regional government, the property owner, mobilises police and judges to frighten poor people, but it does not seem to show the same diligence or energy in fulfilling its obligations as landlord. The lifts stopped working a long time ago in many blocks and the neighbourhoods are filling up with cockroaches, but the exemplary government of Extremadura can only think about making money, and, especially, in that most profitable of investments: fear. The vineyard of the powers that be, always sprinkled with fear.

This institutional abomination of eviction as a political tool occurs in a country that has more than 4 million empty dwellings and, nearly a million of them in hands of banks as a consequence of the mortgage shakedown. Spain, European champion of people without homes and, at the same time, homes without people. The same country where, whilst sharks like Rodrigo Rato or Miguel Ángel Fernández Ordóñez get off scot-free after leaving behind swindles of €23bn euro (Bankia) or financial black holes of more than €100bn (Spanish banking sector), families are turfed onto the street for the serious crime of having ‘illegally occupied’ the dwelling that was in the name of the grandmother of one of the co-habitants. In the autonomous region in which the biggest businessman, Alfonso Gallardo, has still not given back the €10 million he was advanced for the failed monster refinery and where each passenger through the phantom airport of Badajoz costs public funds 37 euro, they still extort people who have nothing so that they pay  insignificant arrears, or they cut off the water supply to families with small children.

“No-one is going to sleep in the street”, say the civil servant-politicians from the Extremadura government. And it’s true. In spite of them, beyond the logic of bureaucracy, there exists the humanity of the families who will take them in even though, to do so, 15 people might have to cram in to a dwelling of 90 square metres, as has happened in one of the cases in the Bellavista slum.

“We are not going to stop the evictions, in any shape or form. Furthermore we are being congratulated for it”, says a jubilant Víctor del Moral, the Housing Manager for the Extremaduran government. It is here, in this disturbing argument, where the key to this wave of evictions is to be found. An entire populist discourse which speaks of the most downtrodden slums as the kingdom of the plasma screen TVs and designer furniture, and which grindingly repeats terms such as anti-social behaviour, ending up presenting as a problem of public order what is instead a radical expression of social injustice. Here also, behind the absurdity of collective evictions we can locate the “ancient conflict between rich and poor over the right to the city” (Mike Davis).

In 2005, the revolt of the Parisian banlieues was exploding and Sarkozy was resuscitating the old classist-hygienist argument: “we need a big hose to power blast the scum”. The scum, the trash, the dregs, the lazy and the malingerers, yesterday’s gypos and today’s chavs, the fear of the dark suburb, summoned time and again. And joining the ancient criminalisation of poverty is social Darwinism, imported from the United States and administered by injection during recent decades. There are no longer any poor people, only failures. The marginalised disappeared: in the language of the capitalist jungle only losers and social misfits remain.

A thick complicit silence accompanies the evictions. And the comment threads of newspapers suppurate with hatred for the poor. “It’s the only good thing that the PP has done since it came to power in Extremadura”, says an anonymous dispenser of justice. “Come on, hurry up and kick out the scum, they’ll still be around come winter at this rate”, adds another brave mystery figure. They are the lumpen and anything goes. Those in power are well aware of the fear of proletarianisation among the middle classes and they feed off the anxiety of those who sense the end of the great fantasy ride of consumerism and property-owning individualism. Enríque de Castro, the parish priest of Entrevías, has been speaking for years of a new concept, that of profitable poverty. Since the 90s, many people began to live off poverty in the powerful “industry of the social”. Today it is even more obvious to see the usefulness that power accords poverty as an instrument for cohesion and disciplining citizens.

In Novecento, the beautiful Bertolucci film that narrates the history of the 20th century in Italy, we see the story of the eviction of Orestes, a peasant whom the padrones kick out of his home disregarding the contract. On the arrival of the ‘devils on horseback’, the name given by workers to the police of the era, the peasant men and women take up sticks and spread themselves across the ground to support their comrade and resist the expulsion. “They want to throw us out, come down quick, we need you”, plead the most conscious peasants. From the river, one of the small landholders, out hunting ducks, urges the police to intervene against the protesters: “Get out of here, villains. Boys, you have to teach them that property is untouchable, property is inviolable”. The story of the eviction in the film serves to explain the origin of fascism in Italy. Observing the brutality and inhumanity of the mass evictions happening today and the systematic liquidation of social rights, it seems the belly that bore that bestial thing is still fertile.

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