As in so many Western countries these days, the social, political and economic landscapes in Spain are shifting at a startling rate. Despite having lost all moral legitimacy after being caught with its hands in virtually every cookie jar imaginable, Rajoy’s democratically elected government still enjoys an absolute majority in parliament. It also continues to run a system of rigid party discipline, and as such can push through pretty much any and every law that catches its fancy.
In the last two weeks alone it has announced one draft law and passed another that threaten to radically redraw the country’s system of law and order.
Act 1: Criminalising Dissent
The first of the two laws, the rather Orwellian sounding Protection of Public Safety law – redubbed by its opponents the “Gag Law” – contains 55 articles, many of which are geared at gaining greater control over street protests.
As El País recently reported (in English), the aim of the draft legislation is to “put a stop to practices that, despite the best efforts of the government, have not been deemed worthy of penal censure in the courts.” They include the act of gathering outside the seat of parliament or many other public buildings without the express permission of the authorities.
Those caught transgressing the new law could face an administrative fine of up to 30,000 euros. Shouting insults at police officers or taking photos of them as they go about their duty will incur similar such penalties.
The law will also enable the police to establish “security zones” to prevent congregations of people. Although the draft makes no specific reference, the measure is designed to stop escraches — the practice of protesting on the doorstep of politicians or business leaders — as well as spontaneous gatherings to prevent evictions, both of which have become popular forms of political protest and which the country’s supreme court has already deemed legal.
Perhaps most absurd of all, the government also seeks to sanction, with fines of up to 600,000 euros, all forms of insults demeaning Spain’s image. This, one assumes, would include burning Spanish flags — a popular practice in Catalonia and the Basque Country — or using offensive language on placards against the Spanish monarchy or the nation itself.
Naturally, the law has provoked a chorus of concern over civil liberties — though not nearly as much as it should have! Not only does it pose a huge threat to the basic rights of freedom of speech and congregation in Spain, it also threatens to intensely politicise the role of the police force as well as distract them from their more traditional crime-busting activities.
As a source of mine in the Catalonian police force, the Mossos D’Esquadra, told me, “the government has crossed a red line with this law. In effect, we are being required to strip the basic rights of the people we’re supposed to protect while at the same time focusing less and less of our resources on hunting down real criminals — pickpockets, burglars, drug traffickers, fraudsters — whose numbers just keep growing and growing.”
Act 2: Privatising the Police
With the ink still moist on the Protection of Public Safety draft law and the echoes of public indignation still reverberating, the government passed another raft of law and order legislation this week, this time aimed at massively expanding the scope of private sector provision of policing services.
Among other things, private security agencies will be able to:
- Carry out, both in private and public spaces, all the necessary checks, searches and preventative measures to fulfill their duties.
- Pursue and detain suspects, again both in private and public spaces, and hand them over for arrest to the responsible state authorities.
- Police the perimeters of penitentiary centers and immigration detainment facilities, as well as other kinds of “public” buildings.
- Go about their business under much greater judicial protection. For example, any aggressions security agents suffer during the course of duty will incur the same penalties as if they had been committed against agents of the state.
The new law merely confirms fears long held by Spanish police officers that the government seeks to transfer many of their responsibilities to the private sector. According to José Antonio Soriano, a police inspector in the Spanish region of Castellón, increasingly tight resources have lead to a general deterioration in public safety, a necessary pre-condition for justifying greater involvement of the private sector.
It is the perfect example of the age-old practice of problem-reaction-solution: First you create a problem (an overstretched, underresourced public police force), which then prompts a reaction (rising public dissatisfaction about the deterioration in law and order), which you then use to justify the exact same policies and measures you wanted to implement in the first place (the transferal of many essential public police functions to the private sector, thereby enriching certain well-placed companies and individuals — people who Soriano calls the government’s “amiguitos” [little friends]).
And in this manner, the concerted will of the rich and powerful quashes the growing needs of the poor and powerless, as Spain – and the world we inhabit – gradually takes on the form of a neo-feudal system of economic and political governance (a subject I have already touched upon here, here and here). It promises to be a world where might and money make right; where government exists merely to collect taxes and redistribute funds to banks and corporations; and where not only opportunities but also security and the protection of the law become the sole preserve of those who can afford them.