The Brick

The following is a translation of an article written in Spanish sent by a long-term Marxist who has relatively recently been following our materials. He has kindly offered to undertake translation duties for the ICT and as a mark of gratitude we return the favour.

The Brick

The Spanish baptised the housing bubble that flooded the whole territory for over ten years: they call it The Brick.

1. - The good years

When capital does not find opportunities in production because of the low rate of profit, it searches elsewhere. Thus the surplus capital of the central countries entered Spain following on from the creation of the Euro as low interest loans with long repayment periods. An ideal format to finance the most important purchase that a Spanish worker ever makes: buying a home.

In Spain, access to housing through rent is very scarce and there is almost no public renting: the general way is to buy a home on the market. Thus developers and landowners can realise profits in the short term, while funding is borne by banks and saving societies.

The loan conditions resulted in increased house prices whilst keeping mortgage payments level. The longer the repayment periods and lower the interest rates, the higher the price of housing. Spanish property owners suddenly became rich: the price of their homes multiplied overnight.

The selling price of a house consists of a part that is the price of production: it equals production costs plus the average rate of profit. The competition will take care of bringing that part of the price to the socially necessary. The remainder, if any, is for the ground rent. Workers, having provided their quota of surplus value at work, still have to feed the landowning drones if they want to have a place to live.

With the high prices, Spanish landowners were suddenly sitting on a gold mine. They only needed local authority authorisations to build, something that was not difficult, it was enough to sit and have a friendly with the mayor or the Town Planning officer carrying a briefcase with enough money.

Buy a home no longer only responded to a vital need: it became an excellent business. Demand from investors was oriented toward The Brick and prices rose further. No matter how high they were: "they never fall" was the motto, better yet, "they always go up". So housing production soared, reaching 800,000 annually for about 10 years, adding more units than in the rest of Europe combined. In parallel luxury consumption expanded – including by workers - again fuelled by easy and cheap credit amply supplied to solvent debtors.

The demand for labour seemed limitless and millions of immigrants came to answer it. Young people dropped out of school to go to work in construction.

The loans were made by banks and Spanish saving societies. To make them they in turn became indebted to European and American banks, as Spanish capitalism is unable to achieve those huge volumes of capital production.

Finally the state collected abundant taxes in proportion to the high levels of activity - although tax evasion is the norm: Spain was the European country in which most 500 euro notes were in circulation in the economy. To these were added revenue contributions from the European Structural Funds. Improved public services and public works proliferated to the point of being unnecessary. The best of all worlds - perpetual motion, the self-feeding bubble - came true. Meanwhile landowners have been able to accumulate profits that can be estimated at 1,000,000,000,000 Euros.

However, there were those excluded from the party. Some of the workers, especially the young, could not manage to pay ever higher mortgage payments, since the time of the Brick was also that of the "mileuristas". (earning a 1 000 euros per month- translator)So they had to stay and live in the house of their parents: Spain is a country with a late age of youth emancipation. They could not form families or, if formed, had no children: Spain is one of the countries with the lowest birth rate in the world. Or the young had to live in an apartment with other young people. Immigrants, meanwhile, crowded into "bedsits" or "hot beds" (renting a bed to sleep per hour).

Spain has nevertheless a mechanism for providing affordable housing to workers called "social housing". It consists of officially setting the selling price of a home produced by the private sector much lower than the market price, so the ground rent appropriated by landowners gets drastically reduce. The state has the legal capacity to allocate private land for that purpose in the amount needed. But through The Brick years the amount of sheltered housing for sale plummeted, one could only access them by lottery, only 1 in 5 applicants were fortunate. So the state protected the continuity of the housing bubble and the rents of the landlords.

2. - The puncture

With the American subprime crisis Spain was expelled from paradise. It is true that many saw it coming: the Bank of Santander, for example, sold all its property before the puncture and moved to offices for rent.

The credit dried up, activity stopped, businesses closed, workers were unemployed. The mortgaged - developers and individuals - could not keep up payments. Evictions began and banks accumulated empty homes (3 million empty homes currently estimated in a country that casts its workers to live on the street). But housing and land prices fell: the balance sheets of banks stopped showing black and went into the red. State tax revenues plunged.

Spain returned to where it was before the start of all this, at the end of the "glorious" years of socialist Felipe González: 25% unemployment, 50% youth unemployment, besides global economic crisis. But with a difference: private debt equivalent to 2.1 times the annual GDP: 2,100,000,000,000 Euros.

Many Spanish banks are broken, zombies. To enable them to repay the money they borrowed, "Europe" will give a grant of 100 billion Euros, with the backing of the Spanish state. Private debt is also becoming public debt.

3. - Zapatero

The Socialist (?) government of Zapatero rode the bubble for four years: "We are playing in the Champion's League - We will overtake Italy and France" (sic). Then, on the evidence of the crisis, it tried "Keynesian" ways out: spending to maintain employment. So Spanish finances went from surplus to deficit: Spain has a debt today of 75% of its annual GDP. The recipe did not give a great result and unemployment continues to rise: there are 5,000,000 unemployed in a country with a population of 17 million workers. The state is already economically bankrupt.

But it reaped a success: the support of the "class" unions. CCOO and UGT, watched impassively as a part of the working class plunged into unemployment while another, the private sector of the economy, had resigned itself to accept the reduction of wages and higher performance requirements.

During this period, public sector workers were not affected by unemployment and basically kept their wage, therefore, did not protest either.

4. - Rajoy

But everything ends and so did this. In the end Zapatero and now the right-wing government of Rajoy had to respond to the demands of the IMF, the ECB and the governments of Central European countries. And both did the same: slash spending and with it, public employment. Reduce public sector wages and privatise services. Deregulate collective bargaining of workers and entrepreneurs and facilitate layoffs. Penalise tenants and benefit landlords. They took charge of private debt.

5. - The working class

The working class has rarely shown over the past years a purely defensive position, but has shown outright collaboration.

During the boom labour unrest was nonexistent. These were the years in which a young construction worker finished training, bought a BMW and snorted cocaine at weekends.

When the bad times came each minded his/her own affairs, large or small. Conflict was limited to merely trying to avoid dismissal one’s own company, accepting the worsening conditions of work and pay, when firing finally arrived, workers passively assumed the condition of social outcasts or began to migrate.

Public sector workers - including subsidised Asturian mining - enjoyed job security, although with certain cuts in pay. Now they too are in danger and begin to complain, but only for the maintenance of public services, that is, of their jobs.

It is inevitable that the workers' struggle consists of defending their own working conditions and their own access to work. What is suicidal for the working class is to limit the struggle to the framework of one’s own place of work. Workers need to expand and transform the demands for work and adequate pay into a claim that is made on behalf of the class as a whole, and confront capitalists and landowners who have demonstrated once again that they can only lead workers to ruin.

The Brick is over. The Spanish now say: when the tide goes out you can see who is naked. It is the working class that is naked: the capitalists and landlords live well and have already sent their gigantic profits to tax havens.

Thursday, August 30, 2012