European Nordism and Spanish imperialism

14 April, 2020

Mark Rutte and Pedro Sánchez.

The violence of the Dutch finance minister against Italy and Spain did not go unnoticed in the European battle over coronabonds. The Portuguese Prime Minister simply called it “disgusting”, the tone of the Spanish and Italian press, regardless of their political sign, changed immediately. It is true that “Nordism” is a racist, reactionary and hypocritical ideology. But if states like the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland and Germany have turned it into a state ideology, it is not out of pure idiocy and evil. Underneath there are economic interests that reveal the position of Spanish capital in the world and what Spanish “sovereignty” really means, something that others paint as an objective to “restore” and a solution for the ongoing recession.

Spanish capital and its particular imperialist position

Although the Spanish left likes to present Spain as a “poor country of the European Union”, in reality the Spanish national capital is, like everywhere else, imperialist, and it is not even a small imperialism at all, there is no excuse for any confusion. The “«Spanish Investment Panorama in Ibero-America” published every year and presented shortly before the start of the Covid confinement tells us about a well-established imperialism in foreign markets that are increasingly valuable for North European capital.

As shown in the graph above, Spanish capital is focused on Ibero-America. Most Spanish companies, including small and medium-sized enterprises, hold capital and interests in the continent. But the main dish, of course, is the great “national champions”, many of which earn more than half their income in the region.

It is not simply an inheritance, small, medium and large companies could see – already before the impact of the Covid – Ibero-America as the region of the world in which their sales and interests would grow the most.

What does all this mean for the “European partners”? It means that Spanish capital is much less dependent and therefore much less “disciplinable” than the rest of the European middle-sized powers. Not to mention Poland, the Czech Republic, Denmark or Austria. But also if we compare it with Italy. There, the large national capital companies, such as FIAT, have been dividing their sales for decades into three more or less equivalent parts: the internal market, the EU and the rest of the world. The power of a Brussels directive directly affects two thirds of their income, while for their Spanish equivalents, such as Santander, the contribution to the profit of all their units in the EU and Spain is only 36%, the rest being mainly Ibero-America and, since a few years ago, Great Britain. Because, and this is one of the keys to the recent violence of Nordism, although it may directly affect Spanish exports, Brexit has increased the autonomy of Spanish capital with respect to the EU because Great Britain has been the main destination of Spanish capital in the last 20 years… and after some initial doubts, the flow of capital continues.

The Spanish case is unique in the EU. In no country can the number of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that expect most of their profit to come from a market outside the EU be compared to the data in the graph above. And yet the number of SMEs that expected most of their profits to come from placing their products in Latin America in 2013 has gone from 83% to “only” 42% of the large companies and 41% of the SMEs… which is still a lot, even more so considering that these are data that predate the outbreak of the Covid epidemic in Spain, but which reveal an undeniable loss of momentum.

The rise, crisis and transformation of Spanish imperialism

The leaders of the “big seven” banks and the president of the powerful AEB (Spanish Banking Association) in the early 1980s: Alejandro Albert (Hispano Americano), Alfonso Escámez (Central), Ángel Galíndez (Vizcaya), José Mª Aguirre Gonzalo (Banesto), Luis Valls (Popular), Emilio Botín (Santander), Rafael Termes (AEB) and José Ángel Asiaín (Bilbao). All those banks became two: Santander and BBVA

The recent history of Spanish capital is usually told from a very limited viewpoint, that of the so-called “Transition”. But the process of transformation of the political apparatus of the state and the culmination of the set of perspectives, fusions and alliances that define Spanish state capitalism would be very lacking without taking into account its imperialist dimension.

One of many workers’ demonstrations against “reconversion” in the 1980s.

Under the banner of “competitiveness” of the productive apparatus and the business structure urged by the “entry into Europe” (1985) and the perspective of a European single market (1992), the governments of Felipe González promoted a deep transformation of Spanish state capitalism. This was, above all, an accelerated process of capital concentration fed by the state and sustained by a simultaneous and general increase in the rate of surplus value and the organic composition of capital. It was the decade of “industrial reconversion” and the first precarization, then called “youth precarization”; the years of accelerated bank mergers – the “big seven” of 1982 turned into Santander and BBVA -, the massive privatizations and recapitalizations of the big public companies (Telefónica, Repsol, Aguas de Barcelona, Iberia, Trasmediterránea…) and finally the first big reform of the savings banks, which led to the territorial and industrial expansion of “la Caixa”.

Raúl Alfonsín at the Moncloa Palace with Felipe González in 1984

With all this accumulated capital, the state used the celebrations of the “Fifth Centenary” to give a particular and defined orientation to Spanish imperialism: ” Ibero-America “, that is, the whole of European and American territories of Spanish and Portuguese language. These were markets in which the U.S. had dominated without competition and practiced its crudest and most brutal interventionism. “Felipism” knew how to take advantage of this: the end of the military dictatorships brought to power a generation of leaders (from Argentine radicals and Peruvian apristas to Bolivian miristas and Chilean and Uruguayan socialists) with strong ties to the PSOE, among other things because many had been exiled in Spain or had received direct aid from its then young fabric of foundations, sponsored in principle and created in the image and likeness of their German equivalents. Balancing the United States with “socialist” Spain could be presented as a sign of independence and even as a subtle “anti-imperialist” resistance. Spanish capital and a consultant’s eye became the enablers of the French, Italians and Germans as they were viewed with increasing suspicion by the US and Britain. The result was an unqualified success for the strengthened Spanish imperialism. In less than ten years, the Spanish “national champions” were generating half their dividend in South America while Spanish capital could feel well inserted in Europe, strongly linked to Paris and Berlin in what was already on the way to becoming the “European Union” and yet less dependent on the “Franco-German axis” than any other Mediterranean country.

José Manuel Durao Barroso, Tony Blair, George W. Bush and José María Aznar at the Azores summit.

Aznar’s coming to power did not change the Spanish imperialist orientation during his first term in office. However, the disengagement of the European partners from the Perejil Island incident (2002) and the US intervention, in the changing imperialist context that followed the 9/11 attack, led the then president to lead a drastic change that tested the cohesion of the Spanish bourgeoisie. In the face of a US campaign that culminated in the invasion of Iraq, the Spanish government positioned itself with the US and Britain (Azores Summit, 2003 ) against the failed consensus between Germany and France, and even deployed troops after the invasion as part of the international force led by the US. Such a turn meant also a tacit pact regarding the environments of inter-imperialist competition and collaboration. Spanish capital, which until then had bet heavily on the “Pacific axis” and Mexico, stopped its advance and instead tried, unsuccessfully, to gain positions, public concessions and privatizations in Algeria, Morocco and Romania, traditionally linked to France, but also in Turkey, which had been linked to Germany for almost a century. That is when BBVA, pushed by a series of exchanges between Aznar and Erdogan, began a Turkish journey that would later prove so destabilizing .

Uribe, Zapatero, Hugo Chávez and Lula.

In that context of imperialist conflict in the Middle East, a good part of the Spanish bourgeoisie, uncomfortable with an “Atlantic turn” that forced them to look for markets and placement of their capitals in an increasingly problematic Mediterranean, could only interpret the attack of March 11, 2004 in Madrid as a confirmation of Aznar’s adventurism. The fracture, silenced by the good economic results of the speculative orgy of the Zapatero years, continued. Zapatero tried to swim between the two: while rallying the ” Alliance of Civilizations ” towards the Mediterranean, he took the Spanish troops out of Iraq; while pushing La Caixa -the traditional Mediterranean-oriented focus of Spanish imperialism- to the control of Repsol, trying to save in extremis the exploitation contracts in Algeria and redirecting them towards South America, he fought against the sale of Endesa -the flagship of Spanish capital in Chile- to German capital, assuming a tremendous cost and finally handing it over to the Italian state-owned energy company. All while trying to sell military equipment and ships to Chávez’s Venezuela and negotiating with Evo Morales the conditions for the nationalization of gas companies and public pension funds (“AFP”), whose management had been left in the hands of BBVA and Santander. After two terms of office attempting to fight on two simultaneous fronts, the capacity of Spanish imperialism proved insufficient in a map of global capitalist conflict that was already being torn apart. Spain let the “Ibero-American Summit” fade away and instead focused, as a legacy from Zapatero, on an “EU-CELAC” (“European Union-Community of Latin American and Caribbean States”) summit where it even gave the name of the region in favor of that originally invented by France in its attempts to conquer Mexico in the 19th century (“Latin America”) and later adopted by the financial managers of the City and Wall Street (“Latam”). And if the situation was already one of admitted weakness, the crisis of 2009, the bank rescue and the Rajoy years (2011-2018) put the imperialist dream of Felipe González in crisis once and for all… for big capital and its vehicles.

The new configuration of Spanish imperialist capital

The climax: 2019 and the organization of a massive disinvestment of Telefonica in the American continent . A crippled capital sold the crown jewels. And, as we see above, the growth of the remaining capital was already fundamentally “organic”, that is, even the purchases of new companies were made with profits generated in the country. Only 5% was a real export of capital.

Yet this year began with interesting data: only 3% of the companies planned to reduce investments, that is, those that remained were not going to follow Telefónica and BBVA and withdraw. On the contrary. They were reinvesting. More importantly, SMEs were much more aggressive: 72% were going to increase investments, compared to 65% of the total. In other words, today the petty bourgeoisie is the spearhead of Spanish imperialism in Latin America. It is the legacy of the crisis and the Rajoy years, of “export or bankruptcy”.

What is called the “seven magic years” of Spanish growth without foreign deficit, is the product of this petty bourgeoisie that emerged triumphant from the 2008 crisis. They are not just a group of exporters, they are local chieftains whose interests are largely vented thousands of miles away and who are rarely “protected” by a foreign policy that has historically been designed according to the interests of “national champions” whose interests are less and less convergent with their own. The petty bourgeoisie is angry. The reappearance of an openly pro-imperialist discourse, from stalinist Spanish nationalism to Vox, including the Catalan independentists, is no mere coincidence. For the first time, Spanish foreign policy is and will be increasingly at odds with the internal battles between the ruling faction of the bourgeoisie and the discontented petite bourgeoisie.

Nordists and pro-sovereignty parties

Sánchez in one of his “stolen poses” in Doñana with Merkel and their respective partners, in the summer of 2018.

As we have seen, under the Nordism displayed by the Dutch, German, Danish, Finnish ministers… etc. there are two main interests: the first, the fear produced by the potential indiscipline of Spanish capital. Potential not because it has never shown any signs of defiance, but because it can afford to do so because it depends on the EU market to a much lesser extent than Nordists themselves do. That is why Spanish debt and interests are hit not only because of what their governments do, but also because of what the Italian and Greek governments do.

But the main force driving them is pure imperialism: the need to access markets outside the EU. That is why Sánchez’s first promise in his alarm decree was that the government would not allow buy-outs of large Spanish companies by foreign capital using the foreseeable drop in value on the stock markets. The message was primarily directed at China and the United States, but he did not fail to bark at his “partners”, the Europeans. For them, Spain is not only a “dangerous” oddity in the continental game, it is the practical monopolist of the exit to gigantic and increasingly valuable foreign markets, vital for their own survival. Nordism and its rage, verbal violence and financial pressures do not fall from the sky.

Neither does the growing “sovereignty” discourse in Spain. At first it was just ” Spexit“, so openly at odds with the interests of the Spanish bourgeoisie that it was obvious that it had no chance at all. But “Spexit” is one thing and defending “sovereignty” is another without, for the moment, breaking the euro. With the petty bourgeoisie spearheading Spanish capital in its “natural” imperialist markets and the EU crisis accelerated by the background of the coronabonds, the speeches calling for a “recovery of sovereignty” are going to take more and more force.

What is this so-called sovereignty? It certainly has nothing to do with what the word meant in the 19th century. At that time, it meant the implementation of capitalism and with it a progressive development on its own basis. Today it’s pure imperialism. No more or less decadent than that which lies under the Nordism of the Dutch and Germans. Thus, the policy of the Spanish national capital in Latin America, both the one directly linked to the state capitalism and finance capital, and the one of the petty bourgeoisie -which exports so much- can only be and will be imperialist, whether it is dressed as “resistance” to Brussels or to German capital, as “republicanism” or as “humanitarian solidarity”.


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