My Pussy, your Pension: Battling the right in Spain’s care crisis

The president of the PP, Pablo Casado, during his party’s the family and equality convention in Cartagena. MARCIAL GUILLÉN / EFE

The Spanish elections will take place in less than two weeks and a less talked about, yet crucial, theme is slowly making its appearance in the realm of Spanish politics: Spain’s growing aging population and incredibly low birthrates. A combination which is effectively building up to an explosive crisis of social reproduction. For much of the 20th century Spain enjoyed some of Europe’s highest birth rates, nearing 3 children per woman. However, since the mid-1970s, influenced by the oil crisis and women’s new gained emancipation that came with end of Francoism, birthrates have continued to fall. Between the late 1990s and 2008 fertility rates experience a moderate recovery due to the arrival of migrants with higher birthrates and the falloff of first birth postponements. This came to an end after the crisis took place, and today fertility rates stand at 1.31 children per woman. Whilst there is much talk of economic recovery since the crisis, employment and the economy have grown at the cost of high work precarity levels, poverty wages and social inequality.

Political parties are making their own proposals to deal with Spain’s sub-replacement fertility rates. In this context, the far-right party Vox and the conservative party PP, are looking to revive the Spanish right’s brand of gender essentialist and nationalist pro-natalism to face this crisis. On the other hand, in its new recent found rival, the feminist movement, we could find the potential to propose genuine and radical solutions to the care and reproduction dilemmas embedded in the workings of capitalism.

Dissecting the right’s pro-natalism

The post-Civil War years in Spain were essential for the consolidation of the dictatorship’s ideology, through terror and repression the regime sought to extirpate left-wing ideas from the social body and restore the national order lost with republicanism. Francoism emphasized fatherland, family and God above all and repudiated the advances made to women’s rights during the Republic. Morality came to be defined by the Catholic church which was granted the control of the education system and given free rein to advance its ideas of sexuality and gender. This combined with dwindling populations caused by the war meant women were given a new purpose, that of repopulating Spain and ensuring its fecundity. In this context, women were positioned as “national wombs”, and their fertility became a public matter. Decades after the end of the dictatorship, and found with a new population decline, the national womb discourse is making its way into Spanish politics again, revived by Pablo Casado’s PP and Vox. It is not an exaggeration to point how Vox’s and the PP’s ultra-conservatism shares similarities with Franco’s ideology. Where these ideas overlap is in their struggle to combat what is perceived as the emasculation of Spanish society, the destruction of the traditional family and the defense of the nation. The common thread that unites these issues is a renewed focus on the fertility of Spanish women. The spotlight on fertility serves as tool to reinforce motherhood as the ultimate path for women and promotes the nuclear family as a key institution whose role is to secure a conservative gender order. Because pro-natalism is concerned with ensuring the continuation of the nation, the right-wing politization of fertility also serves to assert — along racialized lines — who belongs in the nation and must be reproduced, and who tarnishes the nation and must be excluded.

Whilst making meek proposals to increase support for mothers, PP and Vox have no interest in overhauling austerity measures and introducing meaningful economic reforms. Instead, both parties have vouched for a pro-natalism which relies on cultural restoration and places individual responsibility on women for having children. Such affinities are perhaps more directly visible when it comes to Vox: their campaign spot for the Andalusian elections literally featured its leader Santiago Abascal accompanied by a bunch of other white men, galloping on horses across Spanish fields, crusade style, with a Lord of the Rings tune playing in the background. It is difficult to imagine a better (and more ridiculous) portrayal of the European far-right and its essential macho component. When it comes to policies, Vox promotes these ideas by vowing to end abortion access in its desire to defend all life “from conception to death”. The party also opposes gay marriage and pledges to replace gendered violence laws (which identify sexism as a key component in violence towards women) with domestic violence laws, as the former “discriminates against men”. This is unsurprising: an honest view of the endemic problem that gendered violence constitutes would disturb Vox’s idyllic conception of the family and gendered relations; it is then easier to dismiss the widespread violence women are forced to endure as a feminist myth. Although Vox is a tough rival in the chauvinism terrain, the PP presents no less of threat when it comes to social involution. Indeed, since Casado’s election as leader the PP has taken a further right turn in an attempt to recuperate its ultra-conservative Catholic base which it has been losing with the insurgence of Vox. Making a more pragmatic argument with the same dangerous outcome, the PP wants to return to the 1985, more restrictive, abortion law; as it claims funding pensions is incompatible with the current legislation, for widespread access to abortion “lowers birthrates”. Similarly, the PP is absorbing some of Vox’s discourse on gendered violence by warming to the idea of a domestic violence law instead.

Neither their vision of the family or gender roles exist anymore, and more importantly the conditions of national-Catholicism that made both possible are seldom here. But striving towards it represents a useful narrative against the anxieties provoked by the erosion of the breadwinner model that once seemingly sustained Spanish society; as well as a possible tool to discipline the social force that feminism has become recently. Indeed, in their path to rebuild the traditional family and advocate maternalism, both parties could not have made clearer their rejection of feminism. By questioning the nature of gender, feminism is a fundamental danger to their project. In order to discredit it, Vox and the PP have drawn the expression of “gender ideology” from ultra-Catholic jargon. Gender ideology is to feminism what cultural Marxism is to left wing ideas, an incoherent bogeyman which will sow chaos by challenging patriarchal structures and promoting LGBTQ+ rights. And they have reason to be scared, since the 8th of March of 2018 — where millions of women across the country went on strike against patriarchy — feminism has become a movement with the ability to shake and structure politics in a way unseen in Spain before.

Eugenics, racism and borders

Whilst feminism remains an “internal enemy” of the nation, much of the narrative around pro-natalism has positioned itself against an “external enemy”, racialized migrants, which threaten the integrity of Spain, in cultural, demographic and economic aspects. It is no news that the far right galvanizes support by relying on the idea of a mythologized past, now disturbed by a foreign invasion and a liberal enabling class. In Spain the golden past which the far-right cling to is marked by two periods: the Spanish empire and the military dictatorship. Again, this sentiment is made more evident in Vox with their slogan (an unashamed copy of Trump’s) “make Spain great again”. Equally, like the rest of the European far right, the party vows to combat the “islamization of Europe” and holds up with pride the expulsion and forced conversion of Muslims in 1492. For Vox then, pro-natalism is a tool to counter the growth of Spain’s culturally polluting and dangerous migrant and racialized population. On the other hand, the PP have been less active in the “clash of civilizations” narrative, albeit their pro-natalism is tinged with eugenicist tones as well. This was exemplified when the PP proposed a law in March by which undocumented mothers would have their deportations delayed if they were to put their kids up for adoption. Through this, the migrant mother becomes disposable, and her child becomes an asset for its ability to be a worker for the nation and halt low natality. Furthermore, by removing the mother from the equation, the child is divorced from its cultural upbringing and better incorporated into the reproduction of the Spanish state. As Roma feminists were quick to point out when the PP made this proposal, Spain already has a history of abducting babies from its non-white population, such was the case in 1749 in an attempt to exterminate the Roma population. These ideas also echo significantly the eugenicist theories propagated during Francoism which opened the way to the separation of thousands of babies from female republican prisoners — believed to be unsuitable mothers and carry a “red gene” — who were subsequently relocated into families supportive of the dictatorship. These examples depict how some fertilities are desired whilst others are rejected depending on their ability to sustain the project of the Spanish nation. In the Spanish case of eugenics, due to the Catholic Church’s heavy involvement, forced sterilization, abortion and contraception were actively opposed, therefore removing children from their mothers has always been the preferred strategy to maintain ‘racial hygiene’.

However, eugenicist pro-natalism is not the only way in which racism is being mobilized to affront Spain’s care crisis. Whilst the right remains obsessed with fertility to repopulate Spain, with no desire to change economic and social policies, the care crisis is increasingly being shouldered by migrant women. In their majority Latin American, many of these women work in the care industry, which encompasses childcare, eldercare and the like. What has always been an enormously precarious sector because of its feminized nature is becoming more so due to migrant worker’s exploitable conditions. In Spain, immigration law is cruel and bureaucratic, as migrants must live in the country for three years, have a job and earn a certain amount of money to access a residence permit; leaving many migrants undocumented for years. This is no coincidence; it is a logical conclusion of a racist and capitalist system which guarantees cheap labour with little to no worker’s rights, in the same way as it keeps in detention centers those migrants which are not seen to fit the necessities of the market. It is also not a coincidence most of these workers come from former Spanish colonies, centuries of colonization in the Americas which the PP and Vox like to promote as a glorious era, have had disastrous effects up to today, shaping migration flows towards the Global North to fill our care gap. Many employers take advantage of migrant workers’ insecure status in order to underpay them, equally sexual abuse and racism is rampant in this industry. But Spain’s labour laws also allow for care workers to legally work 60 hours a week. Despite such exploitative situations, the PP and Vox wish to see borders strengthened, deportations increased and access to social services, such as healthcare, removed for undocumented migrants; a series of policies which would only see the precarity of migrant workers intensified. Without falling into any productivist discourses it is important to note the vast contributions of migrant workers in the care industry. An end of the devaluation of care work and those who perform it (aggravated by borders) is in order to ensure workers’ rights in the care industry and better conditions for patients.

Facing the care crisis

A decade of austerity and miserable working conditions in Spain have diminished the ability to have children, and with a rapidly aging population, we are geared for a big crisis of social reproduction. Having seen the Spanish right’s repertoire of misogyny, ultra-conservatism and racism which is being given as a solution to this there is an enormous task ahead to refute these arguments and reformulate this as a problem essential to capitalism. One of the main contradictions of our economy today is the constant undermining of reproductive labour, which capitalism precisely relies on, brought by its orientation towards unlimited capital accumulation. This is both linked to the precarity found in the waged care sector and the increasing impossibility for people to support themselves and their families due to low pay, benefit cuts, longer working hours and strained public services. Any society which is based on this process is bound to be unsustainable and in a perpetual state of crisis. It is an unjust reality and a coercion of reproductive freedom that Spanish women desire more kids than they are able to have. But there is also a danger in making reproduction the crux of such politics: for starters it risks naturalizing heterosexist attitudes about the family and futurity. Equally, a pro-natalism in times of austerity and which relies on ultra-nationalist discourse, like Vox and the PP propose, handpicks which women deemed desirable to reproduce and blames them if they are unable to do so, ignoring any wider structural constraints. Any project which wishes to counter the crisis of care needs to go beyond natalism by emphasizing bodily autonomy and reproductive justice above all. Furthermore, only a massive transformation of our economic system, which understands the fundamental role of care work and centres it in its project, can alleviate the care crisis. The PP and Vox on the other hand, only wish to diminish taxes on the rich and continue with their program of austerity and precarity. And with the popularization of anti-capitalist feminist views, it is unsurprising the rich’s instinct of economic preservation and the misogynistic far-right are colliding so powerfully.

In Spain, some immediate reforms (pending revolution…) are necessary in the face of this. Amongst them, an end to the labour law reform which was approved in 2012 to supposedly counter the effects of the crisis. This reform considerably cheapened the cost of labour, made easier the dismissal of workers and vastly increased part-time employment. Such a reform not only makes life more precarious and diminishes the ability to support oneself and one’s family (if you can afford to have one, that is) but its negative effects have spread into the pensions system. Unemployment reduces the number of workers who with their taxes contribute to pensions, but even if employment grew the lowering of salaries means not enough money can go towards pensions anyways. In the care industry the labour law reform and the privatization of the public sector is having disastrous effects as well, austerity policies and the limitations on hiring workers that come with it, have meant nursing homes are vastly unattended and elders suffer inhumane conditions in them. Therefore, changing labour laws to improve working conditions is urgently in order to fund pensions but also to better workers’ quality of life. Spain is also way below the OECD average in public spending and percentage of employees in the care sector. Overall, the scrapping of the article 135 of the constitution which was amended during the crisis to prioritize debt payments over other forms of spending is necessary to increase public spending and fund quality social services. The government also needs to listen to the demands of domestic workers associations, who call for the implementation of the Convention 189 of the International Labor Organization which would grant care workers the same rights as other workers. However, this is not complete without repealing the immigration law which forces many migrant workers to undertake cheap precarious work without being unable to unionize and causes them to live separated from their families.

The situation caused by the crisis, however dire and depressing, also presents us with a powerful laboratory for experimenting with how we organize care in our society. In 2011 the Indignados opened a new cycle of social struggle in Spain, these mobilizations also featured significant elements in discussing gender relations and placing great importance in organizing the apparent mundane tasks of cooking, caring and cleaning in the “acampadas”. Regardless of how limited these temporary small-scale experiments were, they had a role in shaping the landscape of contestation in Spain. Today, Spain’s biggest social movements share their concern with the precarization of life brought by neoliberalism; amongst these we find the housing movement, the pensioners movement and, of course, the feminist movement. Such struggles contest capitalism’s assault on life, and the burdening of workers with the cost of their own social reproduction. They also stand firmly against austerity’s imperative that we need to care less, or not at all, for one another. Whilst reform is important to patch the crisis’ worst effects, a complete challenging of our economic system and the way we position care within it is urgently needed. The feminist movement then, should use its strength to knit networks with these other anti-austerity movements, to devise a strategy against the care crisis which goes beyond the dictates of capital. Ultimately the feminist movement also needs to work on building better and stronger alliances with migrant and racialized people’s organizations in Spain, for sexism and racism are two fundamental pillars of the far-right, and uniting these struggles is crucial to win the battle against it.

With the excuse of the care crisis, the right in Spain is putting the precepts of tradition, nationalism and family at the centre of its populist politics; a strategy to coerce reproductive rights, LGTBQ+ and migrant rights alike. In 2014 already, the PP attempted to reform the abortion law to take it back to the one formulated in 1985; however, it was unable to do so, as massive feminist protests shook Spain. Today, the feminist movement is stronger and bolder, and not only does it have the potential to stop the Spanish far-right, but also the possibility to formulate powerful alternatives which prioritize care over the accumulation of profits.