In the past decade we have witnessed how liberalisation and privatisation policies in Europe have led to a steady growth of unemployment and poverty, in parallel to the loss of rights and the weakening of welfare provision. At the same time, this impoverishment has caused more social intolerance, with a consequent growth of xenophobia and racism in many European countries, including Spain.
Citizen reactions were shaped in Spain through the M-15 movement, with two parallel lines of discourse: on the one hand, the building of opposition to a capitalist superstructure by fostering direct democratic mechanisms; on the other, the search for a new institutionality, through the dismantling of naturalised day to day experiences under capitalism. This was to be achieved by challenging hegemonic discourses that favour social division and by fostering social change through collective action, including civil disobedience.
The intensification of the Spanish economic crisis has led to the resurgence in media and arts of critical voices such as that of Andres Rábago, better known as El Roto, who keeps questioning austerity policies. In his role as a regular cartoonist for the Spanish newspaper El País, he has been inspiring readers for decades through his drawings. In his work, satire is used very effectively to depict current topics from a distant, critical stance that leads to a sense of absurdity and also to an intelligent pessimism regarding economic policies and other social issues. Depictions of governments as servants of capitalism, citizens as victims of war and economic cutbacks, or the environmental harm caused by unscrupulous industries seeking their own benefits, are some of the images conveyed through his cartoons during the past decades, through a very personal combination of written and iconic discourse. This iconicity is also present in his captions, through which the use of rhetorical figures such as synecdoche, parallelism, irony and antithesis challenges and provokes an estrangement effect on its audience.
El Roto has developed ‘social imaginaries’ over the years to raise awareness of market-driven economic policies and the way they have been affecting Spanish citizens. Previous studies have shown how El Roto's cartoons helped to foreground the revolutionary movements such as the Spanish 15-M. In an ongoing project we intend to find out about the evolution and consistency of these imaginaries over time, by analysing a sample of cartoons from different stages around specific dates, with 15-M protests as departure point. Using discourse and genre analytic tools, we have looked into the combination of iconic and linguistic protest narratives in El Roto’s work, focusing on three themes: the representation of neoliberal policies, the loss of social rights and welfare provision, and the opposition of citizens to austerity.
We can explore some of the preliminary outcomes of this project by showcasing some 30 cartoons that were published during the most recent Spanish general elections. The following examples demonstrate how, during this time, the three above-mentioned themes contributed to a subtle denouncement of government corruption exerted in parallel with the persistent austerity policies imposed on the Spanish people.
The basis of the social exclusion system from which only 1% of the population gain economic benefit is depicted in El Roto's January 9th, 2016 cartoon which shows two businessmen hoping citizens are not aware of this economic unbalance. The cynicism and frivolity of economic power are conveyed through this relaxed conversation.
Around a month later, on February 4th, 2016, a cartoon depicts a wealthy couple overtly ignoring the situation of poor people as something not related to their own life experiences, and even as a topic considered of bad taste. Again, frivolity and historic social divisions are expressed both through text and image mainly by the use of contrast.
A third, more abstract cartoon from March 8th, 2016, depicts a world sphere being thrown away from its support, in a metaphoric allusion to the movement of capital making the earth lose its orbit, as mentioned in the caption.
The last cartoon published on March 12th, 2016 shows a play with words used to denounce the concealing of corrupt practices by government and lawyers.
Our second group of vignettes portrays the different victims of the abusive capitalist policies enforced by the Spanish government, and the loss of social rights and welfare protection amongst the Spanish population. Either poverty or different forms of scarcity are present in all of them: for example, a December 15th, 2015 cartoon depicts two children reading while acknowledging that they do it secretly in order not to alarm their parents, as culture is a menace to the system.
A dark vignette from January 13th, 2016 takes newsreaders back to the post-war hunger experienced in Spain through an allegorical picture with ‘mother-austerity’ and an adult-child who will not be able to grow this year since, as the caption states, there is no more money.
The use of euphemistic language by power is the focus of another cartoon published on January 23rd, 2016, depicting African immigrants astonished at the fact that the word ‘poverty’ does not exist any longer, but it is instead recategorised as ‘applied economic theory’.
Even sunflowers do not follow their natural cycle, but rather follow the market fluctuation of raw materials in a March 5th, 2016 vignette which reflects the extent to which nature is manipulated to achieve economic benefits.
The third group of cartoons analysed explores the ways in which citizens challenge economic power and focuses on ordinary people’s reactions towards austerity policies. Some of the archetypes used are those of the destitute man who on January 25th, 2016 requests a new government to at least experience a different type of problems, ironically implying that problems will persist whoever is in power as the system keeps being the same; or that of an unemployed man who is ashamed of the expression ‘job creation’, since in reality it represents a euphemism for loss of labour rights.
Also interesting is the striking image of a colourfully dressed woman, published on February 29th, 2016 sitting in a cold office and thinking about the feudal character of the democracy she is part of, offering a semantic paradox which makes democracy seem just a hopeless dream.
Finally, the experience of citizens living under austerity can also be perceived in the image of two men in the street, representing health workers and pensioners, published on March 2nd, 2016. In this image these two figures are talking about how paper money is coming to an end, playing with the literal meaning of devaluation as well as the alternative double meaning of concealment through fraud, and of the financial cuts suffered by these two groups.
These type of scenarios, created day after day and published in a national newspaper, demonstrates how graphic humour is in fact graphic opinion, which in the case of El Roto turns into a clear positioning against the abusive practices of different social and political powers, depicting the social divide from different angles. As a result, a silent protest emerges from El País graphic columns, conveying a consistent message throughout days, months and years of what appears to be an endless age of austerity.
Part of the Anti-Austerity and Media Activism series.
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