Spain’s uncertain democracy, built from the ruins of the dictatorship, is finally beginning to collapse.
A massive crypt penetrates the guts of the Guadarrama Mountains near Madrid. On the bare rock hill that is the basilica’s roof sits a 150-meter tall cross, the biggest in all of Christendom. These massive structures serve as the funerary monument for Francisco Franco Bahamonde, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, and more than thirty thousand others who died on both sides of the Spanish Civil War.
The Monumento de los Caídos (“the monument of the fallen”), built by republican, anarchist, and communist prisoners of the dictatorship, represents, for many, the height of Francoism. The cave’s megalomaniacal size, dedicated to death and suffering, certainly creates a horrifying image.
At the same time, however, the monument offers a sanitized version of Franco’s dictatorship: it seems to unambiguously define and therefore exorcise his regime’s evil. For Spanish (and Catalan) liberals, Francoism is the dark past, happily left behind when democracy arrived. For the extreme left, however, democracy only continued dictatorship by other means.
Spanish liberals have devoted seventy years to fighting what has become a scarecrow: against the specter of totalitarianism, they supported a model of nation-building established by countries north of the Pyrenees: increased consumption, expanded civil rights, and a robust welfare state. Since the 2007–8 crisis, however, it has been increasingly impossible to sustain this structure. As it finally passes away, Spain can complete its transition out of dictatorship and, perhaps, toward real democracy.
Manuel Fraga, the father of the post-Franco right, had savvy political instincts. He adapted the term “sociological Francoism” from Amando De Miguel and used it to rescue certain aspects of the regime after the dictator’s death. He argued that Francoism’s sociological character wasn’t inherently totalitarian; on the contrary, it was egalitarian, as evidenced by the economic gains the dictatorship made. Fraga highlighted social satisfaction with the transformations the regime had enacted.
The Francoist elite loved to point to the dictatorship’s big achievement: for the first time in Spain’s history, inequality eased into social equilibrium. Unlike Portugal, Spain had built a large middle class like those in central European countries.
To be sure, this wasn’t just propaganda: between the mid-fifties and 1975 — the year of Franco’s death — Spain changed from a massively agrarian country to a midsize economic power. The four million peasants and day laborers became just one million by the end of the seventies. Access to higher education also increased — university degrees rose sixfold — and urban, service-sector workers began to outnumber industrial workers. Home ownership — with all the mass-consumption gadgets — spread.
Fraga called this satisfied society the “natural majority” of the country. From the end of the 1960s, he tried to make Francoist institutions more compatible with this new reality.
Fraga was the first and the main theoretician of Spanish transition. In 1972, when the highest cadres couldn’t imagine how to modernize and fell back on worn-out technocratic development schemes, Fraga published Political Development. The book established the contours of his political reform project: a moderate democracy, similar to the United Kingdom — he was serving as ambassador in London while writing — but primarily inspired by the period of Spanish history known as the Restoration, which followed the turbulent Sexenio Revolucionario and reestablished monarchal control of the country.
Fraga believed that Francoism should evolve by building a democratic system capable of recognizing the moderate opposition sectors. He undoubtedly imagined that a broad social-democratic party would alternate in government with the Francoist party. This system would leave the dictatorship’s legacy intact.
Fraga realized that Spanish society wouldn’t accept a quiet transition. “Political Francoism” — with its unending authoritarian gestures and its half-military, half-technocratic spirit — couldn’t easily transform into “sociological Francoism.” It needed a counterbalance, which Fraga found in the more moderate left-wing opposition.
Appointed home affairs minister in February 1975, Fraga had to immediately face a massive strike wave giving him the chance to lead the reform efforts.
Between the end of 1974 and the spring of 1975, industrial actions raged from Vitoria to Madrid, from Barcelona to Seville, motivated by a wage freeze imposed the same month Franco died. These protests mostly followed a model established in 1962. That year, a strike in the Asturian mining basins spread to the country’s main industrial centers. Comisiones Obreras — workers commissions (CCOO) — that practiced assembly-based syndicalism organized this nationwide revolt.
After Franco’s death, striking workers called for more than labor reform: they wanted a full stop to the dictatorship’s policies, often threatening a general strike to achieve their goals. In the first weeks of 1976, this developed into coordinated wildcat strikes, frightening the political classes. Perhaps the Communist Party of Spain (PCE) was the most scared; this exemplary opposition party could not control the new labor movement, its presumed base.
When it could, the PCE tried to give workers economic rather than political solutions. In Madrid, it succeeded, convincing more than 350,000 strikers to return to work. The action had completely paralyzed the city from January 6 to 21, interrupting the PCE’s attempts to ally with the Francoist parties. The Communists’ veteran secretary general, Santiago Carrillo, wanted to meet with the Spanish oligarchy’s elite — the king’s delegates, businessmen, and highly ranked civil servants. His deal with the reformist bourgeoisie was perfectly captured in the slogan “the alliance of the forces of culture and labor.”
But the movement couldn’t always be controlled. When the government couldn’t appease workers’ assemblies with strictly labor-related policies, it had no choice but to violently repress them.
After two months of uninterrupted conflict near Vitoria, the police opened fire on the six thousand-person assembly that was about to vote on the strike’s continuation. Five were killed and a hundred wounded. Fraga, ultimately responsible for the massacre, spoke with clarity: “We cannot afford a Vitoria soviet.” His number two, the shadowy and chameleonlike Rodolfo Martin Villa, said he was “more scared of Cornellá [a working-class district of Barcelona] than of ETA [the Basque separatist movement].” The dictatorship’s party recognized that its problems came from an uncontrollable labor movement, not an armed group that, at the end of the day, could be managed through state power.
The 1976 winter strikes, more than any other deal or secret meeting, changed the transition’s direction. The choleric Fraga saw how his image as Francoist reformist had been tarnished, and he had to concede this terrain to an ambitious and unqualified young politician, Adolfo Suárez. Behind Adolfo Suárez, however, sat another dinosaur of the dictatorship — Torcuato Fernández Miranda, who authored the political reform that was submitted to popular vote in December 1976.
The strikes taught the Left something, too. The PCE was confronted with a movement that would not cede power or accept the party’s strategy. From that moment on, the Communists decided to guarantee moderation and agreement in the face of a working-class hydra it never understood.
After the strikes, the PCE’s slogan changed from “democratic rupture” to an oxymoron: “agreed rupture.” Meanwhile, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), then in a process of reconstruction, was mainly concerned with outperforming the Communists in the coming elections. With almost no presence among the working classes, the PSOE didn’t have to cope with rank-and-file militancy. They deployed radical rhetoric cribbed from academic anti-Francoism and devoted themselves to electoral marketing. They did well in the 1977 elections, getting 30 percent to the PCE’s 10 percent.
The strikes that winter provided the Francoist reformers and the liberal opposition common ground. They needed to consolidate political power in the face of uncontrolled social mobilization.
This disorder took economic form as inflation. In 1976, prices rose more than 26 percent. The 1973 spike in oil prices certainly contributed, but the war capitalists launched against wages had far more impact. From 1970–71, factory strikes achieved nominal pay increases of 20, 30, 40 and even 50 percent yearly. In six years, wages had absorbed all the growth of an economy then expanding at 7 percent, adding almost ten points to wage share in relation to national income. In political terms, the need to contain salaries became an urgent call for a social contract.
Thus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the first great pact of democratic Spain, signed by all the major parties, wasn’t political but economic. In October 1977, barely a month after the elections, the Moncloa agreements were signed. This pact was the Spanish version of inflation-control and rent policies — that is, the attack on working-class wages — that formally opened European neoliberalism. The PSOE and PCE both agreed that recovering private business profit would fuel economic recovery, despite decreasing workers’ living standards.
It took almost three years to reestablish factory discipline. In that period, new trade unions — mainly The General Workers’ Union (UGT) and the CCOO — were institutionalized, explicitly charged with guaranteeing these agreements and liquidating the former assembly spirit. Meanwhile, a new deindustrialization policy pushed unemployment from practically zero to two million people in 1980.
It would be no exaggeration to say that the fear of the working class motivated these changes. The economic strategy was oriented toward the financial and real estate sectors, grounding Spanish democracy in the middle classes that were Franco’s legacy, rather than in the labor movement’s demands.
A New Order
In December 1978, with the well-known exceptions in Basque Country, Spain voted yes to the new constitution. The political regime would resemble other European democracies: political and civil rights, free elections, and even a timid attempt at a welfare state. In those months, the myth of the transition was forged: a responsible and moderated citizenry would follow a judicious political class led by a handful of notable figures — Suárez, Carrillo, the king, and Fraga himself — who knew how to build consensus and navigate a complex situation.
But the transition still had a long way to go. In 1978–79, a new wave of strikes began. Between Franco’s death and 1982, police forces and terrorist groups on both sides of the political spectrum killed more than one thousand people.
In fact, it took the attempted coup, on February 23, 1981, to solidify the new political order. These events deserve a more nuanced and in-depth reading, but they showed that, on the one hand, the military party could still surprise the ruling elite, and, on the other, that the connections between the economic oligarchy and the political class (on all sides) had completely narrowed. Suárez’s resignation, which precipitated the coup, perfectly exemplifies this: “I don’t want the democratic system of coexistence to turn once again into a parenthesis in the history of Spain.” Labor conflicts were still running high and capitalists demanded a stronger government capable of controlling the labor market.
The transition wore down the parties that had assumed control. The PCE paid the highest price. Just like other European Communist parties, it lost itself between the Scylla of internal Stalinism and the Charybdis of maintaining labor peace. Perhaps the old, anti-Francoist PCE really died in 1976 when its leaders returned from exile. Buts its death certificate didn’t appear until the 1982 elections when it lost nineteen parliamentary seats, earning only 4 percent of the vote.
Fraga, the reform’s key strategist, was displaced by the Suárez generation. He then reorganized the dictatorship’s political remains — in his own words, he civilized them — into the People’s Alliance, the party of the Spanish right. After several transformations, it would become the current Popular Party (PP).
Suárez, the big winner of the 1977 elections, made a competing party in his own image. The Union of the Democratic Center (UCD) united many Francoists and the more moderate parts of the opposition. Suárez effectively occupied the center. But as the People’s Alliance shed its association with Franco and the PSOE tempered its radical rhetoric, the space for Suárez’s centrism narrowed. Internal divisions forced his resignation as prime minister, and the UCD split: the social democrats ended up in the PSOE, and the liberals and Democratic Christians found shelter under Fraga’s umbrella.
The PSOE had its own internal crisis, which played out with all the possible theatricality of a Mediterranean country. With Felipe González and Alfonso Guerra in charge, the party prepared itself to govern. It verticalized, it abandoned Marxism, and it adapted its discourse to confront the UCD. It took until 1982 to arrive in government, when it achieved an absolute majority. When the socialists ascended to government, the transition was deemed finished.
The old Fraga program could never have achieved this; it needed the appearance of some form of change to convince the Spanish people that they had moved past the years of dictatorship.
The PSOE stayed in power for thirteen years and returned in 2004 for another eight. No other party has governed Spain for so long, and no other party can be so identified with Spanish democracy.
The PSOE, not the post-Francoist right, wrote the narrative of transition. It arrived in power with a discourse of social and cultural modernization, hoping to enter the European Union. Separated from its historical identity, the party became the political and cultural expression of moderate, middle-class anti-Francoism.
It didn’t require political mediation: its cadres sprang from the expanding number of university graduates, a new professional class that felt qualified to govern the country. This was the source of the party’s success, but also the opposition from the older generations of Francoist elites and the young people who would never enjoy their parents’ opportunities. PSOE represented modern democracy by and for the middle classes.
The paradox of the Socialists’ victory is that it had to project the image of progress while hiding a good deal of social suffering. The 1980s brought intense and asymmetrical change.
By 1986, the country had lost almost a million and a half industrial jobs. The major unions clung to collective bargaining while approximately a thousand wildcat strikes against deindustrialization broke out. The new political and union bureaucracies isolated these protests, and the working class lost the last of its power by the late eighties. From then on, labor conflicts became corporate conflicts, and working-class neighborhoods fell to mass unemployment and addiction. This landscape reappears all over the world.
In contrast, the middle class experienced consolidation then expansion in this same period, founded on massive social spending. Under Franco, public expense never rose above 15 percent. In the fifteen years between the transition government and the end of the second socialist term, it rocketed to 35 percent. A good deal of that went to education, health, and housing, the cost of social peace. The rest built up state bureaucracy. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were created in education, health, and the government. The state served as an umbrella for a protected segment of the Spanish labor force, well insulated from the Spanish economy’s rapid deindustrialization.
At the same time, Spain transformed to fit into the new frame of financial globalization, aided by joining the European Economic Community. The two major post-Franco growth cycles — from 1986–1991 and from 1995–2007 — were sparked by excess capital flowing into real estate and financial markets followed by huge expansions of consumer credit. In both periods, homes became trampolines for wealth and consumption, despite the almost continual wage stagnation.
This somewhat unorthodox growth model, perfectly adapted to financial globalization and to the growing importance of tourism and real estate industries, allowed the new regime to function with a remarkable degree of success. For twenty-five years —seventeen of which were under socialist rule — the political equilibrium established during the transition functioned fairly smoothly: The economy grew faster than in surrounding European countries, and in some sectors, exceeded European averages; political parties easily achieved consensus thanks to symbolic, rather than material, differences between the right and left. Beyond this, there was only a defeated extreme left and the ETA’s terrorism: these formations served as a warning for anyone who wanted to go past the constitution.
Spanish society, centered around the middle class’s democratizing image, passed through the period with minor internal tensions. The image of an ownership society rising to European standards of consumption through credit, however, kept people complacent. Materially, this was sustained by the expansion of female labor — which, although fairly precarious, contributed to household incomes — and, more importantly, by the arrival of about five million migrant workers, who survived on low wages thanks to access to low-cost social services created for the self-satisfied middle classes.
May 15, 2011
This architecture began to unravel in 2007, built, as it was, on unstable foundations. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which established the euro, fueled the last Spanish growth cycle and marked a turning point for the middle classes. The European Union’s public expenditure and inflation controls, combined with new rounds of economic liberalization, hollowed out competition, particularly for smaller member states. In Spain, social expenditure came to an abrupt halt in 1996, when the Popular Party arrived in government.
At the same time, the public sector was hit with new externalization and outsourcing policies, similar to those used in the private sector. The slow precarization of white-collar jobs added to what was possibly the largest level of over-qualification in Europe. The Spanish economy could only provide jobs for about half of the eight million college graduates.
The 1995–2007 real estate cycle did create seven million jobs in tourism, construction, and business services. But these were precarious and underpaid; few workers stayed in them long. While the Spanish middle classes were testing the waters of a world governed by money capital, the state could no longer come to their rescue. This gap was experienced in generational terms, as middle-class children couldn’t meet their parents’ economic expectations.
For a while, the incredible expansion of both old and new homes masked these effects. In 2007, 87 percent of the population owned at least one home. In strictly nominal terms, families were three times richer than in 1995. The feeling of wealth relegated the younger generations’ poverty to a secondary place. But when state-sponsored financial crutches disappeared, the economic crisis became the profound crisis of Spanish social formation.
For low-income households that had taken on mortgages to buy their homes, this literally meant ruin. The five million unemployed — out of a labor force of twenty-four million — further depressed home prices, leaving over a million people homeless weighted down by mortgage debts that the Spanish legislation wouldn’t cancel even after foreclosure. It is hardly surprising that anti-eviction protests, which brought together tens of thousands of people, soon became the main social movement.
In addition, beginning in 2010, European austerity diktats left the state without resources to face the crisis. Tens of thousands of public teachers, doctors, nurses, and government workers were fired. The ever-weak Spanish welfare state seemed to collapse in only a few years.
The May 15, 2011 explosion was a reaction against financial dictatorship, against the Spanish political class, and against the emptying out of Spanish democracy. But it came from a particular social place can only be understood in the context of a massive regime crisis, of which the failed transition was one of its main elements.
Those who led protests in the squares and would later lead Podemos to victory in Madrid, Barcelona, and Zaragoza were the sons and daughters of white-collar professionals, journalists, and even the political class: the progressively declassed children of the middle classes. The elite backgrounds of this relatively small segment of the population guaranteed its success. At the end of the day, they served as a mirror in which the social majority saw the decimation of its collective assets. The mainstream media couldn’t help but speak in sympathetic terms about all those postgraduates, unemployed or earning subsistence wages or leaving the country to find work.
15M was the visible demonstration of the breakup of Spanish society. The evident failure of an aging political class, shaken by neverending corruption scandals, demanded a revision of the history of transition and of the political equilibrium that sustained Spanish democracy for three decades. The appearance of Podemos, and the total disruption of the Spanish political party system, seems to demonstrate that this challenge has been more than superficial.
After almost ten years of crisis, we find ourselves in a singular time, less at the end of a political cycle than at the beginning of something completely new. Voters’ ambivalence to what is known as “new politics” — which includes Podemos but also other forces of change — perhaps reveals that we live in an unhealthy time. Such ambiguity appears as the swinging between two poles: from one side, the movements that surged in 2011 have opened a field of political experimentation and constituted new political subjects and new forms of democracy; from the other, a good number fall into nostalgia for the good old days of Spanish democracy. This desire to restore the social contract by and for a middle class — now out of reach — comes with a need to restore the normality of institutional politics.
No matter what the result, we can be sure that this new crisis has swept away the sociological Francoism on which Fraga founded Spanish democracy. The transition has finally ended.