Spain Against Itself

On the 40th anniversary of Spain's post-dictatorship constitution, the center is wracked by crisis, the far right is on the rise, and tensions over Catalonia continue to rise.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (3L) Queen Letizia of Spain (c) and King Felipe VI of Spain (4L) attend a concert to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Spanish Constitution on December 5, 2018 in Madrid, Spain. Pablo Cuadra / Getty Images

Spain celebrates the fortieth anniversary of its constitution amid a climate of fear and instability. This document, passed by referendum on December 6, 1978, is widely described as the jewel in the crown of the transition from Franco’s dictatorship to a parliamentary monarchy; it is celebrated as the result of opposed political forces setting their differences aside in a spirit of shared consensus. This cornerstone of the nation’s institutional order can only be amended at the behest of Brussels, for the sake of disciplining the public finances.

But despite the official platitudes, Spain is far from a country reconciled with itself. Post-Franco democracy has been rattled by the impact of economic recession, austerity policies, and widespread corruption scandals. The crisis unleashed by the Catalan government’s failed bid for independence is far from over — assuming it can indeed be resolved, rather than just managed with a greater or lesser degree of tact. Making matters worse, Spain’s status as an exception to the rising tide of xenophobia in Europe is no more. Sunday’s elections in Andalusia witnessed the far-right party Vox obtain an unexpected 11 percent of the vote — its first electoral breakthrough, which allows it to end four decades of center-left Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) rule by joining a right-wing coalition.

The post-Franco order’s legitimacy has been significantly eroded over the last decade, which began with the financial crisis and has since seen the emergence of the indignados movement, Podemos, and Catalonia’s bid for independence. As a result, centrist attempts to recast the status quo have little staying power.

How, then, can one disentangle this Gordian knot? For the radical right, the answer is to slash it open by force. Vox’s platform, toward which the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and Ciudadanos (a self-styled centrist party, in practice a center-right one) are predictably gravitating, involves the suppression of regional self-government, Trump-style immigration policies, and a wholesale offensive against feminism, popularized through the now familiar combination of viral memes and mass WhatsApp messaging.

In this moment, progressive forces need to define a national, emancipatory project that offers hope to a majority of Spaniards and reverses the advancing reactionary tide. But this is a difficult task in a country with a strained national consciousness and in which progressives are inherently reluctant to engage in open displays of patriotism.

Even the end of the armed struggle in the Basque Country has not provided Spaniards with a sense of closure or national reconciliation. Rather, the continued dispute over Catalonia and the discrediting of the historic parties show that, if left unchanged, the political and institutional architecture erected around the 1978 Constitution divides rather than unites Spain.

In Search of Enemies

Until recently, it had seemed that this anniversary would be reason to celebrate. Previously a backward dictatorship in Europe’s periphery, Spain has since modernized and caught up with its neighbors in important respects. While this story of economic success was cut short by the impact of the crisis and austerity, that 2018 also witnessed the dissolution of the Basque separatist group ETA should have presented an opportunity for the Spanish establishment to re-legitimate itself, having triumphed over terrorism and rabid nationalism.

This is one of the leading morals of Patria (Fatherland), the extraordinarily successful novel by Basque author Fernando Aramburu. With over one million copies sold, thirty-to editions, and a forthcoming HBO series, the book has become an unprecedented literary phenomenon. Aramburu’s text offers an emotionally compelling portrayal of Basque families torn apart by terrorist violence, and has the merit of not shying away from the darkest episodes of the conflict — such as the security services’ recurrent use of torture against ETA militants and suspects, which an official study recently numbered in the thousands.

His book, however, also reproduces commonplace tropes about terrorism. His depiction of ETA stresses its totalitarian nature and the futility of attempting to extract political meaning from its actions — a standard line used by politicians confronting terrorists. As writer Edurne Portela points out, Patria “eases the conscience” by confirming readers’ existing prejudices and presenting a story that flatters mainstream — often termed “constitutionalist” — politicians. She and others — such as Iban Zaldua and Podemos’s Eduardo Maura — have instead sought to highlight the moral ambivalences of a society torn by violence, less reducible to a morality play, with moving but less publicized results.

The end of ETA has hardly provided a sense of closure. And its disappearance leaves Spanish democracy without a convenient public enemy, against which political parties were expected to unite irrespective of their other differences. What it does bequeath is a blueprint for flattening secessionist movements.

This was all too clear in 2017 as judges, politicians, and pundits made shrill comparisons between ETA and the pro-independence movement in Catalonia. An alarmist mood that, coupled with the effects of the conservative PP’s 2015 gag law and draconian anti-terrorist legislation, explains the rise of sentences against not just Catalan politicians, but rappers and even humorists accused of “glorifying terrorism” in their jokes and lyrics. In fact, hearings on such charges have increased fourfold since ETA gave up the armed struggle in 2011 — an ominous sign of how the Right plans to tackle social discontent.

The project, as of now, is yet to be fully realized. Whereas ETA murdered more than eight hundred Spaniards — a majority of them after the transition to democracy — Catalan protests have been remarkably peaceful. The repressive framework that got a pass in the context of a struggle against terrorism will not receive the same backing, in Spain and abroad, if it’s deployed indefinitely against a peaceful movement and even a majority of society.

From Forced Consensus to Reaction

This impasse has left Spain divided. Its judicial and political elites have hardened their stance against social unrest and tackled the Catalan crisis in an autocratic way: criminalizing pro-independence elites, pressing overblown charges against the organizers of the flawed unofficial independence referendum, and temporarily suspending Catalan self-government. At the same time, those same elites recurrently stress the importance of “consensus” as a bulwark against the country’s fratricidal past — a discourse that resorts to the ghosts of the Civil War in order to deflect any criticism of the status quo.

In practice, both impulses are harnessed through what the Economist describes as a culture of “exacerbated legalism.” As journalist Enric Juliana points out, defenders of Spain’s status quo frequently prioritize strict obedience to the rule of law over the legitimacy of democratic processes. The Constitution holds a place of honor in this regard, serving as a tablet of stone that demands allegiance rather than a shared heritage that is open to reform. A conservative and often politicized judiciary downplays the document’s potentially transformative clauses — such as the subordination of private property to its “social function” or the definition of housing as a right — and instead provides literalist interpretations of its stricter passages.

The Catalan bid for independence last year put this legalism on overdrive. Mariano Rajoy’s conservative (PP) government largely left the handling of the crisis in the hands of judges, acknowledging them as key political actors. In retrospect, this decision backfired spectacularly. Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont fled the country when he came under judicial scrutiny, but the case against him crumbled when German courts accepted to extradite him over misuse of public funds instead of “rebellion” — the judiciary’s leading charge, more appropriate for punishing failed coups d’état than the organization of an unlawful referendum.

Next, the government itself clashed with the judiciary: first its finance minister entered into dispute with the judge who oversaw  the Catalan case then the entirety of Rajoy’s team as a long-awaited ruling on the PP’s organized corruption schemes was issued. This verdict—which delivered significant jail sentences and openly questioned the prime minister’s credibility as a witness — led to a no-confidence vote in which the PSOE, Podemos, and Basque and Catalan nationalists joined forces to replace Rajoy with Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez as prime minister.

Since then, further missteps have demolished the judiciary’s image as an arbiter of social and political affairs. First came a ruling that sentenced the so-called “wolf pack” — five men accused of gang-raping a young woman in Pamplona — for sexual abuse rather than rape. The ruling, which included a strikingly sexist opinion from one of the presiding judges, caused uproar in a country where feminism is rapidly gaining ground.

Leading magistrates were also tarnished when details of a PP-PSOE agreement to renew the judiciary’s General Council, which explicitly referred to its future leader as a yes-man for the Right, were leaked to the press. Even more humiliatingly, in November the Supreme Court buckled under pressure from the financial sector, as it reversed a ruling in which it had forced banks to pay for taxes on mortgages and transferring that cost to the individual customers.

By then, however, the damage was done. The Spanish-nationalist response generated by Catalonia’s bid for independence was magnified by chauvinistic comments from Catalan nationalists themselves, including those of the region’s current president. Coupled with the notion that judges had to lead the charge where politicians were too weak to act, this mood created fertile grounds for a reactionary anti-politics. The competition between Ciudadanos and PP — now under a younger and more aggressive leadership — to outdo each other’s punitive agenda in Catalonia only fueled this fire.

This is the ecosystem in which the far-right Vox has changed its fortunes. That the party’s success is linked to Spain’s territorial tensions is exemplified in its leader, Santiago Abascal. Born in the Basque Country and a PP member during the high watermark of ETA violence, Abascal demands an authoritarian centralizing agenda to suppress Basque and Catalan nationalism, attacking all other parties for their timidity.

While Vox is exceptionally shrill on this subject, many of its statements can be considered a more direct expression of what Ciudadanos and the PP think. Abascal himself is a political insider and longtime protégé of Esperanza Aguirre, the PP Thatcherite who governed Madrid between 2003 and 2012.

Vox has tried to complement this reactionary nationalism with an assertive discourse, glorifying the Reconquista and Spain’s imperial past. This is particularly grounded in the work of revisionist historian María Elvira Roca Barea, whose 2016 book Imperiofobia — literally “phobia of empire,” a concept she unpersuasively defines as the prejudice that subaltern peoples project onto colonial rulers — has been a bestseller, in spite of its glaring methodological flaws. Revisionism is not, however, circumscribed to the far right. Ciudadanos championed the book ever since its publication, and even the Socialist foreign affairs minister Josep Borrell has recommended it.

Where Vox departs from the rest of the Right is in its defense of the likes of Trump and Bolsonaro, its dog whistles against Soros and globalism, and its crusade to crush what Abascal calls “gender ideology.” This latter impulse suggests Vox is a squarely conservative party, following Corey Robin’s conceptualization of conservatism as an ideology of loss. Because a transformative brand of feminism is on the rise in Spain, however, Abascal’s misogyny is now coated with a transgressive varnish. Regardless, his economic program genuflects to a different kind of political correctness. Unlike welfare chauvinist parties like France’s Front National, Vox’s economic proposals amount to little other than massive tax breaks tailored to the 1 percent.

This is perhaps the main obstacle Vox faces. While there are worrying signs that it is attempting to make inroads among working-class constituencies, the bulk of its base is composed of wealthy conservatives. The Andalusian results, in fact, mirror those of the United States in 2016: an unpopular, self-indulgent, and centrist frontrunner receiving a stinging defeat in large measure due to low turnout. In any case, Vox does not need to outperform the PP and Ciudadanos so much as to make both gravitate towards its agenda.

In this respect the far right has been extremely successful. The chances of establishing a cordon sanitaire around Vox, as French parties — including center-right ones — do to the FN seems slim in Spain, which never enjoyed an antifascist consensus as a foundational episode of its democracy. The main beneficiary of this alliance is former president José María Aznar, a hard-right neoconservative who maintains close ties with the leaders of all three of Spain’s right-wing parties, as well as his US counterparts.

Towards an Emancipatory Spain

Few emotions condition the political imagination as much as hope and fear, and none are as fickle. Spain today is a case in point: PSOE premier Sánchez’s arrival, only six months ago, unleashed a wave of euphoria across the country. The nomination of a majority-female cabinet, the welcoming of refugees stranded in the Mediterranean, and the decision to exhume Franco’s corpse raised hopes that the new government would embody some of Spain’s best aspirations.

Spain, following in the footsteps of Portugal, could set itself up as a beacon for European countries otherwise forced into a false choice between progressive neoliberalism and xenophobia. An “Iberian exception” of this sort would become a genuine source of pride for citizens who have endured a crushing decade of de-democratization. Such enthusiasm was often greater among Podemos supporters than the PSOE’s own cadres and elites, many of them still lukewarm towards Sánchez.

This project, which began to take shape with a Podemos-influenced budget to reverse the damage inflicted by eight years of austerity, has crumbled swiftly. The disregard toward the Catalan nationalists, whose leading concern amounts to generating tensions with Madrid in advance of the trial of their own jailed leaders, has allowed the budget to languish and the government to consider extending the one it inherited from the PP — a move that Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, possibly the budget’s most proactive negotiator, views as unacceptable.

Sánchez, too, has lost initiative after two scandal-ridden ministers were forced to resign, and is dragging his feet on the question of migrant reception, on which his government had promised to stand its ground. Meanwhile, the emergence of Vox has shattered the hypothesis of Iberian exceptionalism — Portugal is now alone in rejecting the far right.

Perhaps more troubling, European institutions have reacted tepidly to the government’s budget proposal, in spite of the fact that it does not break with the existing austerity paradigm. While Portugal has been granted an attempt to square the circle of debt reduction and inclusive policies, the Spanish economy appears to be too large for EU institutions to allow even such a modest compromise. This is a blinkered approach given that after Brexit and Italy’s Euroskeptic drift Spain has become the third most important country upholding the European project. If the PSOE’s 2010 turn to austerity can be taken as a foretaste of what will happen now, it will not likely respond by defending its ground.

Podemos has been more active in its search of an inspiring project for the country — a choice that owes much to the party’s populist roots. Yet its approach to the national question remains hesitant and contradictory. A case in point was its leadership’s recent refusal to consider commemorating Spain’s national day, even in an alternative or critical way, and claiming they would rather express their “patriotism” by reaching a good budgetary deal — an achievement that, in spite of its merits, is unlikely to generate the sort of affects that Podemos once mobilized so aptly.

Recently, Iglesias’s leading national proposal has become the call to make Spain a parliamentary republic. This move is based on polling that reflects an erosion of the popularity of the monarchy, a fact underscored in the results of a series of informal referendums held across Spain. It also avoids coming across as unadulterated nostalgia for the Second Republic, which Franco crushed.

Nevertheless, the initiative speaks to the traditional, identitarian demands of the Spanish left, which Podemos once rejected as hopelessly nostalgic and self-referential. In this regard, it seems a logical conclusion of the second Vistalegre congress, which effectively turned Podemos into a more traditional party of the Left. It is also unclear to what extent Iglesias is ready to push for a reform of this sort, which would consume extraordinary amounts of political capital. In the past, he simply did not see the issue as a priority.

Philosopher Clara Ramas has argued for a “democratic patriotism” that draws on progressive trends that are already present in Spanish society. Indeed, the country today leads European polls on a number of indicators of citizens’ progressive mores, including issues like openness to refugees, rejecting Trump, and valuing LGBT rights. Feminism, in spite of the current backlash, has become a hegemonic force that even conservative parties and establishment figures must reckon with.

While it constitutes a greater challenge, regional diversity must also be resignified as a source of pride. As Juan Rodríguez Teruel points out, Vox’s intolerance springs not from xenophobia as much as “from fear and loathing of what we ourselves are. Fear of our own diversity.” A powerful argument for progressives to marshal is that the Right, in spite of its nationalist rhetoric, is incapable of reconciling itself with the true nature of a country that is not reducible to its stale imagination.

These constitute the building blocks of a national project that becomes, in Íñigo Errejón’s words, geared toward a common future instead of a glorious past. But the country’s history can also provide sources of inspiration. As Podemos senator Óscar Guardingo has argued, there is no shortage of figures and movements that exemplified popular struggles against the country’s oligarchy throughout its history. They should be taken as sources of inspiration for an emancipatory national project and make the country proud of a radical, inclusive heritage.

There is still time to act. Doing so demands moving beyond the terrain where Podemos has allowed itself to become ossified and complacent: dismissing conservatives as fascists and sticking to reflexive calls against racism and sexism that, while necessary, have little reach beyond the Left’s traditional niches of support.

A strategy of contention is insufficient to defeat the coming reactionaries; they must be vanquished where they claim to be strongest. In Spain, the solution begins with countering the reactionaries’ barren, exclusionary conception of the nation. We must instead promote a different order that offers protection, community, freedom, and solidarity in a time of uncertainty.