Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that the state is fundamentally a committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie. This notion of the state as the administrative expression of that class’s economic interests doubtless responded to the historical reality of the time. Later, in one of his most influential texts, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx would distinguish between political power (which he identified with the state) and economic power. Not even the conquest of political power ensured domination over economic power.
With the development of Europe’s welfare states in the second half of the twentieth century, many Marxists began to understand that the state, while retaining many of its traditional administrative and political functions, was also a terrain of political combat. Nicos Poulantzas obviously stands out among these. For the Greek theorist, the political successes of the Italian workers’ movement, as crystallized in the 1970 Workers’ Statute, were proof that the state and the law were one of the terrains of class struggle and working-class advance. The statute achieved in Italy strengthened the trade unions in the factories, prohibited dismissal without just cause, and guaranteed freedom of assembly. The state appeared, in fact, not only as a terrain of class struggle just as important as or even more important than the factory, but also as a strategic political field.
The emergence of neoliberalism only confirmed the paradox. Faced with the offensive waged by economic powers attached to neoliberalism, workers found tools of political resistance in postwar constitutions and the labor law enacted by welfare states.
The Spanish State
What I have just told you is a political ABC that should be ingrained in the strategic reflection and tactical praxis of any political actor on the Left. This is evident in the case of the Catalan and Basque independence movements, although today the key to the debate between [Catalonia’s biggest pro-independence parties] Esquerra Republicana and Junts per Catalunya (Junts) is precisely how to approach the relationship-dialogue with the state. Paradoxically, Junts, the heir to [the center-right, Catalan-nationalist] Convergència i Unió is the one currently upholding a maximalist position. In the case of the Basque independentists, there has also been a pragmatic evolution in recent years — undoubtedly a consequence of a historical experience that has dealt a tough lesson in what it means to confront the state.
But even among the rest of the Left, including governing forces such as Unidas Podemos, the state continues to be perceived as something alien. This perception is logical given the history of our state, which dates back much longer than the history of our democracy. The failure to ideologically impose a single nation throughout the entire territory has been offset by the strength of a state that was able to impose a central administration. This today coexists with the autonomous administrations [in Spain’s regions and minority nations], but enjoys a clear hierarchical and jurisdictional superiority over them.
The crisis of the “two plus two” party system bequeathed by the post-Franco transition — the right-wing Partido Popular and the center-left PSOE, but also the Basque and Catalan nationalists — has made clear which two great forces the Spanish right and far right rely on. The first has to do with the media power structure that gives the conservative and far-right media based in Madrid absolute dominance of the media ecosystem across the country as a whole. Only Catalonia and the Basque Country have different media ecosystems (though not necessarily left-wing ones). It is precisely the existence of these different media ecosystems that allowed Catalan independence to advance its ideological positions to the point where almost half of Catalonia’s voters wanted independence, and a significant majority supported the right to decide.
In the Basque case, the two leading political forces are the Basque Nationalist Party (Partido Nacionalista Vasco, PNV) and Euskal Herria Bildu (EH Bildu). In the last decade, the only force with partners across Spain as a whole, able to challenge these parties’ electoral hegemony (and only in two general elections out of the five held since 2011), was Elkarrekin Podemos. However, winning cultural, ideological, and electoral battles is something very different from a movement in society finding its expression in the state. On the contrary, the emergence of Unidas Podemos and its arrival in government — as well as the cultural and institutional advance of independentism, and its wager on a clash with the state — have had the effect of making the Right’s cultural and ideological domination of the state more visible than ever.
The state spoke on October 3, 2017 [with King Felipe VI’s televised address declaring Catalonia’s government “outside the law and democracy,” following its unofficial referendum on independence]; and it spoke more to the judges than to the country. Faced with what they have, from the outset, defined as an “illegitimate government,” the strategy of the Right and the far right has been to push the state against the PSOE–Unidas Podemos coalition government. Partido Popular leader Pablo Casado even went so far as to say: “We Spaniards voted for Felipe VI, but not for Garzón and Iglesias.” Behind the apparent stupidity of this line lies what the Right actually thinks: The king supposedly has a legitimacy prior to and superior to that of any elected MP.
For this very reason, the Right and the far right do not believe that the legitimacy of the body that governs judges comes from Parliament. Rather, in a sui generis interpretation of Montesquieu, they understand this as a purely autonomous entity. And they think the same of the Constitutional Court, which they consider a political body whose function it is to correct, even preemptively, the decisions made by parliaments. And here we are not only talking about the decisions of the Catalan Parliament. The fact that the Constitutional Court has ruled against the state of emergency, even in the context of an unprecedented pandemic, reveals the spirit of certain soldiers of the state.
As Pedro Vallín writes in his forthcoming book (in my opinion the best thing that has been written about what has happened in Spanish politics in recent years), the origins of the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ) have to do with the democratic determination to control a largely pro-Franco judiciary. Since the judges from the dictatorship era were not purged, it made some sense to at least monitor their lack of commitment to the new rules of democracy. In a sentence shocking in its raw truthfulness, Vallín says that “the tensions between Congress and the CGPJ are an expression of a struggle between the popular will and the self-defensive formalism of the deep state.”
It is today widely recognized that the main difference between the Spanish far right and this political family elsewhere in Europe is its purely reactionary response to the Catalan independence movement and its scant interest, so far, in class issues.
There is, however, another difference that is rather less discussed: namely, that in Spain the far right builds its web of political cadres among high-ranking state officials, army officers, and policemen. Among Vox’s leaders and public officials — beyond the immaculate CV of its leader or the dubious qualifications of some of its members — there are judges, state lawyers, reserve military commanders, professors. . . People who, despite their neoliberal phraseology, have always been paid from the public purse and have the mindset of state functionaries.
Given the resources of the Right and the far right — in the economy, in the media, and among the state’s own functionaries — it is not difficult to imagine a process of democratic involution in Spain, in the style of Poland or Hungary, if the Partido Popular and Vox do make it to forming a cabinet. It is often forgotten that the main lesson of the Weimar Republic and pre-fascist Italy and Spain is that it was the Right that paved the way for fascism. There would have been no Adolf Hitler without Paul von Hindenburg and Franz von Papen, no Benito Mussolini without the Italian monarchists, no Franco without the Catholic Church.
Faced with this scenario, the Left must understand that in a conflict between politics and the state, only the state can win. For it is in the state that the outcome of the conflict itself crystallizes. That is why the different left-wing forces who historically identified the state as something whose external character constitutes their own identity must instead recognize it as a strategic field. In a parliament in which the PSOE has no alternative allies, these left-wing forces must make their unprecedented tactical advantage more effective and push for democratic reforms in the state. But there is also a need for a longer-term awareness of the importance of having other people in this strategic field. It is true that access by competitive examination to the ranks of judges and prosecutors, to the diplomatic corps, and so on includes a series of class barriers. But another barrier, just as potent, is the historical lack of interest in these roles on the part of broad sectors of the Left.
If only there were a progressive school of state that would train young people in democratic values and give them scholarships. Then, it wouldn’t always be the same people occupying the most important strategic positions.