A Bloodless Resurrection in Spain

Indignados on 15th May 2011

The Spanish socialist party (PSOE) has always been committed to republicanism. The nature of its republicanism has however changed. Throughout the 1930s it was radical and Marxist, fundamentally concerned with redistribution and economic structures. The republic would, in the words of PSOE leader Indalecio Prieto, make possible socialism’s ‘interior conquest’ of Spain. By the beginning of the 21st century however PSOE’s republicanism was very different. It focussed on the legal relationships between citizens rather than their economic standing. The PSOE experience can tell us much about the development of the republican tradition. Over time it became less a political movement for the people, and more an academic discourse to be adopted by politicians, often to the confusion of the people themselves. The story of Spanish republicanism is one of struggle, death and the bloodless resurrection of its bloodless namesake. It is one that can help us form our response to the current crisis of global capitalism.

Founded in 1879 PSOE first came to power, in coalition with liberal republicans, in 1931 but was frustrated in its attempts at social and constitutional reform by powerful conservative groups. The party next entered government as part of the Popular Front from 1936–39. Initially however it was deeply divided, weakening the government in the face of General Francisco Franco military putsch. After the defeat of the republic, many of its members were imprisoned or executed. Following Franco’s death in 1974 the party re-emerged supporting the constitution of the new republic in 1978. In this new era, it abandoned its previous radicalism, signing the fiscally restrictive Moncloa Pacts in ’77 and officially rejecting Marxism in ’79, putting it in line with other European socialist parties. From ’82 to ’96 PSOE was the governing party. During this time it pursued the integration of Spain into the world economy and talk of socialism and republicanism was displaced by the neoliberal language of the market. In 1996 the party was voted out, just before the economy began to boom, but returned to power in 2004.

During the early 2000s republicanism began to re- emerge within the party, due in large part to its new leader Jose Zapatero. But the version of republicanism Zapatero espoused was very different to that of his pre-civil war socialist predecessors. It was a republicanism that enthroned legalism and constitutionalism over the popular will and it did so while accepting the neoliberal economic practices to which, of course, there was apparently no alternative.

In a remarkable meeting of political theory and political practice 2007 saw Princeton Professor, Philip Pettit, deliver his assessment of the performance of the PSOE government since 2004. Ten years previously, he had published Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, a seminal work that placed a ‘republican concept of liberty’ at the centre of academic political theory. It was Pettit’s republicanism Zapatero and his colleagues adopted. Pettit claimed to have unearthed a forgotten version of liberty. Unlike the modern liberal concept of non-interference, the republican concept of liberty draws on the ancient law of republican Rome and traces its descent down through the Italian city-states of the renaissance, the English civil war and French and American revolutions. It demands a legal status that says the absence of interference is not enough. Instead people should be legally protected from even the threat of such interference. The classic distinction is between the freeman and the slave. According to the liberal concept, if the slave lives her life unmolested she is free, but for a republican this is not enough: to enjoy free action on the basis of another’s indulgence is no freedom at all. The legal system should do more than enforce contracts and protect against the physical violation of property and the body. Good Republican law must be ambitious. It should attempt to limit the dominance of the powerful over the weak as much as possible.

Republican liberty was seen as a new hope for the left in an age when the old models of social democracy had been undermined and abandoned. Pettit’s republicanism did not require a commitment to pursuing economic equality, nor did it suggest a role for the state in shaping the economy. Its policy implications point towards the upgrading of legal frameworks to protect rights and status as well as a commitment to ensure social minimums, reducing the potential for domination. In this respect it can be understood as part of a general move on the left away from a commitment to economic equality. The appeal of Pettit’s work transcended the academy. While the intellectually capable Zapatero acknowledged other influences on his government, Pettit’s work held particular appeal. As José Andrés Torres Mora, one of Zapatero’s closest advisers, explained ‘Pettit provided us with the appropriate grammar to furnish our political intuitions, to express the kind of proposals and dreams we had in mind for Spain. Pettit’s republicanism has been our north star.’

Pettit’s end of term report was generally favourable. The areas in which the PSOE government did well however are revealing. There were real achievements: attempts to equalise the position of women, confronting domestic violence, introducing same sex marriage, reinforcing the independence of the state broadcaster and most strikingly providing amnesty for large numbers of illegal immigrants. All these successes used the law, as Pettit urged, to reduce the exposure of individuals to domination by others. All are to be celebrated. None of them however involved ambitious attempts to reframe the economy for the benefit of the many not the few or to fundamentally alter the economic structures that do most to expose people to arbitrary power. Despite its theoretical sophistication, the PSOE government never attempted to use the power of the republic in order to extend the concept of republican liberty as had been attempted, without the same conceptual equipment, in the 1930s.

Then the crash came and with it massive unemployment, enforced austerity, the financial blackmail of the bond markets and general despair. The extent to which Zapatero and Pettit’s methods were lacking was cruelly exposed. Pettit has gone some way to recognising this writing that, ‘the experience…is humiliating for any commentator who celebrated government success. We thought and said that things were going well but all the time there was a perfect storm in the making.’ He has sympathised with the ‘extreme outrage’ of the indignados who gathered on the Puerta del Sol on the 15th May 2011. They would go on to found the 15 M Movement, the forerunner of today’s radical left Podemos. Pettit’s diagnosis of the disease was however partial and so his cure inevitably inadequate. He wrote:

I made two serious mistakes. I was naive about the reliability of the international financial system in providing the infrastructure that would enable the government in a country like Spain to provide for its people’s economic welfare. And I failed to realize how far the country’s options for responding to a downturn of economic fortunes would be restricted by its membership in the Eurozone.

Pettit’s solution to this is basically more financial regulation and greater solidarity between European governments. They must come together to face down the skittishness of financial markets and embrace an alternative to austerity. Importantly he urges civic movements to work to re energising a discredited democracy and indeed to embrace an EU wide role contributing to the ‘democratic invigilation’ of the new financial system.

Pettit’s self-criticism is to be admired. However his responses remain wedded to a formal institutionalism that, while celebrating democracy, does little to extend it. His measures do not amount to the reassertion of democratic power over the unaccountability of the market. Regulation is important but the way in which financial institutions are structured and in whose interest they are run may require something more radical, not only civic oversight but also a measure of civic participation in their operation and some socialisation of their resources. If that sounds too radical it is worth remembering the distinction between public and private financial institutions remains blurred in a post bail out world.

As important as taking control of the economic climate provided by the financial system is, it is the local weather that gets people wet. The ways in which people experience exposure to arbitrary power is immediate and local. It is to do with the workplace and home, the poor employer and the petty landlord. So more than financial regulation is required. A reshaping of patterns of ownership and a breaking of existing structures of power is needed. Republican governments must address the things Zapatero did not. Podemos may aim to do so but their programme remains macro. Despite its appeal to youth and smartly designed manifestos it can sometimes seem nostalgic, with its old revolutionary songs that both move and embarrass its leader, Pablo Manuel Iglesias Turrión. Real change must occur on a micro level. I suspect many indignados would agree.

Zapatero’s republicanism was then a sort of ghost. It worked at the level of ideas, lacking the muscle to go into the world and remake it in the name of the republic. Then of course it seemed like there was no alternative to an acceptance of neoliberalism. Now it has become unacceptable. We can all learn from Spain. Republicanism must go beyond the realm of governance and leave the shelter of legal architecture. It must move into the places where life is lived. It must course through society and revive our frail democracies.