The authoritarian Spanish nationalism of Pedro Sánchez

On Tuesday, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said the immortal words, sure to seal his fate: a vote for Sánchez was a vote for “strong and stable” government.

Sánchez has more than just rhetoric in common with Theresa May. Like the former British prime minister, he called an election in the belief that it would strengthen his grip on power in resolving a national crisis, but will almost certainly end up well short of a majority. He also shares May’s strategy, seeking to appease forces to his right by moving further and further in that direction. And with no end to the Catalan crisis in sight and an economic crisis in the post, Sánchez may well end up at the head of a government that is as “strong and stable” as Theresa’s.

nchez’ plan for “coexistence”

Spain’s fourth election in four years has been dominated by the Catalan independence crisis, though according to Sánchez, you shouldn’t call it that. During the pre-election TV debate on Monday, the leader of PSOE said, “the crisis in Catalonia is not an independence crisis, it is a crisis of coexistence”.

Sánchez would restore confidence in “coexistence” in three ways:

  1. “Education in civil, constitutional and ethical values”. If the Catalans want independence, they need to be re-educated out of it!
  2. “Modify the general audiovisual Law”. Or in plain language, suppress the distribution of pro-independence information. Sánchez has not even waited until the election before acting on this one. On Tuesday his government passed by Royal Decree a new law giving it the power to seize any telecoms infrastructure deemed “a grave public disturbance” without judicial review. The ‘Decree Law’, in many ways similar to the post 9/11 Patriot Act of George W. Bush, is limited only by the government’s “clear interest in proportionality”, which can clearly be defined whichever way the government wishes.
  3. “A new crime to prohibit the holding of illegal referendums”. In other words, ratcheting up the judicial repression of democracy.

If these sounds like the policies of a hard-right authoritarian regime, that’s because they are.

But there’s more. During the debate Sánchez also vowed to extradite former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont. Asked afterwards how he could do this given the judiciary is supposed to be independent, he said: “Who does the prosecutor answer to?’ The interviewer replied: “To the government.” Sánchez: “Then, that’s it.” Spain’s Prosecutor Association had to issue a statement on Wednesday reminding Sánchez of the need to keep-up appearances.

Remember, Sánchez represents the left of Spanish nationalism. But when your starting point is to accept “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation”, as it states in the constitution, then under the pressure of a democratic challenge to that position, your nationalism is always likely to slide rightwards pretty fast.

The nationalism of the state: from banal to authoritarian

Of course Sánchez would reject the term Spanish nationalist. To Sánchez, the nationalists wave Catalan flags; his politics are its antithesis. But when your commitment to the Spanish nation-state and its constitution above all other concerns is so transparent, what else could we possibly call it?

Social psychologist Michael Bilig coined a term that’s useful in helping us conceptualise the every-day nationalism which reproduces allegiance to the state: “banal nationalism”.

The dominant use of nationalism was “misleading”, Bilig found, because it “always seems to locate nationalism on the periphery” and “overlooks the nationalism of the West’s nation-states”.

Banal nationalism is so hegemonic in normal times that it is largely unnoticed, while being constantly reinforced.

“Daily, the nation is indicated, or ‘flagged’, in the lives of its citizenry,” Bilig argues. “Nationalism, far from being an intermittent mood in established nations, is the endemic condition…The metonymic image of banal nationalism is not a flag which is being consciously waved with fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed on the public building.”

Sánchez desires to be a banal nationalist; his viscerally ideological commitment to the nation-state unseen, unquestioned. But under the strain of the Catalans’ challenge to the authority of the Spanish state, Sánchez’ Spanish nationalism reveals itself as not so banal after all, and more belligerently nationalistic than the Catalan nationalism he condemns.

Spain’s weak ‘transition’

Authoritarian Spanish nationalism did not fall out of a clear blue sky. Indeed, from the perspective of the Basques, who have been on the receiving end of judicial repression and police brutality for decades, the treatment meted out to the Catalans is more continuation than rupture with the post-Franco Spanish state.

The character of Spain’s ‘transition’ following fascist dictator Francisco Franco’s death in 1975 was one that kept much of the institutional integrity of his rule in place. That legacy has left various problems unresolved, including systemic political corruption, economic oligarchy and a sclerotic civil service. But most pertinently to the current crisis is the legacy of a highly politicised judiciary, a vicious and large police force and a repressive political culture, dominated by a small establishment class of two parties, PSOE and PP.

David Whyte and Ignasi Bernat believe it to be the “the legal apparatuses of the state” left-over from the Franco era which is the unique characteristic of Spanish nationalism.

“What marks out Spanish nationalism is the extent to which principles of Spanish unity are enforced, without mercy, by the legal apparatuses of the state. There is a deep residual nationalism at the heart of the Spanish state which has its roots in the Franco period, and has never been adequately purged after the dictatorship,” they write.

It’s not hard to find evidence of this, and usually operates under the not-so subtle guise of “terrorism” offences. TsunamiDemocratić, which has led recent Catalan independence protests, has been hit by trumped up “terrorism” charges from the Spanish National Court in recent weeks.

This tactic of the Spanish state has been honed over many years in the Basque Country’s ETA era. Despite ETA officially dissolving last year, the Spanish state won’t let it go, so useful was it as a cover for generalised repressive measures.

This reached the theatre of the absurd in the case of the Altsasu incident, where eight young Basque people involved in a bar fight with two off-duty Guardia Civil officers was described as a “terrorist attack” by the public prosecutor, who called for sentences of between 12 and 62 years. The National Court dismissed the terrorism charge, but they still received sentences of between two to 13 years.

‘Nation’-states under strain

While Spain has its own unique dimensions, its increasingly authoritarian nationalism is also part of a trend of contemporary global politics where democracy and civil rights is under pressure everywhere. The state’s that are perhaps showing most sign of creaking are those with a pluri-national character. Spain, Turkey and the UK have much in common in this respect.

It was not by coincidence that Sánchez was the first leader of an EU state to back Turkey’s war on the Kurds, while the Turkish government has justified its removal of three Kurdish mayors by citing the example of Spain’s jailing of pro-independence Catalan leaders. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ethnic cleansing of Kurdish Syria is partly about squashing a challenge to the country’s systematic discrimination against the Kurdish minority within Turkey’s borders, which has been a consistent policy of Turkish governments since the state was formed nearly 100 years ago.

Meanwhile, the UK state in the Brexit era is increasingly overwhelmed by multiple threats at the Scottish, Irish and Welsh national levels. In the Scottish case, the response has been an increasingly intransigent one by first Theresa May and then Boris Johnson’s government’s towards the right of Scotland to self-determination. The British nationalism of 2019 is moving closer to that of Spain than David Cameron’s government of 2012, when the Edinburgh Agreement was signed with the Scottish Government for a legally binding independence referendum without too much fuss.

There is no reason to believe in the case of Spain, Turkey or the UK, or in fact anywhere else for that matter, that political conflict along national lines is going to dissipate in the future. Stateless nations act as a common identity for oppositional politics to organise around, while nation-states seek to defend their territory and sovereignty in a highly competitive, claustrophobic international economy. The ‘national question’, as Wolfgang Streeck recently observed, has been ‘badly underestimated’ as a crucible of 21st century politics, especially by the left.

Conclusion

What Sanchez proves is that authoritarian nationalism in defence of the state is not only the preserve of the official right-wing. Where it will end up we don’t know, but history suggests that Sanchez may well be the handmaiden of forces he can’t control. A political climate where repression is normalised and legitimate is inevitably a breeding ground for fascism.

The far-right Vox is, according to some polls, set to come third in Spain’s election on Sunday. Its leader, Santiago Abascal, was part of the national TV debates on Tuesday for the first time, and his calls for ratcheting up the repression were – disturbingly – not out of place with the general discourse of the debate, and barely challenged by the other leaders.

The Spanish left, like the Turkish left and the British left, needs to get to grips with the reality of where the real threats and dangers are coming from. If they genuinely are opposed to nationalism, the primary nationalism they must be concerned with is that of their own state.

Comments (17)

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  1. Jim McElhill says:

    Excellent article.

  2. Ben Arfon says:

    I’m sorry but what did I just read? How can you be so detached from Spanish politics to associate Sanchez or the PSOE with nationalism? You are truly a mental acrobat. The article is written clearly but to anyone who knows even the slightest of Spanish politics knows how ridiculous all you’ve written is. Its just not serious…

    1. James Scott says:

      ” … associate Sanchez/PSOE with nationalism…..It’s just not serious.”

      This is the standard trope in Spain.

      Well, from Madrid, at least. Where almost all power resides.

      It is based on the mind set:

      Support for an entity without its own army, navy and air-force is “nationalism.”
      Support for an entity with it’s own army, navy and air-force is PATRIOTISM

  3. Marga says:

    Seen from Catalonia, I’d endorse most of this article.

    All in all, Scots seem uniquely privileged in having access to first class material on the Catalan question.

    Reading this makes a lot more sense, ironically, than reading most articles in the printed press from correspondents, on the spot but arguably working to an agenda.

    1. Alistair Watson says:

      Absolute nonsense. Just cause you agree with the article doesn’t mean you are getting the “truth”. Catalan pro-independence parties have never got over 50% of election votes, despite control of the Catalan tv. Why does that entitle them to a vote? There’s no automatic right to independence, ( they teach and work in their own language, have their own police, own tv channel in Catalan)and Scotland has a lot fewer rights than the Catalans ( unless you count the right to issue Scottish pounds, which most people reject South of the border. ). The law said they couldn’t stage their referendum but they did. Cant complain they weren’t warned

      1. Gavin says:

        Normally, when you win most seats in an election, you get to realise your manifesto. Cameron, for example, had a Brexit referendum on 37% of the vote.
        The attitude from Spain to the Catalans/Basques is ridiculous. The heavy handed ness of the police and repressive sentencing of politicians is both anti-democratic and a failure of political nerve. Why don’t they fight a referendum and win?
        The present election is an example of Spain declining. They fight on Catalonia ( ban their parties and lock up the present elected leadership)and VOX while the economy is a disaster.
        The King lecturing Catalans over “violence and respect for the rights of others” needs to look in the mirror.

        1. Patrick Donahue says:

          There’s a little thing called constitution that requires a supermajority for any major changes. If the UK had done the same thing, we wouldn’t be dealing with Brexit now. Change requires consensus. This is something the extremist wing of Catalan nationalism can’t understand either.

          1. Gavin says:

            The rights of people, or minorities, those living under a culturally controlling majority, have my sympathy. Constitutions are only valid when they give agreed, and equal, rights to all. Extreme Spanish nationalism is something history has given reason for us to fear and reject.

        2. florian albert says:

          ‘Cameron .. had a Brexit referendum on 37% of the vote.’

          It was Parliament, not David Cameron, which decided that there should be a referendum on EU membership. The Commons vote, on the Second Reading, was 544 for a referendum and 53 against.
          The support of all parties (except the SNP) is reported too rarely.

          1. Gavin says:

            Cameron’s party was the instigator of a parliamentary vote on Brexit—with a manifesto mandate based on a 37% share of the electorate.
            None of the Britnat parties wanted to give the impression they were not in favour—indeed the Dumbs had complained for years about the LACK of a referendum. Remember that when you see a Dumb politician now attacking the referendum.
            Brexit is an Anglo-British nationalist construct.

  4. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    The term ‘banal nationalism’ is an excellent one and gets right to the heart of the hegemonic nature of such a concept as Britain. However, we must beware of falling into the trap of understanding ‘banal’ in the everyday, rather dismissive sense of ‘uninteresting’, ‘unexciting’, ‘bread and butter’, ‘dull’, ‘boring’, etc. It is it’s banality that makes a concept hegemonic and prevents people from even examining it and questioning it.

    It derives from feudal society in that it was a call to arms to defend the feudal superior and, so was compulsory for all the vassals and, in that sense, it was ‘normal’. The word ‘ban’ derives from the same root. If something does not meet the approval of the superior and his/her class, then it is banned, forbidden, often with force of arms of smiting with hip and thigh. That is the meaning of the Spanish state’s bans on Catalans, Basques and other groups such the Gallego or the Asturians.

    This is the hegemonic sense of authority which nonentities like Jo Swinson, Richard Leonard and Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, think they can ‘ban’ a second independence referendum in Scotland. They believe they have the moral right as the inheritors of BRITAIN. The BBC daily emphasises the hegemony – it is in the name.

    Any hegemony can be changed. It is not easy, but it can be done. Partly, it is because there has always been an awkward squad which never accepted the hegemony anyway and they begin to educate people about observing the medium within which they exist. Blogs like Bella and Common Space and Wings do that, as do the SNP and the Greens, as do ecology campaigners.

    However, remember that the concept of the EU has been and still is hegemonic for many of us and people like Nigel Farage and Arron Banks, have been able to challenge and, possibly, might change it. They are harnessing the BRITAIN hegemony for the purposes of establishing their hegemony of deregulation, allied to their already substantial and growing wealth and power. These are the billionaires whom Mr Jeremy Corbyn has identified and the bile against him and his identification of them is testament to the fact that they see a genuine threat to the market/individualist hegemony with his collectivist ideas.

    I have used Mr Corbyn and Farage and the contributors to the sites I mentioned simply because of the collection of ideas that lie behind them. I do not intend any unquestioning acceptance of any of them, although my dympathies are more with some than with others.

    Venceremos! …….. I hope.

  5. A f says:

    Spain country of the Inquisition, and the only one who maintains a fascist foundation that never declared Franco a war killer as Germany with Hitler and Italy with Mussolini. And Europe silent, as always. Just disgusting

    1. Alistair Watson says:

      You criticise it for the Inquisition? (I didn’t expect that) . Isnt that a while ago? How many Catholics and Protestants died under the Tudors, for gods sake?
      Franco is a problem, but hes now been evicted from his berth. Ask anyone from the left here and they’ll criticise him. So what does this have to do with that?

      1. john learmonth says:

        Its all about the money. Catalonia is by far the richest province (its never been a country ever) and they’re fed up with subsidising the rest of Spain. Sooner spend it on their ‘own’ schools and hospitals. Thats the problem with nationlism. It divides people.

        1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

          Please define what you connote when you use the term “nationalism”?

          1. john learmonth says:

            Identification with ones own nation and support of its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.
            But then I’m not a nationalist I suspect you are and so no doubt you will have a more positive spin on the term

        2. Frank E Mattimoe says:

          “Its all about the money. Catalonia is by far the richest province…and they’re fed up with subsidising the rest of Spain.”

          On that basis no region can ever break away from the mother country since by definition it will either be above-averagely-rich, in which case it is selfish or it will be below-averagely-rich, in which case it is engaged in economic suicide

          “Catalonia …its never been a country ever”

          i) Depends in great part on how you interpret the Rénuncia de Saragossa ( 13th November 1137) amongst many many other long distant ploys.
          ii) Is independence only available to those countries which have been conquered ? Something, incidentally. which Catalan nationalists claim took place in 1714. With no less a figure than the Duke of Berwick to the fore in that battle.

          “That’s the problem with nationalism. It divides people.”

          Obviously there is an element of truth in this. It is most convincing as an argument when presented, not by those like Sanchez who refute “nationalism” whilst espousing “patriotism,” but by those who have renounced all earthly possessions.

          As Dylan sang:

          “They talk about a life of brotherly love
          Show me someone who knows how to live it.”

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