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Rebirth of the Republic

It is not only the flag but the hopes of progressive Republicanism which is once again to the fore of Spanish politics, writes Richard McAleavey.

On the 1st of May this year, in Extremadura, the poorest and most remote region of Spain, a group of activists and campaigners set out on a march into the mountains to mark International Labour Day, carrying flags of the Second Spanish Republic.

The group made the 12km trek to the Sierra de Ortiga, to the positions held by republican forces, formal and informal, during the Spanish Civil War, in a tenacious defence against Franco’s fascist forces until the end of July 1938, in a zone known as “La bolsa de la Serena”

The purpose of the march, according to one of the organisers, Jónatham Moriche, was to make a “more resonant political statement, something more expressive than the routine celebrations engaged in by the main labour unions.”
“We also wanted to remind people,” says Jónatham, that “the commitment to defeating fascism was everywhere, and not just in the big cities and the major battles that appear in the best-known accounts of the Civil War”.

In recent years, the appearance of Spanish republican flags at demonstrations throughout Spain is increasingly common. These displays are not just about preserving the memory of what the vanquished side in the Spanish Civil War. They are also about the possibility of a new democratic and republican order.
Like other Eurozone periphery countries the policies of neoliberal austerity imposed as a supposed remedy to economic crisis have had devastating effects on the population.

In May 2007, Spain’s unemployment rate stood at 7.9%. Now, after a burst property bubble and the introduction of austerity measures, it now stands at around 26%, with 56% of under-25s unemployed.

Successive central governments, first the social democrat PSOE government and then the avowedly right-wing Partido Popular government, have introduced a host of deep cutbacks to health, education, and welfare spending, among other areas. So-called labour reforms aimed at making it easier for employers to sack workers have been introduced. As a consequence, levels of inequality, in a society already deeply unequal by Eurozone standards, have shot up dramatically.

The Socialist government embarked on its programme of cuts at the urging of the EU, the ECB, and even Barack Obama. The Partido Popular government has continued the same path, with even more vigour and contempt for the victims, and with an eye on fulfilling the demands of its traditional power base on the Catholic Right. The Partido Popular’s drive to impose an imperial form of Spanish nationalism on Catalonia and the Basque Country have served to fuel demands in those regions for independence.

The public response to austerity, by contrast with Ireland, has been resounding, marking a rupture with the political culture that has held sway in Spain since the transition, following dictator Francisco Franco’s death, from dictatorship to political democracy.

Woman holding a flag at demonstration for a republic

The crucial moment for the waves of public action that have continued up to the present, took place on the 15th of May 2011, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets of cities and towns throughout Spain, occupying squares and conducting participatory assemblies, in a peaceful mobilisation that continued in concentrated form for months, often subjected to violent police repression.

The theme of the initial demonstrations was that the existing political regime, regardless of whether it was a Socialist or Partido Popular government in power, didn’t and -crucially- couldn’t represent the demonstrators. Ruling politicians helped bankers and themselves. As one of the slogans arising from the “Real Democracy Now” movement put it, “we are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers.”

Many outside commentators have tended to write off the 15M as a sort of precursor of the Occupy movement: a movement with huge visual and sentimental appeal, but little real political effect, since the austerity drive has continued unhindered, and political institutions remain unchanged.

But this view of the 15M can ignore the effect it has had on changing people’s minds vis-à-vis the political establishment, the subsequent waves of public mobilisation it has powered, and general attitudes towards what democracy is (popular participation in political decisions, material equality) and, what it is not (the Spanish government, the European Central Bank).

Author and journalist Guillem Martínez describes the 15M as a ‘cultural revolution that has dismantled the frames of the last 35 years, a critique of representation and corruption, a radical point of view on democracy, and a meditation on debt’.

What Martínez defines as Transition Culture, which emanates from the left in the main, is a culture that presses for political consensus within the framework of the Spanish Constitution of 1978, and a determination not to look back on the legacy of the Spanish Civil War.

Transition Culture –in books, newspapers, films, songs, political speeches- had served as a reliable social cement for Spain’s political establishment, ever since the end of Franco’s dictatorship, neutralising conflicts, defusing potent social movements of the left, and obscuring continuities with the Franco regime from public attention. Hence the realities of Second Republic, the Civil War, and Francoism remained well outside mainstream public debate in a society that was emerging from forty years of a brutal military dictatorship that had sought to eliminate dissidence of any kind: as sociologist Vicente Navarro frequently puts it, for every political opponent murdered by Mussolini, Franco murdered 10,000.

With the emergence of the 15M’s peaceful demonstrations and assemblies, the frequently brutal response from police, combined with moves by politicians to criminalise protest and dissent, have exposed a chasm between the established powers and the general population that Transition Culture could no longer cover up.

The new social climate brought about by the 15M has led to mass public support for other forms of public action previously unseen in post-Franco Spain. The Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH), or Mortgage Victims Platform, has won huge public support for its campaign for legislation to write down mortgage debts, end evictions, and make banks use homes in their possession for social housing. It is indicative of the public mood that its tactic of large groups of people confronting ruling politicians outside their homes, or at restaurants, enjoys widespread support.

Elsewhere, the Mareas (tides), huge colour coded mass demonstrations, white for public health and green for public education, have combined a level of labour militancy shied away from by mainstream unions close to the regime, including indefinite strikes, with mass public support. The Mareas have united health and education workers with patients and students in defence of what ought to be common to all: a democratic republican politics, albeit one without a republic as its point of reference.

It is here, in the heart of these popular democratic mobilisations, where the old of the Transition is dying and the new cannot yet be born, that the flag of the Spanish Republic, initially viewed with suspicion by some 15M participants, now starts to loom into view, as a symbol of resistance against an anti-democratic regime resorting to despotic violence and chauvinistic Spanish nationalism in the present, and as the horizon of a society with a commitment to real democracy, liberty, fraternity and equality.

When the Extremaduran group arrived at the republican positions in “La bolsa de la Serena”, greetings of solidarity were read out. One was from a deputy in Amaiur, the left wing Basque separatist coalition. Another was from CUP, the assembly-based grouping that seeks independence and socialism for Catalan-speaking regions. Another message read: “our task, in Extremadura and the rest of Spain, is not just to exhume the remains of grandparents murdered so that they can have a decent burial, but above all, to maintain alive within us their desire for freedom and the enormous sense of dignity that drove them on.”

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