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 an administrative expression of the economic interests of this class undoubtedly corresponded to the historical reality of the time. Later, in one of his most influential texts, Louis Bonaparte’s eighteenth brumaire, Marx would distinguish political power (which he identified with the State) and economic power. Even the conquest of political power did not ensure domination over economic power.
With the development of European 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 political battleground. Among these, Nicos Poulantzas obviously stands out. For the Greek theorist, the political successes of the Italian workers ‘movement, crystallized in the Workers’ Statute of 1970, were proof that the state and the law were one of the grounds for the class struggle and the advancement of the working class. The statute obtained in Italy strengthens unions in factories, prohibits dismissals without just cause and guarantees freedom of assembly. The state appeared, in fact, not only as a field of class struggle just as important or even more important than the factory, but also as a strategic political field.
The emergence of neoliberalism has only confirmed the paradox. Faced with the offensive led by the economic powers attached to neoliberalism, the workers found tools of political resistance in the post-war constitutions and the labor law enacted by the welfare states.
What I have just told you is a political ABC that should be anchored in the strategic thinking and tactical practice 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 the way of approaching the relationship-dialogue with the State. Paradoxically, Junts, the heir to [the center-right, Catalan-nationalist] Convergència i Unió is the one currently defending a maximalist position. In the case of the Basque separatists, there has also been a pragmatic development in recent years – no doubt a consequence of a historical experience that has taught a hard lesson about what it means to confront the state.
But even among the rest of the left, including government forces like Unidas Podemos, the state continues to be seen as something alien. This perception makes sense 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 on the whole territory was compensated by the strength of a state which knew how to impose a central administration. It coexists today 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 – highlighted the two great forces of the Spanish right. and the far right are recovering. The first has to do with the media power structure that gives Madrid-based conservative and far-right media absolute dominance of the media ecosystem across the country as a whole. Only Catalonia and the Basque Country have different (but not necessarily left-wing) media ecosystems. It was precisely the existence of these different media ecosystems that allowed Catalan independence to advance its ideological positions to the point where nearly half of Catalan voters wanted independence, and a significant majority supported the right to decide. .
In the Basque case, the two main political forces are the Basque Nationalist Party (Partido Nacionalista Vasco, PNV) and Euskal Herria Bildu (EH Bildu). Over the past decade, the only force with partners across Spain capable of challenging the electoral hegemony of these parties (and only in two of the five general elections held since 2011) was Elkarrekin Podemos. However, winning cultural, ideological and electoral battles is something very different from a movement in society that finds expression in the state. On the contrary, the emergence of Unidas Podemos and his arrival in government – as well as the cultural and institutional advance of independence, and his bet on a shock with the state – had the effect of rendering cultural domination and ideological of the right on 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 she spoke more to the judges than to the country. Faced with what they defined from the start 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 hides what the right really thinks: the king would have an earlier legitimacy and superior to that of any elected deputy.
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. On the contrary, in a sui generis interpretation of Montesquieu, they understand him as a purely autonomous entity. And they think the same of the Constitutional Court, which they consider as a political body whose function is to correct, even preventively, the decisions taken by the 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 some state soldiers.
As Pedro Vallín writes in his next 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 Judicial Council (CGPJ) have to see with democratic determination control a largely Francoist magistracy. Since the dictatorship-era judges were not purged, it made sense to at least monitor their lack of commitment to the new rules of democracy. In a shocking sentence in its crude truth, Vallín says that “the tensions between Congress and the CGPJ are the expression of a struggle between the popular will and the self-defense formalism of the Deep State”.
It is now 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 low interest, so far, in class issues.
There is, however, another difference which is a little less discussed: namely that in Spain, the extreme right builds its network of political cadres among senior state officials, army officers and police. Among the leaders and officials of Vox – beyond the pristine CV of its leader or the questionable qualifications of some of its members – are judges, state attorneys, reserve military commanders, professors. . . People who, despite their neoliberal phraseology, have always been paid with public money and have the state of mind of state officials.
Given the resources of the right and the far right – in the economy, in the media and among the state’s own officials – it is not difficult to imagine a process of democratic involution in Spain, like Poland or Hungary, if the Partido Popular and Vox manage to form 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. This is why the various left forces which have historically identified the state as something whose external character constitutes their own identity must, on the contrary, recognize it as a strategic field. In a parliament where the PSOE has no alternative allies, these leftist forces must make their unprecedented tactical advantage more effective and push for democratic reforms in the state. But there also needs to be a longer-term awareness of the importance of having other people in this strategic area. It is true that access by competitive examination to the ranks of judges and prosecutors, to the diplomatic corps, etc. features a series of class barriers. But another obstacle, just as powerful, is the lack of historical interest in these roles on the part of broad sections of the left.
If only there was a progressive state school that would train young people in democratic values and give them scholarships. Second, it would not always be the same people in the most important strategic positions.