Shouts of the Hostage’s Hostage: ¡Democracia Real Ya!

June 3, 2011

An image of our troubled times: riot police in Barcelona violently disband a peaceful public protest in the city's Plaza de Catalunya, so that gargage crews can clean up the square for a celebration of Barça's participation in the Champion's League final. There are as many cameras as billyclubs.

I am a US citizen, born and raised in Brooklyn, but I’ve been traveling at least once a year to Spain for the last 35 years.  I’ve taught Spanish literature and culture since 1988, and for at least the last ten years, I’ve become a total Spanish news junkie; each day, I peruse at least six on-line Spanish dailies, ranging from, nowadays, the moderate left (Público) to the extreme right (La Gaceta).  Today I’d like to share with you my honest understanding of what has been going on in Spain over the last few weeks.  It’s not easy to make sense of what’s going on; the mainstream Spanish press, in my opinion, has been getting things quite wrong, or else ignoring the situation, except in its most sensational aspects.  And the movement itself really is in movement, in flux; in fact, its mobility and indefinition are probably the main sources of its disquieting power.  For all of these reasons, I don’t think that any of us can do more than offer provisional interpretations of the complex processes that were unleashed in Spain on May 15, 2011.

I think it’s worthwhile to recall that Spain’s two major experiments in democracy have been conducted during extremely inauspicious times for democratic movements worldwide.

The country’s first sustained attempt at a modern democracy took place during the five years of the Second Republic –1931 – 1936– in the context of a world-wide Depression, and amidst the rise of anti-democratic totalitarian ideologies on both the Left and the Right.  The short-lived Republic made a valiant effort, under these extremely adverse circumstances, to create democratic citizens out of monarchical or in some cases even feudal subjects, to begin the arduous –and still incomplete– task of separating church and state, to implement land reform, and to promote gender equality.  But Franco, Hitler and Mussolini took care of Spain’s democratic Spring of the 1930s, aided by the dithering of the would-be defenders of democracy, France, the UK and the US, countries that between 1936 and 39 were in full appeasement mode vis-à-vis Hitler, and at the same time wary of the “excesses” on the Left.

The fact that the Republic’s valiant struggle was carried out against-all-odds undoubtedly contributed to the way in which the Spanish Civil War –and the memory of that war– was indelibly seared into the consciousness of progressives all over the world, and still today remains a point of reference and a reservoir of images of democratic hope and courage for underdogs everywhere.  There was no youtube in 1936, but there were newsreels; there wasn’t flicker, but there was the nascent field of modern photo-journalism; there were no facebook walls or blogs, but there were wall newspapers, and posters and broadsides and pamphlets; all the latest innovations in communication and networking were tapped into in the 1930s in an effort to mobilize global public opinion in support of the beleaguered Spanish Republic.  This seventy-five year old story –of messages and media– somehow still powerfully resonates today all around the globe.

The second serious experiment in democracy was begun upon Franco’s death in 1975.   Spain’s transition to democracy has been admirable in many ways, but I think it’s fair to say that, particularly in the last couple of decades, democracy in Spain has coincided with a dramatic impoverishment of democratic ideals and processes worldwide.  Some would even say –though it sounds like a sick joke– that Spain, whose first bid for democracy was squashed by fascism,  has now become a normal democracy, but only at the very time when that concept has practically been hollowed out of meaning.

I think that many Spaniards today feel that their country –much like the U.S. and other countries– has settled into a stagnant and corrupt two-party system, in which, on the issues that most profoundly affect the lives of citizens, the two parties are virtually indistinguishable, as both are ruled by what we might call the “tyranny of common sense.”   What are the tenets of that common sense?  “Keep the banks, big business and the credit rating agencies happy, by imposing austerity on, and demanding efficiency from, your citizens.  Let your citizens vote every once in a while –we are, after all, a democracy– and make sure that they keep consuming; if possible, keep them shopping till they drop.  When elections come around, each party should trot out the trusted-old wedge issues, which camouflage the profound similarities between the two parties and focus the attention on largely superficial or symbolic differences.  Political parties should do whatever they need to do as long as they bring out their bases on election day, even if voters have to hold their noses in disgust when they vote, because each party has managed to scare those voters into believing that the stench of the other guy is even worse than ours.”

My understanding of the current situation in Spain is that a significant portion of the population has finally decided to say out loud, in public places, and via virtual spaces which didn’t exist just ten years ago, that you are not alone or disloyal if you think that the choices frankly stink, if it looks to you like the emperor actually has no new clothes, if you have the sense that, somewhere along the way to the promised state, the demos has been dropped from democracy.  The protesters in Spain are wondering aloud why their access to their leaders is pretty much limited to casting a ballot once every four years, while the banks and business leaders and credit rating agencies seem to have unlimited access.  In short: the protesters are asking the basic questions that supposedly had been left behind or bracketed in these commonsensical, post-historical, post-ideological times, and, what is perhaps most remarkable, they are refusing to take the bait of the parties’ wedge issues.  They are claiming that the two main parties have been pretty much taking them for granted, and they are saying to all of this:  “basta ya.”

If the Spanish government at times seems like a hostage of “the market,” I think that the Spanish people are beginning to feel subjected to a double captivity –trapped in a stagnant two party system, whose leaders seem accountable less and less to their sequestered constituents, and more and more to their own supranational captors: those ghostly or godlike international financial “markets” that whimsically giveth and taketh away.

Perhaps the screams we are hearing from Spain these days can best be thought of as the shouts of a hostage’s hostage, who is just becoming fully aware of, and indignant about, her double imprisonment.  Of course, it is impossible to predict the outcome of the processes set in motion over the last few weeks.  Maybe things will fizzle out with the heat of July.   Or maybe Spain, once again, will find itself at the forefront in identifying threats and pointing out promise.   Either way, I think we Americans would do well to heed those calls of the hostage’s hostage, to try to understand her plight, and, while we’re at it, to check on the health of our own democracy, and on the status of our own freedoms.  We might discover, to our own surprise, that in important ways, we are all Spaniards.

–James D. Fernández

Remarks at panel on Democracia Real Ya

Bluestockings Bookstore, 3 June 2011


15 Responses to “ Shouts of the Hostage’s Hostage: ¡Democracia Real Ya! ”

  1. Billy McMurtrie on June 4, 2011 at 6:19 am

    Very good article, giving welcome historical perspective on the events in Spain. As in the 30s, capitalism is once again in major crisis, in spite of all the media-orchestration. But this time with a peculiar split between finance and productive capital which may yet prove to be terminal. Production needs consumption, after all, and 3% compound growth per annum forever looks increasingly delusional.

    The past lingers on, and its failures and defeats raise the counterfactual question, and remind us that things could have been otherwise. That in turn opens up the present: there is another way of doing things, and that’s what’s being demanded now on the plazas throughout Spain and elsewhere.

    New times, new forms of organisation and of struggle, but the issues are the same.

    Tierra y libertad.

    Billy McMurtrie

  2. Arianne Sved on June 5, 2011 at 9:26 am

    Interesting indeed. As a Spaniard living in the US, I love your closing line: “We are all Spaniards”.

  3. Javier on June 5, 2011 at 11:10 am

    Excellent article James!! It’s hard to put it any better. Congrats!

  4. Roser on June 5, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    Thank you for this article. As Javier has said, it’s hard to put it any better. I hope this identifying threats and pointing out promise won’t end in catastrophy (and I don’t speak just about Spain: we all are Spaniards) and the world will understand the common plight. Hello from Barcelona.

  5. david castro on June 6, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    Astonishing article, James! Thanks for written it, ill make sure to spread it!

  6. Pedro on June 7, 2011 at 5:54 am


  7. Javito on June 7, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    Great thing. Why does it seem (As so many times in spanish history) that people abroad get the point much easier than we do here?

  8. Alicia on June 7, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    Thank you so much!!! Greetings from Albacete, in the middle-south of Spain, where we continue our fight.

  9. Manolo on June 7, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    Gracias desde Murcia-España leer este articulo me ha emocionado ,me anima a seguir adelante y espero que el movimiento se extienda por todo el mundo.

  10. Arturo on June 7, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    Obviously you still love our country, thanks so so much. And congrats ! Excellent analysis, putting it into perspective. Very well articulated, lyric somehow, even touching. Next stop 19J (June, 19th.) Keep tuned. No nos moveran.

  11. Nahaul Tuhijo on June 8, 2011 at 2:52 am

    me has emocionado mucho Jaime con este articulo.

    indignante e inquieto.

    thoughts on more coordinated-more-direct-action?

  12. […] because of the massive protest these days. No one would have said so a month ago. This is an interesting article I found yesterday. The word is spreading fast and this is only the […]

  13. Matt Olen on August 3, 2011 at 5:46 am

    This movement is also starting to take hold in other parts of the world as well. Its the people againest the false two-party system controled by the Bankers and IMF. But I for one don´t see it gaining in the U.S. much of america is dumbed down by the propaganda of the capitalist system,T.V. Playstation,false patriotism the list go´s on,thats why I moved to Spain more then 15 years ago. Theres problems here but the people fight in the streets that don´t like what the politicos do be it local or nation wide. Lucha Ya workers of america.

  14. joseph L fernandez on August 20, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    I sincerely hope that what this movement wants is not what they got in Cuba or Venezuela. The country (Spain) in my view overspent in entitlaments for almost everything .After every fiesta one must pay the piper(gaitero). What are necessary are reforms in the banking sector especially. An atomosphere making it atractive for young would be tycoons who would extend their prosperity to others.Those couple of signs I saw on TVE1 saying “repartir la riqueza” is enough to scare away anyone with ambition. Spain will do great just get rid of those nutty busines hours.