Spain, A Perfect Political Graveyard Of Old Left And Right
If the Left is increasingly fighting to preserve hard-won social victories, and the Right wants change, what does the traditional Left-Right division mean anymore?
MADRID — It has long been said that the Left is more prone to rifts because its aim is to free people from all forms of exploitation. But now, it is the right which deals with the most infighting. Are they now the ones who want the most change, even if that change is made through cuts?
Take architects for example. Some debate about what to build on an empty plot of land, while others discuss how to preserve a building worn down by time. Finding a solution for the latter seems to be faster. Deciding what to create is harder than deciding what to preserve.
That is why, according to popular wisdom and analysis, the Left experiences more divisions than the Right.
Progressive politicians have a positive goal, while conservatives have a negative one. The Left wants to create a new world, and this opens up endless questions. Do we nationalize banks and certain industries? Do we design a social security system, or a Universal Basic Income? Do we cap prices on certain areas, such as rental housing, or do we let the market take its course and then assist the most affected sectors? The God of progress offers infinite paths.
[On Monday, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced that he would dissolve parliament and the country would hold snap national elections on July 23 following the very poor showing of Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) in Sunday's local elections. The center-right People's Party and far-right party Vox gained ground.]
Ambitious goals cause internal conflict
The Left’s age-old divisions have been long derided — see the Life of Brian scene where separatist militants angrily point out the supposed differences between the People's Front of Judea and the Judean People's Front. They have also been studied.
In an article about disputes between left-wing populist party Podemos (We Can) and progressive Sumar (Unite) platform in El País, political scientist Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca explained that left-wing groups tend to split more because they are "more ambitious in their objectives."
Their goal is to emancipate citizens from all forms of exploitation, providing autonomy through an increasingly generous welfare state.
A reversal of roles
Despite its value, people did not fight to expand the welfare state's social rights during 21st century Spain or in the late 20th century elsewhere. Rather, it has been the opposite: a battle to preserve them. Thus, the "conservatives" are the left-wing, and the advocates for change are right-wing politicians. This may explain the recent increase in divisions on the right.
The conservative political environment has now been poisoned.
Unlike in previous decades, where three or four right-wing parties could coexist amicably with peaceful coalitions in parliamentary democracies like those of Central Europe or the Nordic countries, the conservative political environment has now been poisoned.
They negotiate governance, like the Christian conservative People's Party (PP) has with the far right Vox party in the autonomous community of Castile and Leon in northwestern Spain. This is also the case in Sweden, where Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson’s moderates have aligned with Jimmie Åkesson’s far-right democrats, or as we will likely see in Finland and have seen in Italy recently.
But they no longer cohabit happily, instead exhibiting their differences in public, or increasingly, hiding their alliances and refusing to appear in the same photo. When photographed together, like the leader of the Swedish Liberal party with the far right, it is soberly, without a smile.
ERC poster for the elections of May 28 2023, in Barcelona, Catalonia (Spain).
Changing faces, same ideas
Why is that? Is it because it's now the right who, within the traditional European welfare state, want to change things? Of course not. In most cases, that's empty rhetoric. The extreme right relies on public disillusionment, without offering anything tangible. Yet these nationalists are the ones who pay lip service to being anti-establishment in a globalized and interconnected world, where people (and goods) can move from one country to another with relative freedom.
The question is, why do strong divisions persist in the progressive camp? After all, the Left no longer represents such a solid option for change — these days, its leaders can be interchanged without a massive upheaval in public policy.
One example is Barcelona’s city council, where left-wing populist Mayor Ada Colau's policies are an unbroken continuation of those of her socialist predecessors. In fact, many have been implemented by the very same people who worked for the previous mayors. If her socialist second Jaume Collboni, or even the leftist republican Ernest Maragall governed, their policies would be practically identical.
Democracy turns to oligarchy
There are surely many answers, but one in particular must be highlighted: the context in which new left-wing parties emerged. A decade ago, they filled the electoral ballots of our city councils, autonomous communities and parliaments with a rainbow of colors.
Then we come to the "iron law of oligarchy." Conservative sociologist Robert Michels created this theory a century ago, in which organizations that begin as particularly democratic (certain aspects of Podemos) end up, for the organization’s survival, in the hands of an oligarchic elite.
And if we look at the history of purges, membership suspensions, rigged lists and media rampages against opponents, few organizations in Spain have represented the iron law of the oligarchy more neatly. The left-wing coalitionUnidas Podemos (United We Can) may be one of the youngest parties in our country, but it is undoubtedly the one that has aged the fastest.
Red Spain is broken. Blue Spain is too. Hopefully someday, someone will light up a gray, but united, Spain.