The horse-trading since Spain’s inconclusive general election this July has divided the country. On one side are the right and far right, principally the People’s Party (PP) and Vox (1), which both favour a centralising approach to political power and a unitary form of nationalism which treats Spain as a single, indivisible nation. On the other side is an alliance of parties that are broadly leftwing and champion the ‘peripheral’ nationalism that has emerged among some of Spain’s autonomous communities (2) (Catalonia, the Basque Country, Navarre etc), highlighting the fact that this is a country made up of peoples with very different languages and cultures.
The conservative People’s Party, under Alberto Núñez Feijóo, finished first in the election with 137 seats in the Spanish Congress of Deputies, but on 29 September failed to muster enough support to form a government. King Felipe has now nominated Pedro Sánchez, leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), to try to form a coalition administration with the left/far-left Sumar party (3). The two parties had been preparing for this eventuality by moving closer to parties calling for plurinationalism or even secession from Spain.
On 19 August Íñigo Errejón, leader of Más País and former deputy leader of the leftwing populist Podemos party, declared on X (formerly Twitter), ‘It would be a mistake to regard the socialist and plurinationalist programmes as incompatible. History, opposition to a common adversary, the need to join forces, and democracy itself are all driving us to collaborate. And that’s what we’re working towards.’
But do progressives and plurinationalists really have compatible goals? Some are certain they do. The concept of national unity is perhaps more unpopular with the left in Spain than elsewhere. This is largely a legacy of the Franco dictatorship (1936-75), which promoted the idea of a thousand-year-old, essentially conservative and Catholic Spain: as Franco proclaimed on 1 June 1936, ‘We want a state where the pure tradition and substance of an ideal past will be expressed in new, vigorous and heroic forms.’ Rejecting national unity has come to be seen as opposing Francoism and its conservative heirs, while championing plurinationalism and regional identity is regarded as a sign of progressivism.
Yet does Franco’s vision of Spain inevitably entail condemning any defence of Spanish territorial unity? To equate Franco with Spanish unity would be like considering Augusto Pinochet to be a republican simply because from 1974 to 1990 he called himself president of the Republic of Chile.
What guarantee of social progress?
Conversely, while Spain’s autonomous communities provide some protection against an oppressive central government, strengthening regional identity is no sure-fire guarantee of social progress. In 2007 the oligarchy of Bolivia’s Media Luna (‘half-moon’ referring to four departments in the east of the country) wanted to secede because they could not accept the leftwing and indigenous Evo Morales as president.
Supporters of the rapprochement between the Spanish left and parties that promote national identities say it’s an electoral necessity. With 121 and 31 seats respectively, the PSOE and Sumar are well short of the 176 required for a majority and can’t hope to form a government without allies from outside the left. But even if they can form alliances, it should not be at the price of sacrificing policies the left claims to be fighting for – especially equality and social justice.
After the July election, the PSOE and Sumar’s potential partners set out the conditions under which they might support a government of the left. Pere Aragonès, president of the Catalan government, said he would support Sánchez if he agreed to ‘end [Catalonia’s] fiscal deficit’ – the difference between the taxes Catalonia pays and the money it gets back from Madrid.
The Catalan Socialist Party is considering this offer… What would accepting the concept of a ‘fiscal deficit’ mean for the left? Taxes do help to redistribute wealth but they are paid by individuals, not territories. So is electoral necessity a good enough reason for the left to join forces with parties protesting that the tax take in Catalonia, which has the greatest concentration of businesses and wealthy taxpayers, is higher than elsewhere?
Further north, the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), dissatisfied with the level of social security benefits, has called not for an overhaul of Spain’s social security system but for the Basque country to be allowed to run its own part of the system. PNV president Andoni Ortuzar claims that with the Basque government at the helm, Basques will have better pensions (4). Too bad for the rest of Spain.
‘It is for all human beings’
British historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote in 1996, ‘The political project of the left is universalist, it is for all human beings … It isn’t liberty for shareholders or Blacks, but for everybody. It isn’t equality for all members of the Garrick Club or the handicapped, but for everybody. It is not fraternity only for old Etonians or gays, but for everybody. And identity politics is essentially not for everybody but for the members of a specific group only’ (5).
Occasionally, the distinction between the two blocs – centrist, conservative nationalism versus progressive plurinationalism – disappears as both are compatible with neoliberal thought. Although neoliberalism requires states to be sufficiently robust to implement its roadmap (6), it flourishes when they are weak normatively, territorially and fiscally, even when this leads to territorial fragmentation – as in Bolivia, or in Europe, where the widespread process of ‘regionalisation’ is forcing local populations to compete with one another by accepting lower wages, less social security and taxation more to the liking of the private sector.
This is the argument of Austrian school economist Hans-Herman Hoppe: ‘The greatest hope for liberty comes from the small countries: from Monaco, Andorra, Liechtenstein, even Switzerland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bermuda etc; and as a liberal one should hope for a world of tens of thousands of such small independent entities. Why not free independent [cities] of Istanbul and Izmir, which maintain friendly relations with the central Turkish government, but which no longer make tax payments to the latter nor receive any payments from it, and which no longer recognise central government law but have their own Istanbul law or Izmir law?’
French economist Thomas Piketty emphasises that Spain’s rules for fiscal decentralisation, which have been in force since 2011 in response to the demands of ‘peripheral nationalists’, ‘already make Spain one of the most decentralised countries in the world in budgetary and fiscal matters, including when compared with federal states much larger in size’.
‘Reduction of inequalities’
This kind of system, where regions have control over the main progressive taxes, such as income tax, wealth tax, inheritance tax and tax on gifts, ‘challenges the very idea of solidarity within the country and comes down to playing the regions against each other, which is particularly problematic when the issue is one of income tax as this is supposed to enable the reduction of inequalities between the richest and the poorest, over and above regional or professional identities’ (7). He warns that Catalan nationalism is an extension of a way of thinking that eventually leads to everyone pursuing their own interests.
The Spanish right, despite preaching national unity and homogeneity, is taking advantage of the opportunities offered by Spain’s territorial fragmentation to defend the interests of its voter base. In June 2021 PP figurehead Isabel Díaz Ayuso, then president of the Community of Madrid, announced that she would be invoking the Spanish constitution in tabling a bill in the Madrid Assembly calling for fiscal autonomy for the Community, to ‘protect [its] independence in terms of fiscal management’ (8). The bill would also protect the wealthiest local taxpayers from the central government’s plan to increase tax on inheritance and estates, so as to soften the impact of rising energy prices. So much for Spain’s indivisible unity.
This May, the PNV rejected a law that would have strengthened the right to dignified housing on the pretext that it ‘clearly infringed the exclusive competencies’ of the Basque country (9); but now Sánchez is proposing a ‘multi-tier Spain’ (10) in the hope of satisfying the PSOE’s potential Basque and Catalan partners – another step towards the confederal model advocated by some, including Íñigo Urkullu, president of the Basque government.
So, contrary to Íñigo Errejón’s claim, plurinationalism is not always synonymous with social progress, especially when it weakens the central state and forces regions into competition with one another. It may therefore be risky for the left to allow the universal right to difference to be used to justify differences in the rights of citizens within the same state.
(1) See Maëlle Mariette, ‘Spain votes, but where are the parties headed?’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, August 2023.
(2) Autonomous communities and cities are the first sub-national level of political and administrative division in Spain.
(3) Formed through an election pact between Podemos, Izquierda Unida and various progressive regional parties.
(4) Míriam Vázquez, ‘El PNV exige la transferencia de la Seguridad Social para mejorar las pensiones vascas’ (PNV demands transfer of Social Security to improve Basque pensions), Deia, Bilbao, 9 July 2023.
(5) Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Identity politics and the left’, New Left Review, no 217, London, May-June 1996.
(6) See François Denord, Rachel Knaebel and Pierre Rimbert, ‘Germany’s iron cage’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, August 2015.
(7) Thomas Piketty, ‘[The Catalan syndrome-.https://www.cogitatiopress.com/politicsandgovernance/article/view/4617]’, 14 November 2017, ‘Le blog de Thomas Piketty’, www.lemonde.fr/.
(8) ‘Díaz Ayuso blindará con una ley la autonomía fiscal de la Comunidad de Madrid’ (Díaz Ayuso armour-plates the Community of Madrid’s fiscal autonomy with a law), Community of Madrid, 17 June 2021.
(9) ‘EAJ-PNV rechaza rotundamente la Ley de Vivienda española porque “indudablemente invade competencias exclusivas de Euskadi” ’ (EAJ-PNV firmly rejects Spanish housing law as ‘clearly impinging on the exclusive competencies of the Basque Government’), Basque Parliament, 4 May 2023.
(10) Jorge Sáinz, ‘Sánchez lanza la “España multinivel” para encajar las demandas del nacionalismo vasco y catalán’ (Sánchez proposes a ‘multi-tier Spain’ to satisfy the demands of Basque and Catalan nationalists), 1 September 2023, www.vozpopuli.com/.