Tag Archives: gesture

Contemporary Feudalism

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Esperanza Aguirre, the President of the Community of Madrid, has attempted to ignite the whole of Spain with her call to rebellion against the rise in the VAT rates from July 1st. Critics of this measure say that is unfair to burden the citizens with this tax rise and that it won’t help the economic recovery. The socialists see it as a good way of covering the deficit and explain that Spain has the lowest VAT rates in Europe. This post is not about the pros and cons of this measure. It’s about the meaning of the gesture by Aguirre, a politician who is either considered by the PP to be a heroic defender of their values or a loose cannon that damages the cohesion and unity of the party.

Aguirre’s capacity for audacious gestures is breathtaking. She is calling for rebellion whilst fees and taxes are being raised faster in Madrid than anywhere else in Spain. How can this happen? The answer lies within the system of Autonomous Communities itself, a system improvised during the Transition. The system has allowed for the growth in local oligarchies. National party politics are reproduced at a local level and are to a great extent more important than national politics because of the huge amount of power devolved to the Autonomous Communities. The Presidents are medieval barons of their individual fiefs, who have built up their own power structures in their local areas. Prime examples of this are Camps (who is still widely supported in Valencia despite the Gürtel scandal) and Aguirre (who regularly challenges Rajoy indirectly.) These barons then flex their muscles, pushing at the boundaries between the Autonomous Communities and the state: for example the censoring of a museum exhibition in Valencia and Telemadrid, which has become the PP’s vehicle for expounding their views.

Local agendas affect the perception of national politics and place the local oligarchies in the advantageous position of being able to manipulate the introduction of legislation within their region and blame the problems on national government. Where the party in opposition in the national parliament (currently the PP) is in power at Autonomous Community level, it can serve as a counterweight to the national government, vociferously complaining and dragging its heels with respect to the introduction of national laws within their fiefs. It is not right that social legislation (as national policy) should be implemented differently according to the region and local politics, to the detriment of the citizens. Consequently the implementation of laws varies widely between different Autonomous Communities. The system blocks the effective and efficient introduction of policy.

Where is the line between the Autonomous Communities and the state? I don’t think it has been clearly drawn yet. This means the wasting of millions of Euros, as responsibility is shifted between national government and local government (see, for example, the Law of Historical Memory. Both the Autonomous Communities and the government have declared its implementation to be the responsibility of the other) in addition to a large civil service: Spain has a big number of civil servants compared to other European countries.

There are plenty of problems with the present system, but that doesn’t mean it should be abolished. The system of Autonomous Communities is entirely workable, but it requires a clearer hierarchy with respect to responsibilities and less medieval oligarchies. The Presidents need to realise that they have a duty to their local citizens and to national government, not just to the maintenance of their personal fiefdoms. The line needs to be drawn urgently.

Anatomy of a distinctly different instant

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Recently I have been reading Javier Cercas’ Anatomía de un instante about the failed military coup of 23rd February 1981. His is an interesting perspective on the events of that day, coming from the fact that he is a writer and novelist before a historian. His main point for examining the subject is the gesture made by Adolfo Suárez when the guardia civil entered the chamber and attempting to understand the gesture, through the historical and personal context. Instead of dropping to the floor like the majority of the other MPs he remained calmly in his seat as the bullets ricocheted off the ceiling.

Cercas cites the work of Hans Magnus Enzensberger and his theory about the recent historical phenomenon of the statesman hero who is a hero of withdrawal, great not for what they build, rather what they dismantle, with Mikhail Gorbachev and the USSR being a clear example. Cercas’ work struck a distinct chord with me on Thursday when an José María Aznar stuck his middle finger up at some protesters after a meeting in Oviedo. Sometimes a photo speaks a thousand words.

What can we draw out of this gesture? Can it be compared to Adolfo Suárez? From the outset it’s clear that Aznar is not a hero of withdrawal, who quietly exits the stage after his moment of glory. The PP has never been able to accept that they lost the 2004 elections to the PSOE. This bitterness is still present in the party.

Is the gesture a gesture of defiance in a similar way to Suárez? No. There is an unbridgeable difference between sitting calmly as gunshots echo around the parliamentary chamber and showing the middle finger after a secretly-organised political meeting to the handful protesters who arrived to protest, with a self-satisfied smile. For me, the smile is the key element of the gesture. It’s a self-assured smirk, full of security and contempt for those who criticise. Such a cynical gesture is not the mark of a great statesman, it creates barriers between the people and the political leaders; the finger held up exemplifies and magnifies the distance between them. Aznar is cynically demonstrating how untouchable he is. Quite different to John Prescott’s famous 2001 punch.

Aznar is no anti-Establishment punk who can justify showing a defiant finger to the ‘System’; he embodies part of the establishment and has a central role in the machinery of power at the top of the political class in Spain.

Essentially, Suárez’s gesture was in defence of democracy, of the transition, of what had been achieved during his mandate (whether he did out of selfless sacrifice or to reinforce his historical legacy depends upon your point of view.) Aznar, in contrast, is sticking his finger up against democracy, against what has been achieved since the death of Franco, even against Suárez himself. It’s the gesture of a self-assured and conceited individual who thought it pertinent to remark: ‘Hay algunos que parecen empeñados en demostrar que no pueden vivir sin mí [there are a few who appear determined to demonstrate that they can’t live without me].’ It’s not the mark of a great statesman, but rather that of an embittered cynic, who still believes he is at the centre of the nation’s politics, making a gross gesture against criticism and debate, which are the lifeblood of democracy.

An additional note: To compound this move against democracy, the local mayor, Gabino de Lorenzo declared that those who had protested should be arrested. For what? For protesting peacefully?