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Vox And The Spectre of Populism

28 Nov 2019
By Ruben Perez-Hidalgo
Acto de Vox en Vistalegre. Photo by Contando Estrelas, Acto de Vox en Vistalegre. Photo source:

The growth of the far-right party Vox in Spain has less to do with the specific policies they propose than with the unaddressed anxieties, born out of the 2008 economic crisis, that still haunt Europe as a whole.

In the famous preamble to the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx writes of a spectre that haunts Europe—the spectre of communism. Marx was arguing against those in the political opposition that tried to conjure up a ghostly fear of communists in the 1850s. The manifesto was a way to flesh out the spectre and propose a solution via the legitimisation of communism in the political arena. More than two centuries later, another spectre is being invoked—the spectre of populism. However, populism is an “unfleshed” ghost condemned to a seemingly eternal limbo of ambiguity. Very much opposed to Marx’s idea of communism, this new “ism” hides in the shadows of anti-ideology. Instead, it claims people’s “common sense” as its political family. This is precisely its greatest strength.

After Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history with the supposed victory of liberal democracy (and capitalism) over communism with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Reaganomics became virtually the only game in town, the ideological differences between parties on the left and on the right were progressively harder to distinguish. When the economy crashed in 2008, the collapse of ideological constituencies followed. The main parties in the traditional political spectrum of the European Union and their one common recipe for socio-economic prosperity had ostensibly failed in providing any concrete solution for a majority of people. A crisis of representation was thus triggered. Populism became the name given to the widespread popular reaction against the ineffective promises of liberal democracy, the progressive erasure of ideological difference when thinking economic policies, and the diminished response of the welfare state. In this respect, I argue populism needs to be understood much more as symptom than as malady.

The rapid of growth of Vox (a post-fascist party, if one takes into account its electoral program) in the latest elections in Spain is in that way a populist reverberation of a still-unaddressed political discontent in both the country and in the European Union at large. With more than three and a half million votes and most of its voters aged between 31 and 50 (i.e., people who came of age in democratic Spain after forty years of fascist dictatorship), one cannot speak of Vox simply as a far-right phenomenon (such as Golden Dawn in Greece, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, or the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders). Vox needs to be explained in terms of everything that it is not, of what it is lacking in the system of popular representation in Spain. Beyond the reminiscences of a Francoist past that the words of Santiago Abascal (leader of Vox) evoke, in my view, the rapid growth of this party has more to do with tapping into the fears of the Spanish middle classes than the unearthing of Franco’s dictatorship. Vox could tap into such fears precisely due to the fact these middle-class anxieties after the economic crisis remain largely unaddressed by those in power.

Having this in mind, one needs to simply go a few years back (especially after the 15M movement in 2011) and behold the many issues that confronted Spanish democracy. From a failed economy, based on job insecurity and wage precarity, to the bid for Catalan independence, the Spanish parliament mostly hoped that the elephant in the chamber would disappear. When Podemos, now Unidas Podemos, a progressive party with a traditional socialist democratic program a la Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders, became an even stronger political force than Vox with more than five million votes in 2015, the bipartisan establishment (economic, political, and in the mainstream media) kept on ignoring the elephant and aggressively combated the political platform headed by Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias.  Forced by the generalised climate of aggression (particularly against its leadership) on many flanks but also due to flagrant strategic errors, Unidas Podemos lost half of their voters in the span of two years. Even though it maintained a decisive political weight in the Spanish parliament, it was increasingly perceived as just another political party to the left of the traditional PSOE. This meant that an atmosphere of stagnation was rapidly installed. More critically, the voters and their systemic discontent with the status quo kept on being evaded. In fact, the root causes were greatly masked; explained away in macro-economic terms; speaking of a general financial recovery that was barely felt at the micro level.

The fears of many Spaniards were compounded by two major events.  The first was the Catalan crisis  of October 2017, during which  the unilateral declaration of independence took place, and the second was the renewed call for general elections in November 2019, after the final jail sentence of  several pro-independence politicians was made public. These events meant the unaddressed fears of many Spaniards finally found its ghost. The anxieties provoked by an actually broken political economy were tossed aside. The fear of a broken national unity replaced the popular angst over the dark prospects of the real Spanish economy and projected it onto the spectre of Catalan independence.

Amidst this crisis, the major parties’ responses were characterised by the overinflated vehemence of Ciudadanos and the Partido Popular, the somewhat less confronting attitude of the PSOE, and the helpless cries for dialogue in Unidas Podemos. While these parties spoke of the Catalan crisis as a political issue with different degrees of bellicosity, Vox was the only party that did not really speak of the crisis in terms of solutions. It framed the issue as an existential threat to the Spanish people and their sense of being. As Vox put it, they were defending the public interest of all Spaniards. As a result, the independence of Catalonia became simply a symbol of one of the many other overlooked problems that affected the country.

In fact, Vox did not really run on traditional political platform per se (based on the touting of a series of electoral measures). It ran on the sustained angst nestled in a significant part of Spanish society and channelled it into the fear of a series of “otherised” ghosts. Accordingly, Catalan separatism, Basque nationalism, immigration, and even feminism simply became spectres that were believed to haunt Spain. And Vox was not only the one party that was ready to perform the exorcism, it was the sole political actor that was speaking of ghosts. It was pointing towards a common amorphous general anxiety and redirecting it for its electoral benefit.

In this respect, Vox’s rise the latest warning to European Union. The spectre of populism goes beyond the ideological specificity of so-called populist leaders and their political machinations. The spectre still haunts Europe because nobody at its centres of power is willing to flesh it out, reverse the fears of a very uncertain future, and once and for all address the real needs of people in the face of an increasingly diminished material prosperity. Only then would parties like Vox cease to be able to stoke the ghostly flames of populism.

Dr Ruben Perez-Hidalgo is a lecturer of Spanish Studies at the University of Sydney. His latest research focuses on the visual politics of populism in Spain.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.