February 20th, 2021
On Spain's transition from dictatorship to constitutional monarchy
It’s been some time since the term “transition” was fully incorporated into day-to-day usage in contemporary Spanish. It refers to the process of political change that began during the second half of the 1970s, a process which transformed Spain from the Franco dictatorship to the parliamentary monarchy that governs the country today. The term was coined in the midst of the dictatorship, as if in its invocation it could foreshadow the horizon of its disintegration. It succeeded in connoting the way in which one regime gave way to another—not a violent cut, nor a democratic breakdown in the strict sense. Instead, it was a process negotiated by the leaders who had inherited the state apparatus of the dictatorship, and the leaders of the parties of the democratic opposition. While the first aimed to assert the weight, however trivial, of an obsolete and precarious power structure, the second aimed to channel the democratic impulse of a significant section of Spanish society.
That latter section was composed of men and women who resisted through illegal parties and organized social movements (worker’s movements, neighborhood associations, student unions, and feminist groups) capable of breaking the public order and revealing, between the cracks of the regime, the new alternatives. In their day to day, they developed forms of political participation, experimentation, and cultural innovation which themselves detracted from Franco’s hold on the popular imagination. In many ways, these early experiences were much more profound than the institutional restructuring later termed the transition. From this angle, the transition can be understood as a sfumato, that is to say, not only the fading of dictatorship into democracy, but as a sum of experiential layers each contributing to its atmosphere and offering a depth that we’ve yet to fully grasp.The interviews with Felipe González, Begoña San Jose, and Héctor Maravall contained in this book capture the texture of this historical moment.
On the other side of this politically active reality stood another very diverse and wide sector of society, predisposed to the consensus they were socialized into under Francoism. They were motivated by a timid desire for change, as well as by a deep fear of its consequences. Under- standing the Spanish transition requires gaining an awareness of these inherited social habits which were highly structured by authoritarianism, and the survival of its repressive legal, bureaucratic, and media institutions. It also requires acknowledging an international framework in which any action on the margin of society was limited by the areas of political influence that defined the Cold War period.
But understanding the transition also requires capturing that organic crisis in existing relations of power, the intuitive and automatic social responses which enhanced the appeal of new cultural attitudes and expanded the scope for political action. The much cited phrase of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán—which explains the negotiations behind the changing regime as “an alignment of weaknesses”—is useful if we recognize that, in moments of crisis, any alignment of forces is unstable and fragile. Understood through its underlying estatism, “an alignment of weaknesses” is a declaration that the transition happened in the only way that it could have. It’s an argument in which the real is transformed into the rational, the rational into the optimal, and the optimal into the venerable. But we know that narratives of the past tend to perform this argumentative transposition in the opposite direction: it is from the veneration of the present that earlier events are arranged in a way that inevitably leads towards some determined destiny.