impotence democratic. On the political crisis in Spain

La impotencia democrática. Sobre la crisis política de España

Spain suffers a major political crisis. All of the indicators of political public opinion (satisfaction with democracy, trust in institutions, support to the European Union, assessment of the Government and the opposition, etc) are at historic lows. In addition, the corruption scandals contribute to the deterioration of the situation. There are many who think that the problem is institutional and that will be fixed, therefore, by means of institutional reforms, changing the electoral system, the regulation of the parties or the territorial structure of the State. The problem of the explanations institutional is that other european countries, with different institutions suffer from political problems very similar to those of Spain. For this reason, this book advocates a different vision. The political crisis has to do mainly with the impotence of the democratic political power in the problems of the economy. The citizens perceive that there is injustice in the distribution of the economic sacrifices. However, governments are increasingly constrained by non-elected institutions (such as the European Central Bank), do not have the capacity to correct these injustices. Thus, the political future that draws the crisis of a regime liberal and technocratic forms residual of democracy (at the local or regional level in any case), in which the fundamental rights and freedoms will be ensured through the rule of law, but in which no self-governing political.


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Review of Josep M. Vallès1 in Magazine of Books, RdL (June, 2014)

The policy, hijacked by the economy

“In the period that goes from 1990 to 2025/2050 scarce probably (in the world) for peace, stability, and legitimacy…”, The phrase belongs to an article by Immanuel Wallerstein released in 1994, compiled in a later book (After Liberalism, New York, Norton, 1995). Had not been produced yet, or the attack on the Twin Towers (2001), or the great crisis of financial capitalism, which exploded with the same noise and within walking distance of the large gap left by the missing towers (2007-2008). I think relevant to mention the prognosis hardly reassuring sociologist american to frame the excellent book of Sánchez-Cuenca. Because his analysis of the political and economic situation in Spain forms part of the process of change on a global scale that was anticipated Wallerstein.

Sánchez-Cuenca examines the Spanish crisis and come out at the step of two errors too frequent among those who commented. The first of them is the perspective “parochial” –in the words of Sánchez– Cuenca- those who insist on not treating the Spanish case as what it is: one more episode of what is happening in the world today. The second mistake is to insist on the endogenous aspect of the crisis, to pretend that would be the own defects of the Spanish political system the main cause of their decline and disrepute. I think that hits the author to criticize both errors, and I welcome the clarity and the soundness of their arguments.

So that makes the “provincialism”, Sánchez-Cuenca exposes the obsessions for you to discover some ancestral characteristics hispanic that would determine the existence of our current problems. However, this perspective –understandable in the regeneracionismo of the late nineteenth century or early TWENTIETH century– not what it is at the beginning of the TWENTY-first century. The absence of data on the sociopolitical development in other societies would then make analysis isolates and to propose remedies arbitrary. Today, in contrast, economic and political studies available allow the comparison between experiences and force you to draw from these common explanations, and better-informed about the causes of the crisis. And also bring out solutions more or less pilgrim to face it. The persistence of this “provincialism” tends to appear between those who cultivate the creation novel or opinion journalism when they venture on the roads of the analysis socio-political. Used your recognition for literary or media as an argument of authority to provide free disqualifications or for prescribing surface that cannot withstand the harsh contrast with the available data on what is happening in other latitudes.

Sánchez-Cuenca, on the contrary, adopts a frame is not out-of-focus of the situation. From the data, makes available to the reader what they suggest comparative studies on the evolution of the contemporary democracies. From this perspective, Spain is not –nor has been– as different as they are usually paint it some casticistas. Neither for good nor for bad. What we indicate such studies? We point out that the loss of legitimacy of the democratic system and its institutions is not a phenomenon specific to Spain. Accompanying him in this negative development countries with tour democratic longer and more in-countries –like ours– are more brief. Therefore, and without ignoring nuances and accents in each case, there are going to common reasons and not to idiosyncratic reasons to explain this shared evolution.

The second error that discovers Sánchez-Cuenca is that of those who ascribe to the above-mentioned crisis of legitimacy to the defects of their own political system. This is not to deny the importance of such defects. But there is no basis to impute all the responsibility for the crisis. Estimates the professor of the University Carlos III that this allocation is opportunistic, because it serves their authors to settle accounts with some feature of the current political system that interpret it their way and they don’t like: the alleged incompetence and lack of integrity of the entire political staff, a supposedly failed transition to democracy, a territorial decentralization that never accepted, or an electoral system that is easy to denounce as the “suspect-as-usual” for any misbehavior. There is No doubt that factors are offering flanks to a critical judgment. But it cannot be considered the main cause or the sole of the crisis. It reveals the fact that the crisis has also reached to other countries: with and without corruption, decentralized and centralized, subject to electoral rules similar to the Spanish and different from the same.

The crisis will not be resolved, therefore, by resorting to institutional reforms, constituent or non-constituent. Or, at least, not only or especially with them. Undertake reforms of this tenor may be necessary, and the crisis offers, perhaps, a good opportunity to do so. But it is not going to eradicate the factors that have triggered the crisis, in Spain and in other countries that have it.

The thesis argues Sánchez-Cuenca in The impotence democratic is that the under-performance and loss of legitimacy of the political system and its institutions from the economic crisis, the factors that have triggered and the policies with which it has sought to remedy it. We must look, therefore, beyond the architecture policy in place to give the origin of their decline and, consequently, to estimate any possible solution.

The author presents in an orderly fashion the results objectives of the economic crisis on the basis of the data available, all of them well-known. Excessive growth of unemployment, falling wages, loss of quality of employment, increase of the uneven distribution between wage income and capital income, dwindling wealth of the families linked to the depreciation of the housing, the rapid increase in income inequality, increasing poverty and in particular child poverty: are the realities of actions in the official reports cited by the author.

But it also adds to the statistical economic data of the social perception of this negative evolution. Highlighting the perceived injustice in the social distribution of the costs of the crisis, with the enrichment cumulative of the rich and the impoverishment acute of the poor: a “Matthew effect” has important consequences for social cohesion. Are consequences more solvents as the so-called “adjustment policies” have been damaged very negative way the social wage earned by performance of public services (education, health, dependency, etc) for low income households.

It becomes, therefore, more hurtful to the contrast between this limitation of public resources for those most affected by the crisis and the generous assistance dedicated to safeguarding the position of the financial institutions, benefit from direct injections of capital, granting of guarantees and other tax benefits. Not to mention all the loans that have been obtained at low interest rates of the European Central Bank, employees then to speculate with the public debt issued by States and thus obtain a significant profit thanks to the interest differential. The financial institutions have obtained this treatment in spite of the outrages which they had committed, while those harmed by these abuses have not found support equivalent neither on the part of the State or of the European Union.

It is explainable, therefore, the reaction irritated of the views of the public. A citizenship that has felt unfairly treated and at the same time blatantly insulted, if I am allowed to translate freely a strong English expression. The discrediting of the policy, therefore, comes from their powerlessness manifested in the treatment of the economic crisis and the unfair distribution of the costs of the same.

Sánchez-Cuenca adds to all this the disappointment of an opinion that hardly perceives differences between the economic alternatives offered by the major parties, with the option of governing. There are few differences because their ability to maneuver is very limited and subject to the dictation imperative for other instances. What they claim, their own political leaders when excuse the unpleasantness of their measures of government by attributing them to the taxes of the “markets”, economists-experts, the European Union and other international organizations. For them, the policy may not be other than the faithful discharge of a single prescription economic. But if democratic politics no longer offers the possibility of choosing between alternative projects, how can we expect to become an accession reasonably confident and committed on the part of citizens?

The author develops in more detail the argument of the impotence of a policy captured by agents much more powerful than their institutions electives. As a manifestation of the capture, Sánchez-Cuenca devotes some pages to the role exercised by the European Union, exponent indicative of the economic interdependence and policy of our world. The European Union is a good example of economic integration, liberalizing and expanding markets in the pursuit of the “single market”, but without the ability or desire to advance in parallel towards an integration policy that would regulate effectively the market and to distribute its benefits through the pooling of their social protection systems.

There has been, therefore, a severe erosion of the political capacity of the States, but has not become an effective european democracy a substitute. The weak monetary union is good example of this. There is to see in this combination of the “european market with no democratic authority european” the root of the crisis of trust in politics that the citizens express in Spain and in other countries. A crisis of confidence that affects the institutions, state policies, and also now extends to the european institutions, such as revealed by the surveys and barometers of the Commission itself.

When faced with the future, the prognosis of Sánchez-Cuenca is overtly pessimistic. In economics, it emphasizes the tendency to stagnation deflationary policies of austerity are generating. It predicts a worsening of the inequality, with consequent negative effects on social trust and citizen engagement. Most situations of social exclusion and greater precariousness of employment does not encourage positive energies for change. At the same time, the absence of alternatives sufficiently credible to reduce the capacity of political mobilization. Nor is it a stimulus to optimism the difficult articulation of new instruments to replace the old parties, in their mediating role between citizens and decision-makers. For its part, the emergence of social networks causes to our author an avowed skepticism about its ability to effectively regenerate the political relations.

The vision of Sánchez-Cuenca coincides with that of other authors who paint a bleak horizon “posdemocrático”. Not in the sense of achieving a stage of sociopolitical organization than what we have come to call western democracies or, more academically, poliarquías (Robert Dahl). On the contrary. It has been noted that the development of the economic globalization has triggered a movement of reflux democratic that creeps into our societies towards situations where they evaporate, rights, civil, political and social painstakingly acquired in the previous two centuries.

The “posdemocracia” (Colin Crouch, 2004) or the “desdemocratización” (Charles Tilly, 2007) lead us to the absence of democracy as he understood and articulated until now: as a balance between the guarantee of personal freedom, the project of social justice and participation in decisions of common interest. To this laborious balance will happen now the combination of authoritarianism dominated by technocrats with a dualización socio-economic of societies divided between the one percent of winners, and the ninety-nine percent of losers.

Sánchez-Cuenca shared this forecast is pessimistic, because it understands that the ongoing tension between liberal capitalism and democracy has been decanting into a situation in which “the economic system just submitting or absorbing the political system”. The European Union –as already said– would be an example of foreshadowing of this submission in which it occupies the lead role of a European Central Bank run by unelected technocrats and allegedly independent.

What lessons emerge from the analysis of our author? Attempt sessions to produce. The serious defects which it exhibits the Spanish political system have cause in the economic system. Are shared with other political systems, because they correspond to the same origin and follow the same pattern. This shared evolution leads –in the best cases– to a political system that is liberal, but not democratic. That is to say, a system able to ensure certain areas of personal freedom, but which prevents the intervention of citizens in the decision effective on the priorities for the collective that go beyond the local. Consequently, only the replacement of capitalism by other economic model –which, by now, is not in sight– would allow to recover the path of the emancipation policy of citizenship that contains the democratic principle. Prognosis is darker, therefore, that the us was the same Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca in an interesting text earlier (More democracy, less liberalism, Madrid, Katz, 2010).

However, my opinion is that the contribution of the new book of Sánchez-Cuenca opens expectations more positive than those defined by the author himself. Because I understand that the first battle to resist this dynamic of decline that we don’t like to many it is an ideological battle. Namely, the battle to counter with argument clear and powerful, as the of this book, the narrative dominant of the “single thought” derived from the liberal capitalism: the story that led to the economic disaster that we suffer and that with the absence of the accused irresponsible now intends to offer an alleged solution. The book of Sanchez-Cuenca, in addition to other authors in the effort to disarm the version –naïve or clearly interested– that the crisis is only a result of the policy and their managers. When, in reality, has been the pressure of a particular economic model that has marked the political course, of its institutions and of a good part of its protagonists. To designate the policy as a “scapegoat” for all our ills is intended to divert the attention of the mind and invisible to its main executives.

To neutralize this powerful maneuver of fun, contributes certainly the book of Sanchez-Cuenca, through argumentation well-stuck, documentation, solid and clear exposition. It is an important step in this essential struggle to regain lost ground in the field of ideas, occupied by false doom of the “this is what there is.” Neither should be disregarded in this line attempts that seek to explore new ways in the organization of economic cooperation or public intervention of platforms, movements or citizen groups. It is true that the road is expected to long and bumpy. So unstable and so prolonged as we noted Immanuel Wallerstein to mark the horizon 2020-2050 as a point of closure. There is time, then, to continue exploring and insisting. Without surrender, as claimed by Max Weber to the political commitment of who –in the face of failures and frustrations– continues its efforts with a “despite everything”.


About the book in other media

  • Troika: what surgeons or butchers? (Cataract). The Country, 17 February 2014
  • The political scientist Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca published impotence democratic (Cataract) The, 8 march 2014
  • The crisis of Spanish politics and its causes (the Books of the Cataract) Info Free, 9 February 2014


Review of the author

La impotencia democrática. Sobre la crisis política de España

Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca is the Research Director of the CEACS and Doctor Member of the Institute Juan March. Professor of Sociology at the University Complutense of Madrid and Doctor in Sociology by the same. Has been Rice Associate Professor at Yale University, associate professor at the Department of Political Science of the Pompeu Fabra University, Visiting Scholar at the University of New York, and assistant Faculty in the Department of Sociology of the University of Salamanca. He is the author of numerous academic articles in journals such as Journal of Conflict Resolution, Politics & Society, Annual Review of Political Science, European Union Politics, Journal of Peace Research, Party Politics, Revista Española de Investigaciones Sociológicas, the International Journal of Sociology and other. Among his last books,More democracy and less liberalism (Katz 2010), Years of changes, years of crisis. Eight years of socialist governments (Fall, 2012), (co-editor with Adam Przeworski) Democracy and social democracy. Homenaje a José María Maravall (Centre for Political and Constitutional Studies, 2012), (coeditor with José María Maravall)Controlling Governments (Cambridge University Press, 2008). He is a frequent contributor to the journal The Country.



  1. Josep M. Vallès is professor emeritus of Political Science at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. He is the author of political Science. An introduction (Barcelona, Ariel, 2004) and editor, with Xavier Ballart, from Political to apolitical. Against the resignation of the citizens (Barcelona, Ariel, 2012). [↩]

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