Everything Is Just Dandy!

Spain’s Far-Right Resurgence Comes From Decades of Fascist Organizing

Anarchism
Miquel Ramos
2022-08-20
https://jacobin.com/2022/08/spain-fascism-far-right-anti-vox-antifascism/

In recent decades, Spain has often been painted as the only European country without a far right. But even in the 1990s, violent street movements were building their forces — and now they’re entering the country’s political institutions, too.


Journalist and author Miquel Ramos. (Photo: Cristina Candel)

In Spain’s last general election in 2019, the far right achieved its best ever result. With 3.7 million votes (15 percent) and fifty-two seats, Vox became the third-largest party in the Congreso de los Diputados. And it hasn’t stopped advancing. Earlier this year, it joined the government in Castilla y León, Spain’s largest region. If a decade ago Vox didn’t exist, today its leaders appear on prime-time comedy shows — and with general elections slated for 2023, they could soon even be in cabinet.

All this has been a surprise to a certain mainstream mantra. For decades, it had painted Spain as an oasis of democracy, even the only country in Europe without a far right, just because it didn’t show up on election day. But recognizing these forces’ power today is also about facing up to reality. The Spanish far right isn’t just back: it never really went away. Vox is not its only name. That’s something committed anti-fascists have known for over three decades.

As for many others from his generation, anti-fascism is a personal matter for journalist Miquel Ramos, born in Valencia in 1979. A month before Miquel turned fourteen, the eighteen-year-old activist Guillem Agulló was stabbed to death by far-right militants. Ramos knew Agulló through his presence in left-wing demonstrations and political spaces. Indeed, the 1990s were years in which teenagers saw rising fascist violence in the streets. In a year and a half, trans woman Sonia Rescalvo in Barcelona, migrant worker of Dominican origin Lucrecia Pérez in Madrid, and Agulló were all killed.

Ever since then, Ramos began to collect press clippings about the subject, building toward the work he has now published on thirty years of militant opposition to far-right, fascist, and neo-Nazi movements in Spain, entitled Antifascistas: Así se combatió a la extrema derecha española desde los años 90.

Ignacio Pato spoke to Ramos about far-right street movements in Spain, their relationship to the parliamentary right, and how they can be fought.


Ignacio Pato

Compared to older generations, your generation’s relationship to anti-fascism seems to have a distinct, more personal characteristic.

Miquel Ramos

My generation didn’t live through the Transición of the late 1970s, a period marked by the continuity of Francoism in state structures such as the police, and by groups that still advocated for dictatorship.

But in our teenage years in the 1990s, we did see the manifestations of a far right that had not been so present before. They acted in the streets with violence and impunity. The fairy tale claimed that fascism had died with Francisco Franco. Maybe part of the previous generation that had fought against it didn’t feel attracted by these new groups. But our generation, the one that started to have political concerns at the beginning of the 1990s, did.

It was impossible for many types of people to escape from that far-right violence. A lot of people experienced it, whether they were political militants or not: sometimes you had to be careful just because you hung around certain places.

Ignacio Pato

Can we see different phases in far-right strategies during the last thirty years?

Miquel Ramos

Yes. First, they had some more tribal features associated with skinheads and football hooligans — that was between the mid-1980s and the 2000s. After that, the far right tried to form regular political parties and soften their speech, playing to the gallery.

The third phase was the rise of neofascist social movements influenced by the French Nouvelle Droite, such as Italy’s CasaPound — groups that directly imitate the strategies and symbols of the radical left. The current stage is that we have, for the first time in Spain, a far-right party, Vox, in the institutions. Although the far right disguises itself as democratic, there are still violent groups on the streets.

The brighter side of the story is that anti-fascism is also organizing. And this movement joins with others such as squatting, anti-globalization, and those who fight for more social, livable neighborhoods. The anti-fascist militant isn’t usually just against fascism.

Ignacio Pato

In Antifascistas, you identify a turning point around November 20, 1988 — the anniversary of Franco’s death — when far-right groups tried to attack the stalls of leftist and anarchist movements in El Rastro, Madrid’s most popular open-air market.

Miquel Ramos

Until then, far-right action was more about reprisals and occasional clashes. However, the assault on El Rastro involved a fascist organization attacking a pretty symbolic space for left-wing people in Madrid. They were already on alert and realized they had to come together and face the problem.

Ignacio Pato

The 1990s were a kind of “years of lead” of continued violence. They began with the killing, on another November 20, of the left-wing Basque MP Josu Muguruza. Groups like Bases Autónomas used violence in the streets, and areas of some cities fell under the far right’s control. For many people, anti-fascism became something more than a political position, for it was also about protecting themselves and their own lives. Do you think today’s society is aware of the real dimensions of what happened then?

Miquel Ramos

I don’t think it is. Days like those scar you. It was a scenario in which you aren’t looking for anything — but it finds you. There were murders, seriously injured people, and others who were forced to beg for their life, to hit back or to preventively attack. It makes you see the far-right problem in a certain way. That threat has been trivialized, for instance, when the media talked about “urban tribes.” Of course, those were not fights for territory: the far right wanted to kill you because of who you were, how you thought, or who you loved. Or who they thought you were, because sometimes victims didn’t have any political link. Crossing glances was enough. My book tries to explain what existed, how people lived with that, and what they did about it. Their testimonies are based on their own experience.

Ignacio Pato

Mainstream media rhetoric, in those years, mainly portrayed the logic of “clashes between different tribes.” For the first time, Nazis made prime-time news. Did this presence sound anti-fascist alarm bells among ordinary citizens, or did it end up whitewashing them?

Miquel Ramos

Media featured a cartoonish far right — very often as a drunk skinhead, while the problem was obviously bigger. The problem was also that some people embraced that cartoon. A lot of Nazis were attracted to the skinhead movement through the movie American History X, the book Diario de un skin, or sensationalist TV reports on football. Some others, it’s true, arrived at anti-fascism through these images, but there was also an attempt within the movement to put a stop to that. For example, Brigadas Antifascistas (BAF) said, “You can’t hang out here, this is political.”

Ignacio Pato

One of the testimonies in the book, from BAF, say this collective was “a steamroller” at the beginning of the millennium. There was an anti-fascist offensive at that time. What were its key elements?

Miquel Ramos

Anti-fascist groups were not only focused on self-defense, but around that time, they got over a “victim” attitude. The mindset changed. For collectives like BAF, the idea was, “There’s no need for them to come for us; we are going for them first.” People who took that initiative saved a lot of other people, in my opinion. It can be criticized from a distance, and the discussion around violent tactics comes through from the whole book, because there has never been a consensus about it. But where an anti-fascist offensive has existed, where people have drawn the line, far-right violence has declined.

Ignacio Pato

Important for another generation of anti-fascists was the murder of Carlos Palomino, a sixteen-year-old stabbed to death at a protest against a neo-Nazi rally in 2007. There was a change in the way the movement communicated and the way it fought to portray the story in media. Some organizations began to show their faces. Somehow, the image of the anti-fascist as an angry young man under a black hood was overcome.

Miquel Ramos

Very often, under those hoods, there were individuals that people wouldn’t imagine. The profile of anti-fascists has always been diverse. The cliché that media created has been the one of a violent “black bloc”–style crew causing trouble. For years, that weighed heavily. Around the time of Carlos Palomino’s murder, there was not just the claim that they killed a minor who had a mother and friends. Some reports insisted on the anti-fascist caricature [of Palomino], and it was a double victimization. And anti-fascism was very clever about showing faces. That helped to dismantle the media’s “both sides” mantra, but not in a complete way, because it persists even now.

Ignacio Pato

What role have police played regarding the far-right problem?

Miquel Ramos

There was not an effective purge of the security forces after Franco’s death. Policemen who had tortured people continued their job until they retired. There was, especially in the 1980s, state terrorism that involved members of those forces. Some of them paid for that with prison time, but others got away with it or even were decorated, as in the well-known case of “Billy el Niño” [the most known torturer and police officer in Franco’s dictatorship, who died of COVID without ever going on trial]. We have always seen Nazis who are sons of police officers or who get arrested but don’t even go to police stations. And don’t forget that their information squads are still talking about “urban tribes” even today.

Ignacio Pato

Some political commentators have connected Vox’s rise to a response to the Catalan independence process and the October 2017 referendum.

Miquel Ramos

Spanish nationalism has always been one of the basic elements of the far right. That always existed — it didn’t need the referendum in order to whip itself into excitement. The question is why the far right was able to capitalize on the campaign against Catalonian self-determination.

The official narrative, the one that came from the authorities, well suited the far right. In demonstrations, there were democrats against the Catalan referendum who didn’t put up any barriers against the far right. Why were people from Communist and Socialist parties sharing banners with Vox? Maybe that narrative was a mistake from the start. Wasn’t there an alternative to police smashing heads on voting day? Why was the message “a por ellos” (“go for them”) institutionalized?

Ignacio Pato

Vox has tried — but so far not managed — to make more of an approach to working-class concerns. Is there a danger, in Spain, of a far right with a more social discourse than Vox itself has?

Miquel Ramos

I don’t really see it now, at a party-political level. I don’t see Vox making a serious approach to social problems concerning workers. Nevertheless, Vox has expanded the Overton window for social movements that imitate the Left and try to use a “class” discourse, as the French Nouvelle Droite did after May ’68 — movements whose narrative turned from attacking the homeless to feeding them.

Ignacio Pato

Former deputy prime minister Pablo Iglesias is one of the interviewees in Antifascistas. This is probably the first time in recent Spanish history that a figure that high up in government can speak on this issue from first-person experience. Anti-fascism was quite an explicit slogan for Podemos in Madrid’s last regional election.

Miquel Ramos

Some people within Podemos come from social movements and have suffered neo-Nazi violence. They’ve got that sensitivity. Pablo Iglesias and equality minister Irene Montero have for a long time had far-right ultras coming to the door of their own home, even sending them bullets in the mail. That’s something that had never happened before.

Ignacio Pato

In the last two years, mental health became a mainstream topic in Spain. This is an issue that the far right never seems to care about, instead making fun of people’s emotional problems. Is mental health a space where anti-fascism, and democracy with it, can make an advance?

Miquel Ramos

The far right is more about bullying than doing politics. It’s based on harassing and knocking down vulnerable groups. Their deeply neoliberal economic program has serious costs for the quality of people’s lives. However much they use the cultural battle as a smokescreen, far-right politics don’t give more rights to the working classes. And this has a cost also at an emotional level. Defending our health — mental health, but also other kinds — is a banner we can raise. The far right doesn’t give a damn about the quality of life of the unprivileged. Anti-fascism is largely based on mutual support and caring for one another. Clearly, we have a moral advantage on this front.

Ignacio Pato

Feminism, anti-racism, LGBTQ movements, housing campaigns, and trade unions allow for a kind of preventive anti-fascism. At the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown, we saw mutual aid groups in a lot of neighborhoods, while the far right didn’t do anything to help anyone. What do you think are their weak spots?

Miquel Ramos

Fascism takes advantage of the neoliberal undermining of class consciousness. They focus not on this social consciousness but on other identities. Their voter is not attracted to economics but by the flag, masculinity, and whiteness.

The sense of class belonging, which remains widespread still today, used to be a dam against fascism. We aren’t living through the best of times for this consciousness; it’s true. But grassroots struggles in neighborhoods, for housing rights, defending your neighbors, your and your friends’ jobs, maybe other workers’ jobs even though they’re hundreds of miles away from you — all that is absolutely a protective wall against the far right.

Ignacio Pato

What’s your diagnosis of the present situation?

Miquel Ramos

Anti-fascism still counts for a lot among democratic-minded people — it’s part of their DNA. Spain was one of the last European countries where the far right entered parliament, and I think that has increased awareness.

I’ve been asked, in other interviews, if anti-fascism has failed. I’d tell you it hasn’t. The question that needs answering is why people, many of them very young, who fought against the far right were left on their own — so, not what they did wrong, but where the rest of society was. My book wants to pay tribute to people that all too often struggled alone. Still today, there are journalists who don’t know the games the far right plays with media. Even worse, there’s a certain kind of Left that buys into far-right framings.

Anti-fascism has a huge amount of work to do, but a very valuable heritage. We must insist that fascism is not a political option nor a respectable opinion. It impacts many people’s lives. So everyone has to choose what side of history they want to be part of.