Republican Political Theory and Spanish Social Democracy

By Coffee, Alan | Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics, April 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Republican Political Theory and Spanish Social Democracy


Coffee, Alan, Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics


When Spain's Socialist party (PSOE) came to power in 2004, its first act of government was to present a draft bill forbidding domestic violence in the home, something which had previously been missing from the statute books. The following year a law was passed recognising marriages between couples of the same sex on the same terms as for traditional couples, and allowing gay and lesbians to adopt. More recently, gender equality legislation has come into force designed to ensure the effective equality of the sexes before the law. A minimum representation of forty per cent of both men and women on party candidate lists became mandatory, with corporate boards expected to follow suit by 201 0.

In addition to these provisions, in 2005 the government granted amnesty to over 700,000 illegal migrant workers, drawing them into the regular - rather than black economy, and offering many of them the possibility of full legal recognition.

Taken individually, there is nothing remarkable about these policies or pieces of legislation. Similar provisions and statutes can be found on the books of many European countries and, although Spain faces a number of pressing issues concerning its migrant labour, it is by no means unique in this respect. Taken together, however, and viewed in the light of other actions taken by the PSOE since taking office, these policies have a distinctive theoretical significance. Each of these measures is motivated by a single principle: to reduce the capacity for anyone in society (including members of the government) to 'dominate' others.

The term 'dominate' is used here in a specific sense taken from classical civic-republican thinking - a tradition which includes the ideas of Machiavelli, Harrington, Madison and Tocqueville. Most recently, the political importance of protecting citizens from domination has featured as the central concept in the political philosophy of Philip Pettit, the most prominent contemporary defender of the republican ideal (Pettit, 1997).

From Marxism to republicanism

Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is explicit about the influence that Pettit's work has had on him and about his own personal commitment to the principle that the role of the government is to prevent the domination of its citizens as far as possible. Zapatero believes that it is important for political parties, particularly those on the left, to frame their policies with reference to an intellectual framework. Following the PSOE's abandonment of Marxism in 1979, and subsequent repositioning as a centre-left party, he regards republicanism as the appropriate theoretical backdrop for the party in the new century. The attraction of Pettit's work, Zapatero says, is found in the clarity and practical utility of the republican programme, which has the potential to be turned into a political reality (Pettit, 2008, 91-96). Under his leadership, then, the reduction of domination has come to serve as the unifying principle behind the policies adopted by the Socialist party.

It is possible to overstate the importance of republican theory in Zapatero's politics of course. Certainly, the Prime Minister acknowledges a variety of other sources of influence on his thinking as leader, including, for example, Rawls's ideas, which were very important for the PSOE in the 1980s (Pettit, 2008, 93; see also Kennedy, 2008). Moreover, we should not neglect the impact on the party's current policies of longstanding grassroots activism. The urgency behind the gender equality legislation, and the high profile of the issues which lie behind, is primarily the result of intensive campaigning by Spain's feminists over the last thirty years (Threlfall, 2007).

Nevertheless, Zapatero himself testifies to the significance of the impression Pettit's philosophy has made on him both personally and politically and, in 2007, he asked Pettit to produce an assessment of his government's first three years in power from a republican perspective.

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