A Political Philosophy in Public Life: Civic Republicanism in Zapatero's Spain

By White, Stuart | Renewal, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

A Political Philosophy in Public Life: Civic Republicanism in Zapatero's Spain


White, Stuart, Renewal


When parties lose elections badly, this is often taken as a sign that the party needs to think again and think hard about the question: 'What do we stand for?'

In March 2000 the Spanish Socialist Party suffered a second, emphatic election defeat to the conservative Popular Party. Following the defeat, the Socialists elected a new leader, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose base of enthusiastic support came from a young group of party activists calling themselves the 'New Way'. But what, exactly, was this New Way? Although the term had clear echoes of New Labour's Third Way, there was a concern that this wasn't distinct enough from the policies of the previous Socialist government of Felipe Gonzalez or, indeed, from the politics of the centre-right governments of Jose Maria Aznar. After some initial, tentative groping for themes and ideas, an academic advisor, Jose Andres Torres Mora, turned Zapatero's attention to a book published by the Princeton-based political philosopher, Philip Pettit: Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Pettit, 1997). Zapatero seized on its ideas. Republicanism was the Socialist New Way.

On 11 March 2004 a terrorist attack in Madrid by a group with links to Al Quaida killed 191 people and injured another 1,858. Occurring just three days before the upcoming general election, it--along with the Aznar government's somewhat cynical efforts to suggest that Basque terrorists might be responsible for the attack--caused a last minute shift in support from the Popular Party to the Socialists. Zapatero became Spain's prime minister.

Following this victory, Zapatero invited Pettit to come and give some lectures and seminars on his philosophy of republicanism. Eager to show that this was not just intellectual window-dressing, Zapatero invited Pettit to return in a few years to write a republican audit of the government and to present his evaluation of the government's record in a public lecture.

The book under review seeks to tell the story of this unusually close identification of a political leader and his government with a very specific political philosophy. It consists of an essay by Jose Luis Marti setting out the political context to the adoption and reception of Pettit's ideas; an essay by Pettit setting out his conception of republicanism; the text of Pettit's lecture from 2007 which presents his largely positive, but critical, assessment of the government's republican record; an interview of Zapatero by Pettit; and a joint essay by Marti and Pettit on what makes for an effective political philosophy for public, political use.

Although published in 2010, the bulk of the book's material addresses the period before the great economic crash of 2008. This means it reads frequently like a postcard from a bygone, more innocent age. But there are occasional glimpses of the storm on the horizon. And on Pettit's part there is dissatisfaction with the form of republican politics. Repeatedly, he urges the need for a new social movement politics as a complement to the efforts of the Socialist government.

Perhaps the first thing to clarify is just what Pettit's republicanism consists in. Along with the intellectual historian Quentin Skinner, Pettit is responsible in contemporary political theory for clarifying a distinctive conception of freedom: freedom as 'non-domination' (Skinner, 1998). In his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau says that 'the worst thing that can happen to one in the relations between man and man is to find oneself at the mercy of another' (Rousseau, 1984, 125). This captures the idea at the core of Pettit's understanding of freedom. A person is unfree when he or she is living 'at the mercy' of another; that is, when another has a power to interfere, entirely according to the power-holder's own will, in his or her life. Freedom consists in the absence of this power relationship: hence, in 'non-domination'. …

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