1A wave of citizen fury is sweeping the world, with social mobilisations in France, Hong Kong, Chile, Algeria, India, and so on. The international order that has prevailed more or less since 1945 is starting to crumble. The Arab Spring, the protest movements related to the world crisis of 2008, Me Too and mobilizations in favour of urgently fighting climate change, to name just four examples, highlight these disruptions of former social and political consensuses.
2Following the last Great Recession, and the policies that were implemented, many citizens found themselves severely affected by the crisis, which left sudden deep wounds. Furthermore, when the citizens of developed countries, particularly the Europeans – looked to their governments seeking protection, they found their governments turning their backs on them, bound head and toe by international commitments that were limiting their margins for manoeuvre and pushing them to introduce cuts and austerity.
3All of this left behind it a trail of inequality and a feeling of discontent and social injustice. And this is now being taken advantage of by populism and extreme ideologies, fuelled by unfulfilled promises, by an economic recovery that is not reaching everyone equally, by citizen dissatisfaction in the face of the growing polarisation of income and wealth, by the growing fear of those who feel that their future has been stolen and by the typically human need to find the guilty parties.
4We are faced with a series of uneven and disarticulated revolts against “what I don’t like”, whose origins lie in a collective that feels badly treated or not taken into consideration (which leads us to the divide concept) by the public powers that be. Furthermore, the different divides that exist or have been created are sustained by what differentiates us; the adversary becomes the enemy, negotiation becomes claudication and agreement becomes surrender.
5The aim of the study that we are introducing here, The Divides Breaking Up Spanish Society, is to help understand the causes of these worrying social phenomena and try to propose solutions. We are referring, in particular, to the divides that are threatening social cohesion and damaging the democratic coexistence between citizens who share the same formal rights. Fractures, in short, that prevent people from fully developing their life projects in freedom.
Social and democratic malaise
It is quite true that the tension between antagonistic factions has been a constant in recent decades. What is happening today, however, is internally dividing societies into various blocs, which are organised around a social fracture (real or perceived) from which it is sought to construct a self-identity. Political debate seems to have retreated from the public space to be substituted by confrontation. Therefore, we are crossing through that dangerous point of all social transitions, in which it is as defensible to shed light on signs of the new world order as to think that we will be living in a disorder marked by various forces: blockchain, big data, artificial intelligence, robotization or ecological transition, but also nationalism, xenophobia, intolerance, irrationality and totalitarianism. The causes of these phenomena have a great deal to do with social divides. In this respect, a broad consensus exists among experts:
The social pact established since World War II has gone up in smoke from the heat of globalisation, the technological revolution, and the primacy of a financial economy that has erected private profit as its new and exclusive totem. The Great Recession of 2008 and subsequent crisis signal the point of no return in a process of breakdown between global economic elites and sedentary workers, who soon see the emergence of losers among their ranks, as the middle class gradually disappears in the midst of public indifference.
This means that many citizens feel deceived and less important to “the system” than the businesses and the banks. In the words of Innerarity, “when the elites disconnect from what is happening to their co-citizens – and there are many people feeling excluded from the future – the grounds for confrontation are laid”.
This polarisation and distrust affect the quality of democracy: and the parties that pick up and express this anger receive increasing numbers of votes, even if they are not doing anything constructive. And as pointed out by Levitsky and Ziblatt, they break two basic rules of democracy: “mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance”.
It all starts with the existence of social divides in the public space that are not recognised and that nobody feels compelled to resolve. As Ricardo Dudda says: “Politics today is a mixture of propaganda and media hysteria […] with a surplus of political narcissists whose main objective is to avoid any loss of presence, and for that reason they aspire to make their identity public”. The new political uses deployed by populist governments are revealing in this sense: dividing the country in two and then pitting one half against the other; to do so they resort to the entire available arsenal of fake news, fingerpointing, etc.
1. What unites and what separates
The tension between unity and diversity, between what unites us and what separates us, is not new in history. To cite one classic from our Judeo-Christian tradition, the Bible recognises the unity of humans. Beyond the religious arena, however, it is necessary to wait until the 18th century to find, in the United States Declaration of Independence (1776), that all men are created equal and that they all have the same, inalienable rights.
This idea crossed to Europe when, in August 1789, the brand new French National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. We owe the idea that “human beings” were situated between the gods and the rest of the animals, and had certain natural, evident and universal rights, to a large extent, to the Enlightenment.
With these precedents, it is easier to understand the step taken in 1948, when the United Nations, just created following the Second World War, adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With this, our coexistence is based on something essential that makes us all equal. Social divides, however, are constructed around the existence of an inequality, in other words, of a controversial difference, through some type of reasoning or prejudice, intended to justify discriminatory treatment. Such divides can exist despite a country’s legal system recognising the validity of human rights and they often lead us to shut ourselves away inside a small community.
The dynamics of these types of divides help to explain what is happening and what has happened in many parts of the world. With this, we are not trying to say that the existence of social divides leads, inevitably, to severe conflict and even less to wars. But what we do want to point out, however, is that we cannot live with our backs turned to the real existence of social divides, as if the approval of the Declaration of Human Rights or the existence of democratic constitutions were sufficient to erase in one fell swoop the concept of them and their actual existence.
2. A short tour through history
We form part of a Europe that, since the French Revolution, has moved between three fundamental divides: nationalism, the class struggle, and the divide existing between liberal democracies and authoritarianisms. And, increasingly in recent years, the immigration divide has re-emerged and, even, certain divides that reflect particular forms of religious expression have revealed themselves. Frequently, the relationship between the different divides has been conflictive. On occasions they have been proposed as alternatives for each other. And when it has been necessary to choose between one and another, the postures have ranged from the famous phrase attributed to the right-wing leader of our Second Republic, José Calvo Sotelo, who said “better a red Spain than a broken Spain”, to today’s anti-capitalist movements which, at times, seem to give priority to the territorial question over the social one.
Between the post-Bonaparte revolutions of 1848 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, the confrontation between the middle classes and the proletariat was possibly the main axis of social polarisation. The main political parties positioned themselves on the left and right of this confrontation, just as the majority of countries around the world aligned themselves either with the communist bloc or the capitalist bloc. Even if we accept this as the main divide around which the debate and political confrontation was divided, it was never the only one. In fact, at many points it was eclipsed by another major divide: the nation and nationalism. Something more than chance led to the coinciding, in 1948, of the publication of the Communist Manifesto, written by Marx and Engels, and the middle-class revolutionary wave that led, right across Europe, the defence of the idea of the nation, together with some timid democratic advances. Perhaps this was the first time that an international view of the working-class cause been pitted against the nationalist values defended by a growing middle class. And so then, the cause of the nation triumphed.
Following World War II, another divide appeared, overcoming the two previous ones: democracy versus totalitarianism. While the right, following the bloody war fought against fascism and Nazism, the right defended democratic values together with the idea of nation and the advantages of the free market, an important part of the internationalist working-class left found itself trapped in the defence of the proletariat dictatorship, which in the communist countries subordinated, initially, the working-class cause to what were considered to be “middle-class freedoms”. The social-democratic faction that criticised the lack of freedoms and democracy in the communist countries continued defending that the values of social equality had to be situated at the same level, or even above, the principle of freedom, as criteria for organising a fair society.
3. A little bit of political theory
All political theory is based on two original questions: the first, what do we do with people who are not like us? And the second: does society exist as an entity with its own life, one greater than the sum of its parts? The first question verges on the philosophical, as it requires accepting and understanding that an “us” and a “them” exist. If an “us” exists, it is because there is something, some dominant characteristic, that identifies us. And if a “them” exists it is because there are other characteristics that identify “them” as something that makes them different to “us”. From here on, what do we do with people who are different?
The first reaction consists of not accepting that difference and fighting the other with the use of force in order to subject, dominant and assimilate him. A second reaction is to co-exist, isolate the others in ghettoes where they can live in accordance with their difference, but without mixing with us. The third possible reaction is to establish norms and regulations for coexistence in the same spaces and with the same opportunities: we all form part of the same community, where all are capable of working together on collective projects. We are united by something higher, something so strong that it may be compatible with the existence of other subsets ordered by any other characteristic that may occur to us.
The second seminal question is related with the existence, or not, of a collective logic derived from a whole that is greater than the sum of its component parts. Oft repeated is the famous phrase by Margaret Thatcher in which she said, from her extreme liberalism, that there is no such thing as society, that she had only known individuals who interacted in the defence of their own interests, under the principles of the law. Taken to our reflection, this would mean recognising that there is no “us” and “them”, but rather only a lot of “mes” and a lot of “others”. In our reasoning, if there is a unit of reference sufficiently general as to include various private collectives, the divides between the latter could generate tensions but only to the point at which the greater unit of reference is put at risk.
For years, the so-called higher common interest acted as a lid that lessened the intensity of the tensions between the different private interests. However, the globalisation of the economy and the boom in communication technologies have so weakened the sphere of the nation-state that a reference point is being lost. With this, the analysis of social divides takes on renewed interest because they are acquiring new dynamics that often reflect a generalised malaise.
4. Money or recognition?
Some authors have proposed the existence of an exclusive alternative between the social question and the identity question as the mortar around which a society is built. It could also be defended that, deep down, some defences of redistribution have been built, over the course of history, on an identarian narrative in which social class has become the identarian group upon which he narrative and the society desired are constructed.
The rise of identarian politics of the self as the affirmation of group specificity in the face of the search for a common good has been evolving over the course of the years; there has been a gradual loss of the awareness of the existence of something common that unites us all. Today’s identity movements, Lilla insists, are becoming stronger by defending their differences, even at the cost of losing what unites them with everyone else. And in this entropic dynamic where the idea of a global “us” disappears, in this era of private identity, where the space for the discourse aimed at the whole of the nation and at general interests as citizens is reduced to almost nothing, the right moves a lot more ably than the left.
At the very least, this conclusion has also been reached by another of the best interpreters of the importance that identity has acquired in recent times, Francis Fukuyama, who points out that “demand for recognition of one’s identity is a master concept that unifies much of what is going on in world politics today” (Identity. The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment). Thus, this crisis of identity leads us in the opposite direction “to the search for a common identity that will rebind individual to a social group”.
For this reason, “the principle of equal and universal recognition has mutated into the special recognition of particular groups”. Within this context, the perception of invisibility is key for determining political decisions to the point that “to be poor is to be invisible to your fellow human beings and the indignity of invisibility is often worse than the lack of resources”.
5. Liberty, equality, fraternity and the principle of difference
From the point at which we define something that unites us more than it separates us, the next question is how we establish the rules of coexistence between those who are different. For some, the answer must be sought in religion. A second answer also robs human beings of capacity for establishing their own rules, leaving them in the hands of social evolution and of history. The third answer focuses on the centrality of human beings when establishing rules for coexistence. We would situate its founding in the movement of the Enlightenment, with two historical points of reference: The United States Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution, which summarised the basic principles for human coexistence into the triad of liberty, equality and fraternity. And we ask ourselves: liberty, for what? Equality, of what? Fraternity, among whom?
For years, the majority identified freedom with political liberties. Principles converted into rights to which (nearly) everyone should have access. However, the road towards universal suffrage was long and tortuous, as was the expansion of the concept of liberty, from the political sphere to the social, which was made possible by the trade-union struggle and the social-democratic movement, with the generalisation of the Welfare State. From there the concept of liberty must be understood as the real possibility that individuals can move ahead with their life projects without restrictions or domination from outside.
In that sense, liberty has a lot to do with equality. But equality, of what? Individuals have to be equal in political and social rights, as there cannot be any true liberty if there is not a minimum degree of equality between members of the community. It seems reasonable, also, that all of them should enjoy equal opportunities that, moreover, is the only real way of demanding responsibilities from individuals and making them participants in the results of their efforts. Together with this, welfare equality seeks to improve social welfare through redistribution policies. For its part, the equality of capabilities, developed by Amartya Sen, includes other essential aspects such as healthcare.
Next, we reach the third ordering principle, the worst understood of all, fraternity. Fraternity, between who? Some ideologies base this principle on difference. In contrast, it is also possible to organise fraternity around that which unites us. As can be seen, in the rational form of organising coexistence between different individuals in a fraternal way, equality of rights is fully compatible with diversity, at the same time that it permits the incorporation of feelings. Fraternity, therefore, eliminates current national frontiers based on a fortuitous and involuntary event, and creates new frontiers based on the rational and voluntary decision of respecting the democratic norms of coexistence.
Therefore, a society of diverse individuals that wishes to respect feelings of belonging, without that being incompatible with self-organisation based on rational principles that allow it to be fair or consider itself as decent, must treat equals equally and unequals unequally. In other words, it must protect preferentially those who are different, in order to integrate them based on the principle of fraternity. This is thus because social cohesion is appreciated as an essential value of coexistence and, therefore, social divides are fought because they threaten peaceful and democratic coexistence.
6. Social inequality shakes everything
It is difficult to express the surprise with which, as we enter into the second decade of the 21st century, we are seeing the forceful resurgence of two focuses of tension that seemed typical of the 19th century: nationalism and social inequality. The retreat into the nation at the height of the era of globalisation and of new technologies for world connectivity seems as inexplicable as the fact that a human society living in its best times of wellbeing and quality of life is seeing how its social inequality is growing and its poverty becoming increasingly chronic, as the middle class disappears. And although not everyone admits the data and facts that prove this reality, below we summarise what is accepted by the majority consensus of experts:
The richest 1% of the planet possesses 45% of the global wealth, while the poorest 50% barely possesses 1%.
Inequality between countries has declined, largely because of the progress of India and China, but it has grown inside countries, mainly among the most advanced. It is calculated that three quarters of the world’s inequality is due to the inequality inside countries.
Worldwide poverty has reduced, especially severe poverty, although it has risen in the developed countries, and there is a risk it will become chronic.
Wealth inequality is greater than income inequality. The rich are richer today because the value of their wealth, often inherited, has grown, and not because they earn more for their work. This is compatible with the fact that income inequality derived from the wide salary range has also grown in recent years.
In two thirds of OECD countries, inequality has grown since the year 2000 in two thirds of countries. Nearly half of the population of advanced countries believe that, on average, the current situation is worse than it was twenty years ago.
Many indicators reflect the fact that poverty levels in the G7 countries have increased, from 23% of the population in 1985 to 30% in 2016.
The boom in populism in more advanced countries has been fuelled by the tension that exists between the equality goals they have announced and the reality of seeing how inequality is growing within them, while there is an appreciable improvement of the situation in the poorest countries.
Inequality is not a new phenomenon, but its acute growth in recent years represents a failure of the economic and political discourse dominant in the West, at least, since the end of the Second World War. Hegemonic political and economic thinking over the last eighty years has used economic growth as its cornerstone. Economic growth, the distribution of this growth, plus equal opportunities and liberal democracy with counterpowers: these have been the four pillars upon which the world that we know has been built. And today the four are being seriously questioned. The first questioning of economic growth as an unquestioned goal has come from the recognition that natural resources are limited, and this criticism has been expanded, today, by its incompatibility with environmental sustainability. The second criticism comes from the confirmation that the existence of economic cycles has not been prevented, neither with the presence of the State as the regulating agent of economic activity (Keynesianism), nor with the exclusion of the State leaving a supposedly self-regulated market to act fully independently (neoliberalism).
The last Great Recession and, above all, the policies set up, have fundamentally been designed to implement a generalised disconnection from the existing economic and social model. The evidence of globalisation having losers and winners, linked to the feeling of helplessness derived from the lack of action of national governments, if not direct open criticism of their unequally-applied austerity policies, have been key for explaining the current social breakdown and disappointment with “the system”. The turnaround that has transformed an integrating, inclusive economic, social and political model, that made a supreme value of social cohesion, into another from which an important part of the population feels excluded and is fleeing, can be situated in the early 1980s with two parallel policies: the globalisation of the economy together with the retreat of the State, associated with the governments of Reagan in the United States and Thatcher in the United Kingdom. We entered, with that, into another sphere that has taken us to where we are now: elites that live in a global world, middle classes in decline, significant social sectors that feel forgotten, marginalised or excluded from the future, and a national policy that seems to have resigned from its fundamental task as the mechanism for resolving the problems of citizens. The origin of our problems does does not stem from today, therefore, so when it comes to understanding them, we cannot overlook this historical context.
But it is a good idea to point out that the increase in inequality and the chronification of poverty in the developed countries have not been inevitable, nor the secondary result of blind market forces or of globalisation. They have been caused by political decisions that renounce any conscious quest for social cohesion. Understanding the problem is always the first step towards trying to find a solution. Otherwise we will advance towards a dangerous situation that starts off in “irascible” democracies and can lead to what some have called “democratures”: political systems that maintain a formal appearance of democracy, but that in their real functioning contain elevated traces of authoritarianism and pseudo-dictatorial practices. This, furthermore, without losing sight of the repercussions on inequality, emigration and poverty already being caused by climate change.
7. Six divides that are breaking up Spanish society
Social divides are real, existing differences, converted into discrimination, when not directly into inequalities, which are not sustained by reason, but by the prejudices of those who are building up the interior walls that are breaking up society. In other words, frequently, the divides come from social injustices or lead to them. For that reason, we say that the divides are ruining social cohesion, breaking up unity and the common purpose of society and that these are gaps through which populism and totalitarianism are seeping, putting an end to democratic coexistence in plural societies such as our own. This is why it is so important to know them, analyse them and combat them.
In Spain, the deep mark left by the last decade – the crisis, the depreciation of wages, the cuts in social spending, plus a recovery that is not reaching everyone equally – is opening up too many social divides. These, in turn, have become breeding grounds for populism, neo-authoritarianism and the blockage of the political situation, with four elections in five years and a proven incapacity to form governments and stable parliamentary majorities. This, in turn, is further hindering the adopting of the necessary measures for reducing these divides, therefore citizen dissatisfaction is growing as citizens see that nobody (apparently) is doing anything to resolve “their” problem or even, that this problem is not easily recognised or assessed. It is no coincidence that “politicians and politics” are now considered the second biggest problem for citizens in Spain after unemployment, according to the Centre for Sociological Research (CIS). From this, all that can be deduced is a widespread distrust of citizens towards those who are most prominent in this democracy.
However, although media attention is short-lived, the real problems exist and real people continue suffering them. That quasi-structural reality of the problems encompassed in the social divides that we are analysing is what gives meaning to their study and to the civil-society effort to present ideas that may help to solve them. In this study, we will analyse six divides that are cutting obliquely across the Spanish society of today. It may be that some are missing, but we believe that none of them are surplus, although not all have the same intensity nor the same weight. For the time being.
However, in times in which in Spain, the territorial question has taken on undeniable and almost monothematic prominence, we have felt it timely not only to remember that the country might break up geographically, but also that it is already breaking up socially, having unleashed the forces that call into question the necessary social cohesion compatible with a democratic society.
And taking awareness of this aligns social and political forces in a different way to how territorial debate does. In the same way, we want to point out that situations of domination of one social group over another, of certain individuals over others, do not come exclusively from the economy. For this reason, there are various forces at work that define a specific social moment for a country.
In this collection, “Social Divides”, we highlight six major cross-cutting divides in the country: rich-poor, women-men, young-old, rural-urban, turbocapitalism-retro-capitalism and analogical-digital. These are fractures that, as a whole, the country cannot overlook and that it has the responsibility of healing, so that the turbulent times of the present do not lead to even more severe consequences and do not endanger Spain’s democracy.
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