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Reflections on Violence in Postdictatorial Spain
When I was invited to take part in this seminar I was happy to have an opportunity to discuss some of my current work with former colleagues and friends. I have been increasingly preoccupied with the problem of madness as it plays and as it is displayed in the theater of politics. This is for me the beginning of a dialogue about this issue that one could broadly call "politics and madness." In this sense what I am speaking about today is more the beginning of a formulation than a crafted thesis.
One of my worries as I started to think about this seminar was that I know close to nothing about postcolonial psychiatry except perhaps for the work of that major and wonderful theorist of coloniality, Frantz Fanon. And to make matters worse I am not properly speaking about questions of postcoloniality either, even though I know a bit more about this issue, having worked for a long while in Ireland, the land of "Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics" as Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1979) dubbed it, and known most recently as the land of crazy violence and terrorism.
But it is not about Ireland that I want to speak today but my current research in the Basque Country of Spain. The Basque Country is not a colonial or postcolonial setting, although some Basque radicals think of the Basque Country in these terms. Yet one could argue that after thirty-six years of dictatorship Spain has gone through a veritable change of status that transformed the country into another state of being. One could say that the series of issues that arise out of this transition and transformation from a totalitarian to a democratic polity have a family resemblance to at least some issues arising out of the postcolonial setting. At the risk of using postcoloniality here as a metaphor of a particular existential state let me say nevertheless that something that characterizes the postcolonial state and the transitional state of countries like Spain or those of the former socialist bloc is a marginal status within the global political and economic order. The second related characteristic is a certain dislocation and often violent disarray of things. It is a state in which the logical order of Cartesian thinking doesn't quite work and yet doesn't quite not work either. It is a state in which things are a little off where they should be and sometimes very much off, so that the state of things seems crazy. And it is frequently through the trope of madness that these "altered states" are made sense of. It is this discourse on madness, national identity, and statehood that I am trying to think about here. What does this discourse say about both the lived experience of politics in these altered states (transitional, changed states) and about the changing nature of the state in our postmodern global world (Fabian 2000; Siegel 1998; Bhabha 1994; Fanon 1967; Geertz 1973)?
I have been thinking about the question of political madness because it has become a privileged trope in the current discourse on Basque violence, particularly since the guerrilla organization ETA called off a year-and-a-half-long cease- fire in December 1999 and initiated an all-out campaign for independence, NOW, that has reached the toll of twenty assassinations so far as well as a high number of arsonist attacks and widespread intimidation. Many of the victims are politicians, some journalists, some of them with leftist histories. None of the targets are particularly salient in the apparatus of power. There is something profoundly difficult to understand about this kind of violence, an incomprehensible logic that seems out of sync with the reality of the majority of the population in the Basque Country and falls into the space of unreason and the out of control called madness. ETA has emerged after the cease-fire as a particularly callous and radical force that seems to have disposed of its usual parameters for legitimate targets. Although the political organizations that are associated with ETA continue to demand a political negotiation to end the violence, the virulence of the violence unleashed by ETA seems to cancel any possible negotiation. Furthermore, ETA's violence has not spared former nationalist allies, creating the puzzling result of reinforcing the Spanish right wing in the Basque Country and debilitating the social fabric of the country. In other words, rather than strengthening, the violence of ETA and of young activists has the effect of debilitating nationalist aspirations and the possible avenues to achieve them. So paradoxical are their politics that many have suspected that ETA must have been infiltrated by the Spanish state, which would like to see the end of Basque nationalism, not only its radical side but its conservative and democratic sector as well. The reaction of commentators is that radical nationalists have gone mad. But why should the political discussion about the meaning of violence in the Basque Country be situated in the field of rationality versus madness? What exactly is insane about it? What is the structure of this madness? This discourse of madness is not arbitrary; it makes its appearance during the 1990s at a moment when a Basque police force enters the scene of Basque politics and a moment when a new youth movement emerges as an aggressive nationalist force.
First let me situate very briefly what I am talking about by giving you some sociological background: ETA was born in 1959 as a response to brutal political and cultural repression by the military regime of Francisco Franco. It did not begin its armed operations, however, until 1969, a decade later. ETA's ultimate goal was the unification of the French and Spanish Basque provinces into an independent Basque Country. In practice, however, its actions were antidictatorial. Most of ETA's targets from 1969 to 1975, when Franco died, were members of the security forces. The most spectacular of such actions was the assassination of Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco in 1974, right hand and only possible successor of General Franco in the military regime. With Carrero Blanco out of the way the small possibility of continuation of the military regime in Spain was eliminated. After the death of Franco in 1975 Spain undertook a period of reform, called not very originally La Reforma (The Reform). In the Basque Country, La Reforma was met with a great deal of resistance and suspicion on the part of a radicalized population with a strong nationalist consciousness. The Basque Country, one of the most industrialized and densely populated areas of Spain, was also one of the most politicized. It had a strong labor movement, a potent nationalist movement, and a variety of active social movements emerging in the political arena. In the Basque Country the population was divided between a reform of the former regime that would transition the country to a parliamentary democracy and a ruptura, a firm rupture with the structures of the former regime. I don't have the time to get into this; suffice it to say that the reform strategy won, but not without trouble, and thus the constitution of the current democratic regime was endorsed by the Spanish people in a referendum held in 1977, but was rejected in the Basque Country because it did not contemplate the right to self-determination for the nationalidades or ethnic regions within the Spanish state, that is, Catalunya, the Basque Country, Galizia, and so on. Still, it did contemplate a process of increasing regional autonomy, and during the following decade the Basque Country developed what could be considered the embryonic structures of a state, a government and parliament and even its own police force, judicial, and educational apparatuses. True, all of them were still subordinated to the Spanish constitution and legislation, but they enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy. In this scenario, where the goal of an independent Basque Country could be pursued through the conventions of democratic politics, ETA's armed strategy was expected to stop. But it did not. In fact during the first decade of the reform it escalated and radicalized. Its rationale was that the regime had not really changed. Under the appearance of democracy there was still a dictatorial state that manifested itself in the practices of unwarranted arrest, torture, and paramilitary assassination, not to mention the existence of over five hundred Basque political prisoners dispersed throughout Spain. This rationale was aided by the succession of emergency legislation in the Basque Country, which permitted the infringement of civil and human rights of those accused of having any kind of relation with Basque terrorism. The repressive legislation and tactics were now specifically directed to people and organizations associated with radical nationalism and sympathetic to ETA. In spite of the hard blows suffered by radical nationalists during the period of the dirty war, ETA survived and seemed to attract the sympathy of an emerging, vibrant youth movement. These radical nationalist youth became during the 1990s the stars of the Basque political theater. Known as encapuchados because they wore hoods to cover their heads, these youths became the subjects of a new kind of violence-characterized by arson attacks on public buildings and services as well as on police vehicles, and rioting-a violence that transgressed the moral boundaries of local communities by intimidating and attacking neighbors and peers who opposed their politics, including other nationalists. The novelty of this violence, in addition to massive use of arson, was that it was directed mostly to those persons, institutions, and symbols associated with the Basque government and that by association were linked to a figurative and potential Basque state. Prominent among them was the ertzaintza, the Basque police. Let me say few words about them.
The development of a Basque police force was considered crucial in resolving the problem of terrorism, which had received so much support from the repressive tactics of the state police forces. The Basque police force is young, just above a decade old. The first year that officers graduated from the Basque police academy was 1988. The Basque police were intended to be the trusted civil police that the Basque Country never had. Unlike the officers of the Spanish police forces who were born and raised in other parts of Spain and were in the Basque Country only for a transitory service period, the young members of the Basque police were local men and women. Unlike the Spanish police forces who lived in their own headquarters at the outskirts of the community, the ertzaintza lived interspersed with the local population in towns and cities, had their families and friends within the Basque geography, and thought of themselves as an integral part of a local and (Basque) national community. The Spanish police forces identified as Spanish, the Basque police officers identified as Basque. As the new Basque police developed in numbers and in the complexity of functions they assumed, they also were called for riot control and antiterrorist struggle. These more specialized interventions entailed the deployment of violence against Basque people, mostly Basque radical nationalists, who were the main actors in political demonstrations, riots, and of course terrorist violence.
The police work of the Basque police has had a profound effect in reorganizing the "scene of violence" in the imaginary of radical nationalists. Until the introduction of the Basque police, radical nationalists conceptualized the scene of violence in the Basque Country as a liberation struggle in which Basques defended themselves and fought against the oppressive forces of the Spanish state. At a metonymic level this transcendental national struggle was represented by the riots in which Basque radicals confronted Spanish police. With the ertzaintza assuming the labors formerly performed by the Spanish police, the scene of violence took a more complex form. Now the confrontation was one between Basques: radical nationalists and Basque government. In towns and villages this confrontation between political projects and definitions of Basqueness translated into a confrontation between neighbors, those Basques supporting the radical politics and violence of the armed group ETA and those supporting the Basque government and against ETA. The confrontation between the Spanish state and Basque radicalism had not disappeared but was complicated by the emergence of a more troublesome conflict among different kinds of nationalists.
In September 1998, ETA, facing increasing hostility and isolation, called a cease-fire as part of a new coalition agreement with conservative nationalists (PNV and EA) dominant in the government. Radical nationalist political fate changed overnight with the cease-fire. Their cessation of violence and coalition with the other major nationalist parties won them an increased number of votes in the following elections, placing them as the second-largest nationalist force. Their support made possible a nationalist government in the Basque Country that could govern without the support of Spanish parties, socialist and conservative. This was the first time that such a configuration was achieved in the Basque Country. From night to day, the radical nationalists had passed from a marginalized force to a growing central player. Political possibility was in the air and the end of violence triggered within the political culture of the Basque Country a new excitement. The Spanish government stalled on the negotiations for a definite peace, using as an excuse that youth violence and intimidation-now called low-intensity terrorism-had not disappeared. Frustrating popular expectations in the Basque Country, the Spanish state seemed to do everything possible to indeed deter the peace process.
After more than a year of lack of progress on a possible negotiation between ETA and the Spanish government, ETA called off the cease-fire on the third of December, 1999. A few months later ETA published a communicado explaining that the cease-fire did not have as a goal the achievement of peace but the building of a sovereign Basque state. They said that they ended the cease-fire because el proceso, "the process" (raising Kafkaesque echoes), was stalled by the PNV, their nationalist allies who wanted to transform it into a mere peace process. They also said that the time was ripe to act as de facto sovereign. This action seemed to be so much against their own political rationale of advancing toward Basque independent sovereignty that it created puzzlement and prompted madness as an explanation. After the cease-fire, ETA emerged radicalized and intransigent in its actions, targeting politicians, journalists, and former state officials. The moral controls that seemed to have bound political violence to certain targets were dissolved. Anybody who spoke or campaigned against Basque independence or radical nationalism seemed to be a legitimate target. Radical nationalists were out of their minds.
But what defined this state of insanity? The discourse of madness in relation to Basque nationalist violence is linked to an incomprehensible and traumatic excess, an eruption within the familiar order that defamiliarizes it. One example will be the petrol bombing of a van of ertzaintza by radical nationalists. The van caught fire and the policemen trapped inside suffered major burns. One of the policemen was the brother of one of the assailants. It is also linked to loss of touch with reality as exemplified in ETA's attempt to assert the sovereignty of the Basque Country against the majority of the population. What I would like to argue is that the madness of radical nationalists does not reside in an excess of violence in the pursuit of an independent nation, nor in the distortion of a political reality that demands the end of nationalist violence rather than the intensification of it. Their madness does not reside in believing that they are the true embodiment of the Basque nation and that the conditions for their liberation are all set for it to happen now. My argument is that the kernel of this madness is something much more problematic and secret, something that indeed must remain hidden: the madness of radical nationalists in my country is the manifestation of a profound ambivalence toward the nationstate form they are pursuing so ferociously. I would argue that the crazy violence of these young radicals might be less incomprehensible if we see it as the manifestation of a phantom, the presence of an absence, the presence of a traumatic history that remains not altogether resolved. I am speaking here of the phantom of the dictatorship-recurrently invoked as a permanent present by young radicals who believe the Spanish democracy is fascist at its core. The specter of the dictatorship is invoked too by those who oppose the violence of ETA and young radicals who see them as the embodiment of the fear and authoritarianism experienced under Franco. In either case it would be difficult to miss the recurrent allusion to this past that has not completely disappeared and that the violence of radical nationalists (and the state) pushes to the surface as something one would like to ignore but cannot cease to feel.
Excerpted from POSTCOLONIAL DISORDERS Copyright © 2008 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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