The transition represents the densest period of transformations in the history of Spain in the second half of the twentieth-century. The term generally refers to the metamorphosis from Franco’s government structures of the 1970’s in favor of the current parliamentary system. Nevertheless, the concept holds a more extensive meaning, as in that same decade, important sectors of society redefined themselves, polarizing themselves, with profound consequences. From the transition emanates the legitimacy of the institutions that now rule in the Kingdom of Spain but also the criticisms of these very institutions, the utopias of their improvement, and the dreams of other possible democracies. And, at the same time that it established the fundamental economic, political, and cultural consensus of the current political system, the so called “Regime of 1978” also was criticized for its limits, its erasures, and its flaws. Therefore, the knowledge, interpretation, and critique of this period are crucial. The transition is the cornerstone of collective narratives in Spain today, even more so than the Civil War itself, which it reflects upon. And although now, like then, stories about the period are proliferated, their interpretations differ greatly with regards to scope and meaning. To give an example, a first distinction can be found between those who write “Transition” with a capital or lowercase “T,” either defending the exemplary, unequivocal, and solemn character of the process or underlining its multifaceted, contradictory, and disputed nature. This distance has precisely to do with the ways of imagining the democracy, as much then as now.
Because of its multidimensional nature, the transition is a period of diffuse limits whose sense and logic are defined precisely from the naming of such limits. In the strictest sense, it started with the death of Dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 and ended with the enactment of the Constitution in 1978. This historic nucleus can extend until the coup d’etat on February 23rd in 1981, which constituted a slap in the face to the social and labor demands of an intensely mobilized citizenship. From this event forward, the democratic forces were brought together by the PSOE electoral candidacy of Felipe González, whose overwhelming victory in 1982 represents the start of another era marked by its modernization agenda. Some scholars will extend the end of the transition to 1986, with the citizen defeat in the referendum for Spain’s entry into NATO, considering that as the moment in which the last great battle of the independent, pacifist anti-Franco citizenship was fought and lost. Other scholars mark the end of the transition in 1991, with the passing of the treaty of Maastricht and the incorporation of Spain into the new European geopolitical and economic framework.
The start of the period is also the subject of critical debate. On occasion, the assassination of Carrero Blanco in 1973 is considered to be the beginning of the process, to the extent that it got rid of the then president of the government and Franco’s potential successor. Other perspectives propose that the student protests of 1968, the so called “mayo español” (Spanish May), were the triggers of the regime’s crisis. Also frequently considered among the distant causes of the transition is development, meaning the economic and cultural transformations of the seventies and, among them, the emergence of the middle classes, tourism, and consumption.
Due to its foundational character, the transition constitutes a space in permanent dispute in the collective memory, whose makeup reflects more the interests of the historic present than the documents and stories of the archive, the testimonies or social experiences. In large part, the limited experiences of the political and media elite and their patriarchal values are often elevated to the category of national history and are naturalized as the common citizen experience. We see an example of this in the praise of the Constitution of 1978 as the natural crystallization of a collective democratic will, a milestone, despite the fact that it was not accompanied by any show of popular enthusiasm. There were no demonstrations in favor of the Constitution during the time of its passing: there were demonstrations in favor of other, more participative potential constitutions. The secrecy, verticality, and elitism that surrounded the enactment of the constitution, as much as it was able to reconcile distinct post-Franco and anti-Francoist positions, speaks of an authoritarian understanding of the democratic practice, which reserves the role of spectator to society, the role of the mere validator of a preconceived proposal. That the civil Spanish population was supposedly “underage” justified numerous authoritarian decisions, like the non-existence of a referendum on the form of government- monarchy or republic- or the direct incorporation into the new normative structure of the institutions and logics emanating directly from Franco’s legal system, from the figure of the Chief of State to the Court of Public Order (currently the Audiencia Nacional). As Barolomé Clavero criticizes, the transition was continuous with Franco’s legal system and broke with everything that had to do with human rights, assuming a normative discontinuity in the duties derived from the exercise of power during Franco’s reign. This logic, Clavero affirms, would represent the opposite of what is expected from a democratic constitution: discontinuity with respect to the dictatorial principles and prescriptive continuity with respect to fundamental rights.
On the one hand, the institutional continuity, through which the new state inherited Franco’s structure (and all its public officials, from police officers to judges) and, on the other hand, the imagined discontinuity, the radical break with the dictatorship that democratic institutions needed to legitimize themselves. This dilemma organized the narratives of the time, as during the transition things were and no longer were at the same time. Nevertheless, as opposed to the contemporary perception that, in terms of institutions, the new realities continued to be very similar to the previous ones- the same police, the same currency of the peseta showing Franco’s face- contrasts with the stories told by journalists and historians that insist on the transformative character of the process. And maybe the process did rupture from the past, but only when we change the focus of the scene. As opposed to the institutional scenery that is usually reflected in the official vision that situates the center of attention on the parliament, the Royal Palace, and the headquarters of the political parties, the street becomes the great theater of rupture. In public space, a citizenship in construction emerges in a multiplicitous, unexpected, and autonomous way. The technocratic character of the institutional transition is in opposition to the emerging citizenship, making parliament and street, political class and citizens the two dissociated stages on which the tension between continuity and change is expressed. If the official narratives of the time ensure institutional continuity, defending the existence of a bankruptcy after the death of the dictator, the critical narratives ensure- as opposed to the continuity of power- the discontinuity of the citizenship, defending the popular experiences as a springboard for change. National history versus civil memory: that is is another duality that is key to deciphering the narrations of the time period.
We can categorize the ways of interpreting the transition into five overarching stories. The first, and the most well-known of the five, is called the “Myth of the Transition,” which affirms the goodness of the process and its exemplary character, in which converged the good will of political leaders, the supposed generosity of the Monarch, and the commitment of the Spanish elite to the process of “national reconciliation” that healed the open wounds of the Civil War through a Constitution of compromise between the left and the right. This patriotic pact would have supposedly been endorsed by the population with joy in a general atmosphere of celebration and commitment, despite the attempts made by some radicals to boycott and despite extremist proposals by the nostalgic and utopian. The pervasion of the “myth of the transition” has been very great in the past decades, supported by the propaganda machine of the state and of numerous media groups, yet, since the beginning of the century, a flood of criticism has put it into crisis. In opposition to this discourse, other authors argue for the existence of a supposed “Pact of Forgetting,” that allows us to understand the transition as a dark agreement between elites. These elites would have agreed to maintain the consensus and privileges of Francoism in a democratic context, with the acquiescence of a population dedicated to the enjoyment of consumption and the resistance of an incorruptible few.
Since 2000, with the start of the exhumations of the mass graves of Francoism, the discourses of the “recovery of historical memory” opened a new way to understand the transition, emphasizing the dynamics of forgetting the past of the dictatorship and its crimes, which the laws set into motion. A certain “constituent amnesia”- necessary or imposed- would have impeded the spanish democracy from reaching a necessary maturity, for which the critical revision of the dictatorship’s past and the recognition of human rights violations resulted to be essential, as well as the promotion of a culture of remembering that would have started to form already in the seventies, with the first exhumations and the public revision of the repressed past.
Furthermore, critical visions also started to proliferate around the transition that insisted on the importance of paying attention to the global dimensions of the process, specifically the geopolitical factors in the context of the Cold War, as Joan Garcés argues. In this sense, the Northamerican and German interests would have been determinants to force the reconversion of Franco’s dictatorship into an integrated liberal democracy in the European economic space and in the military structures of NATO. These same interests would have overseen the process, directly and indirectly, through election interference, the cooptation of leaders (like Felipe González), or false flag campaigns (Operation Gladio).
As much attention as is paid to aspects of the transition that are often neglected, these critical visions don’t tend to underline the role that citizens had then, blurring the importance of civil society and the public sphere in the claims for freedoms and rights beyond the institutional roadmaps. From literature, cinema, documentaries, art or history, in recent years there have proliferated ways of understanding the time period from below through social movements. The seventies offer a rich mosaic of popular actors, grassroots organizations, anonymous citizens, and assembly practices. Neighborhood associations, workers commissions, environmental platforms, youth groups, autonomous groups, editorial iniciatives, feminist and LGBTQ movements, collectives of prisoners and the mentally ill, petty criminals, and the unemployed are part of a vibrant mosaic that someone then named the “democratic hydra.” The anti-Franco culture, the underground, new music, the free press, fanzines, independent theater, or psychedelia are some of the many expressions that created an alternative sphere in which democratic demands took shape, in words and images. This free culture, which embodies the aspirations for rupture of the time, insists on imagining emancipation in the intersection between the individual and the collective, between pleasure and politics, at the same time that it marks daily life as the principal democratic laboratory.
From the perspective of the citizens’ experiences, the transition spewed out profound transformations in mentality and lifestyles. On the one hand, those associated with gender, morality, and sexuality- the repressive national structures of Catholicism- entered a crisis throughout the decade provoked by the transgressive practices of the youth of the transition, at the same time that women won important victories and directly questioned the patriarchal organization of Spanish society. On the other hand, the Catholic religion saw itself displaced as the principal regulator of social life and subjective experience by the emergence of other worldviews, and so, among the ruins of Franco’s theocracy, one of the most atheist societies of the European Union was born. Another important area of metamorphosis is in the national imaginary of Spain, which Franco’s regime had monopolized with it’s centrist, monolingual, and united ideal. The image of Franco’s Spain burst open thanks to the growth of nationalist, independent, and federalist movements throughout all of Iberia, but especially in Galicia, the Basque Country, and Catalunya, whose electoral activity at times threatened the consolidation of the legal structures of the transition or the autonomy statues designed to spread them throughout the country. The simultaneous coincidence of sovereigntist claims on the left became a first-order threat, from Euskal Herria to the Canary Islands, with or without the ghost of armed conflict. Finally, the authoritarianism and militarization of the dictatorship itself was questioned in every social sphere, from the crisis of paternal authority or the generational conflict to the movement of objection and disobedience, laying the foundation for a pacifist collective consciousness.
The partial or reversible nature of many of these ruptures shouldn’t mislead us as to their relevance, as much as after 1982 the unbounded energy of the society of the transition began to be harnessed and dissolve. This happened, firstly, due to the consolidation of a new governmental structure derived from the traumatic military coup of 1981. And, secondly, it happened due to the implementation of reformist institutional solutions that were more or less successful. Finally, the spectacularization of supposedly transgressive practices that were, however, unconnected to a political context of struggle, allowed for the reintegration of youth cultures into the new democratic atmosphere, and thus, the transition from underground culture to that of La Movida is a good indicator of the change of the epoch.
However, a more relevant gauge can be found in the premature disappearance of a significant part of the youngest generations due to AIDS, heroine addition, suicide, and a new politics of incarceration. The police management of a working class, precarious youth without space nor recognition, victim to the industrial reconversion, the crisis of 1979, the Moncloa pacts, the rise in unemployment, and the prejudices of sociological Francoism represents the most important- and most forgotten- social phenomenon of the end of the transitional process, which reminds us of the existence of a collective subject with other ways of thinking about the relationship between culture and politics, and an understanding of democracy that doesn’t consist only of production, consumption, and voting every four years.
The disappearance of critical cultures and their institutional cooptation allowed for the creation of a new consensus at the beginning of the eighties through Ministries of Culture and published essays, the so called CT (Culture of the Transition), a term coined by Guillem Martínez. A common sensibility was created around the triumphant agreements of 1982: territorial unity, monarchy, Constitution of 1978, amnesty and impunity, renunciation of the revolutionary transformation of society, assumption of the market economy and of the Atlantic geopolitical and military framework, and representative democracy as the sole desirable political system and political parties as its only relevant interpreters. This worldview rested on a sort of social contract based on the guarantee of the existence of a welfare state with a high standard of living for the middle classes. This pact, and the culture that sustained it, went into crisis after the crisis of 2008, the occupation of public squares in May of 2011, and the emergence of 15-M. This was a political culture that updated, in its mere existence, many of the sensibilities, ways of fighting, and cultural understandings of the alternative cultures during the transition. The new movements that have arisen in the last decade represent a possible cultural reconnection to the critical imaginaries of the seventies, whether consciously or unconsciously.
References Labrador Méndez, Germán. “La cultura en transición y la Cultura de la Transición (CT).” La Circular, 31 July, 2015, https://www.lacircular.info/index.html%3Fp=553.html. Labrador Méndez, Germán. “¿Lo llamaban democracia? La crítica estética de la política en la transición española y el imaginario de la historia en el 15-M.” Kamchatka, no. 4, Dec. 2014, https://ojs.uv.es/index.php/kamchatka/article/view/4296/4066. Labrador Méndez,Germán. “Los jóvenes de la transición no son la emanación de ningún poder: son un poder que emana.” Interview by Redacción. Juego de Manos, http://juegodemanosmag.com/german-labrador-mendez-los-jovenes-de-la-transicion-no-son-la-emanacion-de-ningun-poder-son-un-poder-que-emana/. Poéticas de la Democracia: Imágenes y Contra–Imágenes de la Transición. 5 Dec., 2018 - 25 Nov., 2019, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid. https://www.museoreinasofia.es/exposiciones/poeticas-democracia.