There was a piece in the Guardian the other day by Mary Rafferty on the Irish government’s failure to either investigate or provide redress to the victims of the Magdalene Laundries. She says:
There has, however, been a strange resistance to any official acceptance of the injustice suffered by the Magdalene women. The state has wriggled and squirmed, claiming that the laundries were private institutions and all the women entered voluntarily. Uncat has now firmly rejected this, confirming what we in Ireland have long known in our hearts. We knew that women who escaped were caught by the police and returned to the punitive and often brutal regime within the laundries. Generations of Irish people colluded in this, using the laundries when it suited them to clean their clothes and control their daughters.
Which is fine as far as it goes, but that is not far enough in terms of explaining why there has been such strange resistance. So let me venture a guess: the Magdalene Laundries were one element in a state apparatus of repression and subjugation, which existed to instil fear and discipline in the broad mass of the population. This function was not fulfilled as a result of some strange paroxysm of history where people and institutions simply went a bit mad: no, just as the nuns who ran the laundries benefited directly from the surplus generated by the labour of their slaves, so too did the dominant class benefit from the deference and fear instilled in the population as a result of the existence of these institutions. Simply put, it is easier to exploit people when they are afraid.
Now it is not at all the case that the Irish state as presently constituted, regardless of the claims it actually makes in its constitution, serves all of its citizens equally.
There are elites who exercise decisive control over state institutions, through class alliances, shared ideology, and so on. If the state institutions are not responding to the demands of Justice for Magdalenes and others, it is not on account of some unnatural, inhuman bureaucratic perversion, but because the elites who control state institutions have little interest in their claims. And one compelling reason as to why they have little interest in their claims is that it is precisely on account of institutions such as the laundries that these elites were able to consolidate their own position of dominance in the first instance. The past is not always a foreign country.
Here is a piece by Vicenç Navarro from Público yesterday about the Partido Popular’s refusal to confront the past in Spain. Let us recall that Fine Gael and the Partido Popular are affiliated to the same party in the European Parliament. Not only that, but they have a common past – as Brian Hanley notes here:
There was no doubt that public opinion in the Free State was largely pro-Franco: the Catholic Church, the Irish Independent and Fine Gael hysterically so. Thousands attended rallies hastily organised by a new Irish Christian Front, left-wingers were physically attacked, while volunteers and money was pledged to Franco.
The title of the piece is The Terrorist Totalitarian Dictatorship
On returning from a long exile, one of the things that surprised me most about Spanish political life was the perception -widely accepted by the political establishment, and promoted by mass media- that the Transition from dictatorship to democracy had been exemplary, creating a democracy that was a counterpart to the ones that existed in Western Europe. The harsh reality, however, was a very incomplete democracy and a very insufficient welfare state, a reality that continues today, 33 years later.
Spain continues to have the lowest social expenditure (for financing the welfare state) per capita in the EU-15. And politically we have just seen how conservative forces have tried to prohibit the participation in the democratic process of a political party, Bildu, due to its origin, with roots in a terrorist force, ETA, and this despite the fact that this party has distanced itself from violence and has accepted the rules of the democratic process. But this does not seem enough for the Partido Popular, which wants the party to condemn this terrorist past, attempting to put all those who defend ETA today in jail.
This severe behaviour toward terrorism contrasts, however, with the behaviour of the Partido Popular itself, which has never explicitly condemned by name the greatest terrorist force that existed in Spain during the 20th century, responsible for the greatest number of murders that has occurred in the history of the country. No other regime has murdered so many Spanish people as the dictatorship initiated by military coup, led by General Franco, against a democratic system, the Second Republic. It was a regime based on terror, with political assassinations (for every political assassination carried out by Musssolini, Franco carried out 10,000), torture (systematically carried out in its prisons), concentration camps and exile. That coup was carried out by those who falsely defined themselves as the nationals (the majority of the attack troops were mercenaries and foreigners, and their victory was owed solely and exclusively to foreign support from Hitler and Mussolini) who were on a “crusade” (whose shock troops, paradoxically, were Muslims) and who were supposedly defending the nation (imposing an enormous economic, political, cultural and social setback on the country). In reality, it was a minority against the majority of the popular classes of the different peoples and nations of Spain, one which required terror for its very survival. Terror was substantial in the existence of that regime up until its last day.
Without intending to establish categories, the number of victims of that terror (political murders) was almost 200,000, a far higher figure than that carried out by ETA (839). The victims of that terrorist regime continue to be ignored during the period of democracy, without the State paying them homage as they deserve. The contrast between the behaviour of the State toward the victims of ETA and the victims of the dictatorship is shameful and it illustrates not only the different yardstick by which terrorism is measured, but the low quality of democratic state, whose Supreme Court, let us recall, is prosecuting the only magistrate in Spain who has tried to make the State responsible for finding the disappeared from that dictatorship and to prosecute those responsible for so much pain and terror.
The entry dedicated to Franco in the Spanish Biographical Dictionary -published by the Royal Academy of History, and instigated and financed by the PP government headed by José Maria Aznar- is a eulogy and an apology for the individual responsible for the greatest terror that has existed in Spain. Despite this, a PP leader praised the biography of this terrorist, presenting it as an exemplary work. Using the same criterion that this party applies to ETA, the author of this biography should be in prison and the Royal Academy of History should have been closed. And the spokesperson for the PP who performed this praise would have to have been brought before the courts.
The fact that none of this happens shows the enormous power of the conservative powers who hegemonized the process of Transition and the democratic period. If not, how, then, can it be explained that even today, in the textbooks for the compulsory subject of civics there are postures maintained that would be suited to the Tea Party ultra-right in the US, such as defining the foetus as a human being, considering abortion as murder, or defining Darwinism as a suspicious doctrine? And how, if not, can one explain the skewed and negative view of the Second Republic and the silence on the terror of the regime that brought it down, which are present in the textbooks of public schools?
But the repression of that regime was also psychological and ideological, precisely on account of its totalitarian character. The ideology it imposed was National Catholicism, a mix of an extreme imperialist Spanish nationalism, with racist characteristics (the national holiday was called the Day of the Race, and the film produced by the dictator was called Race) and an extreme reactionary Catholicism which, along with its caudillismo, its highly pronounced sexism and a hostility to the world of workers and unions, constituted a totalizing ideology, since it sought to change “man”, working its way into people’s most intimate areas, from sex to language, all of which was subjected to a norm. This regime had full control over media and institutions. To consider that regime as merely authoritarian is to ignore the intellectual, political, economic and cultural suffocation that the majority of the popular classes suffered in order to maintain the placidity of those who benefited from such terror.