In less than two decades Spain has rushed from dictatorship to democracy, from virtual isolation to membership in the European Community, from a backward preindustrial economy into the technological age. The transition may have been swift and relatively peaceful but not without formidable challenges, many of which parallel the struggles of emerging democracies elsewhere in the world. In this collection of essays, the respected Spanish sociologist Victor M. Perez-Diaz explores the nature and theory of civil society against the backdrop of this transition to democracy over the last two decades.
The concept of civil society has undergone a distinct change in recent years, according to Perez-Diaz. Once used as a synonym for political society, civil society now refers to the network of voluntary associations, markets, and public spaces that exist outside the direct control of the state. For Perez-Diaz this distinction is a critical one since a civil society can be fostered, in a limited sense at least, by the state -- indeed, that was the case in Spain as well as some former communist countries. He traces this notion of state-centered civil society back to the philosophies of Marx and Hegel who were both skeptical of a civil society's ability to organize itself and the grow on it's own. It therefore had to be "shaped by conscious, deliberate design," he writes, "the main designer being the state (for Hegel), or a revolutionary group in control of the state (for Marx)."
It is one of history's many ironies that General Franco looked upon his achievement of a state-sponsored civil society with some pride. He considered the burgeoning economy and the new ties to the international marketplace in the 1960s and early 1970s as his regime's final legitimation. What he did not realize was the extent to which his civil society actually undermined his regime.
Although Franco's death in 1975 precipitated a nominal shift to democracy, Perez-Diaz illustrates how the transition began much earlier. He speaks of the "emergence of liberal democratic traditions in society" and the "invention of a cultural political idiom" which began to develop as far back as the early 1960s. Unlike the civil societies of Eastern and Central Europe which arose mainly as programs of resistance among dissidents, however, these developments came about largely in response to Spain's new policy of openness to the outside world. "By the mid-seventies the economic, social, and cultural institutions of Spain were already quite close to those of western Europe," Perez-Diaz notes, "and the cultural beliefs, normative orientations, and attitudes of the people that accompanied the workings of these institutions had become fairly similar to those of other Europeans." Under these circumstances, the Spaniards finally had no choice but to reject their authoritarian past.
This rejection was quite unlike those of many former communist countries, however. After all, the end of the Francoist regime came about not at the hands of revolutionaries, nor by the collapse of a shaky social order, nor even by peaceful elections -- but rather by the death of a dictator. Although it was widely accepted, even among former Franco supporters, that the regime had seen its day, the institutions that were meant to guarantee its survival were still in place when Franco died. Instead of making a clean break with the totalitarian past, as proposed by Franco's clandestine opposition leaders, it was decided to win the consent of the Francoist institutions to their own abolition or reform.
As a result, the emergence of democratic Spain has been a gradual and at times painstaking process, particularly within certain areas of Spanish society such as the labor movement, political parties, the Roman Catholic church, and what Perez-Diaz calls mesogovernments -- intermediate institutions charged with governing specific regions or sectors of society.
The bulk of this book is given to careful analyses of these changes. Perez-Diaz covers a lot of ground in these essays, surveying the Spanish transition from both historical and sociological perspectives. Some of his discussions ask a great deal of the general reader, and at times his prose buckles under the strain of too much theory, but the force of his argument is both compelling and timely. He has succeeded not only in presenting a vivid and dynamic portrait of contemporary Spain but also in giving substance to the observation recently made by Vaclav Havel: democracy and civil society are "two sides of the same coin; one is unthinkable without the other."
This review appeared in the Fall 1994 issue of National Journal.
Copyright 1994 by Scott London. All rights reserved.