June 2020

“Freedom” and “Nation”: Two Convenient Weapons in a Pandemic Context

By using social networks to circulate their messages, they have persuaded a relevant amount of the Spanish people that Spain’s interest is the interest of them: a wealthy minority actively opposed to the daily concerns of regular people.

by Dr. Antonio Jesús Pinto Tortosa

COVID-19 has transformed our lives abruptly, giving way to different attitudes that reflect how humans react in moments of uncertainty. On the one hand, people have joined a general movement for supporting the sanitary personnel with a general applause at 8 p.m. everyday. On the other hand, especially in Spain, an uprising to express disagreement with the government has inspired a growing amount of people to go to the street and make noise with their pots and pans, thus violating the restrictions of the state of emergency. Far-right political formations have encouraged such initiatives, claiming that they defend freedom and the national interest. However, they use a restricted concept of ‘nation’ that excludes everyone who does not share a specific code of values, and they defend a radical version of ‘freedom’ that in fact hides extreme individualism; the opposite of national and common interest. In this article, I explore the Spanish case to expose the arguments that the far right uses to get popular support, using the crisis for political interests that make them forget the dramatic situation that we are still living.

As news about the spread of COVID-19 around the world reached Spain, critical voices started to attack the Spanish socialist government, arguing that it was necessary to react and decree the state of alarm at once. At the time, economic interests made the authorities stay calm and observe the evolution of the situation, even when they detected the first cases by late January 2020. In the early days of March, the situation became critical: between the 5th and the 7th, the number of cases doubled, reaching 1.100 people, and in spite of it the government went along with the multiple events programmed for the weekend, among them the March 8th Feminist demonstrations all over the country. The week after that was the most critical for the authorities: in seven days they detected around 11,000 cases, and that was the occasion for far right politicians to say that the government was to blame for the spread of the disease, and for the casualties in the following days. President Sánchez reacted decreeing the state of alarm on March 13th, limiting free circulation in order to prevent the disease from spreading any more, but it was too late. Accusations grew under the same slogan: he had prioritized the Feminist demonstrations inspired by the “Me Too” movement, which demand equal social status for men and women, over the people’s health for political reasons, turning into a traitor to the nation.

A 71-year-old protester demands “respect” and “freedom” from the Spanish government’s coronavirus restrictions. The author also suggests that perhaps he has worked harder than others who support Spain’s socialist government. Photo by Burak Akbulut via Anadolu Agency.

“Nation” and “Spain” are two concepts that have become controverted in the last fifteen years, because right-wing political formations have altered their original meaning to turn them into something different. Firstly, one must remember that, according to Benedict Anderson (1983), nations are imagined communities: groups of people that agree on certain common shared features, such as language, religion, culture, etc., declaring that they belong to the same national identity. Following Eric Hobsbawm (1983, 1991), national groups often claim the right to political identity, meaning their own independent state, which implies sovereignty over a certain territory. Therefore, nations and nationalism are the result of the “everyday plebiscite,” which in Ernst Renan’s words meant the people’s will to live together, expressed in their daily attitudes (Renan, 1882).

The problem is that the Spanish national identity in the modern sense was not the result of such a process. Instead, Spaniards defined their modern identity in the context of the confrontation against the French during the Peninsular War (1808-1814). Thus, being Spaniard meant not being French; in other words, the Spanish were meant to be Catholic, conservative, and monarchic, whereas the French were heathen, revolutionary, and republican.

The concept of nation that far-right politicians use nowadays appeared in a similar context: Catalan struggle for independence, which has reached its highest levels in the last six years, but can be traced back to 2004-2005. In order to silence alternative territorial projects for Spain, right and far-right politicians challenged everyone in the country to oppose separatism under the Spanish flag, which unfortunately they identified with their own ideology: a centralized country that admits no alternative identities, and that they identify with conservative values. Everyone defending different concepts and projects for Spain has been accused of trying to tear the country apart and have been characterized as “bad Spanish.” These are tools that they have used every now and then to gather all their enemies together, drawing a line that divides Spanish society in two sections: those who are with them, and those who are not with them, and therefore are against them.

Protesters take to the streets in Barcelona after Spanish police began a crackdown against the separatists in Catalonia. Photo by Màrius Montón via Wikimedia.

The Spanish government, according to them, is an example of a disloyal way of being Spanish, because it should have banned all public activities prior to the Feminist demonstrations, which they regard as an attempt to break the country, too, using what they call the “gender ideology.”  By “gender ideology,” they refer to Feminist reforms that civic society demands, which far-right politicians regard as a strategy to divide society in two opposed sides: men and women. Repeating this message, they hide their own mistakes: for example, the fact that the leading far-right formation celebrated a party congress on March 8th in Madrid, too, after which its leader and many other militants were diagnosed with Covid-19. Nevertheless, people have become so contaminated by constant messages spread through social networks that they forget about these details, following the argument that the Spanish government must resign at once. Hence, at the same time that the Spanish people have supported the sanitary personnel every day at 8 p.m. with a general applause from every balcony in every Spanish city, far-right formations persuaded a significant part of society to answer to the applause with a deafening noise made by banging pots and pans at 9 p.m.

The message is quite simple: firstly, “we are the best possible alternative against this government, so vote for us”; secondly, “we need to restart economic activities at once, because we business people need to make money, and the sanitary alarm does not contribute to our benefits at all.” Therefore, what started as a general movement of sympathy towards those who have been fighting the virus suddenly turned into another movement inspired by hatred.

I agree with everyone’s right to express their opinion; what I dislike is the polarization of Spanish society, as well as the growing levels of violence. In order to justify that strategy in front of their voters, far-right leaders had two main arguments: on the one hand, they said that by postponing the end of the state of alarm the socialist government is trying to turn Spain into a dictatorship, like for example Cuba or Venezuela (the models that they mention most); on the other hand, they emphasized the necessity to restart economic activities to avoid a crisis that is even graver than we think. Moreover, they claim that the government’s goal is to destroy the Spanish economy to justify nationalization of Spanish resources. When they use these conspiracy theories, they have moved far from the concept of “nation,” and they are not interested in the common good anymore.

Anti-government protests bang pots and pans in a cacerolazo protest against the socialist government’s coronavirus restrictions. Photo by Burak Akbulut via Anadolu Agency.

Freedom to own has become their new leitmotiv, and in order to supposedly defend it they have even organized demonstrations where the basic security rules operating in the country have been violated. As far as they are concerned, freedom is now more important than the common interest. Yet the definition of freedom that they use means the radical and absolute imposition of individual will over the rest of the people, regardless society’s security (Mill, 1863). Hence, currently we find an interesting paradox in Spanish society: the same people who declared that it was irresponsible of the government to allow the demonstrations by early March, are the ones organizing new demonstrations and protests that jeopardize the people’s security exactly in the same way. The problem is not that they act this way. It is that by using social networks to circulate their messages, they have persuaded a relevant amount of the Spanish people that Spain’s interest is the interest of them: a wealthy minority actively opposed to the daily concerns of regular people.

As I expressed in the title of the article, nation and freedom are two useful tools that far-right formations have used to get support in the middle of a crisis that should have joined us all together. They have taken advantage of the people’s dislike for getting information from reliable sources, believing the opinions that meet their expectations instead, and they have spread a more lethal virus: division and confrontation. Still, I tend to be optimistic about human nature and I am convinced that, once this drama is over, we will find the peace we need in order to leave our differences aside and build a stronger community. But we need to make an effort to be properly trained and informed in order to prevent populist messages from poisoning our minds.

Dr. Antonio Jesús Pinto Tortosa holds a degree in History by the University of Malaga (2006) and an MA in Hispanic Studies by the University of Cadiz (2007). Between 2008 and 2011, he worked on a PhD at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) thanks to a government research grant. His thesis analyzed the impact of the Haitian revolution of 1791 on Spanish Santo Domingo, as well as the colony’s struggle to restore Spanish rule between 1808 and 1809. Dr. Pinto was a visiting scholar at the London Metropolitan University (2009), the New York University (2010), and the University of Pittsburgh (2011) and currently works at the Universidad Europea, in Madrid, as an adjunct professor of Contemporary History. His research explores Spanish history in the 19th century, highlighting the behavior of political elites, economic development, and working class struggles. He also published several works on innovation in Higher Education, from the perspective of gamification, experiential learning, service-learning, and the encouragement of critical thinking in the classroom. 

Further reading

Anderson, Benedict (1983). Imagined communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Hobsbawm, Eric J. (1983). The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  

Hobsbawm, Eric J. (1991). Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mill, John Stuart (1863, ed. 2002). Utilitarianism. London: Parker, Sound & Bourn.

Renan, Ernst (1882, ed. 2004). Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? Conference at the Sorbonne, 11th March 1882.

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