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What Conservatives Can Learn from Spain by Kurt Hofer

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Commentary

What Conservatives Can Learn
from Spain

Santiago Abascal, leader of the VOX party, speaking at a rally in an undated photograph.

Photo: Courtesy of VOX España on Facebook.

For advocates of a ‘New Right’ such as Sohrab Ahmari and Rod Dreher, Hungary is a beacon—the lodestar of a nascent, ‘postliberal’ conservative populism unafraid to harness state power. They have good reasons for this. Under Viktor Orbán’s leadership, Hungary has taken bold steps on border security, the return of Judeo-Christian values to the public square, and pro-natalist policy. Indeed, American conservatism can and should learn from their Magyar brethren for all these reasons. Nonetheless, all of us must beware idolizing Hungary with a convert’s zeal.

To paraphrase the parable of the sower, we must be sure that the seed of the New Right is planted in deep soil, lest it shoot up too quickly: “It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots” (Matthew 13:5-6). Let us recall, for instance, that while Ahmari, Patrick Deneen, and others freely embrace the term ‘postliberal’ to describe the Republican realignment, Viktor Orbán nonetheless has evoked the ghost of 1848—when Hungarians rose up in (classical) liberal-nationalist opposition against their Habsburg imperial overlords—on at least one occasion.

This brings me to VOX, the Spanish populist-nationalist party that emerged from nowhere in 2014 and seemed destined to stay there until a stunning electoral breakthrough in 2019 that catapulted it to Spain’s third-largest political party. VOX, like Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party, has a story to tell America. And it’s not the same one that America’s self-described postliberals are culling from the Hungarian experience. 

How did VOX get to where it is today, constituting a formidable challenge to the establishment center-right and center-left parties, the Partido Popular (PP) and the Partido Socialista de Obreros Espanoles (PSOE)? What are the ideas or ideology behind this populist-nationalist party’s success and what can these teach America and other western conservative movements?

VOX’s initial schism from the center-right PP in 2014 arguably had more to do with culture than economics. The PP’s national strategy, according to chroniclers such as Pedro Carlos González Cuevas, was summed up as “la economía lo es todo”—the economy is everything. In practice, this meant either détente or outright surrender to the cultural hegemony of the left over the past 40 years of Spanish Democracy since the Democratic transition of 1978. From issues as wide-ranging as abortion and same-sex marriage to Catalan and Basque separatism and illegal immigration, the Center-Right party—even with one of their own in the presidency from 2011-2018—failed to arrest the twin onslaught of moral and cultural revolution.

The spark that lit the fuse of VOX’s ascendancy was Catalonia’s illegal referendum for independence from Spain in 2017. Such a vote was a flagrant violation of Spain’s democratic constitution of 1978—a fact that went unreported in many international news outlets. Worse still, then Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, of the conservative party, had promised that a vote would not even be allowed to take place. In a massive failure by Spain’s intelligence services and equally egregious show of rebellion by Catalan civil servants and police who either allowed or helped the vote happen, ballot boxes sprang up across Catalonia.

Such outright secessionism in violation of Spanish rule of law may seem without parallel in America, but I would contend that the ‘autonomous zones’ in Seattle and elsewhere, where public space and government property were ceded to rioters without a fight, were equal in character (if not severity) to the actions of the Catalan separatists. In both cases territorial sovereignty and the rule of law were breached, and the rebel forces went unpunished (or worse, became a cause célèbre in radical chic circles). 

In any case, the Catalan insurrection—an event truly deserving of the word because it was abetted by Catalonia’s own regional government and meticulously planned—altered Spain’s political trajectory. The socialists regained power, forming an alliance with a Venezuela-sponsored communist party and the regional separatist parties in the Basque Country and Catalonia. A Faustian pact if ever there was one, Spain’s center-left PSOE was now collaborating with those who would seek Spain’s territorial dissolution and the concentration of its press and financial sector in the hands of the state. These goals are simply incompatible with the survival of a democratic, unified Spanish state.

VOX’s breakout moment, bolstered largely by Catalan separatism, finally came in 2019 with its surge to 15% of the national vote. It is unclear what VOX’s long-term impact on Spanish politics will be, and the party’s President, Santiago Abascal, is known more for scrambling traditional political categories than embracing neologisms like ‘postliberalism.’ Nonetheless, the party has its own theoretician of sorts, as well as detractors. In Una Defensa del liberalismo conservador (A Defense of Liberal Conservatism), Francisco Jose Contreras, a law professor and an elected representative to Spain’s national parliament, offers a concise and compelling rebuttal to the nascent postliberal movement.

In open dialogue with—and ultimately critical of—Patrick Deneen’s postliberal ideals expressed in Why Liberalism Failed, Contreras argues that a distinction does exist between classical liberalism and its bastard offspring, libertarianism. He contends that the latter begins with figures like John Stuart Mill, not Locke himself. For the libertarian, freedom of choice is an end in itself, Contreras argues, while for Locke freedom is the means to an end: the good life. 

Whereas Deneen argues that Hobbes and Locke are co-founders of a modern liberalism that ultimately results in societal secularization and radical individualism, Contreras says otherwise. Hobbes is decidedly un-Lockean in that he is a “materialist, a determinist, and an atheist” with roots in the ancients of the same ilk such as Epicurus. “And,” Contreras adds, “very importantly, [Hobbes’s] atheist materialism leads to ethical nihilism.” The basis of state power is drawn not from conceptions of good and evil but rather on a political philosophy bordering on totalitarianism in which a Leviathan state is created to stop the war of all against all. Such thinking, Contreras argues, is anathema to classical liberalism, not its embodiment. 

For Locke, in contrast to Hobbes, Contreras writes that “the existence of God is the cornerstone … of his moral and political” belief system. In fact, as far as natural law is concerned, Locke argues that knowledge of natural law is not innate but comes to us through divine revelation. The fact that Locke is alternately identified by boosters and critics as either the last ancient or the first modern actually betrays a fact about the nature of conservative liberalism—and Locke himself—that too many fail to grasp: Aristotelian-Thomistic and classical liberal political philosophy have more in common than “the extremists of one or another camp (traditionalist anti-liberals, libertarian anti-conservatives) are willing to recognize.” Such an argument is rife with implications for both the Hazony-Deneen wings of the conservative intellectual movement, with its deconstructionist critique of liberalism as a failed and spurious political philosophy and for those who insist that the public sphere within a liberal polity can only be neutral because of the dictates of separation of church and state. 

To support his argument, Contreras quotes Locke’s Essays on the Law of Nature, wherein the latter posits that all our obligations ultimately tie back to God “to whose will we should be obedient.” It is God to whom we are ultimately obligated because he gave us our existence and our purpose in the world. To Locke, then, life is not a matter of indifference or free choice, but it is ultimately the fulfilment of our purpose as laid out for us by God. 

Contreras further supports his thesis that Locke’s political philosophy is fundamentally Christian by quoting Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government (1690) where the existence of an omnipotent creator and sovereign Lord is explicitly stated. Humans are obligated to obey God’s laws since God is a superior to whom we owe, as Locke says, “both our being and our work.” As such, we are obligated to show obedience to the “limits he prescribes.” “The laws governing our nature”—according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s analysis of Locke’s moral philosophy—“are discovered by reason and their content is specifically suited to human nature…But moral rules are, above all, an expression of God’s will.”

Poignantly, while Deneen, Ahmari, and others embrace the banner of integralism, VOX itself has advanced a pro-Catholic and socially conservative political message while quietly distancing itself from such tropes precisely because they are a political poison-pill. The party Alternativa Española (Spanish Alternative) is both the country’s example of integralism in action par excellence and a complete nonentity at the ballot box. Much of this probably has to do with the fact that integralist and anti-liberal rhetoric generally invokes the specter not just of the Franco dictatorship but also more generally of nineteenth-century authoritarian conservatism. One has to wonder, when Deneen, Ahmari and others alternatively extol postliberalism or denigrate classical liberalism, whether they are aware that political Catholicism, from the Concordat with Napoleon to the Syllabus of Errors or the Lateran Treaty, has more often than not ended up losing the political battles in which it has taken part. 

This is not to say that status quo liberalism—atheistic, hedonistic, and libertarian—should be passively accepted by religious traditionalists. The critiques of postliberals are all useful correctives in this regard. Nonetheless, conservative scholars—and perhaps even more so conservative politicians—must beware the potential perils of embracing postliberalism as a term and concept. Postliberalism, undoubtedly, will be tarred by the left as a veil for anti-liberalism or illiberalism; left-wing academia and media outlets will take the word not as a reinterpretation of the American and Western democratic tradition, but as an attack on democracy itself. 

To rail against the founders of political modernity such as John Locke is a calculated bet—a bold but risky gamble to rewrite history and revive a body politic that is admittedly impoverished from a cultural and spiritual perspective. Such interventions are sometimes demanded by the times. And yet it seems to me there is something potentially un-conservative in repudiating the postwar conservative thinkers who have come before you, in denouncing previous generations as crypto or de facto leftists to be expunged from the canon of conservative political philosophy. In normal times conservatives show deference for the past and the leftists engage in iconoclasm. Perhaps these are not normal times. 

Kurt Hofer writes from Los Angeles. He holds a Ph.D. in Spanish Golden Age literature.

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