“Civil society has the duty to educate the political class”

Víctor Pérez Díaz is a great specialist in the study of civil society. He received a doctorate in Law and Political Science from the Complutense University, where he has become a professor. He is also a doctorate in Sociology from Harvard and has been a visiting professor at the same university, as well as those in New York and California and MIT in Massachusetts. He is in charge of the group Socio-Political Analysts, which he created himself, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the European Academy. There is no better interlocutor in Spain to talk about how a society is articulated, how it responds to the challenges that arise at all times and what capacity it has to determine the course of politics beyond voting every four years.

– The image of the political class is, above any other consideration, that of a great division. Is Spanish society also divided?

– Spanish society is much less divided or polarized than the political class is, and what, in general, is reflected by the media and commentators in the public space. Something similar happens throughout the West. Although the political, media and academically correct opinion is usually the opposite, in reality, ordinary people tend to have more complex identity feelings, and their way of being in the world is more open to testing and experimenting, and they are more capable of listen, that your elites.

– Normally, the big problems, the big dramas unite the society. But here, after the first weeks of the pandemic, what we have seen has been clashes in the street between some radical groups. Where does this tension come from?

– The great drama exists and is still there, and it brings with it a feeling of deep vulnerability, which we want to hide with the so-called return to normality. And it is difficult to know how to respond to a great drama when you have the feeling that you do not understand what is happening, and that you do not control things.

– Is that the key, the lack of understanding?

– Society has been and is subjected to disconcerting information about, for example, why and how the pandemic took place, and it can flare up at any time. There have been confusing reports and exhortations that did not inspire much confidence, on the part of politicians trying to shift responsibility from one to another.

Cultivate your voice

– In Spain there has been frequent talk of a poorly articulated civil society. The most common thing that often unites people is a soccer team.

– Don’t believe it. The influence of unions, churches, professionals, business associations, social movements has been enormous in these decades. And there are villages, family and friendly networks, which are ignored, without reason. There is much more civil society than might appear at first glance. Without it, we simply would not exist. But she lacks cultivating her voice and she lacks civic activation.

– And why is this so?

– The reasons are various. One is that the educational system, as it works in practice, and that changes by country, tends to promote the propensity to listen little and speak carelessly: without order or clarity, without checking the assertions, without trying to persuade by incorporating the arguments of others, etc. This may seem like a detail, but it is a basic question for civil society to do four things in due course: first, to articulate its voice; second, to project it in public space; third, to build self-confidence, and fourth, to turn your voice into responsible action.

“Spanish society is much less divided than the political class”
social polarization

– Is a poorly articulated society more manageable?

– Of course what it is about (the ideal) is not that it is manageable but that it is itself, and develops its capacity for agency, for acting in the world. Not as a unitary subject, but in its diversity. Nor is it certain that those who do not have a voice or do not respond and do not affirm themselves are more ‘manageable’ by the elites on duty. The latter can entertain that illusion, but when push comes to shove they can be wrong.

– Why does Spanish society now seem so inclined to lynching? I ask this because here politicians, judges, journalists, businessmen, artists are lynched … And it is also generalized.

– Some segments of society are thus inclined, and they are those that are made more visible by the parties, the media and, to a certain extent, social networks. They are probably frequently looking for a scapegoat to hold you guilty of unresolved problems, and suggest that they would solve them. Sometimes they are successful, but not as often.

“The education system tends to encourage little listening and careless speaking”

“Political correctness defines an interesting and disturbing social segment, but limited in scope”

– But they make a lot of noise.

– By way of mere example, the recent regional elections in Spain do not suggest that this is the dominant trend at the moment, although perhaps it is the most gesticulating.

– Society also seems less and less tolerant. Forced political correctness means that whoever disagrees with the fundamental current of thought must face the consequences: boycotts, insults, disqualifications …

– Again, I deny (to some extent) the major. Political correctness would define a social segment, interesting, disturbing, but limited in scope. It does not go to more, necessarily. What does happen is that their presence is increasingly evident; and this can provoke contrary reactions, as is happening in the United States. In any case, this practice is contrary to the development of the voice of civil society, which needs to affirm its diversity while trying to build and rebuild a wider community.

– It seems as if there is a fear of plurality, for territorial reasons and also purely political, that is why there are those who speak of civil warfare. Do we live in the lowest moment in terms of acceptance of the difference since the Transition?

– The legacy of memories and feelings of horror aroused by the Civil War has not yet disappeared, and the immensely more positive legacy of the mixture of coexistence and bearing of the democratic experience of these forty years (soon, half a century) is very present .

– It goes in waves. Seasons talk more about some things or others.

– If that memory, that of both sides, and that of the third Spain that was involved, and participated, in the conflict … if that memory is corrupted and reinvented, the community may feel that it is falling apart. You have to live with her as she is, and with the courage and generosity to do so with their corresponding regrets and mutual forgiveness. Without throwing the first stone (and less at the first change …).

“The weight of unions, churches and associations has been enormous in these years”

The politicians we deserve

– Many say that we do not deserve the politicians we have, but do we not know who we vote for? Are we fooled by the friendly face of the election posters?

– I think that most of the people vote without enthusiasm, but they are not fooled, as the question suggests, but they vote for what they imagine is the preferable within what there is. Even when you seem to vote out of sheer feelings, you use your common sense a lot. That is why it is a shame, as it were, that politicians declaim so much and reason so little; more is usually expected of them. In a certain way, civil society has the role, and the duty, of educating its political class and promoting the development, in it, of precisely that common sense.

– How does the arrival and integration of significant flows of immigrants, who have different customs, religion, lifestyle … affect this social articulation (or disarticulation) of Spanish society?

– It would be necessary to distinguish some cases and others. In principle, immigrants can make a very positive contribution. The immigration of Latin Americans has worked quite well in Spain. That of those from Africa has been more problematic; although without reaching the extremes of the experience in France, for example, for decades.

– And speaking of lifestyle, growing individualism, which can increase if telework is generalized, how can it affect this social articulation we are talking about?

– ‘Individualism’ is an ambiguous term. It can refer to the willingness to make personal, free decisions; And in that sense it is something very positive. Or it can be understood as synonymous with selfishness, because the decisions that are made are inspired by the ‘me first’ principle, and so on.

– I was referring more to the latter.

– Isolation or cultivation of a certain distance per se does not imply selfishness; there have been and are many who have isolated themselves in a spirit of benevolence. So when it comes to understanding a phenomenon like teleworking, you have to consider the variant and the context and see, from experience, where it leads. It is not a question of yes or no, in the name of technological innovation, competitiveness or productivity, for example. It would be necessary to discern in telework, for example, what it has of (what some call) connectivity (or sociability) that is gained, and of connectivity that is lost.

“It is difficult to respond to a great drama when you do not understand what is happening”
Reactions to the pandemic

– What analysis can be done at least at first glance?

– At first glance, the loss of a direct, personal relationship with others is an immense loss. That could imply reducing the scope of the exercise of freedom, reciprocal recognition and collective action, and thus increasing the feeling of isolation and vulnerability, in which case, it could reinforce the tendency to a, say, survival selfishness.


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