Book Reviews

Towards New Forms of Political Democracy in Spain

Few books on populist (grassroots) social movements manage to be both theoretically original and empirically well documented. Richard R. Weiner and Iván López’s Los Indignados: Tides of Social Insertion in Spain (Winchester [UK] Washington [USA], Zero Books, 2018) accomplish this rare intellectual feat.

The authors rigorously analyse the recent history of a major western European nation whose democracy grew out of a transition from an authoritarian regime (Franco’s Spain). As the authors explain, they have been following the developments of Los Indignados, 15-M movement and Podemos from their very beginning. The first two can be described as a large anti-austerity movement that arose as a reaction to high rates of unemployment and economic hardship. Podemos is young a party founded in the aftermath of mass protests to respond to corruption and social inequality.

Being experts in sociology and political science Weiner and López go beyond simply describing the historical development of these movements and their various political consequences. They also present a clear picture of the social forces and actors who played a major role in the new forms of democracy in Spain. As they explain (p. 1),

Following Alain Touraine’s sociology of social movement as an institutionalizing leveraging to reorganize the field of historicity, the authors have been keeping up with Los Indignados for these past four years.

In particular they have explored how new forms of social pacting and non-hierarchical association have been at the forefront of the struggles to “re-embed” the economy and limit the power of the neoliberal economic agenda of various Spanish socio-economic elites.

Weiner and López begin by describing the origins of the Los Indignados. Who exactly are the people behind the movement to make Spanish politics more accountable to the population? They are mainly, though not exclusively

cut off and massively unemployed youth – cut off from the circuits of capital accumulation, workplace habitus, and the pillars of social democracy (p. 9).

This generation, the grandchildren of the Spanish welfare state, are living lives best described by Gilles Deleuze and André Gorz. They exist as a sort of non-class, neither proletariat nor bourgeoisie. They are the result of a dwindling middle-class now living economically precarious lives in an increasingly neoliberal world order.

Yet, as the analysis of Weiner and López convincingly shows, they are not doomed to social nothingness, cut off from political power, what Stiglitz sometimes refers to as a “wasted generation”,

The Indignados movement of Confluence against a perceived unrepresentative and unresponsive Transition State amounts to more than effervescence (p.  12).

This apparently “lost generation” and their movement in Spain have become something, despite their lack of hold on traditional sources of economic and political power, perhaps even because of it.  They have learned to be creative and structure their demands in new, effective and original ways.

Weiner and López also discuss the question of legitimacy and democracy in 21st century Spain and in the context of western democracies generally. They paint a very accurate and poignant picture of the various phases from authoritarian rule to a transitional state form towards something new that has not yet fully developed.

They portray the nature of the distrust towards the major political parties. Weiner and López explain the phenomenon of “social washing”. Parties present themselves as close to the people but serve the interests of economic elites:

They pose insincerely as “socially concerned” in their promotional communication and marketing, while actually operating the other way. It is a manipulating of discourse and legitimation claims in a misleading way. (P. 38)

This type of “social washing” was also widely noted and denounced by the student protesters of 2012 in the province of Quebec (Canada). The student protests spread and eventually led to the downfall of the Liberal party then in power. The difference being that in Spain a large and durable social movement, including a new political party, emerged from the mass social protests.

Another major aspect of this major work in political sociology is their analysis of the question of “social insertion”. How do the people who do not have access to traditional forms of economic and social power manage to organize and become active in the construction of a better and viable future?

The concept of “social insertion” goes back to before the Franco regime. As Weiner and López explain (p. 44),

The concept of “social insertion” has roots in the municipalismo of mutual aid practised by Spanish anarchists […] although it is used in new ways by the Indignados.

The authors also note that there is a tension within the larger social movement and the Podemos party. A tension between organizing outside and around the state or rather attempting to use the State’s “institutionalizing power”.

Weiner and López describe much of what has happened in recent years in Spain as a contemporary form of what Polanyi famously dubbed the “double movement”. (Re)insertion and (re-)embedding are two processes that seem to be happening together and to be supporting each other in the movement presented by Weiner and López.

Beyond resentment, the authors (p. 35) point us to the concept of rhizomatic form of social insertion as a “constitutive provenance,” one articulating “an emergent imaginary” in the precarious, the marginalized and the displaced. There are significant chapters (7, 8 and 11), grounded statistically, that chronicle — in two decades in public opinion polling — a growing mistrust and existential insecurity foreshadowing the legitimation crisis of the post-Franco Transition State.

Los Indignados is a must read book for anyone interested in social movements and who wishes to better understand the mechanisms of social change.

About the authors of the book: Richard R. Weiner is Professor of Political Science at Rhode Island College and Local Affiliate, Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University. Iván López is a Researcher and Assistant Professor at Universidad de Zaragoza.

About the reviewer: Omer Moussaly (PhD, Université du Québec à Montréal) is a postdoctoral researcher at the UNESCO Chair on the Philosophical Foundations of Justice and Democratic Society at UQAM. He is currently writing about the works of Algernon Sidney with the Chair on Critical Antiquity and Emerging Modernity at l’Université Laval.


“Western Civilization, Modernity and Reason: An Unavoidable Conflict?” by Marie-Josée Lavallée

Review of Jay, Martin. 2016. Reason After its Eclipse. On Late Critical Theory, Madison, The University of Wisconsin Press.

Reading Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s Dialektik der Aufklärung for the first time may be a rather disconcerting experience. The authors seem to support without qualification the claim, widely popular since the time of the Great War, that Western Civilization was then experiencing a crisis which could take her straight to her intellectual, spiritual, and even physical destruction. This pessimistic prognosis was only boosted by the catastrophes of the Second World War and Nazism, which were the background of the composition of Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s book.

Let’s remind briefly a part of their argument. Enlightenment thinkers had had a strong confidence in the potential of reason to liberate and emancipate human beings. Reason, however, can turn against the latter, and sink into barbarism if its regressive tendencies surface and become dominant. The roots of this regressive process are to be sought in Ancient Greece, where the split between reason and myth occurred. What was happened in the Enlightenment’s century has been a renewal of the struggle between those henceforth old adversaries, but this fight reached new highs.

If the concept of reason was to become central to Critical Theory, reflection on the perplexing multiplicity of reason was current in German thought in these times. The conservative thinkers Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, for example, also distinguished between “instrumental reason”, which imposed itself at the same pace as modernity, and “sound reason”, which has been repressed by its instrumental counterpart. This process underlies the surprising affirmation to the effect that reason may have a corrosive effect on human autonomy and freedom.

This type of discussion, however, often lacks theoretical clarification. The distinctions between instrumental reason and sound or critical reason, and universal and subjective reason are often taken for granted and put forward without much explanation. This is precisely the task renowned intellectual historian Martin Jay has set himself in his last book. Reason After its Eclipse. On Late Critical Theory guides the reader throughout the theoretical ambiguities surrounding the concept and its kindred terms (for example, rationality, rationalization, reasonable) by painting a broad history of its philosophical appearances and uses over time. It sheds light in particular on German thought between the end of the 18th century to the last quarter of the 20th century.


Martin Jay (left), in conversation with Richard Wolin. Photo by Joseph van der Naald (licence C BY-SA 4.0).

The author begins his study by exploring the first “Age of Reason” which runs from Ancient Greece to Enlightenment, before considering Kant in a separate chapter. The next one, devoted to Hegel and Marx, introduces a couple of notions which prepare the analysis of discussions of reason by thinkers of the Frankfurt School in the second part of the book. The fourth chapter skims over late modernity’s crisis of reason which, having started in the late 18th century reached a high point between 1848 and the unleashing of the Great War, before transforming itself into the “embrace of unreason” from 1914 to the 1940s. These two phases characterized themselves by a decisive “erosion of confidence in reason”.

At each step of his study, Jay distinguishes various layers of meaning tied the concept and underlines the impacts of reason’s coexistence with religion or science. He does not try to build a homogenous history of reason but rather fully confronts the reader to the full range of complexities and contradictions surrounding this notion. While Jay’s perspective is wide, he does not lose himself into subtleties. His synthesis is highly efficient, and will benefit anyone who has an interest in the concept of reason. This is why the book’s appeal does not restrict itself to Frankfurt School’s thinkers’ readers. The latter’s criticisms have attracted a great deal of attention, but one should not read them as their “last word” on reason.

In the chapters of the second part of the book, “Reason’s Eclipse and Return”, Jay analyzes the attempts of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas to “rescue” reason and “defend a viable concept” of the latter. This part, however, lacks balance. The reader could be disappointed by the too synthetic treatment of the first three thinkers, which are grouped together in a single chapter, in spite of the fact that Marcuse would have deserved a full chapter, as well as Adorno and Horkheimer. Habermas’ thought is treated more in depth, since two chapters are devoted to him.

Besides its contribution to the understanding of the various meanings of the concept of reason among Frankfurt School’s thinkers, and throughout intellectual history, Jay’s book also contribute to reopening wider paths of historical-philosophical investigation, for example on the topic of the modern project’s failure. It also helps to open new research avenues pertaining to our own time, since we must suspect that the conflict between reason and material progress has not come to a close yet.