Historia postnazional baterako: ETA, estatu espainiarra, eta terrorismoa errepresentatzearen porrota

By • Sep 21st, 2011 • Category: Azterketak eta Azalpenak

Terrorism, State Terror, and the Historical State of Exception: For a Postnational History of Violence in Spain and the Basque Country

Joseba Gabilondo

(Paper given at the following conference: “Revisioning Terrorism: An Interndisciplinary and International Conference.” Purdue University).

The Double Failure of Representing Terrorism

Over the last fifteen years (PP 1996), two simultaneous symbolic processes have been taking place in Spain on the issue of Basque terrorism.

The Basque radical left party connected with the terrorist group ETA, most commonly known as Batasuna, has been renaming itself ceaselessly and creating new political parties in order to qualify for the different political elections that take place in the Basque County (local, regional, national, European), while the Spanish state has kept challenging the legality of this ceaseless reorganizations of the Basque left on the basis that it retains a trace, a connection, with ETA. Simultaneously, the Spanish government has been actively investigating and negating the involvement of the socialist government of Felipe Gonzalez in the organization of an anti-terrorist group, GAL, which killed members of ETA. This double process is symmetrical and parallel, as both attempt to negate their connection with terrorism and fail in the attempt, thus triggering another round of “symbolization” by which the same traumatic reality is once again unsuccessfully denied. In short, we have a double process of unsuccesful negation and renaming that since Freud we know as disavowal or Verleugnung: “a specific mode of defence which consists in the subject’s refusing to recognize the reality of a traumatic perception.”[1]. I believe that the examination of this double disavow will shed important light on the case of the last Western European state still dealing with terrorism in the 21st century.

The reason I do not focus directly on ETA but rather on its political and legal organization, Batasuna, has to do with the fact that ETA cannot be separated from its political base, similarly to the North Irish IRA eta Sin Fein. ETA owes its existence to this connection, unlike the rest of terrorist groups in recent Spanish history, which have already disappeared precisely because the lack of a similar political base (GRAPO).  The original political party of the Basque radical left was called Herri Batasuna, and was formed in 1978 as a coalition of  radical-left political groups. According to the data provided by the Spanish ministry of domestic affairs (Ministerio del Interior), HB, as it was better known, received, an average of  16% of the votes in the Basque parliament elections of the Autonomous Basque Community and an average of 10% of the votes in the elections of the Navarran Community between 1980 and 1995. Statewide, Herri Batasuna constituted around 1% of the Spanish vote while the Basque population amounts to 5%.

Yet this dynamic changed in 1996 when the right-wing party Partido Popular rose to power and decided to implement a new policy that would ban any political party that expressed a tacit or explicit ideological support or defense of terrorism. In 1996 Baltasar Garzón already ordered an investigation of KAS, one of the political groups that constituted HB and, in 1998, another investigation was opened against the entire HB (although it was not concluded till 2009). In 2001, it became Batasuna/Euskal Herritarrak partly as a response to the threat of illegalization. In 2002 Baltasar Garzón suspended the party for three years in order to investigate its connections to ETA and in 2003 the Spanish Supreme Court outlawed it altogether; the decision was upheld by the Constitutional Court. Yet this party remained legal in France.[2]

Since then, Herri Batasuna has adopted or joined the following names and groups, which, nevertheless have all been banned with the exception of the last: Autodeterminaziorako Bilgunea (2003), Herritarren Zerrenda (2004), Aukera Guztiak (2005), Abertzale Sozialisten Batasuna (2007), EHAK (Communist Party of the Basque Regions 2005), Sortu (2011), and Acción Nacionalista Vasca (2007).[3] In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the Spanish decision to outlaw Herri Batasuna. In all this refashionings, HB walked a tight rope between condemning violence while not denouncing ETA’s violent actions as a way to disavow ETA’s terrorist violent nature and uphold its political legitimacy.

Yet HB’s endless process of self- refashioning and being consequently outlawed by the Spanish legal authorities came to a halt in March of 2011 with the formation of Bildu. The  following month, the Spanish Constitutional Court declared this new political organization legal. In the elections of that year, Bildu became the second political force after the PNV/BNP in the ABC with 25.94% of the vote and the third political force in Navarre  with 13,30% of the vote.

The nuances of the legal and political reasons why finally Bildu was legalized are secondary for this analysis as it is clear that the same political constituency that backed HB now backs Bildu, along with breakaway factions of the PNV/BNP. The fact that the legal challenges to Bildu have continued to this day shows also a political tendency on the side of the  Spanish state to suspect ETA’S presence behind Bildu.  As late as this month, Antonio Elorza published an article in the Spanish newspaper El Pais entitled “Bildu, juego de mascaras”[4] where he denounced Bildu as “the old tactic of ETA already tried with EHAK and ANV.”

Behind the game of cat and mouse played by a very important Basque political constituency (13-25%) and the Spanish state we have a traumatic political moment in which the sovereignty of the Spanish state is challenged by a 1% of its voting citizens. At the same time, this trauma is compensated by a Spanish political fantasy, in which the state  solves or overcomes the trauma democratically within its constitutional and legal boundaries by having HB renounce violence. HB’s fantasy, instead, is one in which it renounces violence but does not accept ETA’s activity as violence but rather as armed struggle against a political foe—and even foreign invader. The political enjoyment, in the psychoanalytical and postmarxist sense, that these complementary fantasies provide is immense for the two parties involved; it is always highlighted and discussed on the front pages of the major Spanish newspapers such as El País or ABC (and Gara), unlike, say, domestic violence which produces more victims than terrorism but does not challenge the state’s sovereignty and therefore does not afford the same level of political enjoyment.

On the other hand, and as Paddy Woodworth has shown,[5] the Spanish government, and more specifically the socialist party PSOE, repeatedly deny the involvement of the top ranks of the government, and more specifically of the most influential president in the history of the socialist party, Felipe Gonzalez, in the creation of a state-sponsored counter-terrorist group, GAL, that conducted illegal attacks against ETA members from 1983 to 1987 and killed 23 people. Yet the allegations continue to emerge and even Gonzalez has made ambivalent declarations, as late as November 7th 2010 to El Pais, which might involve him in the case of GAL.

Behind this form of state violence, we can witness a similar trauma about state legitimacy and its discontinuity with the Franco dictatorship. The existence of GAL, questions the political fantasy of a clear democratic break with the Franco dictatorship and elicits a political enjoyment among the political constituencies that challenge the state. such as HB, as well as among the democratic opposition that seeks power. The fact that the GAL case does not go away and comes back to haunt the legitimacy of the state parallels and mirrors that of ETA and HB.

At a close distance, but also as a traumatic reminder of the failure of the fantasy of a democratic break with the past, we have to add the series of corruption scandals that have defined Spanish politics specially during the PP government (1996-2004). These corruption cases are a throwback to the dictatorship and even to the “caciquismo” of 19th-century Restoration Spain. Although they do not challenge state sovereignty in political terms, unlike HB and ETA, they do represent, nevertheless, a second form of the same traumatic suspension of the state’s democratic legitimacy and sovereignty: the economic criminals that undermine the state are precisely the representatives of the state themselves.

Representing Terrorism as Affectivity

The mirroring of this double process of negating “terrorism” (Basque or state-sponsored) is at the core of the Spanish and Basque political symbolic orders and their  historical traumatic formation.  This double symbolic process of disavowal can be seen in the press, in literature, and in film. It does not only shape political discourse but also culture, Basque and Spanish, at large.

Let me begin with the Basque language. Egunkaria, the only newspaper publishing in Basque, which started in 1990, was shut down by the police in 2003 by order of judge Juan del Olmo, following a similar move by judge Garzón in 1998 to close the newspaper of the radical left, Egin. The accusation against the Basque newspaper  was the editors’ connection to ETA. In 2010 the Spanish National Court dismissed the case arguing that the accused editors did not commit any crimes of terrorism. Yet, as a result of this closure, a slow connection began to be established between the Basque language and terrorism. As late as 2011, the socialist president or lendakari of the ABC, made some unfortunate declarations whereby he acknowledged the fantasy that Basque language was somehow connected to terrorism.

Until the mid 1990s, Basque literature and cinema began to explore the issue of terrorism in novels and films that represented it as its main object, as the work of Mikel Hernandez Abaitua and Ramon Saizarbitoria in literature and  Imanol Uribe in film demonstrated. At the time, the main criticism and opposition to this kind of representations came from the Basque radical left which opposed any critical reflection on ETA.

Yet, since the late 1990s and under the pressure of the state’s anti-terrorist initiatives, film and literature shifted its representational strategy: it began a double process of mentioning terrorism more often while, at the same time, avoiding it as central topic and, thus, pushing it to the background.[6] Beginning in the 2000s and specially with Medem’s The Basque Ball: Skin Against Stone (2003), any representation to Basque politics and terrorism, which did not follow a clear and strict condemnation of terrorism that acknowledged the state as the sole guarantor of democracy was challenged specially by the right wing and, in many cases, even by the Spanish left. The new representational strategy of mentioning terrorism by pushing it to the background, represents the same disavowal process I have studied in politics.

Yet, the comparison of politics and culture sheds very interesting light on the effects of terrorism and state terror. While in politics the enjoyment produced by the disavowal of violent traumas continues and, in many instances, has increased, in culture, the opposite has happened: literature, film, and other areas of culture have shown a lack of political enjoyment that I call “the affectivity of numbness” whereby  an inability or refusal to represent politics has emerged, that is, a disavowal of politics. Film and literature are populated by representations that create affects of boredom, ennui, surrealist daydreaming, and even an escape from modern history in the form of folklorism or costumbrismo, mythology, medievalism and even high art (as in the case of Zorion perfektua). What is interesting is that this new affectivity of numbness reaches most writers and filmmakers from the nationalist right to the left. Kirmen Uribe and his niceness, exemplified in his folkloric/costumbrista  Bilbao-NY-Bilbao is the poster-child of this new affectivity of numbness that stands for the disavow of politics altogether. and although this might seem a big stretch, I would venture that what defines Bisque culture at this point is precisely the disavowal of politics that subtends  its numb affectivity.

The New State of Exception

Moreover, if this process of the disavowal of terrorism, state terror, and politics altogether shapes the political and cultural landscape in the Basque Country we can only conclude that this region lives in a permanent state of exception. Political dsavowal represents a situation in which a fantasy of a political and cultural order is mobilized to counter a traumatic order where such order has failed.

From classical political theory (from Donoso Cortés, Carl Schmidt, Benjamin) to contemporary theorizations of the state (Agamben, Rancière, Zizek), the state of exception is a political decision. However, in the Spanish case, it is the sign of a historical reality that must be defined in historical and postnational terms departing from the situation of the Basque Country. I would argue that the state of exception that defines the Basque Country is simply the trace, the reminder of a greater Spanish history of exceptionalism that finds its most traumatic moment in the Basque Country. The Basque location and subject reminds Spain that its fantasy of political order and normalcy, of having overcome a history of exceptions remains simply a fantasy.

So far Spain’s exceptional history has been defined as the history of the failure of the modern Spanish state (Borja de Riquer/Juan Pablo Fusi); yet this formulation has many problems as it does not transcend the political horizon of the nation-state.

By shifting the ground of analysis to the formation of the modern Spanish state in the 19th century, we might shed some light on this continuous state of exception. The coup d’état organizes Spanish politics from Riego’s coup d’état in 1820 to Franco’s in 1936, in what can be considered a succession of endless civil wars(Raymond Carr; Spain 1808-1975, 129-30. 137) so that the difference and undecidability between the rule and the state of exception, or their reversal (Benjamin’s “the state of exception in which we live is the rule”), cannot be upheld as the founding act of modern politics (Agamben). This state of politics is due to the marginal space occupied by Spain in 19th-century modern Europe. Moreover, this “marginality” is due to Spain’s newly acquired Atlantic postcolonial/postimperial status (1810-1825), which, unlike the British (1776), is the harbinger of all the processes of nationalism (Anderson, Imagined Communities) and decolonization that Europe will experience in the 20th century.

If this is so and it is a big if, the historical state of exception that continues to define contemporary Spain would have to be interpreted as the sign of a more radical history that points to the future of the institution of the state in globalization: the generalization and universalization of the state of exception. This new analysis requires we shift the emphasis from terrorism as a symptom of trauma/the Real favored by political analysis (Zizek, Galfarsoro, Zulaika), to a new questioning of the modern state in globalization, on the one hand, and of postmarxist theories of trauma/the Real (Zizek, Laclau, Butler), on the other. Through the analysis of these cultural texts, I want to emphasize the need for a new post-state politics where the state no longer has the monopoly of violence and trauma/the Real no longer is theorized as the unsymbolizable outside.


[1] Laplanche, Jean and Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand. The Language of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1973. 118

[2]  “impidiendo que un partido político pueda, de forma reiterada y grave, atentar contra ese régimen democrático de libertades, justificar el racismo y la xenofobia o apoyar políticamente la violencia y las actividades de las bandas terroristas”.

[3] Half the lists were banned in 2008.

[4] Antonio Elorza. “Bildu, juego de máscaras.” El Pais. 07/05/2011 . www.elpais.com. Viewed 7-9-2011.

[5] Paddy Woodworth, Dirty War, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL, and Spanish Democracy. N.p.: Yale University Press,  2002.

[6] Sarrionaindia: “Ez dut azken urteotako [ezker abertzalearen] eztabaida horretan parte hartu, baina aldaketa onuragarria dela uste dut. Hogei urte lehenago egin izan balitz hobe. ETAk estatuaren sparring papera luzaroan bete ondoren, biolentziaren kritika da egin behar dena, ‘kondena’ erretorikorik egin beharrik gabe ere. Azken hogeita hamar urteotan estatuaren aurka ibili garenok errekuperatu behar duguna legitimitatea da, geure herriko nahi kolektiboekin sintonia. Galdu egin dugulako neurri handian legitimitate hori, helburuekin kontraesanean ekinez askotan.” http://basque.criticalstew.org/?p=6510

*Pictures courtesy Welfare State of Exception: an immobile object theater piece http://welfarexception.wordpress.com/  used in accordance with Creative Commons licence.

(Urretxu, 1963). Michigan State University-n irakaslea da. Argitaratu dituen liburuen artean, besteak beste "Nazioaren hondarrak: Euskal literatura garaikidearen historia postnazional baterako hastapenak (2006)" eta "Apokalipsia guztioi erakutsia" (2009, Erein), Erein argitaletxeko saria jasotakoa azpimarra daitezke.
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  1. On reading this article / paper a first reaction could be to dismiss it on the grounds of refusing to accept the wrong presuppositions that inform it: one is afraid that in this day and age the very post-nationalist paradigm that frames this article within a concrete post/de-colonial epistemology is well and truly over. This, therefore, is not a question anymore, as somebody put it referring to my own work, that today’s Marxist thinking applied into the Basque ‘situation‘ (Badiou) is too 80s. It is rather a question that multiculturalist fantasies of radical transnational identity politics are indeed too 90s as well, and this is it: the game now is how could we make a swan, as it were, out of two dead ducks, that is to say: how can we work out the parallax that I believe informs critical studies in the Basque field, the parallax between the languages of particularity, difference and the margins nurtured in subaltern, cultural and postcolonial studies and the languages of truth, universality and the centrality of the political as understood on that end of post-Marxism which privileges Marxism over the cult of post.

    Here I am not going to try showing the relevance of Marxism nowadsys, both inside and outside academia. On looking around it does not take long to notice that the relevance of the classical questions of self-determination and social justice are again on the ascendancy.

    As to the need of questioning the notion of postnationalism in the context of the the 2010s, one can obviously begin agreeing with Gabilondo’s underlying claim of how the entire Basque field is certainly articulated around a surplus enjoyment of the nation. But then again so are the ‘big’ nations of Europe. For instance, as we speak Britain is rebranding itself away from that New Labour’s corny marketing stunt called “Cool Britannia” into a rather no-nonsense Lib-Con “GREAT Britain” all over again. Simultaneously, proposals have also been put forward to eliminate the May day bank holiday and create a new Patriotic Day of sorts sometime in October, the old good pragmatic reasons to do so being, of course, to boost tourism and the economy.

    Here I leave the analysis of the symbolism behind these decisions for someone else. My point still is that coming to enjoy the fantasy of the nation and/or the state, I am pretty sure also that Gabilondo himself is well aware of how ‘the nation’ is being fully enjoyed indeed by many of our subaltern, womanist and postcolonial heroes of the past. For instance, it only takes reading some of the last books by bell hooks on love, community, pedagogy and practical wisdom to notice how the ultimate horizon of her work is to become a sort of black feminist matriarch of “THE nation”; not of “the people”, mind you, or “the masses” or “the multitude” but, specifically of “the nation”, that is: The American nation. Likewise the logic of Judith Buttler’s repositioning in the overlapping field of queer studies and creep studies also lies ultimately in a desperate cry for “THE nation”, that is to say, again, the institutions of the United State(s) of America to be a bit less redneck and a bit more open to the margins (disable people, sexual minorities etc).

    But, back to the Basque field, what a surprise, is it not, that (i) while our hitherto favourite post-what have you American radical critics embrace THE nation wholeheartedly as the ultimate legal container where solutions to whichever grievances that may arise should be found, (ii) we Basque critical postmodern weepers excel in our self-ironic performative parodies of enjoying ourselves at constantly undermining the very possibility of full liberation, including that is, the liberation from our own very stupid narratives of Basque ‘ethnicity’ and exceptionalist difference (or is it perhaps that we need to nurture that subordinate “ethnicity “ to stay/remain “cool” in our “trendy” identity hybridizations?)

    At this point I am not going to enter into another of the major narrative plots which undercuts everything Basque, that is to say, that of Basque terrorism and the like. It is not a question of avoiding the issue. I think that I have already explained the whys and how of such decision elsewhere and also, if anybody is interested in my positions on Violence (s)he can always run, at his/her peril, the ‘Google translate’ to my article “Biolentziaz” http://basque.criticalstew.org/?p=1328 What I am going to do instead is to explain where I think Gabilondo’s analysis fails to capture the essence of the liberation movement to which I owe my entire political fidelity, a liberation movement which can obviously be quantified in terms of constituency support (15-20-30%) but which can also claim the right to represent the entire society in the very terms I do, for instance, in this article: http://www.gara.net/paperezkoa/20090221/123241/es/Porque/tenemos/todo/el/derecho/del/mundo/ )

    Knowing Gabilondo’s overall work well, the problem does not arise from this or that explicit statement that may or may not please my eye. It rather arises from an assumption which is implicit in this article and rests on a position Gabilondo has consistently held in his work to explain the Basque “situation” over the last 30 years or so in terms of a supposed “nationalist hegemony” being installed in the Basque autonomous community following the arrival of democracy to Spain. A spin off of this narrative framework is then that such “nationalist hegemony” has also tried to impose a “centralist/centralizing” vision of Basqueness over the margins (Navarre, Basque-French…) and beyond (Diaspora). Thus a Basque variant of the American WASP emerges, as it were, which remains Male, White, Catholic and Guipuzcoan (the most central, region of the Basque country where the majority of Basque speakers live). Hence a typical MWCG figure arises which dominates Basque nationalist cultural politics in a quasi macho-supremacist-imperialist-misogynistic-homophobic–Christian fundamentalist manner.

    Sure, here I am pushing it a bit with this silly nomination process , and, of course, I say it just in case, this list above does certainly not speak of the predicative traits that Gabilondo uses in his works to account for the ins and out of what he names as ‘nationalist hegemony’. Having said this, however, a certain level of discursivity does still remain explicit enough which speaks of such notions as “Basque terrorist organization” or “Basque radical left” etc to describe fundamental dimensions of my own political, cultural and intellectual tradition in terms which are far from ‘objective’ and far from innocent; and which, moreover, have been tried to be, excuse my polish, naturalized, unsuccessfully, to the extent that they have always been contested and have never ‘sedimented’ fully.

    In this respect, it is worth pointing out that while certainly owing some to critical, cultural and / or postcolonial studies in American academia, this conceptual apparatus often dismissive of the political and social claims of the liberation movement in their own discursive terms, and indeed much taken for granted in American-Basque cultural studies, owes rather more to the very political vocabularies which have become dominant in the Basque country itself. In other words, what we are talking about here is that the only effective hegemonic articulation that has taken place in the Basque country is that which could somehow be described as something like the “Spanish ‘socialist’ hegemony under Basque ‘nationalist’ dominance”.

    In fact, what is crucial to understand is that this is the truly effectively ‘shared’ hegemonic formation / articulation which has dominated Basque politics over the last 30 years, a consensus which can be explained in very similar ways as Stuart Hall often did in the 80s to describe the British post-war basic consensus around the construction of the Keynesian welfare state previous to the irruption of Thatcherism: we are Labour but don’t worry we’ll contain the trade unions and there will be no revolution; we are pro-market Conservatives but don’t worry, we will protect the role of the state as the provider of social benefits… Hence we are Basque ‘nationalist’ but don’t you worry we’ll never go as far asking for independence, we are Spanish socialist but don’t worry we will let you do as if you are really leading the show! In two words: A ‘nationalist hegemony’, certainly, but of a rather Spanish kind, of a kind Indian subaltern historian Ranajit Guha explains in his “Dominance without Hegemony” (1998) whereby the dominance of Basque elite/bourgeois nationalism qua regionalism was ultimately produced and nurtured by Spanish hegemony.

    The problem now is, of course, that like Margaret Thatcher ‘s fist on the table threw away the cards of the previous consensus, in the Basque country, inversely, the post-ETA irruption of the TRUE Hegelian synthesis, as it were, between Independence and Socialism is being channeled not in the manner of an elephant in a china-shop as expected by many, but rather with the orderly discipline and sense of timing which is really frightening the bearers of the previous set up. And indeed this is where Gabilondo’s approach according to which my cultural, political and intellectual tradition is somehow undermined by radical Statehood fantasies does not totally capture the Real of the Basque situation according to the pro-independence and socialist movement.

    No, my friend! The fantasy is not Independence. The fantasy is Socialism! It is the political utopia, the impossible of socialism which works as a kind of Kantian regulative idea (struggles for social justice, (gender, class, race,…) equality etc). On the other hand, forgive me to put it this way but in our political movement there are no wet dreams for independence. Independence may be a dream for such all-life long beautiful souls as Ramon Zallo or Perico Ibarra who now share Manuel Castells “pro-independence utopia” (see http://elcomentario.tv/reggio/la-utopia-independentista-de-manuel-castells-en-la-vanguardia/16/04/2011/ ) ; – as if somehow the concrete and possible of “independence” could be equated with the utopian and the impossible of the struggles for justice and equality. Mais no: as a Spanish saying goes, for such a short journey there is no need of such a big knap-sack. The Basque N/Regionalist Party has already been placing independence in the realm of the utopian and the impossible for the last 110 years!

    For us, on the contrary, independence is a totally possible outcome of a concrete struggle, and also: the final effect is absolutely post-political: it simply reverts to the administrative management of a European territory where a people constitutes itself as a sovereign subject. Sure, this will also require working out more acute visions of Europe which certainly should go beyond the platitudes we often hear in terms of positioning ourselves “for” the Europe of the Nations and “against “ the Europe of Capital. I admit. But ultimately, as I put it somewhere else there is nothing spectacular to the creation of a European state in the Basque country ( http://www.gara.net/paperezkoa/20110722/280365/es/Por/un/estado/europeo/en/Euskal/Herria/ )

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