About the cliché of the individualist Galicia

Among all the topics with which Galicia is usually explained, individualism is undoubtedly one of the most frequent and strongest. It is also one of the most harmful, due to its paralysing power. “Don’t make an effort, we Galicians are like that…”. “Always the same, each one with his little farm…” How many times have we heard expressions like these? Its explanatory capacity seems total, and therein lies the seriousness of the matter: it is a perfect mantra that ends up avoiding complex analysis and explanations, preventing serious debate and undermining, right from the start, possible solutions, whatever the problem at hand. And it does so because it takes on a genetic nature. Individualism seems to be, paradoxically, a central element of our collective personality, an essential part of our idiosyncrasy. And one cannot fight against oneself.

Origin and development of the cliché

Framed under the umbrella of backwardness, another topic that offers a comprehensive view of Galician society [1], and often presented as one of the main causes of this, the notion of the individualistic Galician finds its origin in the negative perception of the rural world, its dispersed habitat and the most common form of ownership and management of land in Galicia, the “minifundio” (smallholder), an issue to which we will devote an article soon. In fact, the oldest reference we find in the Galician press to our natural individualism, published in 1851, is along these lines. In an article in the fortnightly El Eco de Galicia, the occupation of the countryside is presented as a problem that can be explained by the “material individualism” that characterises Galician villages, and it is stated that “this withdrawn solidarity (…) is the basis of the Galician character and the exact and valid expression of its withdrawal into amalgamation, fusion, and mutual cooperation” [2].

Over the years, the cliché of individualism has shown its strength in resisting all criticism, but also in its ability to adapt. In a historically rural country like ours, the prejudices associated with the rural world ended up being applied to the whole of Galician society. This is also what happened with the notion of backwardness. The analysis of the press is usually a good thermometer of the prevalence of clichés and commonplaces. In the last two centuries, analysts of different sign [3], members of political and cultural elites across the ideological spectrum [4] and also members of the common society have resorted to the natural individualism of the Galicians. And they did so for the most disparate uses.

At the beginning of the 20th century, this concept was used to celebrate the merit of the Federación Agropecuaria del Norte Galaico, an association of farmers from the north of Lugo that “has had the virtuality of defeating Galician individualism, so deeply rooted in the farmer, and convince him that his improvement and his future lie in the association”[6]. One hundred years later it served to celebrate the successes of the Xacobeo cycling team, which in the 2010 Vuelta Ciclista a España was able to “banish the cliché of Galician individualism, of pathological dispersion” [7]. In recent decades, Galician individualism has been placed as a handicap in the creation of competitive companies [8] or as an explanatory cause of the crisis of the naval sector in Ferrol [9]. These are just a few examples of a list that would be endless. Even the current president of the Xunta de Galicia, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, stated the following in an interview for La Voz de Galicia, a few months after his first victory in the 2009 elections: “I think Galicians are very individualistic. Our social structure, the way we understand life, shows it. We like to live in a dispersed way. The Germans do too, but they have a finished, ordered country and we don’t.” [10]

Times have changed, wills have changed. The country is not very similar to how it was portrayed in the publications of the 19th century, or what the Galicianists studied during the Franco regime. However, the quotes we collect over two centuries sound very recent. That’s the strength of the cliché. But our responsibility is to confront it through study, and history provides us with many tools to do so.

The countryside: a world built in common

It is precisely in the origin of the cliché where its falseness lies. The research carried out in the last decades within the framework of the HISTAGRA group has shown, from different perspectives, why the Galician countryside does not fit this individualistic and unsupportive characterization [11]. Far from idealising, we are in a position to say that the endogenous way of planning the territory, built from the local and which gave rise to small-scale family farming, favours cooperation. It even forces cooperation, because cooperation is essential. In fact, the high levels of productivity of the small Galician farms during the 18th and 19th centuries cannot be understood without the existence of large communal spaces, many of which survive today in the form of communal forests thanks to the historical resilience of the communities. In the analysis of our past, the small-scale ownership cannot be understood, in short, if we do not understand the strength of the community. And the strength of the community, as we well know, also impregnated the organisation of the different spheres of social life, from work to the party.

Beyond the community organisation in each village, Galician farmers have shown a great capacity for association also at the formal level. During the decades preceding the July 1936 coup d’état, we can speak of the rise of mutual livestock associations and agricultural societies, which even gave rise to the collective purchase of machinery or cooperative organization for production and marketing. Also, of the associations of migrants, through which the neighbours who were outside contributed to the improvement of their places of origin, for example, by founding schools. A good example of this is Laíño (Dodro), one of our case studies. The educational centre Sociedad de Agricultores de las Tres Parroquias de Dodro, today the Culture Centre of the council, stands as a place of memory of their common past

Educational centre Sociedad de Agricultores de las Tres Parroquias de Dodro, today the Culture Centre of the council. Image: Consello da Cultura Galega

The disintegration of the rural world and, at the same time, of the communities that form it, is a process that opens with force in the heat of Franco’s dictatorship, around the 1960s, and that is accentuated especially from the 1980s. In spite of this, the collective sense still prevails in rural areas, at least more so than in other areas of our society. In an agrarian system which is fundamentally unstructured from the productive point of view, we find community, for example, in the importance that mutual assistance has in the collective organisation of parochial celebrations. We also find it, of course, in the strenght of the communal forest communities. In societies that are now increasingly individualistic – and not for natural or cultural reasons, but for systemic and global reasons – it is worth looking at our recent past. Perhaps in this we will find seeds for the future.

Referencias bibliográficas

  1. Fernández, L. (2016) «O atraso: éxito dun falso mito. Imaxes contra os tópicos do mundo rural e os labregos». In I. Dubert (ed.), Historia das historias de Galicia (357-391). Vigo: Xerais.

  2. El Eco de Galicia, 30.08.1851

  3. The topic of individualism appears frequently in the articles of two influential Galician journalists in different periods, who also paid special attention to agrarian issues: Bartolomé Calderón, in the first decades of the 20th century, and Augusto Assía (pseudonym of Felipe Fernández Armesto), in the second half of the same century. For the former, see, for example, La Voz de Galicia (20.02.1924, 15.06.1924, 01.09.1928 or 14.02.1931). For the second, see, for example, La Voz de Galicia (28.08.1960, 31.08.1960 and 13.10.1963).

  4. From Alfredo García Ramos, jurist and journalist who would be an independent deputy for Pontevedra in 1933 (see quote 6) or Santiago Casares Quiroga, founder of the ORGA and President of the Spanish Government in 1936 (La Voz de Galicia, 18.12.1923) to Galicianists such as Fernández del Riego (La Voz de Galicia, 03.11.1960; signing with the pseudonym Salvador Lorenzana) or Ramón Piñeiro (Piñeiro, R. (2008) “Individualismo, particularismo, cooperativismo”. In Vistazos en el futuro (165-166). Vigo: Galaxia.

  5. See, for example, two letters to the editor published under the title “Individualismo gallego” in La Voz de Galicia in 1988 and 1994 (18.04.1988 and 02.02.1994).

  6. García Ramos, A. (1912). «Capítulo XXIII». En Arqueología jurídico-consuetudinaria-económica de la región gallega (138-140). Madrid: Establecimiento Tipográfico de Jaime Ratés.

  7. La Voz de Galicia, 20.09.2010.

  8. La Voz de Galicia, 06.26.1991.

  9. La Voz de Galicia, 03.04.2002.

  10. La Voz de Galicia, 25.07.2009.

  11. See, for example: Villares, R. (1982). La propiedad de la tierra en Galicia (1500-1936). México: Siglo XXI; Balboa, X. (1990). O monte en Galicia. Vigo: Xerais; Cabo, M. (1998). O agrarismo. Vigo: A Nosa Terra; Díaz-Geada, A. (2013). Mudar en común: cambios económicos, sociais e culturais no rural galego do franquismo e da transición (1959-1982) (Tese de doutoramento, Universidade de Santiago de Compostela).

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