A catchword of the 15M protest movement and central to the pitch of new political party and phenomenon Podemos, which have both emerged out of a generalised discontent with politicians and, indeed, with the political system itself in Spain, the term la casta nails what these new political forces want to replace: the closed-shop ruling elite that has formed governments under the major parties for over 30 years (the PP and PSOE nationally and parties like CiU regionally).
While the term in this sense seems to have first come into use in Italy, in Spain, it has also been associated with the concept of the “extractive elite” after César Molinas applied this term, taken from Acemoglu and Robinson’s Why Nations Fail, to Spain’s situation and la casta in his article Theory of Spain’s political class (very much worth a read; here also in Spanish).
However, more than an equivalent of la casta política, “extractive elite” is a refinement of it as it attaches more conditions and assumptions to the behaviour and intentions of the ruling elite.
Sort of like the old guard
In commentary on Spain, the best way to talk about la casta is probably to make reference to the Spanish term or translate it literally as political caste. “Political caste” may not feel like much in English, but that’s probably how it should be given we’re talking about a term with significant cultural meaning.
Other options for translating the term to English include “political class”, “political elite” and even “ruling elite”, although these terms might be too generic if we’re talking about Spain’s situation.
A good option with some of the connotations of la casta is the old guard. It feels quite close and is used in this way in this BBC article on Italian politics:
He is known as “scrapper” – a politician who promises to break the power of the old guard, of the political caste, of those often invisible networks that still influence so much in Italy.
This is a good solution. It draws of the connotations and expressive meaning attached to the “old guard” and introduces the literal translation, which is necessary because “old guard” lacks some elements like la casta‘s strong hint at family tradition and bloodlines or at least a very closed shop, largely the result of one of Spain’s biggest problems: its electoral system, which is a key point in César Molinas’s argument.
Loyalty to the party first
With its closed party lists and proportional representation, Spain’s electoral system fosters loyalty to the party over loyalty to the voters too much and far more than it might if politicians had to win their seats directly and individually (as representatives — or not — of a particular party) as they would under a majority system.
As a result, the big problem with the current system, at least according to Molinas and at least up until the emergence of Podemos, is the near impossibility for new blood to enter Spanish politics as it is filtered through the major parties, which dilute it to a strain that looks very familiar or cast it aside, leaving people with new ideas with little viable option for entering the political system. Of course, this process is aided by pre-selecting candidates from pools of readily loyal members, i.e., family and friends and other hangers-on.
Other systems will also have problems, but maybe it’s time Spain had a different set of problems so we can give democratic accountability a better go for a while.
Anyway, the term la casta has struck a chord. It’s nearly a sign of the times and sums up what many people see as wrong and the cause of the country’s woes. It’s a key term for understanding Spain’s current political climate.