The Intensification of Calamities: Catalonia’s Unlikely Cheerleaders

Of all forms of war, the ancient Greeks recognized that civil war was the worst and most destructive form of human conflict.  This is because civil war shatters the bonds that hold societies together, tearing families, neighborhoods and communities apart, unleashing hatreds, divisions and conflicts that can only be resolved, not through negotiation, compromise or a peace treaty, but through the complete and utter destruction and defeat of one side by the other.

We have seen this again and again throughout history, most recently in the former Yugoslavia, Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.  Spain knows this as much as any country in Europe;its politics have been haunted by the memory of the civil war even during the democratic transition.

As a result of its unilateral declaration of independence, the Catalan parliament has now ushered in a dangerous new phase in its ongoing confrontation with the Spanish state, in which civil conflict is a very real possibility.  It isn’t only that the Catalan parliament doesn’t have a clear mandate to take such a drastic and far-reaching decision; the nationalist movement simply does not have the ability to transform this decision into political reality.  It has taken a reckless political gamble and  picked a fight that it cannot win, and which poses a direct threat to the lives and well-being of millions of people in Catalonia and in Spain.

This does not mean that the Spanish state is in the right.  Rajoy and his awful government could hardly have acted worse than they have.  The police repression of the October 1 referendum was an abomination that deserves only universal condemnation.   It was also confirmation that Rajoy has a political tin ear to make even Theresa May look like a visionary stateswoman   But state repression and the imposition of direct rule cannot in themselves justify the extraordinarily reckless decision taken by the Catalan parliament – a parliament from which 53 MPs who represent more than half the voting population of Catalonia were missing.

Such a decision not only disregards the persistent polls suggesting that half the population of Catalonia do not want independence: it also shows a startling and shocking indifference to the potentially catastrophic consequences that are already beginning to unfold.  If there was ever a crisis that needed compromise, deescalation, dialogue and conflict-prevention it is this one,  yet there is no sign of any of this from the Spanish government or their Catalan opponents, each of whom seem determined to make the situation worse.

And they aren’t the only ones.  Beyond Catalonia, certain sections of the left and the European ‘alt-right’ are now falling over themselves to support the Catalan separatist movement, who seem equally indifferent to its consequences.   Right wing politicians have condemned Spain’s repression of the Catalan movement.  In the UK, Counterfire, Tariq Ali, Julian Assange and Lindsey German are calling for progressives to support the ‘Catalan Republic’.  Lindsay German has praised the Catalans for ‘laying Franco’s ghost’ – when it would be more accurate to say that the Catalan movement is in danger of digging up Franco’s corpse and bringing it back to life.  In a mindnumbingly irresponsible  Facebook post, Tariq Ali has even called on the Catalans to form popular militias to defend their new republic.

Such breathtaking idiocy cannot be explained by a concern for Catalan human rights and civil liberties.  You can very easily oppose Spanish cops who beat up elderly women for voting without cheerleading a process that is leading inexorably towards a far bloodier confrontation.  But that does not mean that you have to uncritically accept everything that the Catalan nationalists say about themselves.

Personally I respect the principle of self-determination, in Catalonia and elsewhere.  I recognize that there are legitimate historical and cultural reasons why millions of Catalans would seek to be an independent nation.  I admire the passion, skill and commitment that the Catalans have brought to their cause.

At the same time I don’t accept the victim narratives that have been refloated again and again over the last few years. I do not believe that Catalans are any more ‘oppressed’ than millions of Spaniards who have also been victims of austerity.  In the last forty years Catalonia has become one of the richest regions in Spain.  It has wide powers of autonomy and self-government.  Its capital city is one of the most popular in the the world.

All this has been achieved through negotiation and cooperation within the framework of the post-Francoist democratic state.  Does this mean that Catalans do not have the right  to seek independence? Of course not,  because every coherent nation-in-waiting has the right to choose the form of government it wants.  But the balance of forces within Spain is such that Catalonia cannot become an independent republic without a negotiated process that involves the consent of the Spanish population.

Anything else has the potential to unleash civil conflict and the reawakening of the most chauvinistic, reactionary and dangerous forms of Spanish nationalism that have caused such havoc in the past.  And in a world that is saturated with violence, extremism and the potential for even worse conflicts,  the principle of self-determination needs to be weighed not only in terms of the desirability of independence, but in terms its wider potential consequences, and that is the main reason why I think that last week’s unilateral declaration of independence is a catastrophic mistake

Yet as we saw during the Brexit referendum, there is a certain breed of leftist that cannot distinguish between the bad and the worse, and which actively seeks to turn a bad situation into a calamity – particularly if it has anything to do with the European Union.  Thus Ali, like Paul Mason and many others, blamed the EU for Spain’s treatment of the Catalans, and attributed Rajoy’s authoritarianism to a sinister alliance between ‘Berlin’ and ‘Madrid’ that supposedly echoes the Hitler/Franco alliance during the Spanish Civil War – as though the Spanish government is acting under Angela Merkel’s tutelage.

It here, in is this absolute and unrelenting loathing of the European Union, that the right and left really find a kind of common ground in their newfound love affair with Catalanism.  On the British left, the most enthusiastic supporters of Catalan independence tend to be the same individuals and organisations that supported ‘Lexit’.  At the other end of the pro-independence spectrum we find politicians like Nigel Farage, a demagogue who lies as easily as he breathes, reveling in the fact that Catalonia represents a  greater threat to the European Union than Brexit.  For Mr Toad, Catalonia is ‘Juncker’s worst nightmare’  and promises to make ‘Brexit look like a Sunday afternoon picnic.’

Farage clearly can’t wait to see that happen.  So when he talks about Catalan ‘human rights’ or criticizes the ‘monstrous’ way ‘the international community have ganged up and tried to crush’ the Catalans, we need to take such indignation with a very large handful of salt.  No one heard much from Farage when the Spanish police were shooting indignados with rubber bullets in 2011, and no one would expect him to, because like his hero Steve Bannon,  Farage is an ethno-nationalist who would strut around in a fascist uniform as soon as history gave him the opportunity, and only cares about human rights when they suit his ‘anti-globalist’ agenda.

For Farage, Gert Wilders et al, the crisis in Catalonia is another stick with which to beat the EU, regardless of the fact that Catalan nationalists want to join the European Union, and that is the beginning and end of their support.  The Lexit pro-Catalan left has the same aspiration, albeit  for different reasons.  It sees the Catalan crisis as another crack in the European wall and another crisis that it can use to its own advantage and perhaps bring about the ‘decisive rupture’ that will bring down neo-liberalism, etc, etc.

The result is a grotesque spectacle, in which both sets of cheerleaders – supposedly at opposite ends of the political spectrum – are applauding the  independence movement because they hope it will pave the way for their respective ethno-nationalist or ‘socialist’ utopias.

Neither side seems concerned if the ongoing confrontation results in civil conflict within Catalonia, the collapse of Spanish democracy, or even a new civil war.  And such is their obsessive loathing of the EU that you can’t help sensing that there are many among them who really wouldn’t mind if it did.

Despatches from Catalonia

Last week I posted a guest post from Barcelona in the lead up to the Catalan Referendum.   Today I’m posting the following dispatch from the frontlines of the referendum struggle from a very different perspective, summing up the tumultuous events that have shaken Catalonia in the last few week, by my great friend and indefatigable independentista Andreu Jené:

Catalonia: The Revolution of Dignity

I begin this report from the electoral college in my neighbourhood, where about eighty of us have shut ourselves in  order to protect it during tomorrow’s referendum.  This may seem a little strange or ridiculous to British readers, but this  is actually happening in a country that calls itself a democratic member of the European Union.  At the request of the public prosecutor’s office,  the Supreme Court of the Justice of Catalonia has ordered all electoral colleges to close at 6 tomorrow morning in order to prevent the referendum on self-determination convoked some months ago by the Catalan government (Generalitat).

Hundreds of electoral colleges across Catalonia have been similarly occupied by peaceful protestors to prevent their closure,  and ensure that the vote takes place tomorrow.   Schools have been kept open since Friday evening in order to prevent them from being closed.

The last few weeks have been charged with high intensity.  The Spanish state has done everything possible to abort the referendum, from raiding printing shops without legal authority in search of papers and ballots to violating postal secrecy, by opening letters and confiscating magazines simply because they mentioned the referendum.  It has confiscated electoral papers, letters directed to members of electoral tables, electoral posters.

More than 150 websites have been closed – which fortunately were immediately reopened – in  addition to Google apps that gave information about which electoral colleges to vote at.  Police have tried to enter without authorisation the headquarters of a legal political party, the CUP ( Popular Unity Candidacy), and were only prevented by the rapid mobilisation of the people.  These police interventions reached a peak on  20 September,  when the Civil Guard arrested 14 officials and technicians from the Generalitat on charges of preparing the referendum.

Two of the arrests carried during this razzia (raid) were particularly serious.  In one case a woman was arrested in the street in front of her children as she was taking them to school.  The children had to be taken in a taxi without knowing who or why their mother had been arrested so violently.  In another incident, an official from the Generalitat was driving his car when a motorcycle and two cars blocked his path and seven or eight agents took him away,  as if were a narcotraficante or a terrorist.

All this was clearly intended to send a message.  In response to every  intervention the people have mobilised, protesting peacefully at printing shops with carnations. The arrests produced an immediate popular response. Outside the Department of the Economy, where some of the arrests took place, people began to gather in large numbers when they heard what was happening.  Within a few hours the centre of Barcelona was completely blocked by crowds calling the detainees to be set free.  Throughout this period,  popular pressure has continued to intensify. Everyday at 10 o’clock there was a cacerolada (pot-banging) and some two hundred people spent the night in front of the Supreme Court of Justice, before the detained officials were charged and released after making their declarations in handcuffs – something that very rarely happens.

In response the state brought in two Italian cruise ships and another from Tarragona to the port of Barcelona filled with police and Civil Guard from different parts of Spain.  This expeditionary force left its barracks fired up with shouts of ‘ Go for them!’ as if they were crusaders hunting infidels.

The demonstrations in solidarity with the detainees and the involvement of the whole of society have been the crucial determining factors in bringing together so many different sectors that have made the referendum possible.   Students have staged multiple demonstrations and occupied the University of Barcelona.  Firemen have helped with these demonstrations.  Longshoremen refused to supply the police cruise ships in the port.  Farmers used their tractors to slow traffic and cut roads.  Collectives of lawyers demonstrated against police legal irregularities.   Rural agents, teachers and taxi drivers offered to transport invalids or incapacitated people to polling stations.  Committees in Defense of the Referendum were organised by teachers, neighbourhood associations and political parties to protect the electoral colleges.

Now let me pick up the tale after the referendum.  The whole world has witnessed the barbarity of the Spanish police on their tv screens.   They behaved like lunatics, cynically attacking people whose only crime was their desire to vote.  They did this without any provocation or warning, beating old people and young on the waist, face and head, deliberately dislocating fingers, and in one case sexually assaulting girls by touching their breasts.  They fired rubber bullets (prohibited in Catalonia since 2014) at close range directly at the body.  Although we knew about the violent historical character of the Spanish state, we were not prepared for such savagery.

The police laughed at the pain of their victims and insulted them.  In addition to personal injuries, they vandalised the schools where the president, vicepresident and president of the Parliament of Catalonia  were going to vote.  Of course they didn’t do this in any school in the city of Badalona, where – what a coincidence! – the local Partido Popular MP intends to run again in 2019.

893 injured, one of whom may lose an eye – many more than the wounded during the August terrorist attacks – these awful  events have shocked many people, some of whom are still affected by the terrorist violence, and left us with a sense of  rage and generalised impotence.

It’s possible that Rajoy took this decision in order to see how far he could take the repression and measure what the response of the people would be.  The government has had the temerity to say that the  international consequences don’t matter much, when it comes to saving the sacred unity of the fatherland.  What is clear is that whether they wanted it or not, they have lost Catalonia forever.  Independence might come this month or in a few years, but the relationship between Catalonia and Spain will never be the same.  After this declaration of war,  no dialogue or pact is possible.  They have broken the cards.  .

And what about the EU?  A lukewarm condemnation of the violence and little more –  exactly what you would expect from a club of countries that allows thousands of people to die in the Mediterranean and sells human lives to an authoritarian state like Turkey.

For Catalans the only thing that remains to us now is to give some value to the referendum that we managed to organise admittedly in less than optimal conditions, but with a real determination to stand up to the barbarity and get round the obstacles that Spain placed in our path.   Only by declaring independence will we obtain protection from this fascist state,  even it goes badly for us in the first weeks.  Spain will never permit a negotiated referendum.  The EU says that we are an internal Spanish problem.  We could be trapped for decades in this loop.

Enough!  The people have spoken

The Gospel According to Jacob Rees-Mogg

And so it came to pass that in the year 2017 there was great confusion in the land of Albion, and much weeping and gnashing of teeth amongst the tribe of Tory following the failure of May’s snap election and the pessimistic voices whispering calumnies in the shadows about her future and abilities.  And yea, even as the pound continued to ‘fluctuate’ and Monarch announced that its birds would no longer take wing,  and the mad King Herrod slapped  a 219 percent tariff on the birds that Bombardier maketh, and the Pharaoh Barnier continued to tap his watch to remind us that the clock ticketh, the elders of the tribe of Tory did gather in great distress in Manchester for their annual conference.

Yet even in the great chamber there was no relief, as the angry tongues did hiss like snakes behind the Great Leader’s back, and conspirators seeking to overthrow the Maybot sharpened their knives even as they bared their fixed grins to show that everything was ok, and even Tory commentators warned that the tribe faced rupture.  Even inside the temple there were those who doubted the competence of the government and questioned whether it really had the ability to lead God’s chosen people out of the EU and keep the holy fire of Brexit burning, or whether in fact it was leading the nation towards irrelevance and national suicide.

In this time of trial and tribulation a multitude of false prophets stepped onto the podium to speak of even darker days to come should the party desert its leader, should its membership continue to fall, should the misguided youth of the land continue to worship at the feet of the false Marxist god Corbyn.

One by one they stood before the tribe to warn that a Labour victory would crash the economy if it came to power, thereby depriving the government of the opportunity to continue doing it themselves; that the European Union had killed all the bees of Albion and taken away the loaves and fishes that were rightfully ours; that the hearts of the Labour Party were filled with hate whereas those of the Tories were filled only with the sweetness and love that we have seen flowing through the land of Albion for so many blessed years.

And the Lord looked down on the empty seats and the sea of bored and stupefied faces and he heard the vacuous platitidinous speeches from a succession of careerists and incompetents and he observed the philistine Johnson rubbing his hands on his belly and chortling and he saw that none of this was good, and that the tribe of Tory indeed faced electoral oblivion.

And in this time of confusion, it came to pass that at a fringe meeting in Manchester a prophet of the Lord called Jacob Rees-Mogg did fetch up from his Somerset manor to reassure the faithful that everything was going to be fine because he believeth, and yea, they should believe too.  And his voice was soft and gentle and his words like honeyed gold, and even when the uncouth leftist rabble did heckle him and call him despicable, he smiled upon them and gently admonished them for their intemperate ad hominem attacks and reminded them that politics and people were two different things.

And indeed they are, for Jacob Rees-Mogg attacketh and hateth no man personally, and pitieth even the victims of his own polices, and is as polite and genteel to his enemies as he is unto his friends.   For verily he blesseth the food banks that have only become necessary because of in-work poverty, zero hours contracts and the benefit cuts that his government has imposed upon the poor and vulnerable.  He praiseth the EU nationals who have come to the land of Albion speaking only strange grunting foreign sounds.

He bestoweth his love and admiration upon them even though his own government has used them as bargaining chips and issued deportation orders against them for no reason and plunged millions of them into uncertainty and despair.   .Great was the wonder amongst the faithful at  such nobility of spirit.  And there were those who looked at his voting record and saw that it had always been thus, and that  Rees-Mogg had consistently voted against giving EU nationals any right to remain in Albion – yet still he found reasons to praise them.

All this was proof that he was a prophet sent by God to save the tribe of Tory, pursue hard Brexit and build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.  His disciples saw that he had voted against smoking bans and they smiled upon him,  for it was only just that non-smokers should have the right to get lung cancer along with those that smoketh.  And it was written in the scrolls of the elders of Albion that he had voted against same-sex marriage because homosexuals and lesbians were the spawn of Satan; that he voted against laws promoting equality and human rights for it was not fitting that people should be equal or have rights.

The scrolls also revealed that the prophet Jacob voted against an investigation into the Iraq war and his listeners knew that this too was just, for the Lord did not allow the actions of the British state to called into question or held accountable.   Great was their astonishment on discovering that one of the wealthiest MPs in Albion made more than £1 million in the last year alone, that he liveth in a Grade-II listed manor house, yet hath consistently voted to reduce housing benefit to social tenants with ‘excess bedrooms’.

The prophet’s disciples saw that Jacob had voted against paying higher disability or illness payments and they understood that this too was just,  for the taxpayer should not be burdened in this way and the Bible sayeth clearly that the sick and disabled cannot  get into work and have the opportunity to become millionaires like the prophet Jacob if they allow the nanny state to prop them up.

They saw that the prophet had voted to lower corporation tax  yet also voted to reduce welfare benefits to those who have least and whose lack of virtue and entrepreneurial spirit have brought them to the food banks that Rees-Mogg admireth so.

All this the Tory faithful saw, and great was their joy on seeing these things, so that they wondered how such a man could have been ignored for so long.  And so they crowded into the fringe meeting and heard the prophet Jacob tell them that leaving the European Union was ‘ Magna Carta, it’s the Burgesses coming at Parliament, it’s the great Reform Bill, it’s the bill of rights, it’s so many… It’s Waterloo, it’s Agincourt, it’s Crecy, We win all these things.’

And the faithful heard these honeyed words and they knew that it would be thus, that we had always won and would win again, and that the prophet Jacob would lead the children of Albion into the promised land.  And Rees-Mogg  did tell them that even the young saplings of the nation would soon be  ‘liberated’ on leaving the EU and that they would be able to ‘determine their own futures’ – though these futures would no longer include the right to live, work and fall in love in 27 countries.

Those who consulted the scrolls remembered that Rees-Mogg had voted to end financial support to some 16-19 year olds; that he had voted in favour of raising tution fees and against using public money to help provide guaranteed jobs for young people in long-term unemployment. Now the hearts of the faithful did melt as they heard him declare how much he loved and cared for the young.

And in a troubled land where love, good manners and noblesse oblige have been absent for so long, the faithful did marvel that a man who opposed abortion even in cases of rape could also make money from a drug used to induce abortions in Indonesia.

But this too was good, for they saw that this was a man who loveth even as he profiteth,  and they doffed their caps and kissed his pin-stripe suit and ran out into the streets to tell the world that a new contender had arrived and great was their joy as they shouted ‘ Behold! The Lord hath sent a prophet to save the nation and the Tory Party, and his name is Jacob Rees-Mogg.’

Batons versus Ballots: On the Catalan Referendum

The ‘nationalism of small nations’ inevitably draws its emotional power from a sense of victimhood and a history of oppression — whether real or imagined. Watching the confiscations of ballot papers in Catalonia over the last week, I was reminded of the raid carried out by 300 Spanish Army officers on the Barcelona offices of the Catalan satirical magazine Cu-Cut! on 23 November 1905.  Outraged by a satirical cartoon lampooning the Spanish military, the officers trashed the magazine’s offices. The Spanish government, under pressure from the upper echelons of the army, banned the magazine for five months, then passed the Ley de Jurisdicciones (“Law of Jurisdictions”), which forbade any criticism of ‘Spain and its symbols’.

Some Catalan nationalists will remember that episode. Others will remember the ‘Reapers War’ of 1640-52, or the Nueva Planta decrees imposed on Catalonia by the Bourbon monarchy following the War of the Spanish Succession and the 1713-14 siege of Barcelona, which deprived Catalonia of the medieval charters and privileges it had enjoyed under the Crown of Aragon, and which set out to extinguish any trace of Catalanism — including the Catalan language itself. Some may recall the martyred general Josep Moragues i Mas, drawn and quartered in the streets of Barcelona by the Bourbons in 1715.

My piece on yesterday’s referendum for Ceasefire Magazine.  You can read the rest here