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

Guest Post. The Catalan Referendum: Anubis versus Demos

Today is a day without precedent in Spanish and Catalan history.  To mark the occasion, I’m posting this very personal take on the unfolding crisis by Tamara Djermanovic, writer, professor of Humanities at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, and a very good friend of mine: 

 

Anubis versus Demos

Out of all the extraordinary measures undertaken by the Spanish state to prevent the Catalan independence referendum, one particular detail stands out for me: the government’s decision to name the operation Operation Anubis. To give the name of the Egyptian god of death to an operation that has consisted of arrests, the confiscation and seizure of ballot papers and referendum materials and other repressive actions intended by the Spanish police to ‘defend the integrity of the state’, is, at the very least, an unfortunate choice of words.   But sometimes symbolic details can be more revealing than the bald facts.

Consider, for example,  how and why the Catalan independence movement came to adopt an explicitly nationalist and separatist orientation over the last two decades.  This was primarily due to the centralist policy of the ruling People’s Party (Partido Popular), coupled with the economic crisis.  This combination broke the consensus that emerged in the last years of the Franco dictatorship and continued in the democratic era, according to which Catalonia would accept regional autonomy in exchange for remaining part of Spain.

The collapse of these accords was first confirmed in 2010, when the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy decided to abolish the Catalan Statute (Estatut) voted in 2006 by the National Assembly of Catalonia, thereby depriving the Catalans of some of the same freedoms enjoyed by other regions of Spain, such as the autonomous region of Andalusia, which has a very similar statute.

History tells us that in 1714 Catalonia lost the independence which it had previously enjoyed under the Crown of Aragon, when the Bourbons came to power and forcibly imposed Castilian rule on the rebellious Catalans.   The Bourbon monarchy’s Nueva Planta decrees not only abolished Catalonia’s  ancient privileges, freedoms and charters: they also ended a democratic political culture that had prevailed in Catalonia for centuries, in which all social sectors participated in important decision-making, and acted as a restraint on the absolute power of the king.

For a brief period Catalonia managed to recover its independence in 1931 under the Spanish Republic.  With the defeat of the Republic during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the national and cultural rights of the Catalans were suppressed until Franco’s death in 1975.

To many Catalans, the past has now become part of the present, and ushered in a new political era that is being hotly debated across Catalonia.   At my own university, one of my colleagues describe the actions of the Rajoy government as a return to the ‘ Dark Spain’ of the Franco years, with its ‘right-wing politics, which always had a very strong anti-Catalan orientation.’ Another Humanities professor insists that the repressive actions carried out by the Spanish government ‘ not only violate the spirit of democracy, they also highlight the neo-Francoist lineage of the government itself.   Two other colleagues, who are not supporters of an independent Catalonia would rather ‘talk about something else’.  At the campus entrance, students trying to bring all academic activity to a halt hand out leaflets declaring We can’t allow this.

Beyond the campus, a tragicomical situation is unfolding, as thousands of policemen sent by the Spanish government to prevent today’s  referendum are billeted in hired cruise ships  moored ‘secretly’ in the ports of Barcelona and Tarragona, painted with cartoon characters bearing images of Daffy Duck and Tweety Pie. Port workers, who include people of many different nations and nationalities, have unanimously refused to provide services to these docked vessels.

The general feeling amongst all citizens living in Catalonia, regardless of their position on the issue of independence, is that the actions of the Spanish government represent something unprecedented in Spain’s democratic history, and that it is irresponsible at the very least to recreate a climate that recalls the Civil War simply in order to head off the possibility of secession.

Had the government allowed the referendum to take place, it would have provided an opportunity for the many Catalan citizens who are not in favour of independence to make their voices heard.   Judging by the request of an anti-Catalanist neighbor who requested that the ‘ talking elevator’ in my building be changed from Spanish to Catalan, there are a lot of people here who oppose secession.

For my part, I have a Spanish passport and Catalan citizenship.  But I was born in Belgrade, which I left 26 years ago to escape the situation in the former Yugoslavia.  I would very much like to live in a country which does not appear on magazine covers and newspaper front pages, and which does not send police to my city in the name of the god of the dead.

Spain Versus Catalonia

Political struggles demand that you take sides, but there are some political confrontations that you just wish weren’t happening.   Watching the struggle for Catalan independence unfold over the last seven years, I have certainly not felt like a neutral or indifferent bystander.  Indifference is not possible when dealing with a country – Spain,  that I love – and a country within a country – Catalonia, where I lived for nine of the best years of my life and which I also love.

Throughout the last seven years I have often felt that I was watching a political tragedy unfold with potentially devastating and uncontrollable consequences for both Spain and Catalonia.  I have never believed that Spain would allow a ‘divorce’ like the one agreed between the Czech Republic and Slovakia – or which would have almost certainly happened here had Scotland won the independence referendum.

Not only is Catalonia too important politically and economically for Spain to let it go, but a successful Catalan separatist movement would open the way to secessionism in the Basque Country and other regions. There is no way that the Spanish state or army will allow that to happen.

Knowing this does not mean that I could side with the Spanish state, especially a state represented by one of the most corrupt political parties in Europe, the Partido Popular – a party so riddled with sleaze and corruption that it constantly amazes me to find it still in power, and which combines these failings with a political cloven-footedness and instinctive authoritarianism that too easily reveals the party’s Francoist lineage.

The Partido Popular’s corruption, coupled with the overwheening centralism that led it to rescind the reform of Catalonia’s autonomy statute in 2010, has led millions of Catalans to embrace the secessionist cause to an extent that was unimaginable when I lived in Barcelona in the 1990s.   Contrary to the arguments of Thatcherite reactionaries such as Mario Vargas Llosa – Catalanism does not represent some retrograde and anachronistic retreat into ‘nationalism’.

Nationalism and self-determination can take many different forms, from the racist US Confederacy and the ethnonationalist chauvinism of the Bosnian Serbs to the progressive political and socioeconomic aspirations that were partly responsible for the rise of the SNP – and the Catalans.

Personally, I would prefer to see such aspirations pursued outside a nationalist framework,  but regardless of what people like me might think, millions of Catalans see an independent state as a means of pursuing them, and when it comes to the issue of self-determination, their opinions are what counts.  Because self-determination is exactly what it sounds like; it means the right of a particular people to define its own political future.

The secessionist movement which has now coalesced around the Junts pel Sí coalition has campaigned peacefully with skill and passion,  and built a genuine popular movement.  It has compelling political, cultural and historical arguments on its side for an independent Catalan state – even if the arguments about ‘paying too much to Madrid’ are not amongst them, to my mind at least.

That said, the case for self-determination has not yet been won.  Independence cannot be decided on the basis of a 51 percent vote and previous surveys have not even reached that.  A political transformation of this magnitude requires a much higher participatory threshold and a much higher majority – and a broad consensus within Catalonia.

For all that the secessionist movement has achieved these last seven years, it is by no means clear that such a majority exists.  Nevertheless the movement has certainly made the case for a broad democratic consultation,  and the Spanish government’s repeated refusal to allow this has been a monumental political error.

Now, showing the political tin ear that it has always shown, Rajoy’s administration has turned to repression, whether confiscating ballot papers, arresting Catalan officials, threatening members of the Catalan government with sedition, or attempting to subject the Catalan police the Mossos d’Esquadra to the direct control of the Interior Ministry

Such actions are grist to the separatist mill.  They have further discredited Spanish institutions in the eyes of many Catalans, bringing back old memories of the Francoist era, and threatened to turn the ongoing confrontation into an explosive crisis with grave implications for the future of Spanish democracy.

Rajoy and his supporters have used the law and the constitution to justify the government’s clunking response, but legalistic arguments aren’t  a valid response to a popular movement of this scale, and repression will not succeed in extinguishing it.   The only way this confrontation can be defused and worked through – one way or another – is by a process of democratic consultation, which allows the Catalans to decide their own political future.

If the secessionist movement has not yet won its case for independence, it has surely won its right to put its case to the same kind of popular vote that we saw in Scotland and the UK, and which the Kurds are currently demanding in Iraq.

That shouldn’t mean a referendum with no participatory threshold.  Independence is too serious a business to be decided by a first-past-the-post race in which whoever gets 51 percent ‘wins.’  The parameters should be agreed on, the referendum should go ahead, and Spain should accept the result.

Because, if the government doesn’t allow this, and continues on its present course, then it is by no means beyond the bounds of possibility that Catalonia will be placed in a state of emergency and that we will once again see the Spanish army in the streets of Barcelona.  And as ambivalent as I might feel about Catalan independence, that is not something that I will ever support