Catalonia, Alone? Lessons From the Contradictions of the Independence Movement

by Bue Rübner Hansen

24 October 2019

Sasha Popovic /Flickr

Last week, much of Catalonia rose up in mass protests against the custodial sentencing of nine political and civic leaders over their role in the 2017 referendum. Much has already been written about the events last week, such as the increasingly authoritarian turn of the Spanish state, the ambivalent position of the Spanish left, and the institutional blockage of any negotiated solution

The conclusion of these writings, and of the last week’s events, is that the Catalan independence movement has reached a strategic impasse. As such, Catalonia appears to belong to a different timeline than the uprisings that are currently sweeping Chile, Ecuador, Egypt, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Iraq, Lebanon, and earlier this year Puerto Rico, France and Sudan. Yet a closer look at the contradictions of the Catalan movement, can both explain the impasse and help us understand Catalonia’s relationship to the current cycle of struggle across the globe.

Policing the crisis.

This monday, the Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez visited Barcelona to praise the police officers who had worked frantically to quell the Catalan rebellion of the past week. In total, almost 600 have been injured. Some of those injured are police officers, though rarely as badly as the hundreds of protesters who have been hit by batons, shot by rubber bullets, rammed into by riot vans, or in four cases lost an eye.

Sánchez’s visit to Barcelona was not just conspicuous for his meeting with the forces of imposed order, but for his non-meeting with the Catalan president, Quim Torra. Torra himself, unvisited in his office, had asked for dialogue with Sánchez and faithfully called on the Catalan police to repress the demonstrations.

Although a trained lawyer and former executive of a multinational insurance company, Torra is struggling to navigate the legal and political risks of the situation. As an independentist, it was pressing for him to call for civil disobedience against the conviction of nine of his fellow Catalan leaders. But – and this is the painful irony of many rebel governments – it was equally incumbent upon him, as president, to order the repression of the movement he had encouraged. Such contradictions are not unfamiliar to the Catalan independence movement.

A contradictory movement.

Due to the demographics of Catalonia – and especially the large section of the working class that hails from the rest of Spain and beyond – a pro-independence majority can only be built as a cross-class alliance. In the decades after the dictatorship, independentism mostly survived on parts of the Catalan left, but the economic crisis made the Catalan right a surprise vanguard of a national liberation struggle, after decades of Catalanism sans independentism. The effect was a left-right political coalition, with broadest support in mid-income groups, opposed, for different reasons, by big capital and most of the immigrant working class alike.

The conflict had already been opened prior to the economic crisis, when the Spanish Partido Popular (Popular party) brought the new Catalan statute of autonomy, which had already been voted through parliament, to the Spanish supreme court, which rejected it. But the escalation would not have happened without the independentist turn of the Catalan right. To begin with, this was in large part an opportunistic ploy to shift blame for the economic crisis and austerity onto Madrid, with Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government happy to reciprocate, for similar reasons.

In short, “the Catalan independence struggle is not the politicisation and expression of social problems” as much as ”the socialisation of political problems” – in the context of a deep social crisis, and in order to avoid a reckoning with it.

For the independentist left, no fight against austerity, neoliberal reforms and corruption could be achieved except through independence and the struggle for it. For the non-independentist left, representative of the large non-Catalan working class, those problems could only be fought in a plurinational coalition across the Spanish state. The result was a weakening of social struggles in Catalonia, and a politically rebellious government.

As Gillem Martinez has noted this week, the Catalan government has encouraged civil disobedience for national independence, but not for the right to health and education, or to stop evictions. In Madrid, we may add, the constitution was set in stone when Catalans asked for a change that would allow an independence referendum, but written in Word when the Troika required its amendment in 2011.

Francoist ghosts.

Today, General Franco’s corpse is being exhumed from its monumental grave, but Spanish nationalists have already exhumed his spirit, and Catalan nationalists his spectre.

Even when struck cynically, emotive notes can resonate and be amplified among predisposed populations. And such were found in Catalonia – its culture brutally repressed during the dictatorship – and in Spain, where the memory of the dirty war against Basque separatists remains strong. But the activation of deep-felt popular sentiment would have been impossible without the Catalan left’s principled anti-fascism and social indignation.

On the walls of Barcelona the graffiti “fora forces d’ocupació!” (“get out occupation forces!”) is common. In Madrid, the Spanish right discusses whether the state of exception might bring order and peace to Catalonia, and the police investigates the indepedence movement for terrorism (in Spain as elsewhere, anti-terror legislation is notoriously unable to distinguish between civil disobedience and actual terrorism). Already, the European human rights commissioner has expressed concern about police attacks on journalists and the “disproportionate use of force against demonstrators”.

Real propaganda.

Orwell once wrote of the troubles in 1930s Barcelona that ”future historians will have little to go upon except a mass of accusations and party propaganda.” In many ways, the Catalan secession crisis hasn’t been very different.

So it was both fitting and ironic that the admission to have manipulated the public played a central part in the Catalan leaders’ legal defence against the charge of rebellion. Thus, the defence claimed, the leaders knew full well that the 2017 declaration of independence was impossible to implement. The solemn announcement of the Catalan Republic – celebrated across the land was merely a symbolic gesture, a piece of theatre designed to force negotiations with the central government. The supreme court accepted this argument and abandoned the charge of rebellion. So far no court has tested the propaganda of the Spanish central state.

In this world of propaganda and manipulation, truth nonetheless emerges. Pushed to the point of conflict, the Catalan cause has continued to demonstrate the urgency of principles of wider importance: democracy and the rights to self-determination and protest. In this aspect of its struggle, the independence movement finds itself less alone within an increasingly authoritarian Spanish state, supported by democrats across the state, and independentists in other regions.

Owing both to the failure and the deceptions of its leaders in 2017, parts of the independence movement are becoming more autonomous. This week the movement has been coordinated via networked vanguards – such as the founders of the Tsunami Democràtic app – and many of its actions have been denounced by the official leadership. Even if the independence question has largely served to sideline the social question, block left unity, and cast the climate struggle into the shadows, the independence movement has nonetheless transformed Catalonia – yet again – into a laboratory of struggle.

Catalonia in the global cycle of struggle.

Last week culminated with the so-called general strike on Friday 18 October. Called by two smaller independentist unions and ignored by all major unions, it was a symbol of the independence movement’s relatively weak roots in the labour movement and working class. Given those limitations, its achievements were impressive: a near closure of the education and transport sectors, many workplaces closed due to lack of public transport, a lockout of a large number of businesses, and electricity consumption down by 11%. Indeed, many of the riots over the last week would perhaps be better described as attempts to defend barricades and other blockades against the police.

More than just a ‘so-called’ general strike, it was a social general strike capable of shutting down economic activity across sectors. As with Extinction Rebellion, the Gilets Jaunes, the Argentine piqueteros of 2001, Occupy Oakland, and the uprising in Hong Kong, the Catalan movement has targeted transport infrastructures: highways, roads, train stations, and other logistics points. Most prominent was the effort to shut down Barcelona’s international airport, in an action highly reminiscent of Hong Kong and the protests against the ‘Muslim ban’ in the US. More than a hundred flights were cancelled.

Catalonia, in this sense, has arrived at its answer to a problem that is recurrent if not universal across disruptive social movements, including the climate strike and the women’s strike: How can a movement shut down economic activity without the support of major unions? It has yet, however, to find a way to sustain such disruptive power over time (and for this reason, the project to get more unions onboard remains active).

Not only in their tactical conundrums, but in their causes, there is no doubt these uprisings are related – if not by an essence so much as a problem. In the decades after the dictatorship, economic growth gave the Spanish state legitimacy and the capacity to paper over many conflicts with money, while EU membership provided an external stabiliser. The Catalan crisis is simply a particular expression of the crisis of these institutions, and as such a symptom of the global crisis of growth, waning sovereignty and faltering international governance.

Seen through the prism of this multifaceted crisis, it becomes clear that the Catalan independence contains opposed, if mutually dependent tendencies. Its mainstream responds to the problems of our time by proposing a prosperous and sovereign Catalan nation within the EU as a solution, while its radical, disaffected elements reject the world of endless growth, walled sovereignty and imperial peace. It is the latter who truly dare use the power of the ‘social’ general strike, and it is the former who will call the police to restore order. Only together can they hope for a majority in an increasingly chimeric independence referendum, and only in conflict can they enact their social programmes, each taking their separate sides in the global cycle of struggle.

Bue Rübner Hansen is an editor at Viewpoint Magazine and has been an activist researcher in student, municipalist and migrant solidarity movements.

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