The Catalan Leadership Is Serious About Independence

A few days back, Vicente Navarro – who interestingly goes by Vicenç, the Catalan version of his name, when writing in Madrid’s Castilian-language El País – endeavored to provide English-language readers with a run-down of recent social and political happenings in Spain at Counterpunch ("What is Happening in Spain?").

The article has much to recommend it. In the first part of the piece, Navarro does an effective job of explaining the fundamentally reactionary and stage-managed nature of Spain’s much-praised Transition to Democracy following the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, pointing out, among other things, the considerable amount of state violence that was exercised during the country’s supposedly exemplary transit from dictatorship to real parliamentary rule.

He also does a good job of describing how the country’s new "democratic" electoral system was rigged during the same transitional period to favor both centrist parties and more conservative rural voters, and that this has had a corrosive effect on the quality of democratic representation throughout the state, and from there, the pursuit of social equality.

While perhaps overstating the catalytic nature of the 15-M, 2011 movement of the indignados, he is essentially correct in presenting it as a an angry and much-merited response to the "democratic deficit" described above.

Also generally accurate is his summary of the rise of the current drive for Catalan independence and its relationship to the deeply conservative judiciary’s heavy-handed abrogation of key elements of a 2006 update of that region’s Statute of Autonomy, a law that had been duly approved by the Catalan Parliament, the Spanish Parliament, and a referendum of the Catalan people.

Things begin to go off the rails, however, when Navarro turns to the internal dynamics of Catalan conflict and blithely declares – in a way that is, unfortunately all too common among "left" unionists in both Spain and Catalonia – that the pro-independence forces "unilaterally declared Catalonian independence in parliament, without having the support and approval of the majority of the Catalan population".

Mr. Navarro is, of course, quite free to believe that independence does not have the "support and approval of the majority of the Catalan population". He may even be correct. But we will not know for sure until such time as the Spanish government allows the independence referendum the Catalan independence parties have insistently been asking them to approve during much of the last decade, something, by the way, they have shown absolutely no inclination toward doing.

So, in the meantime, we are all forced to rely on different measures, the most rigorous of these no doubt being the official results of Catalan Parliamentary elections during the last decade when, as Navarro indicates, adherence to pro-independence positions has risen dramatically.

If, as Navarro suggests, the majority of the Catalan population is against independence, surely he should be able to point us to case after case where the aggregate of pro-union parties outpolled the aggregate of pro-independence parties within the region. Right?

Unfortunately for him, and the many others that make similarly blithe statements about pro-union majorities in Catalonia, no such information is forthcoming.

In fact, during the last three Catalan Parliamentary elections (2012, 2015 and 2017) the combined forces in favor of independence have consistently outpolled those in favor of remaining as part of Spain. The numbers – which add up to less than 100% because of the refusal of various leftist conformations generally totaling between 7 and 9 percent of the overall vote to take an unambiguous position one way or another – are the following:

2012: Pro-independence 49.18 Pro-Union 36.63,

2015: Pro-Independence 47.8 Pro-Union 41.68

2017: Pro-Independence 47.5 Pro-Union 43.45

And it must be remembered that the 21 December 2017 vote was taken after the Spanish government had forcibly dismissed the Catalan parliament and imposed a light, but quite palpable version of martial law in the autonomous region, and sought to enhance its intimidatory effects by lodging specious complaint after specious complaint against institutions and media outlets perceived as favoring independence. For example, the central government election board went so far as to ban the use of yellow-colored lighting – yellow as in the yellow ribbons worn by tens of thousands of Catalans to honor the memory of the exiled and imprisoned members of their dismissed government – in public buildings and fountains in the lead up to the vote on the premise that this would give the independence parties an unfair advantage!

In short, there is nothing approaching a pro-union majority to be found in these figures. Yet, that does not prevent Mr. Navarro from trumpeting this as an unalloyed reality in his article.

Not content with this grossly misleading blanket statement, he also reduces – where he got the number I do not know – the known independence vote to 46% . And needless to say, in peddling this same misinformation he fails to mention the fact, made clear above, that the unionist side has never come terribly close to achieving a level of support commensurate to even this artificially-lowered figure of independence support.

In further describing the Catalan situation, Navarro describes the Catalan independence moment as being led by the "neo-liberal" "Convergencia" party. While it is true that Convergència i Unió (CiU) dominated Catalan politics during during much of the period between 1980 and 2015 and was, when compared to the other parties in Catalonia, rather pro-business, it always ranked pretty far down on the list of Europe’s most strident advocates of savage capitalism. Indeed, its social policies would probably place it well to the left of the Democratic party in the US spectrum of ideological options.

But there’s an even bigger problem with Navarro’s description: CiU ceased to exist 4 years ago!

In 2015, it was re-founded as PdeCat (Catalan European Democratic Party) in the hopes of both distancing itself from the emergent family financial scandals surrounding its founder Jordi Pujol and better reflecting the rise of independentism within its ranks.

In early 2016, the anti-system CUP party, aware that its votes were crucial to the forming of a stable government in the wake of the fall 2015 elections, refused to accept former CiU president Artur Mas – the consensus candidate of the two much larger groups of their pro-independence configuration, PdeCat and ERC – as the next President of Catalonia. When Mas was finally replaced by his fellow party member Carles Puigdemont they dropped their objections.

The accession of Puigdemont to the presidency of Catalonia immediately generated strong tension within the still young PdeCat. While he had long been a member of the CiU, Puigdemont differed from the party’s previous leaders, Pujol and Mas in very important ways.

While they had long avoided the question of fighting for independence, Puigdemont had embraced it from his earliest moments in public life. And while they were, as we have seen, relatively pro-business and given adducing Catalonia’s Christian heritage (and providing public funds to support its educational mission) Puigdemont was, and is, considerably more progressive and secular in outlook. For him, gaining independence for Catalonia was and is, his first, second and third concern, and he was willing to work with a broad variety of other ideological tendencies to achieve this goal.

When, as president, Puigdemont pressed ahead on plans for staging the October 1st 2017 independence referendum that was frontally opposed by Spain, many of the holdovers from the old CiU within PdeCat fumed in private, and eventually, in public. Over time, these tensions led to a surprisingly level of alienation between the president and the executive of his own party.

And when the Spanish courts blocked the now exiled Puigdemont from assuming the presidency he had earned in the aforementioned December 21, 2017 elections, his close confidant Quim Torra took over as President and pursued a very similar, independence-first-and-to-hell-with-my-own-party-apparatchiks policy.

In other words, the leadership of Puigdemont and Torra is a product of, and catalyst for, a very important and ongoing transformation in the core vision and nature of liberal nationalism in Catalonia.

Should you have any doubts about the profound changes in traditional political political alignments in Spain and Catalonia – and the futility of using old paradigms to analyze them – consider the following.

A few days back, the Spanish Parliament, responding to a request by the caretaker government of the Socialist (PSOE) Pedro Sanchez, passed a decree that will let the ruling executive shut down any computer network it deems a threat to national security without having to first get an order from a judge.

The new law, which puts the country in the civil rights league of places like China and Turkey, was passed thanks to the abstention of Podemos, that darling party of so-many US and European "progressives", and over the objections the ERC, the center-right Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) the leftist Basque nationalist party Bildu, the moderate Valencian nationalist party Compromis, and the supposedly dangerous conservative Catalan nationalist party now led by Torra.

That Navarro seeks to obviate all of these important developments within what used to be CiU by using the name of the long-defunct party, with its associated whiff of past corruption, is beyond cynical.

I wish I could say that Navarro is alone in recurring to the above-mentioned tricks, but he is not.

There are certain factions of the both the Spanish and Catalan lefts, people who, more often than not, cut their teeth on fairly orthodox conceptions of Marxism, who hold that Catalan nationalism is, and always will be, both the chosen handmaiden and preferred tactical smokescreen of the country’s perpetually greedy bourgeoisie.

As is the case all successfully deceptive political messages, this trope contains important elements of truth. The early Catalan movement was indeed a mostly bourgeois movement propelled, at least in its initial moments, by a desire to protect bourgeois interests. That said, this bourgeois movement has, from its beginning in the late 19th century, always been shadowed by, and in intermittent conflict with, a much more grass roots and artisan-class variant of the nationalist ideology. And in certain periods of history, like the period between 1923 and 1939, and I would suggest 2010 and the present, the outlook of this other, much more civic, egalitarian and progressive brand of Catalan nationalism has been hegemonic within the movement, something that so-called "rightists" like Puigdemont and Torra have been quick to grasp and adjust to.

However, for some people, the fact that certain symbolic "leopards" – leopards that have been highly useful over the years in keeping the troops in line and maintaining one’s sense of moral superiority – might indeed be capable of changing their spots, is profoundly disconcerting.

So, they just ignore the new possibilities these transformations may hold, and instead tell the same old and reassuring stories to themselves and others over and over and over again.

Thomas S. Harrington is professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of Public Intellectuals and Nation Building in the Iberian Peninsula, 1900–1925: The Alchemy of Identity (Bucknell University Press, 2014) and A Citizen’s Democracy in Authoritarian Times: An American View on the Catalan Drive for Independence (University of Valencia Press, 2018).

Author: Thomas Harrington

Thomas Harrington teaches Iberian studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.