Catalonia at a crossroads

Darren Roso speaks with Josep Maria Antentas, professor of sociology at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona and member of the editorial board of Viento Sur, about the crisis in Catalonia.

Exceptional political events teach valuable and enduring lessons. Arguments that previously appeared abstract, or removed from reality, become concrete and relevant to millions of people. Latent antagonisms that slowly matured before the political crisis are brought to the surface and revealed.

The 1 October Catalonian independence referendum was such an event, leading to the suspension of Catalan autonomy, and a lesson in what a capitalist state is and how it functions. “You see the very authoritarian behaviour of the state, you see all the people who are in jail illegally, accused of things they haven’t done”, Antentas says. “It is as Carl Schmitt said: the sovereign power decides the state of exception. The Spanish legal system [is] behaving illegally but you cannot do anything because it is a power of force at the end of the day.”

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History and continuity

The Catalonian crisis is bound to the post-Franco Spanish state, which was underpinned by a new constitution in 1978, three years after the death of dictator Francisco Franco. That document “recognises and guarantees the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which [Spain] is composed”. But it also declares the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” and contains a provision – article 155 – that gives the central government the ability to suspend a region’s autonomy.

The stand-off between Catalonia and the Spanish government highlights not only the limits to regional self-government. It has also shown the contradictions of the transition from dictatorship to democracy, between the authoritarian continuity of the Franco years and the new era of so-called democratic transition.

“With this crisis you see that what happened was a self-reform of the Franco system. You never had a break, a rupture, in the 1970s”, Antentas says. “And the core of the state apparatus remained more or less the same. The legal power is one of the most reactionary arms of the state, and it is the part of the state that had the least reforms after Franco. Finally what you have is a kind of reform from above in the ’70s, which all of the left – except the far left – agreed to, and you never had a break or rupture in the political system. The dominant bloc of power never changed, and you see this now very clearly.”

Unlike post-revolutionary France, the Spanish state could not nationally unify the peripheral nations such as Catalonia. Throughout the 19th century, the state failed to unify the different sections of the bourgeoisie, the free traders and the protectionists, and the institutional pillars of the state – the education system, crown and army – were too weak to “nationalise” the masses.

The 19th and 20th century Spanish state was relatively small in size, with permanent tensions between its centre and periphery. The Catalan ruling classes were excluded from the Spanish project even though they had been at the forefront of economic development since the Industrial Revolution. The emerging Catalan industrial bourgeoisie was unable to secure a protectionist policy to develop national industry against the free trade policy followed by the Castilian landowning oligarchy.

Catalan nationalism developed in the aftermath of the failure of the first Spanish republic (1874). With its defence of the Catalan language, this nationalism sank popular roots, but it was not generally in favour of independence. Rather, people wanted federated self-government. Catalanism won a victory with the granting of autonomy in 1932 during the Second Republic, but it was crushed by Franco during the civil war (1936-39).

For almost 40 years, Franco suppressed any semblance of autonomy. He “cleansed” – his policy was known as limpieza, Spanish for tidying up what is dirty – Catalonia of its language, flag and regional holiday and threw Catalan nationalists into jail.

With the death of Franco and the restoration of a degree of autonomy for Catalonia, article 155 was written into the 1978 constitution to secure Madrid’s rule in situations of emergency and crisis. Those supervising the ’78 constitution had a history in the dictatorship and the army. The triggering of article 155 is a throwback to the Francoist era.

Why independence emerged

Catalan independence has traditionally been a minority position within the national movement. In the fight against Franco, the left hegemonised the Catalan question by combining class with national demands. In the post-Franco period, however, the middle classes and the right played a more prominent role, the idea of independence becoming more popular at the turn of the century.

“In the early 2000s the Spanish right strengthened Spanish nationalism, which in practice is anti-Catalanism and anti-Basquism”, Antentas says. “They made Spanish nationalism one of the main elements to draw their social base together. Aggressive Spanish nationalism created a lot of distress in Catalonia, which [partly] explains why you now have a strong independence movement.”

The Socialist Party (PSOE) combined a pluralist Spain with its version of Spanish nationalism during the 1980s. Most Catalans accepted this compromise. But the Spanish right has pursued an anti-democratic course, entrenching a non-inclusive idea of Spain. “That pushes people outside”, Antentas says. If an independence referendum had been held 10 years ago, only a minority would have voted yes. If a “legal” referendum were held today, with 90 percent of people voting, the no vote would probably win. But the government’s heavy handed approach means that the number of people in favour of independence has grown.

Dilemmas on the left

The left in the Spanish state is confused and divided about Catalonia. Only a few minority currents – such as Anticapitalistas, of which Antentas is a member – are defending the right of self-determination in a concrete way. The divisions on the left, between the forces inside the independence movement, such as the Popular Unity Candidacy (an anti-capitalist group with 10 MPs and 7 percent of the vote), and forces outside the movement, such as the Barcelona mayor Ada Colau and Podemos, have reinforced the strategic limits of the movement.

The division of the Catalan left reflects broader social divisions. The independence movement is made up of the middle classes, young people, teachers and civil servants, while the working class has traditionally been outside the movement. The sections of the traditional working class that migrated to Catalonia looking for work have always been indifferent to independence, except during the later anti-Franco struggle, when the left hegemonised the national question.

“The independence movement never really wanted to make a real alliance with the part of the left that is not for independence but is for self-determination”, Antentas explains. “It was independence or not. And the part of the left which is not for independence, but defends the right to self-determination, never explored how they could ally with the independence movement. They simply said that is not our goal, ‘We’ll watch the movie and they will collapse; then it will be our moment’.”

But such an alliance would have put the right wing of the movement into a minority and could have aligned independence with social questions – anti-austerity policies – to broaden and strengthen the social base of independence.

Small groups on the radical left, such as Anticapitalistas, have had to do two things at once, with one leg inside the movement and one leg outside. Antentas explains the logic:

“You support the movement, you support the democratic claim of referendum, you vote yes for independence because it is strategically the most explosive issue. At the same time, you are outside the movement and with the social base of the moment which is outside, saying that independence is not the final goal.”

This nuanced political positioning – which, to reiterate, the mainstream left itself had abandoned – is educative. “If you are inside the movement, it is complicated to think about what is happening outside the movement. And if you are outside you don’t want to meet with the independents, because the social base is divided”.

Antentas says that it was necessary to support the declaration of independence because of the mass democratic element. However, he also talks about “strategic limits”. A movement in which the middle class plays the lead role is often a movement with personnel who do not know how to fight.

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The Spanish state has proved strong, undermining both the official narrative of the Catalan independence movement – that it would come easily, after a yearly demonstration and referendum was called – and the narrative of Podemos and Ada Colau – who say they would build a new majority in Spain to solve Catalan self-government along democratic lines.

“There is no clear roadmap for anyone”, Antentas says.

The movement is on the defensive, and its social base is disoriented. Struggles for democratic rights and against repression bring people together, “but on a broader perspective there is no clear answer about what the independence movement has to do”, he says.

“There is kind of like a fake showdown. Prime minister Rajoy made a clever move when he called a regional election for 21 December. Everybody has accepted these elections because there is no other plan. So now the independence movement is facing this election without a real plan. If pro-independence candidates get a new majority in the parliament, it would show the world that there is an important part of society that wants its independence.

“But they have no concrete plan, apart from a very defensive one: let out the prisoners, restore Catalan self-government. But beyond this they have no plan. If they win on 21 December, what can they do? Declare independence again? It is impossible because they have shown that they have declared independence but they have no capacity to make it a reality. So all the narrative of the movement is out. It has collapsed.”