David Whyte’s report from Barcelona provides an analysis concerning the current events in Catalonia that is lacking in other media.
David Whyte, is a Professor of Socio-legal Studies at theUniversity of Liverpool and one of BRAVE NEW EUROPE’S regular authors. He wrote this article from Barcelona.
First published in The National/Bella Caledonia.
On the morning of Wednesday the 4th of October 2017, three days after that remarkable referendum, and the morning after a general strike that saw between 2 and 3 million people on the streets, the residents of three small towns in Catalonia woke to find their tyres slashed.
It is unlikely that the people of Verges, Medinyà and Sarrià de Ter will ever find out what happened, but locals think it was members of the Guardia Civil, holed up near those towns. It may be true or not, but this is a pretty accurate metaphor for the position of Spain right now: the tyre-slasher state. It is almost as the Kingdom of Spain now has so few options, all that is left is vigilante violence committed by its platoons of para-Francoist thugs. Spain is clearly unable to deal with the situation through politics. After the successful resistance to the full force of the paramilitary operation to stop the referendum, it is also apparently unable to deal with the situation by controlling public spaces.
In the constitutional crisis that is likely to rumble on for sometime now, Spain will certainly not recognize the legitimacy of Catalonia’s independence. The tyre-slasher state is certain to attempt some form of repression. The Guardia Civil has not left Catalonia, and indeed the extension of the permit for the loony tunes cruise ships in Barcelona harbor yesterday is one indication that there could be an attempt to continue the occupation. There is also a consensus emerging in the Spanish centrist parties to implement article 155 of the Spanish constitution and eradicate Catalonia’s devolved powers. In other words to make constitutional what it has already done using arbitrary emergency declarations. The people most at risk of being targets of any extension of repression, the political organisers of the referendum, feel that the most likely outcome is a slow, stretched out form of judicial repression in which Spain enlists the courts to surcharge, prosecute and imprison the people who disobeyed Spain’s president Mariano Rajoy.
In the midst of the constitutional crisis, it is also possible that Spain might seek to provoke more violence amongst a whole population that the ruling party, the conservative PP is has already characterizes as “terrorism” and describes the attacks on the Guardia Civil as “hate crimes.” In one remarkable statement,
Rafael Hernando, spokesperson for the PP said “we thought we saw the end of Naziism in 1945. Now it is back”. This was no Freudian slip, but a deliberate depiction of the Franco years as ‘not Naziism’ and indeed as a phenomenon more political acceptable to Spain than what the Catalans are doing now.
The Spanish state tried, and spectacularly failed, to isolate the left independence movement from the larger mainstream parties supporting the referendum. For many observing what happened from the outside, Spain’s strategy was implausibly amateurish. But it did have some rationale. By attacking the left in particular, Spain sought a strategy of divide and conquer. Madrid probably calculated that because the neighborhood resistance had a high level of involvement from autonomists, anarchists and the social centres, it would be relatively easy to provoke the sections of the resistance most likely to respond violently. Barcelona is a city that has never been scared to respond to tear gas and batons with bottles and bricks. Indeed, it is possible that there has never been a major demonstration in this city that did not involve some skirmishes with the police, fires in the streets and the smashing of high street banks. Not this time. More than 40,000 people charged down the narrow Via Laietana towards the Spanish National headquarters – that everybody knows well as the site of Franco’s torture cells – on the night of the general strike. What happened next was unusual for anywhere, let alone Barcelona. The crowd stopped in silence before the police cordon to sing the Catalonian anthem Els Segadors. Catalan TV footage later showed the terrified faces of a heavily armoured Spanish police, utterly helpless in the face of an incredibly powerful show of strength. The crowd expressed its total and utter power in the moment it stopped short of using physical violence against those they see as the personified remnants of Francoism.
The discipline and the determination to use a strategy of non-violence was remarkable. Anarchists and autonomists organizing in the neighbourhoods repeated the same mantra as everyone else: this is a politically unique moment and a violent response would play into the hands of the state. When the Guardia Civil surrounded CUP headquarters in Barcelona on Wednesday, the people inside the building later describe the events as weird. The police arrived, asked to enter, and then when entry was refused, they backed off at the end of the street and waited for the crowd to appear. Around 2000 people arrived to protect CUP offices, but did so without being provoked into violent confrontation. After 5 hours, the police left the without either fighting or raiding the offices.
The anti-capitalist and anti-fascist left across the different autonomous regions in Spain have for years been telling anyone who would listen that the old remnants of the Francoist state were never completely dismantled in the post-Dictatorship years. And, that those dark forces could easily rise again. Now we know they were right all along. Across Barcelona and the towns and cities of Catalonia much of the chanting and sentiment referenced the civil war and the resistance to Spanish Fascism. “No Pasaran”, “We are not afraid” and singing the famous anti-Francoist resistance song L’estaca. If this has looked like a distinctly like a scene from Spain dark past, that’s because it is essentially Francoist.
In its general lack of support from the British left generally, and the European left generally has been caught in the headlights, caught out by an unsophisticated and uninformed reading of the situation as ‘nationalist’. In her column in The National, Cat Boyd made a point that is so taken for granted in Catalonia but needs repeated time and time again here: that in their hatred for ‘nationalism’, some socialists have failed to notice the obscenity of Spanish nationalism.
En Comu, the broad left alliance that involves the Catalan Podemos (‘Podem’) and people from the social movements have a slightly different problem and the current Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, who came to power straight from the grassroots anti-eviction movement ‘Pah’, were lukewarm about the referendum until the scale of the repression began to reveal itself. And this partly explains the lukewarm response of the European left. The European left has tended to fetishise en Comu as the only left in Spain, because of the Indignados movement and the rise of Podemos. If Podemos doesn’t support the referendum, then neither will we!
The problem is that in Catalonia there isn’t really a clear split between left independentists and the rest of the left. If Podemos and en Comu are officially opposed to independence, a large number of en Comu members and supporters support independence. Indeed, todays left independence movement has a history in popular struggle that pre-dated and then led, the Indignatos movement. The left independence movement is not separate from the movement led by Podemos. They occupy the same political space.
Yet it is the left independence movement in Catalonia that must take the credit for pushing and cajoling and ultimately forcing the centrists and a large section of the business and political elites to this decisive moment. Would there be any possibility of a referendum happening on Sunday without the shrewd agitation – inside and outside the Catalonian parliament – of the largest left party in the regional parliament, the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP)? It is the ten CUP MPs that have constantly harassed and embarrassed the centre into action. Indeed, official support for this referendum was initiated by CUP last year and agreement to hold it secured only after it agreed to ratify the Catalonian government’s budget.
Outside parliament, it is the broad front of the left independence movement that has organized and nurtured the possibility of an alternative politics in their communities. Most importantly, it is this movement that seeks independence on one condition: that the old oppressive order – the rule of elites – must go. This movement is not simply demanding a new ‘nation’ under the Senyera. It is not demanding that institutions of government, of law and of economy are reformed to establish some kind of new ‘Catalonian’ cultural sensibility. This movement is demanding that the old order and the old institutions must be replaced by ways of living and working that are not oppressive, are not crisis-ridden and do not sow the seeds of yet another tyre-slashing coup.
According to the current parliamentary leader of the group of CUP MPs in the Catalonian Parliament, Anna Gabriel: “the referendum must also act as a prelude to a constitutional process that will attend to the other crises, those that have not been imposed with the same force, but that express themselves with just as, if not more, virulently. Free market capitalism that allows ever-more wealth to accumulate among ever-fewer people, that involves miserable working conditions and misery for those whose only options lie between unemployment and exploitation. Femicide and everyday violence, sexism, aggression and discrimination; corruption, bribes, buy-offs, lies and tax evasion; a long list of structural conditions that come from a particular economic system.”
The CUP and the rest of the left independence movement have developed a new model of political organising and acting that is capable of sweeping away this particular system. In addition to Barcelona en Comu, the CUP has 14 mayors in councils across Catalonia that work on a model of participative democracy and act on the decisions of regularly held local popular assemblies. A large number of towns and cities have been implementing various forms of municipal socialism across Catalonia for years now. Mireai Vehí, also a CUP MP explains the strategy of the movement: “We have a much bigger job to do now. We need to maintain the popular power that we saw on the street and we have to build a workers’ popular republic that challenges our own power structure: the banking sector, business and wealthy elites, supported by conservative parties. We therefore need to strengthen this constituent process. We have been working for many years now with strong roots in the communities. This is where our politics comes from and are still rooted. We have had a lot of people working as part of the current process for at least 6 years… using a very high level of participation in decisions and developing strategies for social change.“
It was precisely those networks of solidarity in the communities that set up the “Committees in Defense of the Referendum” in the neighborhoods, modeled on the Cuban “Committees in Defense of the Revolution”. The idea behind the model is that those local defense committees can provide an ongoing model of participative democracy that outlives the referendum and gives people a chance of building new institutions and new forms of organising. It was those networks that built the mass participation in the general strike. According Ermengol Gassiot, the General Secretary of the syndicalist union the CGT, the huge success of the general strike might be decisive. “As a union, we did not support independence, but we see that we have a central role to play in building the new republic. We see that if we are inside the process, a new republic can be capable of developing new forms of solidary that unite communities and workers and seek alternative to capitalism.”
With the exception of the important solidarity events across Scotland, the left across much of Europe has had little to say. The English left in particular has generally failed to recognise that within this popular movement there is real capacity for social revolution and a new, emancipatory, politics in the new republic. Perhaps the difficulty is that this popular movement does not correspond to the blueprint of social transformation and social revolution that is written in the textbooks. It does not correspond to the theoretical dichotomy of reform and revolution, or the simple and clear dialectal path of enlightenment that the seemingly endless myriad of fringe left groups and parties likes to lecture everyone else about. The struggle for self-determination in Catalonia has far less captured the imagination of Corbyn’s Labour Party and Momentum. This is a spectacular mistake. It is a mistake because the left independence movement has developed a strategy to win municipal socialism that has been more successful than anywhere else in Europe in recent years. And this is a decisive for developing real practical and workable alternatives to capitalism.
It is also a mistake because the Spanish state knows this and knows that its best chance to win is to defeat the momentum the left has built. The left in the UK and in Europe, slow to develop an analysis of the situation in Catalonia, needs to show its solidarity with the radical left and the community resistance now, before it is too late.