Catalonia: The Problems and Errors of the Independence Movement

✑ VICENÇ NAVARRO | 2,824 words
╱ Catalonia Special 
‟The Catalan working class is not in favour of independence, for several reasons.

Pro-independence parties have been debilitating the Left and the "progressive democratic forces" of Catalonia and Spain, Navarro argues. What's more, their call for independence "has never commanded a majority" as "social issues were absent from the project of independence". Benefits from independence were exaggerated and economic costs undersold.

Vicenç Navarro is a (leftist) Professor of Political and Social Sciences, Pompeu Fabra University (Barcelona, ​​Spain). He has also taught Public Policy at The Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, USA) where he has taught for 48 years. He directs the Program in Public and Social Policies jointly sponsored by Pompeu Fabra University and The Johns Hopkins University. He also heads the Observatorio Social de España.

Originally published in the Spanish online newspaper Público (October 13, 2017) and translated to English by Revolting Europe (with minor changes by SE).

Also in this week's Catalonia Special: Part two by the Catalan activists/CUP-members Mireia Vehí & Albert Noguera (pro-independence) and part three by the U.S. economist Mark Weisbrot (on how the economic failures of the EU fueled the independence movement).

C atalonia is experiencing the greatest social and political crisis, and soon also economic crisis, since democracy returned to Spain. I have previously written on the dimensions of the great social crisis in Catalonia, the greatest in this century and the end of the previous one (“El mayor problema que tiene hoy Catalunya del cual no se habla: la crisis social”, Público, June 30, 2017). Added to this social crisis has been the enormous political crisis in which the institutions of the Catalan regional government, the Generalitat, due to the intervention by the Spanish state, with the highly probable further curtailing of the capacity of the Catalan government to make decisions and manage the public institutions of Catalonia. Furthermore, the fear that the huge political tensions in Catalonia will hurt large companies based in Catalonia has led to a massive flight of many of them, moving to other parts of Spain, thus creating an economic crisis.

It goes without saying that the greatest responsibility for what is happening in Catalonia lies with the Spanish central state, governed by the Popular Party led by Mr. Mariano Rajoy, and the policies it has developed, implemented and imposed. However, without implying equal responsibility or giving the same weight to their arguments, the fact is that the Junts Pel Sí government is also responsible for every one of these crises. Even though it is accentuated (and even exaggerated) in the media based in Madrid, this is mostly ignored by the media based in Barcelona, ​​whether that controlled (the public broadcasters), and highly influenced (the privately owned press receiving generous public subsidies) by Catalonia’s pro-independence government. Elsewhere I have critically analyzed the central state and the Rajoy government in other articles (see “La necesaria movilización de las fuerzas democráticas frente a los herederos del franquismoPúblico, September 28, 2017). Here I will try to focus on the behaviour of the Junts Pel Sí government, showing that it has its part of responsibility in Catalonia’s deep crises.

I will not go into the social crisis, for I believe that I have already demonstrated that policies with a clear neoliberal nature (such as the labour reforms, which have increased unemployment and precariousness and reduced wages and social protection), the sharp cuts to public and welfare spending and the privatizations of Catalonia’s public services by the Convergencia governments (with Unió Democrática until 2015 and with ERC afterwards), have played an essential role in the great deterioration of the quality of life and social well-being of the popular classes in Catalonia.

These neoliberal policies obtained the green light in the Spanish Cortes [the bicameral parliament] by the Convergència party (now called PDeCAT, which has governed Catalonia during most of the democratic period, with the support of the PP, another neoliberal party).

The political crisis: a consequence of the so–called ‘procés’

As for the political crisis, a principle cause can be found in the strategy designed to achieve independence through a dramatic rupture that was developed by Convergència, led by the Junts pel Sí coalition in collaboration with the ERC party and with the help of the CUP , a very small party but one with considerable influence because without it, Junts pel Sí would not have a majority in the Catalan parliament. It is important to point out that such a parliamentary majority owes its majority status to an electoral law initially designed in a pre-democratic era (with the aim of discriminating against the working class) that, when the Pujol government was in a position to change it, left it as it was, favouring rural areas and small urban centres at the expense of the large cities. As a consequence, such a parliamentary majority does not correspond to a majority of votes. In fact, the votes of pro-independence parties have never amounted to a majority of the electorate in Catalonia.

Such a strategy, known as the “procés” included several components. One of them has been the series of interventions in which secession was an immediate and always a priority objective, putting it before all others (in fact, the Parliament’s legislative activity under this majority has been very limited). President Puigdemont assured that the parliament would pass 45 laws in the 18 months of legislature. In fact, so far it has only given the green light to 23 (18 this year and 5 last year). At the beginning of the previous legislature, during a similar period 47 laws were passed. (The low productivity is due to the importance given to parliament’s function as an agitator rather than legislator).

What the Catalan government wanted was to focus on achieving “express” independence. As part of this rapid process the level of interventions was raised, in the narrative of its discourse, in the arguments used to justify its interventions, or in the actions taken by the Catalan government that produced an increased tension with the Central State, a tension that sought to mobilize popular opinion in support of the Government. In fact, some leaders of Junts pel Sí have indicated this several times. The goal was to radicalize discourse in order to achieve greater mobilization.

The monopolization of soberanismo by the independistas

The other characteristic of this process has been to monopolize the meaning of soberanismo (sovereignism, the right to decide) with that of independentismo (the secession of Catalonia from the rest of Spain) making the two concepts and terms interchangeable and identical. The dichotomy presented in its strategy was, therefore, to limit possible alternatives to independence or what the independentistas called unionism, a definition of all options that were not secessionist. This strategy greatly limited the alternatives, reducing them to only two possibilities. One was to achieve independence or the other to continue with the present status quo, a dichotomy that favoured the first option, since the repressive and insensitive behaviour of Catalan identity and the refusal of the Rajoy government to recognise Catalonia as a nation progressively weakened the appeal of the second alternative. In this strategy of independentismo, it was essential to present all of Spain as unchangeable and hostile to Catalonia. In reality, in this strategy, the political movement in Catalonia, known as En Comú Podem, led by the mayor of Barcelona, ​​Ada Colau and the political movement in Spain, Unidos Podemos, were perceived as obstacles because they offered a friendly and attractive image of Spain. The election of En Comú Podem in the last two legislative elections in Catalonia created great uneasiness in the more conservative and liberal sectors of Junts pel Sí. In reality, Convergència (PDeCAT) did not vote in favour of the motion of no confidence in the Rajoy government presented by Podemos.

Both political formations – In Comú Podem and Unidos Podemos – supported the right to decide of the Catalan people, a right that includes the right to choose between several alternatives, one of which would be secession, although it was not the preferred alternative for any of these two coalitions. The majority of the Catalan population is soberanista (that is, it supports the right to decide) but it is not pro-independence. All independentistas are soberanista, but not all soberanistas are independista. This clarification was never made by the independentistas; they were not truthful when they indicated that “the Catalan people want independence”; the data shows that the majority of the electorate is not independentista.

The ill-named referendum as an instrument of mobilization

Another feature of the “procés”, related to the previous one (the identification of the referendum with independence), was the exclusion of organizations that didn’t support independence from the management of the referendum campaign. They marginalized the National Pact, an organisation which included, in addition to the soberanistas (pro-independence and against independence) parties, the largest institutions of civil society, such as trade unions, neighbourhood associations, professionals, peasants, small businesses and so on. And the maximum expression of this monopolization of the campaign was in the organization of the parties of this year’s Diada (when the population takes to the street in a collective demonstration in homage of those who died defending the rights of Catalonia in the year 1714 in its fight against the Monarch Borbon Felipe V). It was a song for independence, protesting against the lack of freedom in Spain. It ignored the lack of freedom and plurality existing in the actions of the government Junts Pel Sí and in the Catalan media it controls (TV3 and Catalunya Ràdio) which were abusively instrumentalized by Junts Pel Sí. La Diada, national day of Catalonia, was the song of Yes in the electoral campaign of what they erroneously called a referendum. This explains why many people, like me, that each year celebrate the national day of Catalonia in the mass demonstrations, were offended by the partisan and sectarian character of La Diada this September. That’s why the number of participants this year was lower than in previous years.

The Mobilizing Cause: From Independence to Democracy

The police actions on the morning of October 1 changed the nature and purpose of the mobilization. The [violence of the] police explains why many people who did not intend to participate in the referendum went out to vote, showing their rejection of police actions and the clearly repressive and undemocratic attitude of the central Spanish state. And what is of special interest is that this increase of participation in the referendum was more accentuated in the working-class neighborhoods of the red belt of Barcelona than in other parts of Barcelona and Catalunya. The demonstration went from being a movement for independence to a movement for democracy, a step that was endorsed by what happened on October 3 when Catalunya (and especially Barcelona) went on strike. A general strike was organized and run by the Taula Demòcrata (the Democratic Round Table), composed of the largest civil society associations, from the largest unions to peasant associations, neighborhood associations, professional associations, small businesses, and so on. It was a generalised stoppage in all Catalonia. This changed the direction of the movement, and despite the intent of the Junts Pel Sí government, and its agents like Omnium and Asamblea Nacional Catalana (ANC), the Democratic Round Table acquired a prominent role that bothered the independentista parties that considered the change as a dilution of their cause.

The Catalan working class is not independista

Another great mistake of the cause for independence was the lack of attractiveness of independence among the working class of Catalonia. Although constantly denied by the pro-independence parties, there is plenty of evidence for this. The working class is not in favour of independence for several reasons. One is that the independence movement is led by a coalition headed up by the party of Mr. Mas, that is, by the Catalan right, whose neoliberal policies are rightly perceived by the working class as harmful to their interests. The closeness of President Puigdemont to Mas is well-known, and Mas was never popular among the Catalonian working classes. And the other cause of the lack of support for independence among the popular classes is that the majority are from other parts of Spain and emotionally consider themselves Spanish, and so oppose secession. The majority of the working class in Catalonia is Spanish-speaking.

The evidence is in the data from the Encuesta del CEO (CIS of the Generalitat) of June 2017, where it can be seen that the higher the household income the stronger the support for independence is, and vice versa. In addition, in Catalonia, people who consider themselves to be from the popular class (middle-low and low-income classes) clearly do not support independence: 56.15% of the popular classes do not support independence while only 33% support it.

This explains why independence has never commanded a majority and will continue to lack it, since independence itself does not motivate the majority of the population. Only if this independence project had a strong social content would there would be such a possibility. But social issues were absent from the project of independence. Only vague generalizations, with little credibility, marked the social discourse of independence, with somewhat hyperbolic promises that lacked credibility.

A clear case was the statement made by leaders of Junts Pel Sí and related economists, including the economic guru of TV3 (the public television controlled by the Generalitat of Catalonia), Mr. Xala i Marti, that pensions would not suffer with the transition to independence, which is an obvious falsehood because in the period of legal transition the collaboration of the Spanish State and its Social Security would be needed and if not obtained would create a huge problem for Catalan pensioners. In August 2017, Catalonia had 1,704,692 pensioners with average benefits of 957 euros, financed in part by 3,294,418 contributors. These contributions are insufficient, creating a deficit of 4,700 million euros (a higher figure than that cited by the secessionists). This money would have to come from the Generalitat itself, year after year, meaning the accumulation of considerable debts, since the Spanish State may not pay the Catalan pensioners. The problems of transition affecting pensioners would be enormous and last several years (and not just six months, as some independence spokesmen have forecast).

In this respect, such parties acted irresponsibly, as they made promises which were clearly unrealizable, like that there would be no sacrifices in transition, from pensions to other welfare benefits and public services. Of all the exaggerations, the biggest was that independence would be achieved in six months. It is difficult to believe that those who made such statements believed what they said.

In its campaign for independence, Junts Pel Sí undersold the costs of ‘express’ independence, reached great heights of exaggeration and hyperbole, which passed as truths in a context where the media lacks critical capacity. They constantly emphasized the message that everything from pensions to health care would be much better in independent Catalonia, and all this despite the evidence, hidden from the public, that pointed to a long period of scarcity (and the flight of companies reflects the start of the economic crisis that is looming). The evidence of such falsehoods is enormous.

The current situation

It is impossible that the leaders of the independence movement led by the Catalan government did not see that this process would lead to the current situation that is creating enormous frustration and pain. There were many reasons why such a strategy was not possible. One was the Spanish State, heir to the dictatorial state and the forces of Spanish nationalism that had penetrated (as a consequence of forty years of dictatorship and forty years of controlled and incomplete democracy) among large sectors of the Spanish population. The correlation of forces in Spain has been very unfavorable to the pro-independence forces. The enormous imbalance of forces in Spain adds to the complete lack of support in the European Union. Moreover, considering Spain as incapable of change meant the secessionists did not relate the transformation of Catalonia with the existing transformation that is occurring in Spain. In reality its anti-Spain campaign made it difficult for large sectors of the Spanish population to make the fight for a new Catalonia their own. The result of all this is that its strategy is taking Catalonia to a situation where we will see the total loss of autonomy and loss of rights. In fact, the clumsiness of independence has been skilfully used by the Spanish state to take from Catalonia the rights it had obtained, facilitating in turn a huge retrogression throughout the Spanish territory. And what is enormously frustrating is that one could have easily predicted this would happen. The only explanation of pursuing a strategy with this foregone conclusion is that the pro-independence leaders in reality wanted to capitalize electorally on the huge mobilization in the elections which would take place in Catalonia soon.

Another alternative would have been possible

Another alternative would have been to de-emphasize independence and to emphasize, instead, the creation of a new Catalonia in collaboration with the Spanish left that is changing Spain. The creation of the new Catalonia could have been the starting point of change in Spain, helping the Spanish people to understand that the struggle for the right to decide in Catalonia was also the struggle to transform Spain. The strategy to follow would have been the democratization of Catalonia and Spain, in a project of profound democratic transformation, putting the resolution of the Great Social Crisis at the centre of the struggles to achieve pluri-nationality. The general strike of October 3, led by forces backing these democratic aims, was an indicator that such a strategy was possible. The fact that this was not done has done irreparable damage to Catalonia and Spain. The fact that the national issue has been emphasized so much, polarizing the society between independentistas and defenders of “national unity”, is enormously debilitating to the progressive democratic forces and in particular to the Left, and is at the same time facilitating the reproduction of the neoliberal sensitivities which have been leading the two opposing sides in this polarization.

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