Catalonia: It's Not About Independence, It's About Democracy

By Manuel Castells

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Manuel Castells, a sociologist, is one of Catalonia’s best-known intellectuals. He is author, among other seminal works, of The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture about the network society. He is presently University Professor and the Wallis Annenberg Chair in Communication Technology and Society at the University of Southern California.

The intervention in Catalan institutions by the Spanish Government is an assault on democracy without precedent in the European Union. It creates a deep fracture between Spain and Catalonia that will be difficult to repair in the absence of unconditional dialogue, something that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has refused.

Fortunately Catalans are very peaceful people and there will be no violence on their part. But the current situation can only be maintained by a de facto state of emergency in Catalonia enforced by a massive presence of Spanish police. 

Two facts are essential to understand the Catalan crisis.  

First, the demand from Catalan people and institutions is for the right to hold a referendum about independence – not dissimilar to what has happened in Scotland and twice in Quebec in recent years. 

This demand for a referendum has been supported in the last two years by almost 80% of Catalan citizens. Besides the independentist parties,  it is also supported by Podemos, the third largest party in Spain, and its allies of “Catalonia in Common”, the largest vote getter in the Spanish parliamentary elections in Catalonia in 2016. 

In contrast, polls over the last 2 years show that support for independence  hovered around 47%. Although this may change,  it remains that the conflict is primarily about the right to decide.

Spanish politicians oppose the principle of a vote because it has to do with their own essentialist nationalism: like God’s existence, Spain cannot be submitted to a vote. This is in contradiction with the pluri-national reality of Spain, historically constructed by the domination of an absolutist Monarchy over different cultures and institutions, particularly in Catalonia, whose aspirations for emancipation were crushed in 1640, 1714, 1934, and 1939. 

Indeed the defense of the fragile unity of Spain was the fundamental bond between the Armed Forces and Franco’s Regime, and the obsession of the Dictator. According to King Juan Carlos I, the last words spoken to him by Franco  before dying were “Your Highness, the only thing I ask of you is to preserve the unity of Spain”. And so the Monarch did, with the support of the Conservatives and Socialists.

The Constitution of 1978, that formalized the consensus between political forces to evolve from dictatorship to democracy imposed both the Monarchy, and the unity of the country. However, the traces of the debate over the rights of nationalities are reflected in the second article of the Constitution that states that Spain is “a nation made of nationalities and regions”, opening the way for a  decentralization of the state. 

Yet, this was a Constitution drafted under the surveillance of the Army which was suspicious of separatism. Thus, several articles were introduced to prevent any threat to national unity. One of them, article 155, is the one that was activated by the Spanish Government, with the support of the PSOE and of the Spanish ultra-nationalist party Ciudadanos. The article authorizes the Spanish Government to take direct control of all Catalan institutions in case there is a perceived challenge to the Constitution.  

The second fact that must be grasped to understand the present crisis is that the Catalan independentist movement was not initiated  by the political parties. It is a social movement that gathered steam in 2010-2017 and was rejoined by the Catalan nationalist politicians to assert their fading electoral power.  

The movement ultimately shaped the tempo and orientations of the Catalan Parliament, and even the designation of Carles Puigdemont as its president. 

Why this sudden acceleration of the claim for independence in recent years? On the one hand, the economic crisis of 2008-10 induced mass youth unemployment (over 50%) that prompted major social movements in Spain in 2011, particularly the 15 May movement against austerity.

In Catalonia, independentism became the most important expression of the youth rebellion. An independent Catalonia was conceived as a new beginning, a new society an imaginary where everything was possible. 

Although nationalist politicians tried to build a policy rationale over these feelings, independentism was and is primarily emotional and multidimensional beyond the political realm. 

The influence of independentism was amplified in the population at large because of the indignation resulting from the provocative attitude of governing Partido Popular (PP) of Prime Minister Rajoy, the heir of Spanish authoritarianism. 

In 2005 the Catalan Parliament approved a new Statute of Autonomy, broadening the terms of self-government for Catalonia. It was approved by referendum and then it was approved by the Spanish Parliament, which then had a Socialist majority, in 2006. Yet, the PP made an appeal to the Constitutional Court, with Conservative majority, that  in 2010, substantially reduced the Catalan autonomy. It was a major humiliation for most Catalans. Thereafter every year, on the national day of Catalonia, 9/11, over one million people demonstrated against the restrictions imposed on their autonomy. This is the same Court that declared  the referendum on independence as illegal, providing the judicial support for police repression of the right to vote that Catalans have been claiming for years. 

What now? The Catalan Parliament is intent on declaring the independence of Catalonia before intervention by Madrid, so establishing a new legitimacy against the imposition of Spanish authority. The economic situation is deteriorating as hundreds of companies are moving their headquarters (not their jobs) out of Catalonia because of institutional instability. Catalan nationalist leaders will be jailed and sentenced. Gandhian-style resistance will rise, defending symbolic buildings with thousands of bodies, blocking freeways and communication hubs, calling for a general strike, and practicing civil disobedience on a large scale. The psychological fracture within Catalonia will deepen. as it will  also between Catalonia and Spain, in spite of the principled efforts of Podemos  to  defend democracy. New elections in Catalonia will yield, according to polls, the same pro-referendum majority as of now. 

The key issue at stake is whether Constitutional legality has to follow the evolution of people’s minds. The law must adapt to reality through political mediation.  Ultimately, only a political dialogue can solve the current crisis. In the meantime, one of the most democratic and tolerant areas of Europe is being deprived of its basic civil rights.