On 23 January 2013, the Catalan Parliament approved a so-called Declaration of Sovereignty, thus supporting the calls for independence expressed in a massive protest organized by the Assemblea Nacional de Catalunya that brought Barcelona to a halt on 11 September 2012. In an uncharacteristically radical swing for a governing party that has been anything but friendly to popular demands since coming into office in November of 2011, the neoliberal Convergència i Unió party (CiU), with the support of left-wing parties favoring the right to self-determination, has opted for a policy of confrontation with the central Spanish government in Madrid.
Has the Catalan government finally caved in to the voices of the streets? Are they tuning in to some new, emancipatory potential in concepts such as sovereignty, independence or national identities? In order to answer these questions, let’s rewind a bit, see where they’re coming from and ask ourselves why it’s on the political agenda now.
The early days of the acampada at Plaza Catalunya were an astonishingly intense and productive period. To the thousands that came together to voice their indignation, the air smelled of hope, strength and solidarity (and a little bit of weed). To the kleptocratic elite throughout the Spanish state, it smelled of uncertainty, condemnation and revolt (and too much weed). As the multitude articulated their positions on an array of issues that had been sidelined for decades, new debates emerged and contrasting positions were respected in a spirit of autonomy. Yet there was one question which proved particularly difficult for the General Assembly to agree on: Catalonia’s right to self-determination.
After three days of debate, the General Assembly decided to include this basic democratic right in its demands, as had the General Assemblies of several other acampadas outside of Catalonia previously. And while the debate had been particularly draining for many of its participants, the movement came out of it stronger. Throughout the first year of the 15-M movement, Barcelona’s indignados were arguably the most radical in Spain, occupying entire housing blocks for evicted families, occupying public hospitals threatened with being closed down, and reaffirming the city’s nickname of la Rosa de Foc (“the Rose of Fire”) during the General Strike of 29 March 2011 that shut down the city.
Meanwhile, the CiU government found itself in the same deteriorated position as all governments that had been imposing austerity upon people. In the months following the General Strike, polls showed that they had started hemorrhaging votes at an alarming rate. The police state tactics of Felip Puig and the popularity of actions like Occupy Mordor were proving costly to a party that had claimed to carry the smoldering torch of liberal democracy and business-friendly “moderation”. The Catalan government was in need of some serious cosmetic surgery if it was going to improve its image with an increasingly hostile public.
Around this time, nationalist and pro-independence organizations from throughout Catalonia were converging in the Assemblea Nacional de Catalunya, which held its Constitutional Assembly in March of 2012 at Barcelona’s Palau de la Música Catalana, an ornate building emblematic for its characteristic Catalan modernista design as well as its centrality in one of Catalonia’s most notorious corruption scandals. The ANC’s heavy emphasis on a Catalan identity as its raison d’être and pan-Catalan call for national unity in its struggle for sovereignty brought together members from across the political spectrum, including many politicians in the governing party. And while CiU’s members were divided in their support for independence, practically all of them supported greater fiscal independence from Madrid.
For years, Catalan society had been evenly split on the issues of independence and self-determination, which meant that this was a perfect wedge issue. It was also a chance to fix their image problem by rebuilding some democratic credentials. If CiU were able to gather enough support from Catalan voters, they would be liberated from the politically damaging pact they had made with the conservative, fiercely centralist Partido Popular in order to pass austerity measures.
Shortly after the 11 September protest, Catalan President Artur Mas met with Spanish President Mariano Rajoy to demand fiscal independence from Spain. It was a carefully crafted spectacle that predictably ended with Mas leaving empty-handed and calling for early elections. With uncanny fervor, the Catalan establishment radicalized their language. Over the next few months, the politicians, intellectuals and pundits that had dominated the airwaves with visceral, anti-radical rhetoric were suddenly talking a lot like the indignados had sounded the year before.
Catalan public television spouted apolitical nonsense about national unity, sinking to a nauseating low when it aired a North Korean-style musical tribute to The Nation featuring the Alpha male in the Iberian pop imaginary, el primo de Zumosol. President Artur Mas made grand speeches about democracy and posed for a dramatic campaign poster with his arms outstretched in triumph over a background of blurred faces, Catalan flags and a single phrase in block letters: La Voluntat d’un Poble (“The Will of a People”). They claimed that only an overwhelming CiU victory, a Triumph of the Will, would bring independence to Catalonia.
Unfortunately for CiU, Catalan society had not entirely forgotten what their government had done while in office. When a quarter of the population and over half of the youth in a region are unemployed, when people are being evicted from their homes and left out in the street on a daily basis, when a government puts health care out of reach for the people who need it, everybody knows somebody whose life has been affected by the violence of neoliberal austerity. No flag is large enough to cover all of that indecency, and the November elections not only denied CiU the absolute majority they were aiming for, but knocked them down 12 seats, forcing them to reach a stability pact with Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC).
Months later, a number of questions remain. Is the Catalan government’s bid for independence and sovereignty sincere? And what do we make of concepts such as independence, sovereignty and national identity in a global struggle for emancipation? If we are to take the key players in Catalonia’s bid for sovereignty as our reference, the answers seem clear: not really and nothing good. While parties like CiU and ERC sign grandiose declarations, they are privatizing hospitals, laying off teachers and privatizing the territory’s water. They grant more sovereignty to banks and supranational organizations like the Troika than to the people in Catalonia.
Meanwhile, the Assemblea Nacional de Catalunya has adopted proto-fascist tactics and rhetoric, attempting to bully dissenting voices into consenting with The One Nation. More disgustingly, their “roadmap to independence” calls for a census in which Catalan residents identify themselves as Catalan, so that “those who vote on the independence of Catalonia are ‘the people’ of Catalonia and not ‘the population’ of Catalonia.”
Meanwhile, the only openly pro-independence Catalan party that offers a critical, emancipatory reading of sovereignty and independence is the Canditatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP), an interesting experiment in direct democracy that now holds 3 seats in the Catalan parliament (out of 135). Once a strictly municipal-level candidacy composed of neighborhood associations, social movements, radical left pro-independence groups, and prominent members of anarcho-syndicalist unions, some CUP candidates made it very clear in their first regional campaign that they differentiate between being pro-independence and being nationalist (while the first emphasizes democratic control over a territory, the other focuses on a modality of birth, as in the Latin n?t??, or “that which has been born”).
Their message of independència total sounds hopeful, but so far the story of the Catalan push for independence shows that talk is cheap, promises are debts and politicians’ debts in particular have a bad habit of being paid for by the people.
“So what about those hundreds of thousands of indignados who flooded the streets last year?” you might be asking yourself. That’s a very good question. On the one hand, nearly one million people took to the street in Barcelona during the relatively tame General Strike of 14 November, providing a welcome reality check eleven days before the election, amongst all the nationalist noise. On the other, protests are growing more issue-based, whether they are in favor of migrant rights, decent housing or in defense of public health care. The streets aren’t quiet, but they aren’t exactly boiling either.
As you walk around Barcelona, you see flags draped on balconies in every building block. The graffiti whispers about those 3% commissions that CiU likes to skim off of public works, whispers fuck them all, whispers anarchy is order. The web chatters idly about corruption or the brain drain and cafés sigh in desperation, as a woman asks for change on the sidewalk and an African man pushes a shopping cart filled with scrap metal. The question in Catalonia today is not what happens to one dream deferred, but to so many at once…