Identities are inseparable from political and social life, but we must learn to keep a short leash on sentiments that awaken identities and build barriers against reason in order to channel them towards an emancipatory sense of justice and solidarity.
The process of Catalan secession is led by three social groups: the Catalan-speaking staff of the autonomous Administration; (small) entrepreneurs who fell on hard times during the crisis, or who could not withstand European competition, such as the family of former Prime Minister Artur Mas; and the traditionalist middle classes tied to areas that used to support the Carlists, and profited greatly from the subsidy policies of Prime Minister Pujol’s various governments. These are law-abiding people with little interest in political risk, but whose ideology is part of a larger construct that has been forming across vast swaths of Europe with the radicalisation of neoliberal policies. It is deeply rooted in the German right, but also in the export power-houses of Austria and Finland, the northern regions of Belgium and Italy, and of course in the Netherlands as well.
In this ideology, the territory is understood as a strongly unified social, identity-based, and institutional unit that must fight hard to compete with other territories in order to achieve a positive trade balance and attract investment. This welfare chauvinism rhetoric only has an ethnic component in its most conservative variant, and can degenerate into an ultra-right-wing iteration, although not necessarily. Not only the countries of southern Europe, but also in their most depressed regions – Germany’s east, Italy’s Mezzogiorno, or the Belgian region of Wallonia – are perceived as financial burdens, where prospering regions prefer not to develop feelings of solidarity in order to preserve their own welfare. The conservative and liberal wing of the Catalan independence movement looks at the world through a filter like this one: the ‘Spanish State’, a culturally alien entity, is a ballast from which one must free oneself in order to become the ‘Finland of the Mediterranean’. It is only a small step from here to demanding secession.
For conservative circles, this way of thinking does not represent an insurmountable ideological barrier, however the left falls into serious contradictions when attempting to overcome their pro-independence rhetoric. The secessionist left has two major factions, as well as a third that has failed to grow, which gives the leading forces behind El Procés some major headaches. The first includes the educated, progressive middle classes. This is the old Gauche divine that invented the ‘Spanish State’ and replaced social discourse with the identity-based cause of the 1980s, representing the sovereigntist branch of the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC), and to a lesser extent the Catalan Communist Party (PSUC), until both parties broke apart. The second branch consists of the radicalised children of the conservative, formerly Carlist middle classes, who make up the majority and most identifiable part of the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP). They represent semi-rural ideas of egalitarianism, similar to the former Herri Batasuna (or, ‘Popular Unity’) party in the Basque Country. There is also a smaller, working-class group with no Catalan-speaking background that is willing to sacrifice its unorthodox identity in exchange for being part of a thriving region that, with its highly-developed welfare state, promises to become the ‘Finland of the Mediterranean’. This group is a minority among independence supporters, although their arguments are well-established among migrants of Europe's wealthy regions. The migrants join the native population in their territorial struggle against the South's poor with the hope of being able to benefit from a developed welfare system.
Without these two and a half factions on the left, the secession movement would have never exceeded 25% of the Catalan population. The majority of Catalan working and popular classes do not participate in this project, either because they refuse to choose between two identities, whatever democratic rhetoric they are wrapped up in, or because they correctly suspect that Barcelona’s elites will once again forget them after receiving their votes and coming into power.
While liberal-conservative secessionists have a discourse that is ideologically coherent from the perspective of their own values, the secessionist left’s rhetoric is contradictory, adopting an escapist attitude when it comes to addressing the most foreseeable consequences of its risky gamble. For starters, the discourse on the ‘derecho de decidir’ (or, ‘right to decide’) forces us to choose between two identities, and outrages a substantial part of the Catalan and Spanish population in general. Given the family background, the professional and personal experiences, and because identities are trending towards becoming increasingly mixed around the world, having to ‘decide’ between two of them is not perceived as a right, but instead as something imposed by those wanting to destroy mixed identities.
The left’s justified criticism of the anti-solidarity policies that European export giants practice with southern regions are also incompatible with the refusal of left-wing secessionists – though too En Comú Podem federalists (a left-wing Catalan electoral coalition led by the Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau) – to participate in the creation of a ‘nation of nations’ that is territorially united and culturally unorthodox, similar to that which the left attempts to defend for all of Europe. It is hopelessly contradictory to criticise Merkel and Schäuble, be involved in cooperation efforts with the Third World, and ask for redistribution that flows from North to South, while at the same time refusing to participate in the creation of a common fund so that children in Extremadura and the Canary Islands can have their schools.
The darkest corner of the secessionist left is its refusal to dispassionately address the consequences of a succession process, especially if an agreement is not negotiated. They reuse to imagine the political and ideological consequences of a prolonged conflict with Spain and the radical dynamics of national assertion for the social dynamics within Catalonia itself. They refuse to open their eyes to the social consequences that policies meant to attract investment and avoid decapitalisation will have for the less fortunate members of Catalan society, policies that would force down salaries and reduce public spending in order to favour international investors. They refuse to engage politically with the atmosphere that the continued misrepresentation of history will create, an atmosphere to which various generations will be subjected in the context of a persistent dynamic of national reaffirmation: the example of Poland and other Eastern European countries is extreme, yet comparable. Intoxicated by the lure of the ‘right to decide’, they prefer not to address the cost of the colossal efforts needed for international recognition, that itself will require the establishment of unnatural alliances to accomplish. These alliances would earnestly express support for just causes, such as the right of the Palestinians to have their own State that is at peace with its neighbours. They, as well as more than a few leftists elsewhere in Spain, refuse to open their eyes to the multiplier effect that the independence dynamic would have throughout Spain, including the new Catalan State’s efforts to incorporate Valencia and the Balearic Islands into their territory and sphere of influence, and the strengthening of the national agenda in other regions such as the Basque Country, Navarre, and the Balearic Islands, not to mention across many other regions in Europe that will be moved to radicalise their identity rhetoric following the Catalan example.
In addition, they refuse to see that the state phenomenon was different at the beginning of the 20th century than it is at the beginning of the 21st century. Leftists rightly criticise recent decades of Western policies meant to break disobedient States, many of them secular, in order to gain influence in certain strategic areas of the world, and begin nation-building processes inspired by neoliberal formulas. However, they do not want to see that their own project to break up the Spanish State (here it is appropriate to use that term) would cause a very similar dynamic to weaken all public spaces, both to the North and South of the Ebro River. Whatever the leftist rhetoric of those dreaming of a Catalan Republic wrapped in progressive values, what is certain is that the public will suffer through a widespread recession necessary to attract investment and mend the broken economic fabric, especially given that its income from the European Union will be far less likely than many want the distracted masses to realise.
Spanish anti-statism draws from the tradition of the 19th century’s anarchist movements that were deeply rooted in Catalonia, movements that were a response to a liberal, authoritarian State that showed no sensitivity towards the needs of subordinate classes. Leftist anti-statism that connects with the idea of self-determination, the same idea that the pro-independence right now uses as bait to lure those on the left to their cause, was a logical response to Eastern European States that were authoritarian towards some of their minorities following World War I. However, comparing this reality in which old States became useless to modernisation and the yearning for democracy and social justice to the current situation in which States are the only actors capable of taking on major corporations, financial markets, and public security challenges is a fatal mistake.
It is true: the Transition pact with post-Francoists allowed for a good many structures, habits, identities, and traditions of the old dictatorship to transfer over to the new democratic Spanish State, and this is certainly one of the reasons for country’s current identity problem. However, turning the Spanish State into something comparable to Czarist Russia or a Francoist State in order to legitimise its liquidation at the beginning of the 21st century, at a time when the most disadvantaged classes only have public institutions to assert their interests against financial and economic powers, is not only a fanaticised reading of 20th century history, but also an enormous political error with unforeseen consequences for everything that the left defends in Spain and Europe at large.
The leftists, including those in favour of independence, should face these scenarios with courage, calm, and objectivity. Political identities are inseparable from political and social life, but the left must learn to keep a short leash on sentiments that awaken identities and build barriers against reason in order to channel them towards an emancipatory sense of justice and solidarity. If feelings are not channelled, they can produce collective disasters such as those that we have seen in 20th century Europe, much before we are can react to stop them.
Translation: transform! europe