A longstanding sense of unfinished business in the democratisation of Spain has moved to a new stage of crisis
Just over a week ago, on 9 November, and coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world gazed at a small place on the North-East coast of the Iberian Peninsula. In this place, over 2 million people over the age of 16 (2,305,290 persons, to be exact) disobeyed the Spanish conservative government and went to vote. This ‘referendum’, which had been declared illegal repeatedly by the Spanish constitutional tribunal (a highly conservative and politically-controlled branch of the judiciary), was carried out instead under the protection of the Catalan government and with the aid of over 40,000 volunteers.
The international press focused on the results of the ballot and reported widely that 80 per cent voted in favour of Catalan independence. But in a way this missed the point. What is really important about the Catalan 9-N, as it has come to be called, is not actually the result. The thing that matters is that over two million people engaged in a non-violent act of civil disobedience in a state with a long history of authoritarianism.
This is a genuine moment of rupture in Catalonia, and to a lesser extent in Spain. We can see clearly that the crisis has accelerated what were already difficult political and fiscal relationships between Catalonia and Spain. Three inter-related aspects of this process are especially worth highlighting.
Firstly, the Catalan process, unlike the Scottish referendum, has represented the clash of two different political and democratic cultures. Spain’s historically rooted authoritarian traits have come to the fore, with a Spanish government refusing to enter into any kind of negotiation and maintaining a completely aloof attitude.
For international audiences, it is important to be clear that the separation of powers in Spain is rather fictitious – the state has a constitutional tribunal where the governing party appoints 10 of its 12 members. It’s unsurprising, then, that it tends to rule according to its prevailing political interests. For instance, in the last few months, besides the rulings against a Catalan consultation, it has ruled against an Andalusian law designed to develop social housing from the large housing stock that is held by publicly rescued banks (following large-scale evictions of people hit by the crisis). Furthermore, the same tribunal suspended another Catalan law, the aim of which was to try and alleviate the consequences of the crisis on families that are struggling to pay their heating and water bills. These two examples are not anecdotal: they reinforce the very real sense that many people in Spain now have of a move towards an increasingly authoritarian statism in Spain.
Secondly, the Catalan process has not been led by politicians, but rather by civil society via a series of mass mobilisations. Although the press constantly looks for identifiable leaders, the Catalan process has many elements of what we could more accurately call ‘new politics’. On many occasions, particularly since the demonstration by no less than 1.5 million people in the centre of Barcelona on 11 September 2012, the current Catalan president, Artur Mas, clearly came very close to retreating from his electoral promises. What has kept his political will strong has been the constant pressure from below to maintain the popular outcry for the ‘right to decide’. This highlights the necessity for a type of politics where leaders are not just given an electoral mandate for 4 or 5 years, but rather are held accountable and, if need be, supported by an organised and determined civil society. In Gramscian terms, therefore, what we are currently witnessing in Catalonia is the configuration of a successful counter-hegemonic movement which includes most Catalan political parties, civil society organisations, trade unions and social movements.
Thirdly, the economic crisis has clearly played a part in this process. Even so, I would maintain that it is not mainly the economic crisis that has deepened this movement, but rather the political crisis that Spain is also currently undergoing. The process of democratisation in Spain following the death of Franco, the fascist dictator who ruled Spain for 40 years during the twentieth century, has proven to be insufficient. The elite pact that has kept Spain together since 1978 is steadily being eroded by moves towards deeper democratisation and against the pervasive corruption that has led to the perverse form in which the global financial crisis hit and shaped Spain. Catalonians, together with other progressive social forces within Spain, are questioning the democratic legitimacy of Spain to an unprecedented extent. Fissures papered over in and since 1978 have come to the fore, articulated by newer and more confident political and social movements. The longstanding sense of unfinished business is now intertwined with a sense of a new power to change things at the grass-roots level.
To conclude, these are historical times, and an open-ended journey has started in Catalonia, which may have significant implications well beyond its borders. On Sunday 9 November, still only a few days ago, the people of Catalonia became subjects of their own political destiny. I am one of them and it’s in our hands now to ensure we maintain our strength and leadership and bring about a deepening of democracy in Catalonia and elsewhere.