Dangerous games

There is a perverse rationality to the Spanish repression of the Catalan independence campaign, writes Paul Demarty

National police: like an army of occupation

Sunday’s scenes of mass police repression in Catalonia, as the separatist regional government attempted to carry out an ‘illegal’ referendum on independence, were greeted with widespread horror.

What was horrific was not simply the scale of the violence - alas the world has put things into perspective on this point, by dispatching yet another gun-toting lunatic to a densely populated area of the United States ... Over 800 injuries is a grim tally, but few of them are serious, and worse things occur in the world’s growing number of failed or badly shaken polities (Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq ... ). However, the Madrid government’s police action in Catalonia is deemed more shocking because it is happening in Europe; and, though this is where it begins, there are many grisly places it could end.

Alarm is widespread throughout the bourgeois press. Foreign ministers of major powers talk in diplomatic terms about the need to uphold the law, thus implicitly backing Madrid (even Boris Johnson managed to keep from blundering through his favourite Iberian stereotypes, presenting a suitably statesmanlike vagueness); but privately the tone will be urgent and unsparing of the Spanish government.

Europe is increasingly riddled with nationalist sceptics; the European Union lacks legitimacy among these growing layers, and so do its ‘loyal’ governments, like that of Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular. In taking such a crude approach to the Catalans, Rajoy has surely massively increased support for independence in the region (which had peaked in 2013 and was slowly falling before this debacle); but equally he has furnished every other separatist group in Europe, and further afield, with a martyr in the peculiarly modern cause of ‘nationalist internationalism’.

What on earth is Rajoy thinking? He and his flunkies protest that there is no right to self-determination of Spain’s nationalities in the constitution, which is true enough. That constitution is only 40 or so years old, modern Spanish history being as it is, and the Catalan population acceded to it happily enough at the time. But that hardly settles the issue. Scotland has no legal right to self-determination either; and, while the referendum there was hardly handled with spotless efficiency by the unionists, the ‘right’ result was obtained, in the end, and no plastic bullets were fired in the Gorbals.

Rajoy’s recklessness is surely a product of the recent political history of Spain, and his place in it. He came to office in 2011, at the nadir of the economic crisis in southern Europe, and was immediately engulfed in a corruption scandal. The 2015 election yielded only a slender plurality for the PP, and produced parliamentary deadlock; a subsequent election returned Rajoy to power, albeit at the head of a minority government, and only at the third time of asking parliament to name him prime minister (after more than half a year without a government, the liberal and anti-separatist Ciudadanos party decided to abstain, leaving the way clear for the PP). Rajoy’s grip on power is pretty thin and when the next election comes he will need a strong shot in the arm.

The Catalan crisis, then, is one that he certainly must not let go to waste. His intransigence harms the anti-separatist cause in Catalonia, but it helps him in many other places. The police units off to suppress the referendum were garlanded by crowds as they left their towns. Catalonia is for him a vast, internal Falkland Islands. It is a high-stakes game, but if he wants to remain in the top job it is hard to see what other options are available - either he prevails, crushes the Catalan separatists and triumphs on a wave of Spanish-nationalist chauvinism, or he falls, perhaps taking the integrity of the Spanish kingdom with him.

Oppression and sectionalism

In fairness to Rajoy, he is not the only one engaging in stunt politics. The fact that support for independence has visibly peaked and gone into decline in the last few years must have been taken into account as part of the Catalan separatist parties’ decision to call a referendum, knowing that a showdown of some sort would result. As things got nasty, the Spanish state would reveal its true face, and opinion would nudge in their direction - this was certainly a feature of the Scottish referendum, in which the British state actually participated. I do not think they expected it to get this nasty and now the Catalan administration has promised a declaration of independence within days.

Support got as high as it did, of course, because the supreme court in Madrid - at the urging of the PP, then in opposition - tore up some of the provisions of a devolution deal agreed by the Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. But this is merely the latest issue in the history of Catalan nationalism - as with many other varieties, it is a relatively recent phenomenon, but near the end of its second century.

It is certainly true that Catalonia was once a distinct kingdom in part of the territory that is now Spain (and a little of what is now France, borders being what they are), but it was integrated into the Aragonese monarchy in the 13th century and, when the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile fused, Catalonia followed. Catalonia was certainly the site of many local rebellions in the early modern era, and as a border province was crucial in affairs like the war of the Spanish succession, which pitched Anglo-Dutch interests against the French after the death of the fearsomely inbred Charles II.

In the 19th century, this began to coalesce into what we would now recognise as a fully-formed nationalism, with a revival in the Catalan language and the promotion of a distinctive cultural history by the likes of Jacint Verdaguer, and in the political tumult that accompanied the modernisation of the creaking Spanish state the Catalans loomed large. The final crisis came, of course, in 1936, when Francisco Franco rebelled against the leftwing Republican government; the irredentist, conservative nationalism of Franco gave the Catalan nationalists every reason to take the side of the republic, and the region was the site ultimately of the most dramatic leftwing upsurges of the failed Spanish revolution.

From this experience, and the subsequent decades of grinding oppression under Franco, Catalan nationalism was cemented in its leftwing coloration. This was a national identity based as much on anti-fascism as linguistic distinctness. The generalissimo’s name is invoked often in discussions of the horrendous police invasion on October 1, and it is worth noting that Rajoy’s Partido Popular is directly descended from Franco’s regime, and the largest remaining civilian part of it. Catalan nationalists can hardly be blamed for seeing something of the old enemy in the new.

Mixed in with this is a less morally elevated element: Catalonia is one of the richest areas of Spain. It was industrialised early, in the late 19th century, and not the smallest part of its historic radicalism is down to a better established workers’ movement there than in many other parts of Spain. Spain at large, however, was hit hard by the financial crisis of the last decade, with soaring, Greek levels of unemployment - there is a sense among many Catalans that they would be better off going it alone. In this respect, the independence movement has something in common with the less savoury national separatists of the continent - say, Italy’s Lega Nord in its original form (although it has more or less completely become a run-of-the-mill far-right organisation today). Both embody some resentment that their own ‘national’ product is being appropriated, via central taxation, by a ‘foreign’ government to prop up the floundering economy of underdeveloped areas.

So caution is advised to those on the left getting starry-eyed, at a distance, about the shining justice of the Catalan cause. The leftwing character of the region is undeniable, as is its distinctive national majority and its oppression under Franco (and, it seems, Rajoy). Yet nationalism is inherently exclusive: Catalan nationalism is not only about liberation from Rajoy, but from the unemployed of Andalusia.

The right of nations to self-determination has its own complex and chequered history, going back to Louis Napoleon III, which I will not address here. Suffice it to say that for Marxists, it is a matter of confronting this contradiction, that there is one aspect of the national aspirations of a people that is progressive, in that it signals the will to battle oppression; and another that is sectionalist and anti-universalist by its very nature, and therefore reactionary. That contradiction is particularly sharp in the Catalan case, where a nationality seems - on the whole - to be doing rather well for itself within a wider state formation, but is nonetheless subject to restrictions on its rights, backed up with borderline military police actions.

There is a popular illusion that Catalonia’s relative economic strength within Spain bodes well for a putative independent existence. In reality, things are not so simple. We remark only on the typical matter that such projections of prosperity rely on the assumption of continued EU membership, which is, of course, hardly guaranteed - subject as it is to the vetoes of many states with internal separatist populations, like, er, Spain. Larger states, in general, fare better in the world than smaller ones.

The matter of national oppression, however, does not merely sit in arithmetical balance with vulgar economic reality, but cuts to the heart of democratic principle and rebukes those purportedly ‘democratic’ states that deny it. We said that Catalonia has no legal right to self-determination, but its moral right to the same is clear as day, and clearer still with every truncheon blow. The only acceptable socialist policy is to fight, not only among the Catalans, but inthe whole of Spain (and indeed throughout Europe), for these national rights to be recognised. The half-cocked, post-Franco ‘transition to democracy’, which leaves in place the king and the riot cops, must be consummated on a truly revolutionary basis