Catalonia: The Revolt of the Rich?

Conflict between the government of Spain and the leadership of the Catalan Autonomy became the main international news event in the beginning of October. Nationalist parties forming the government in Barcelona declare independence. Madrid does not make concessions, and sends its police units to Catalonia. Regional authorities hold an independence referendum. The central government does not recognize it and makes attempts to sabotage it. Local authorities respond with a call for a general strike and announce that the province will separate from Spain and become an independent republic.

This is a short summary of the sequence of the events, but, what is the big picture behind these facts? What are the true interests and motives of the parties in this conflict?

Catalonia is often compared to Kosovo, Donbass, or even Crimea (where, as we know, the authorities separated from Ukraine, before they engineered the accession to Russia). A more correct comparison would be to Scotland, where nationalists also came to power and organized a referendum, which ended in a victory of the supporters of the unity with Great Britain. Finally, many recall Antonov-Ovseenko’s analogy. During his time in 1930s in Spain engulfed in civil war he called Catalonia “Spanish Ukraine”.

The situations of Catalonia and Scotland are, in fact, similar in two respects. To begin with, in both places we are dealing with the revolt of the rich against the poor. More developed regions with a high standard of living do not want to give up their resources to support less prosperous and backward provinces. ”We don’t want to feed Andalusia anymore”, they say in Barcelona. “We don’t want to feed Belfast anymore”, they say in Glasgow and Edinburgh. The local bureaucracy dreams of having an exclusive control over the financial flows. The reluctance to share with the neighbors is being justified by cultural and racial claims. “We are the real Europeans, not provincial islanders, like the English”, they say in Glasgow. “We are the real Europeans, descendants of Goths, not dirty descendants of the Arabs, like the Spaniards”, they say in Barcelona. The Catalan-language press is full of racist delirium about dirty and lazy Spaniards trying to live at the expense of the hard-working Catalonia. We read all this in a relatively “decent” mainstream publications. The fact that significant, if not the major part of Catalonia products is produced by the migrants from Andalusia working in the factories and maintaining the infrastructure of Barcelona is not taken into account. The displacement of the Spanish language from the spheres of culture and education has begun 10 years ago, and proceeds according to the painfully familiar scenario. Bureaucratic positions in the autonomy are occupied exclusively by representatives of the “titular nation”, regardless of the level of competence. Barcelona, a cosmopolitan cultural center of the Spanish world is turning into a dull province.

The unexpected aspirations of Scotland and Catalonia for independence have one more, less public, though no less significant underlying reason. For many years, both regions have been implementing European Union programs aimed at creation of a new system of institutions, separated from the regional state and directly tied to the Brussels bureaucracy. This is the essence of the program entitled “Europe of the Regions”. Every Scottish county has a program financed by the EU, while England or Northern Ireland do not get help on a comparable scale. Brussels was consistently and consciously created the “Scottish factor” as a counterbalance to Britain, which traditionally opposed the Eurocrats.

Of course, like any nationalism of a small nation, the ideology of Scottish and Catalan independence appeals to various injustices of the past, representing its nation or territory solely as a victim. For Scotland this does not work very well, since the last serious oppression of the Scots happened in the middle of the XVIII century. The main oppressors were not the English, but the Scots themselves, the inhabitants of the lowlands, who were settling scores with the inhabitants of the mountains, who, previously had been robbing them. Now, in the process of enclosure these were the inhabitants of highlands, who were ruined so much that they had only two options – to sign up with the royal army or brew a local moonshine that became known throughout the world as Scotch whiskey. In the next two centuries, the Scots became the most privileged population of the British Empire, constituting a disproportionately large part of its military and civilian elite, forming key cadres of the colonial administration in India and Africa.

In Catalonia the appeals to victimhood work better because the outrages of the Franco regime after the defeat of the Spanish Republic are still in the memory.  The Catalan language was essentially banned back then; the national culture was systematically eradicated. This, however, did not prevent Barcelona from successful development, so it remained one of the most important economic centers of the country. However, during the Civil War, Catalonia was by no means nationalistic or separatist. On the contrary, red Barcelona was the most important center of the all-Spanish republican movement. The struggle that unfolded there between the Francoists and the leftists had nothing in common with what is happening here today. It is telling that the ideology of independence began to spread seriously not immediately after the fall of Francoism, but three decades later, after the successive left and right wing governments in Madrid did their best to make amends to the Catalans, granting them all kinds of rights and privileges. It is significant that in the 1970s and 90s, while the problems of overcoming Frankoism were still serious, the demand for independence was put forward not by the Catalans, but by the Basques,  who now clearly have tempered their national claims (exactly the same situation as in Northern Ireland, where the question of independence has clearly faded into the background).

The transformation of national discrimination from real experience into a political myth is the most important factor conducive to the rise of nationalism. Those who are discriminated against are fighting for the abolition of discrimination, whereas the nationalists turn the grievances of the past into symbolic capital to justify their ambitions.

Here, however, the similarity of the Scottish and Catalan histories ends. For London still went ahead with holding a referendum, which the supporters of unity won – primarily thanks to the position of the local Labor Party, which even sacrificed some of its popularity due to their consistent opposition to nationalism. If Madrid mobilized the Hispanic majority in the region instead of prohibitions and threats against Barcelona, it would have achieved similar result. However, the extremely conservative, reactionary government of Spain clearly did not want mobilization of the working class of Catalonia. It chose to resort to police violence, demoralizing the Catalonian proponents of unity with Spain, who do not support this violence at all.

Alas, all these circumstances, for the most part, shy away from the attention of left publicists, who admiringly watch the clashes of protesting Catalan nationalists with the Spanish police.

Catalonian rebellion, like Scottish separatism is the uprising of the rich against the poor, the protest of a liberal society against the remnants of a redistributive social state. The middle class in the central regions of Barcelona, ​​rattling pans, is not the same as the population of poor workers’ neighborhoods, where they do not know the Catalan language and do not associate any of their prospects with independence. It is significant that the “general strike” declared by the nationalist parties did not affect industry at all. The working class did not support the revolt of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia. Moreover, they realize that the main target of this revolt is not the Spanish monarchy, as some naive leftists believe, but rather the principles of social solidarity, and the remnants of the social state.

But who needs to take into account Spanish-speaking workers? They are the “invaders”! If we look for comparisons, what is happening is similar to the time of the collapse of the USSR, and Catalonia is dominated by the same monstrous illusions that were sown by nationalists at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, what is happening now has a deeper basis in the sphere of political economy. This is not an accident that the triumph of neo-liberalism was accompanied everywhere by the crisis of national states and federations, the emergence and flourishing of all sorts of separatism, including exotic ones. In this sense, there is no difference between the ruling circles of Madrid and Barcelona. They represent the same class interests, only each represents them at a different level. Disintegration of federations and crisis of state institutions, which are currently happening everywhere are closely linked to the austerity policies pursued by both Madrid and Barcelona. ​​This is a continuation of the general logic of de-solidarisation, privatization and fragmentation characteristic of neoliberalism. It was this political economic logic that underlay the collapse of the USSR, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.  This logic assumes not only rejection of solidarity based on class and rejection of common humanistic values, but also substitution of the national values by the ethnic ones. It is ethnic nationalism that proves to be an ideal “substitute” for class or civic solidarity. It preserves the necessary sense of “community” for people, while narrowing it down to the size of an imaginary large family.

Similar dynamics could be observed in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Rosa Luxemburg cautioned other leftists of the dangers of flirting with the petty-bourgeois nationalism of small nations. Reactionary and semi-fascist regimes were established in most of the new states formed in place of the disintegrating empires. The only lucky exception was Czechoslovakia, which was soon happily torn to pieces by neighbors such as Germany with a help from Poland and Hungary. It would seem that the lessons of the first half of the twentieth century should be enough to draw the necessary conclusions. Alas, the modern European left, which developed in the context of deindustrialization and decline of class solidarity, is itself a product of neoliberalism and is completely imbued with the spirit of petty-bourgeois romanticism. Therefore, the left does not dare to openly say that the nationalism of minorities in no less damaging for the working class cause than any other nationalism.

There is a good news, nevertheless. The success of Jeremy Corbin and his renewed Labor Party in Scotland returns class agenda to the region once considered the backbone of the labor movement. Nationalist demagogy quickly loses appeal among the masses whenever a real, substantial left alternative appears.  The development of small-town nationalism (as, indeed, of other types of nationalism) is inversely proportional to the strength and influence of the left. Whenever supporters of social transformations fail, their place is immediately occupied by preachers of national exclusiveness. Conversely, the rise of the left forces inevitably leads to the decline of nationalist organizations.

This does not mean that the national issues do not matter, and regional interests should not be taken into account. The leftists and nationalists, however, suggest incompatible, diametrically opposed approaches to solving these problems. The former rely on an equitable union of peoples, and the latter on dividing and pitting people against each other. The former understand that the large, integrated economy based on redistribution of resources in the interests of the majority creates the best prospects for successful and democratic development, while others require freedom solely for “their own”, denying not only the principle of equality, but also the objective goals of socio-economic progress.

Unfortunately, the Spanish and Catalonian left does not dare to speak openly about it, even if they realize what a deadly danger is the growth of nationalism for them. Political correctness blocks consciousness and eliminates a meaningful discussion. However, we will have to admit, sooner or later, that if we want any progressive changes in Catalonia, we must not rally for its separation from Spain. We should fight for progressive changes throughout the country, instead.

Boris Kagarlitsky PhD is a historian and sociologist who lives in Moscow. He is a prolific author of books on the history and current politics of the Soviet Union and Russia and of books on the rise of globalized capitalism. Fourteen of his books have been translated into English. The most recent book in English is ‘From Empires to Imperialism: The State and the Rise of Bourgeois Civilisation’ (Routledge, 2014). Kagarlitsky is chief editor of the Russian-language online journal (The Worker). He is the director of the Institute for Globalization and Social Movements, located in Moscow.