Catalonia and the Art of Differential Diagnosis

Photo by ChiralJon | CC BY 2.0

As in the sound practice of medicine, the key to generating useful political analysis lies in the art of differential diagnosis. This is especially true in times of apparent epidemics. When seemingly similar symptoms arise in numerous patients, or in the case of politics, in numerous sites of social action, there is an enormous temptation to describe the problem at hand in terms of overarching patterns of “infection”.

How can we combat this very understandable, if ultimately counterproductive,   tendency?

By redoubling our interest in the particular case history of the “patient” before us, by listening and observing more keenly than ever before to the particular rhythms of his or her life.

There is no doubt that the EU is living through an upsurge of localized nationalist sentiments. And it is clear that a number of these movements, such as Victor Orban’s Fidesz party in Hungary and the Lega Nord in the Veneto, contain authoritarian and xenophobic elements.

The easiest thing to do, especially for frequently monolingual Anglo-Saxon foreign affairs columnists and their academic twins, frequently monolingual Anglo-Saxon professors of Political Science, is to jump to the conclusion that the situation in Catalonia essentially springs from the same disagreeable ferment as movements like these.

The other temptation in the same vein is to simply ignore the particularities of the Catalan case and subordinate the claims of its protagonists to the demands of that beloved icon of today’s drawing room Metternichs: geo-political stability.

That these prayers to the all-powerful god of stability emanate from analysts who, in many cases, watched silently as the US, with the assent of its allies in NATO, financed and encouraged the destruction of geo-political stability in Eastern Europe and the Balkans in the 90s (compounding things later on by backing highly dubious projects of self-determination such as the one in Kosovo),  the geo-political stability Iraq and the Mashriq beginning in 2003, the geo-political stability of Libya and much of Northern Africa beginning in 2011,  and the geo-political stability of the vast and strategically important  lands of Ukraine starting in 2014, belies their general lack of anything close to principled thinking.

We saw a recent example of this ‘I really-don’t-know-much-about-the-particulars-but-my-gut-tells-me-that-any-existing-European-state-is-always-more-democratic-than-any-breakaway-movement-sentiment” in a column on Catalonia by the usually superb, incisive, and apparently multi-lingual,  Stephen Kinzer.

Advertising his lack of familiarity with the actual political culture of Spain, and perhaps more importantly, with the actual contours of the current Catalan movement for independence, he characterizes the government in Madrid—ruled by a man who along with his entire cabinet for years punctually received envelopes stuffed with amounts amount slush fund cash equal to or exceeding their government salaries—as a model democracy, and the Catalan movement for independence—which has as its fundamental  starting point the idea of full inclusivity and which is absolutely devoid of ANY hint of xenophobia—as essentially “tribal” in nature.

Last week, CounterPunch published an article by John White (sharing a lot with a piece published there some days earlier there by the similarly-named John Wight) that is rooted in a like-minded set of presumptions. But whereas Kinzer was canny enough to keep his ill-founded assertions short and sweet, White’s more extensive critique of the recent actions of the Catalan government led by Carles Puigdemont obviates many key historical facts and thus falls into unfortunate lapses of logic.

The problems with his piece begin with the title: “How Big is my Tribe: The Crisis in Catalonia”. With this snappy line, White, like Kinzer before him, makes the lazy assertion that that the problem in Catalonia is rooted in tribal impulses similar to those driving breakaway movements in other places. Indeed, he explicitly compares the movement for an independent Catalonia, whose leaders have stated over and over and over again, their desire to found a republic based on an ethos of social inclusion, cultural diversity, European integrationism and a robust welfare state, to the stingy and often xenophobic impulses of the Brexiteers in the UK.

And then, contradicting the richly documented history of all that has taken place in the last seven years in Catalonia, he asserts that Puigdemont and his movement have failed to engage in the hard work of building the “foundation” of the nationalist movement “brick by brick”.

Understand what happened in 2010 to send millions of people—millions of people that in the main had not previously been independentists—into the street to protest for a vote on self-determination?

Take note of the citizen-driven and completely peaceful pro-independence mobilizations that have taken place repeatedly and on a massive scale for the last seven years?

Listen to (or get someone to inform you about) what Catalan leaders actually say to their own people when speaking to them in their own language, and how the most recurrent ideas in these addresses are peace, democracy, freedom and non-violence?

Look back into the decades-long history of the now majority Catalan independentist party the ERC, and the shorter, but important history of its coalition partner, the CUP, and see what their stated views are on civic inclusivity and social justice?

Come to know about the surprisingly progressive social views (downright leftist by Anglo-Saxon standards) of the supposedly rightist independentist party PdeCAT?

Observe, in short, how it was precisely by building a civic movement “brick by brick” in the years after 2010 that the independentism went from a distinctly minority political option to one that achieved a parliamentary majority in 2015?

Why bother with all that when it goes against your neat pre-conceived thesis about cheap populism and greedy tribalism?

After his misplaced talk about the inherently rickety  foundations of the movement and its tribalistic nature, White then zeroes in on what he perceives as the recklessness of Puigdemont’s decision to use the flawed October 1st, 2017 referendum as a basis for declaring independence.

Were the October 1st referendum the first and/or only real precipitating event of the present impasse,  he might have a point. But this is clearly not the case.

Far from being a problem-free declaration of the true and embracing sentiments of the entire Catalan body politic (something not even the most fervent independentist would ever assert) it was a desperate and defiant cry for dignity in the face of implacable and repeated demands for, absolute submission to the dictates of Kinzer’s oh-so-modern democracy in Madrid,  led by the corrupt  sons  and grandsons of the Franco regime, a group that from the moment Spain’s Autonomous Communities were established at the beginning of the 80s,  have schemed non-stop about how to roll back and/or cancel these entities’ significant purchase on the  nation’s economic and political power.

But to understand this, however, you might have to—what a drag—go beyond today’s  headlines written by mostly Madrid-based correspondents whose understanding of the internal dynamics of Catalan culture are extremely limited,[1]  and read up (or get someone to inform you about) these things.

But one need not go all the way back to the so-called Transition to Democracy of the late 70s and early 80s to gain a better grasp on the matter. A short trip back to September of 2012 will do.  It was at that moment that the then Catalan president Artur Mas, who led a party, CiU (now PdeCAT), that had long been opposed to the idea of independence, came out in favor of a referendum on self-determination. When I once asked him why he changed his position he said:

Between June of 2010 and September of 2012 a lot of important things took place in this country.  In June of 2010,  the Spanish Constitutional Tribunal (TC) nullified a very substantial part of a new and already greatly scaled-back Catalan Statute of Autonomy.  And September of 2012 is when we witnessed the first great mass demonstrations here under the slogan of “Catalonia, a New European State”, and when Spanish President Rajoy said to “no” to me regarding the possibility of negotiating new revenue-sharing agreement between Catalonia and the Spanish state, an issue that had nothing to do with either the fate of the Statute or independence.  It was an attempt to find at “third way” (he voices the last two words in English).   And he simply said “no” to me. Looking at the decision of the TC on the Statute of Autonomy and the Spanish government’s refusal to talk about a new fiscal pact as a possible solution, I realized there was no other way out. If the Constitutional Tribunal was going to firmly mark the upper limits of our system of self-governance and the Spanish government was going to flatly refuse to talk about a possible third way, the only solution was to pay attention to the popular mobilization, that “grass roots movement” (he says these words in English) that was taking place in the streets and try, in some way or another, to channel it toward concrete ends.

Note that Mas’s first instinct was to find a negotiated settlement to the problem. And note that the response of the Spanish government was, “No, there is simply nothing to talk about”. In July 2013,   Mas again wrote to Rajoy asking to open negotiation for a state-sanctioned  vote on independence. Rajoy took nearly two months to respond with a flat out denial of any such possibility

In November of 2014, Catalan civil society groups finally decided to organize a non-binding referendum to gauge the possible levels support for independence in the Autonomous Community. Though the effort had begun as a Catalan government initiative, Mas and his coalition partners carefully separated themselves from the organization of the—I repeat—completely non-binding poll, when the central government threatened them with prosecution. The poll went ahead thanks to the efforts of thousands of civic volunteers.

With the very threat of central government prosecution hanging over the event, there was a 41% turnout (equivalent to that of a typical US off-year election) which produced and 80% plurality in favor of independence. Rather than respond to this demonstration of—if nothing else—widespread discontent with the status quo in his nation’s most prosperous and socially advanced area with sincere overtures for dialogue,  Rajoy’s government preferred instead to indict Mas and two other Catalan government officials on trumped charges of having used public funds to stage the vote.

In the face of the central government’s absolute refusal to talk, or to allow a referendum of any sort take place, Mas, working with the support of his coalition partner the ERC and two very minor parties the DC and the MES,  decided to work within the existing legal structures to gauge the support for the idea of self-determination.


By calling for new elections and explicitly and repeatedly labeling them as “plebiscitary” in nature.

In other words, it was clear to everyone in Catalonia that their only purpose was to determine as closely as possible the actual level of sentiment in Catalonia for the idea of independence.

The group that had called for the elections came together in a coalition known as Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes) And though the anti-system part CUP did not formally join this coalition, it was widely understood they would use any seats that they might win to support Together for Yes in its desire to form a parliamentary majority and make good on its explicit and oft-repeated pledge to stage a referendum on independence.

It bears repeating that there was no sleight of hand here. Everyone knew that should this coalition win, a referendum would be forthcoming.

When they did indeed win a very slim parliamentary majority they began to plan for this eventuality.

As they did so, they never stopped reaching out to the government in Madrid in the hopes of establishing a negotiated frame for the staging the referendum, as had occurred in the cases of Quebec (1995) and Scotland (2014) and their respective central governments.

On 20 April 2016, shortly after assuming the presidency of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont visited Rajoy and presented to him a detailed plan for a referendum organized in cooperation with the central government.   Rajoy rejected the offer with barely a comment. On 11 January 2017, Puigdemont once again met with Rajoy about the issue and once again Rajoy stated that there is nothing to negotiate.

So, as just as they said they would do in the wake of their victory in the 2015 Catalan parliamentary elections, Junts pel Sí and the CUP pressed ahead with their plans for a referendum.

One of the claims of those that criticize the leaders of the pro-vote forces n is that while they held a majority of seats in the Parliament, the coalition’s 48.3% plurality of the popular vote is not large enough set in motion something as dramatic as a referendum for independence. Left unexamined amidst these noisy claims are a number of key issues.

The first is that that this number is nowhere close to the total number of people in Catalonia that are in favor of resolving the matter through voting by means of an agreed-upon referendum. In a poll published by El Mundo, a Madrid paper no one could ever accuse of being pro-Catalan on the Monday after the government’s forced dismantling the Catalan government, 70% of Catalans and 57% Spaniards as whole said that they viewed such a referendum  as the best solution to the current problem.

But, of course, the minority government led by Rajoy, which polled 33% in the last elections, will not even talk about letting such a thing happen.  Viewed in this context, who then is really throttling the democratic desires of the Catalan and Spanish people from a  distinctly  minority position?

An adjunct to this argument about the supposed illegitimacy of the pro-referendum parliamentary majority produced on September 29th, 2015 is the repeated assertion that “a minority is forcing their ideas upon the majority of people who do not want to separate from Spain”.  Indeed, central government officials and the commentators that so often mindlessly ape their words have recurred to this trope again and again in recent weeks.

What these officials and their media echo chamber never tell us is that, if anything, the 48.3%  plurality is a rather low estimate of actual indendenitist sentiment within Catalonia.

How’s that?

Because not insignificant elements of the leftist Catalunya Sí  Que Es Pot (CSQP) (Catalonia Yes  We Can) and the the Comuns,  and even some elements of the generally anti-independentist Partit dels Socialistes Catalans (PSC) (Catalan Socialist Party) are on record as saying they would vote “yes” on the independence  within referendum sanctioned by the central government.

Which leads us to the central absurdity of this line of rhetoric. If, as the central government says, the vast majority of Catalans are so against independence, what possible fear could there be in letting them have an open vote on the matter? Surely the silent majority of pro-Union Catalans they always talk about would insure a victory for the “no” forces in such a poll. Right?

The fact the central government is so vehemently opposed to a sanctioned referendum shows that they know quite well that independentism is a much stronger force than they publicly like to admit.

With all this in mind,  we return to  White’s attempt to dismiss the legitimacy Catalanist movement by pointing to the clearly flawed nature of the October 1st  referendum.

As should now be clear by now, NO ONE in the Catalan government wanted to hold a vote without central government approval in the midst truncheons, police stealing of ballot boxes and the  beating up of grandmothers. What they repeatedly sought was a negotiated solution, something Madrid simply scoffed at again and again.  Hence the balme for any procedural improprieties in the process lie firmly with Madrid.

In the face of this repeated recalcitrance the Catalanists had only two options.

The first was to say, in effect, “Yes master, I’m sorry. I was wrong to even think about changing the nature of the relationship between us, even though this is what at least 55% of the population I represent wants. You know better master, you and the, at most, 39% percent minority of the Catalan parliament that thinks like you”.

The second was  to preserve the Catalan people’s sense of dignity by refusing to buckle before this type of authoritarian bullying, authoritarian bullying of the type that was previously and quite consequentially visited upon them in 1923, 1934 and 1939.

Puigdemont and his government opted for the latter approach knowing full well that doing so might entail serious consequences.

Progressives love to talk about King, Gandhi the beauty of non-violent civil disobedience. But when it takes place right before their eyes in Catalonia, they apparently have a very hard time recognizing it.

Worse yet, many generally excellent left-leaning commentators possessing, it would seem, only a superficial understanding of the Catalanist movement’s long history and recent patterns of civic comportment on one hand,  and the enormous persistence of authoritarian attitudes and practices  in  Spain’s “democratic”  leadership class in Madrid on the other,  recur to tired analytical clichés,  redolent of statist  idolatry,  to characterize what is arguably the most important and powerful grassroots democratic movement taking place anywhere in the developed world today as a meaningless caprice of a few misguided officials.

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Thomas S. Harrington is a professor of Iberian Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of the recently released  Livin’ la Vida Barroca: American Culture in a Time of Imperial Orthodoxies.

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