Re-assessing Post-Fascist Spain and the Catalan and Scottish Independence Movements
Catalonia has become synonymous with tumultuous politics, so holding an election in the midst of a pandemic crisis seems like par for the course. Ben Wray, our European Feature Writer interviews Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte, co-editors of ‘Building a New Catalonia: Self-Determination and Emancipation’, published by Bella Caledonia and Pol-Len Edicions.
Voters head to the ballot box on Sunday [14 February] for the regional elections despite the nation in the north-west of the Spanish state being in the middle of its third wave. The Catalan Government had sought to have the election delayed, but the High Court ruled at the end of January that it would go ahead.
That legal drama is as nothing compared to the past three years, where the fallout from the 2017 independence referendum, banned by Madrid, was followed by a major repression on the part of the Spanish state that has never really ended, despite two general elections, a new prime minister and finally a new left-of-centre coalition government.
The apex of the repression came with the Spanish Supreme Court’s sentencing of nine Catalan independence leaders to a combined 100 years in prison in October 2019, an unprecedented assault on political rights in western Europe in recent times, which instantly sparked mass protests, airport occupations and running battles with the Spanish police
Since then, the Spanish state has continued to flex its muscles, removing pro-independence Catalan President Quim Torra from office for the high crime of flying a banner in solidarity with his imprisoned colleagues from a government office. The repression has also extended to rappers and artists, while the rapid growth of the far-right Vox has pulled Spanish nationalism in an ever more virulently anti-Catalan direction.
None of this has deterred Catalan voters, who ever since the 2017 referendum crisis have continued to back pro-independence parties in just as large numbers as before election after election. Will that hold true for ‘F14’, following a devastating pandemic crisis, with unemployment surging to over half a million and nearly 10,000 Catalans dead? And what direction is the Catalan independence parties and movement heading in now?
Ahead of the 2021 Catalan elections, I spoke to Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte, co-editors of ‘Building a New Catalonia: Self-Determination and Emancipation’ (January, 2019), to explore all this and more.
Ben Wray: In ‘Building a New Catalonia’, you argue that the Spanish state is “post-fascist” because it has “preserved some important continuities in the Francoist system”. Culturally, Spanish hegemony continues to suppress the culture of the peripheries. Economically, a close-knit group of corporations continue to have their privileges protected by the state. And in terms of the state itself, the politicisation of courts, the highly political role of the constitutional monarchy and the violence of the police are largely untouched legacies of the dictatorship era. Have the events of the last two years re-affirmed this perspective, or led to alterations in your analysis?
Ignasi Bernat: I think in general it has re-affirmed, but there are three important changes since we wrote this analysis which need to be considered.
First, the emergence of Vox, which we need to understand. Vox has grown very quickly into a major force in Spanish politics and this could be seen as a counter-argument to our thesis, because we were saying that there is no need for a fascist party because the state itself is post-fascist. But I think that the level of the normalisation of Vox in the Spanish democracy is precisely because Spain is a postfascist state. Vox are defending the Franco regime in parliament explicitly – something that could never happen in Germany, for example – and I think it shows the ongoing legitimacy which fascist ideas have within Spanish life.
Second, Spain is set to receive billions in EU Recovery Funds from the pandemic, and the management of these funds is going to be done through Deloitte, the global accounting firm. At the same time, Deloitte is being contracted by the Spanish corporations for assistance in how to access the funds. It shows all the money is going to go to the big corporations from the EU, and that the property relations which survived the Post-Franco transition continue to be there today.
Third, even if we have a PSOE-PODEMOS government, which I really think is the most progressive government in the history of Spain, there are structural limits to democratisation. That is related to this economic and property relations, but also related to the Catalan political prisoners. The General Attorney, Dolores Delgado, who is directly appointed by the Spanish Government and is a former PSOE minister, is looking for six years in prison against guys who were just protesting against the sentence of the Catalan political prisoners. This ongoing criminalisation of protest continues even in the context of a PSOE-PODEMOS government.
David Whyte: There were clear implications at the end of last year that the Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, was going to do something about pardoning the Catalan political prisoners. The question is: why didn’t it happen? And the reason is that even with the most left-wing government in recent Spanish history he is not willing to do anything which would undermine Spanish unity. Even when it comes to things that the world has condemned Spain for, for example Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, even then Sánchez won’t give them a pardon. They have been in jail for three years and there appears even less chance of a pardon now than when Sánchez took power. That’s all about maintaining the integrity of Spanish unity, the absolute core principle at the heart of the Spanish state.
Q: The concept of ‘lawfare’ was coined in the US but it has also been used to describe the politics of the Spanish state, whereby the judiciary is utilised as a political weapon. Is that accurate?
Ignasi Bernat: The body governing the judges is elected by the parliament, so that is predominantly PP and PSOE. They don’t respond to every tactical strategy of PP and PSOE, but they share the same perspective. PP and PSOE share the same vision of the state. It is all about the principle of authority.
I interviewed an anti-fascist lawyer about the sentencing of sedition against political leaders and he explained to me the exact reason for their guilty verdict – they disobeyed an order from the constitutional court. It’s not because they commit any act – they are spending 10 years in prison because they disobeyed an explicit order of the constitutional court; nothing to do with violence or anything else. This is the logic of the courts – they are the ones with the political authority. We see nothing from the government on these matters, it is the judges which have the political authority.
For the PSOE-PODEMOS government, this way things are much more comfortable, because Catalonia becomes a legal conflict not a political one, so they don’t have to do anything.
David Whyte: And that makes sense for a left coalition that wants to stay in power, because they can articulate that: ‘Our priority is dealing with inequality, our priority is dealing with the economic crisis, not with these legal issues.’
Ben Wray: The PSOE-PODEMOS coalition government came to power in January 2020, but it does not have a majority in the Congress so it relies on support from smaller parties on a vote by vote basis. Some of the independence parties in the Basque Country and Catalonia have been willing to do deals with this coalition sometimes, including in passing the Spanish budget in December. What do you think of this strategy?
Ignasi Bernat: Out of the pro-independence parties of the left, EH Bildu (the Basque left independence party) and Esquerra Republicana (the Catalan centre-left independence party) have a different strategy to CUP (the radical left pro-independence catalan party). The strategy of EH Bildu and Esquerra is to say we are going to do things slowly and we are going to accumulate support until it’s obvious that we have the support of 75% of the population of our countries.
My opinion is this is a wrong strategy, The struggle does not accelerate in such a linear way. There are conflicts, and at those moments you have to show leadership. This is how the referendum arrived. All the pro-independence political forces decided to do it and then the state repression again accelerated the conflict. This is how politics develops.
We have to be aware that the Spanish state has massive capacity to produce conformity. This is what we are seeing in Catalonia today.
Ben Wray: What do you think of the argument that the independence forces must unify behind PSOE-Podemos in an alliance against the right, because the only alternative government in Madrid is a coalition of the right: PP, Ciudadanos and Vox?
Ignasi Bernat: I really prefer having this government in Madrid, but I cannot see what the independence forces have obtained from this government.
I can see what CUP obtained from the Catalan Government five years ago – they got a referendum. But I don’t see what Esquerra and Bildu are getting from the PSOE-Podemos coalition. And in the context of managing the pandemic, which is very difficult, I can see very few governments which are going to be strengthened in this time in terms of popularity.
My view is that the way the PSOE-Podemos government is managing the pandemic and managing the EU recovery funds, a right-wing government is surely coming. PP with VOX and Ciudadanos – this is obvious, it is a matter of time.
So given that context, if the independence parties are going to play with supporting this coalition government, at least obtain material things. What material advancements have you got? The so-called ‘guaranteed minimum income’? Now we have all seen that it’s fake, it’s empty. The neoliberal trade union laws of 2012 have not yet been overturned. They are going to cut the pension system. So what have you obtained? Because when this new right-wing government arrives, PSOE won’t be in the streets fighting for the Catalans, we know that.
If the independence forces could condition this government, that would be great. I would like to see a massive regularisation of all migrant people living in Spain. I’d support a real guaranteed minimum income. I’d support the over-turning of the neoliberal labour laws. But I don’t see that.
Ben Wray: What is the mood in the Catalan independence movement at the moment?
Ignasi Bernat: The situation is difficult because people were tired after the mass protests against the imprisonment of the Catalan leaders in October 2019, and now we have had the pandemic and people’s priorities are elsewhere. I see it more likely in the next two years to have an occupy movement based around social demands than a big independentist movement, but who knows. In two years when the EU funds end, a new period of austerity will arrive. I see the movement very weak right now.
David Whyte: One of the possibilities is that an independence movement could grow on the back of the failure of the PSOE-PODEMOS government in Madrid. If the situation is that the government does not leave any kind of legacy of social change, it will deepen the resentment towards Madrid, especially if we do enter a new period of austerity. One of the points we made in the book is that the independence movement which led to the 2017 referendum was as much a legacy of the austerity era and resistance to austerity as anything else. So all the fields of struggle interact with one another.
Added to that, it’s important to recognise that Catalonia has a very embedded grassroots movement, which is partly connected to mainstream politics, but is not reliant on that. You have to remember a lot of that grassroots building work which went into the 2017 referendum, those networks continue to exist, and they won’t be broken up just because of what happens in an election result. There is a residue strength at the grassroots which shouldn’t be underestimated.
Ben Wray: What is the strategy of political parties now in terms of independence?
Ignasi Bernat: Each party has a completely different strategy.
En Comun Podem (the Catalan section of Podemos) says there must be an agreement with the Spanish state to hold a referendum – which is basically to say never.
Then we have Junts per Catalunya (the party of former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont) which advocates a unilateral declaration of independence, but this is ridiculous because if that did not occur in 2017 with all that mobilisation how is it going to happen now in a pandemic?
Then we have Esquerra which says we need to have more support, and once we have a big majority the Spanish state will be forced to recognise the referendum. To expect that from the Spanish state is in my view very naive. It’s to have understood nothing about the postfascist nature of the Spanish state.
Finally, the CUP strategy is also very complicated, because CUP is saying that we need a new referendum and to do the things that were not done in 2017 to be able to implement the result: have a public bank, have a taxation agency, nationalise key infrastructure, etc. But they also say we need to get the support of ‘the international community’ to acknowledge the referendum, but does this mean Germany, does it mean the EU, does it mean Nobel Prize winners? And finally, you need to build a strong popular movement at the same time you do that.
The only real possibility is to build an independence movement that is so strong that the state needs to recognise its power. That almost happened following the 2017 referendum, but unfortunately that only occurred momentarily because it’s not clear that Esquerra and Junts per Catalunya really wanted to push for independence, because they demobilised the situation. The same with ‘Tsunami Democratic ‘[during the 2019 protests]: they occupied the airport for one week, a very powerful pressure on capital, the Spanish state had a real problem economically, and then they demobilised the movement. You cannot have independence without having economic trouble.
If we sustain the airport occupation for 10 days, or a general strike for one week, then the state will be forced to have a Scottish 2014 style referendum. But you need to force that, the state is not going to give it to you. You need to say: ‘If there is no referendum, we are not going to allow the re-production of capital, so you choose’.
Ben Wray: The polls suggest the Catalan election is difficult to predict, and that forming a coalition government will be complex.
Ignasi Bernat: It is going to be very complicated to have a government. Although Esquerra and Junts have ended this Catalan coalition government very badly, I cannot see any other possibility for forming a government. The alternative majority is PSC [the Catalan section of PSOE] with Esquerra, but this would destroy both of them politically.
Ben Wray: PSC have been improving in the polls and could end up with the most votes. The media are calling it the ‘Illa effect’, because of the presidential candidacy of Spanish Government health minister Salvador Illa.
Ignasi Bernat: PSC is taking the role of Ciudadanos (centre-right Spanish nationalist party) in the previous Catalan election, where they are taking the mainstream vote in support of the Spanish state. PSC in Catalonia now is more similar to Ciudadanos than the PSC of ten years ago. In their 2011 congress, the PSC defended the right to national self-determination in Catalonia. Many of these people have since left PSC and moved to Esquerra. PSC’s strength in Catalonia today comes totally from its capacity in Madrid. In that sense, Catalan politics is still led by Madrid.
In terms of Illa, he did an intelligent thing. He never did a press conference during the pandemic, he always sent his epidemiologist, Fernando Simon, who never gets nervous, always seems relaxed, so he has done well in the pandemic from the communicative point of view, even though the management has been a disaster in Spain. Illa has also got through the pandemic in a very calm way, but that is it, nothing more. The reality is we have massive chaos in Spain and Catalonia – so he cannot claim to have done a good job.
Illa is picking up the votes of Ciudadanos, and possibly some votes from En Comu Podem, but no independentist is going to vote for Illa.
Ben Wray: It appears as if the only electoral movement is within the pro-independence and pro-union blocs, not between them. Support for independence parties and support for union parties overall remains quite stable since the 2017 referendum crisis.
Ignasi Bernat: I think this is something terrible. You could say it is a bit like what happened in Northern Ireland, although obviously not as strong. This is what the Spanish right want: to turn Catalonia into Northern Ireland and make any change impossible. To make the conflict into cultural things, make it about the language, to develop the idea that: ‘ah you have a Spanish surname therefore you are the son of a Spanish migrant, so you have to vote for unionism’; ‘you don’t speak Catalan at home, so you cannot vote for them’. This is the politics of Spanish nationalism in Catalonia today. The independence left needs a strategy to break that attempt to build a cultural divide.
The two blocs – Catalanist and Spanish unionist – remain unmoved. In the end it is about numbers: there are five parties on the unionist side, and three on the Catalanist side, and therefore the independentist side will win the election.
Ben Wray: From the perspective of the Scottish independence movement, what’s the key lessons to learn from the Catalan experience?
David Whyte: The question that’s faced in Scotland is a similar one to the Catalan independence movement, which is basically: how are you going to build the capacity to hold a referendum that isn’t totally reliant on the state? And the Catalan movement, I think like the Scottish one, is at an impasse on that question, and has been since the 2017 referendum crisis.
The lesson of Catalonia is really that social power has to be brought into the picture. The capacity to organise a referendum by the people has to be built. Because if the legal route fails, what happens then? That’s the thing about Catalonia that gives me a bit of hope, because they’ve shown they do have that capacity to mobilise. I’m confident that could happen in Scotland too.
Ignasi Bernat: It’s interesting to look at Scotland from Catalonia. I think if in Scotland if you can have another referendum the Catalans should organise to have its referendum at a similar time. That would increase the international attention even more and it would test whether both the UK and Spanish Governments would pursue a repressive strategy at the same time.