Deadlock in Catalonia

The crisis in Catalonia is continuing, writes Dave Kellaway.  The Spanish state has  imposed the constitutional article 155 which allows the central Spanish state to take over all the regional self-governing institution Ten key leaders are now in prison and part of the leadership in exile.  Many commentators thought these decisive repressive moves by the right wing Rajoy government would lead to disorientation and even defeat of the independence movement. Indeed the flight to Brussels of Puigdemont and a failure to immediately seize the initiative with mass mobilisations to defend the declaration of a republic suggested they may have been right.

The Spanish state’s position is boosted by the centre left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers Party), which has wholeheartedly supported 155.  Even some on the left sympathetic to independence talked of ‘cowardice’ displayed by the Catalan government and thought it was all over.

However since some of Puigdemont’s team returned from Brussels to prison, there has been a one day work stoppage that disrupted all transport and last Saturday saw 750,000 people march in defence of the political prisoners.

At the same time all the independence forces will be standing in the regional elections Rajoy has called for the 21st December.  Rajoy thinks that the pro-autonomy forces can be smashed at the elections and this will bring an end to the turmoil.  An early poll suggested that the Catalan nationalists would still have at least a relative majority.

If this happens and the republic is re-proclaimed that the Spanish state has already indicated that article 155 would remain.  Rajoy wants the elections to be a referendum against the Catalan natonalists but will only recognise its validity if he wins.

Why has the Catalan question exploded at this time?

Right from the formation of the Spanish national state several centuries ago Catalonia was a separate kingdom with its own language and culture.  It gained new autonomy in 1913 but for it to be taken away by the Primo de Rivera dictatorship in 1924.

In the Spanish Civil War from 1936 it was a bastion of republican, anti-Franco struggle and gained significant autonomy again. But defeat led to the torture and execution by the fascists of its historic leader Lluis Companys. During the Francoist regime Catalan culture and language was viciously repressed. We should not underestimate the importance of this, we are not talking of a small minority like in Scotland that speak Gaelic but a very large proportion of the population even today.

The partial, incomplete transition from Francoism expressed in the regime established in 1978 resulted in increased but limited autonomy for Catalonia.  In 2006 a new statute with increased autonomy was passed in a referendum but then amended and finally neutered by 2010 through the combined efforts of the PSOE and Rajoy’s Peoples Party (PP).  Given that the central government refused a referendum process similar to the one given by Cameron to Scotland it is not surprising that nationalist sentiment has grown over the last period.  Also the effects of the recession – much worse in Spain than in Britain with young people’s unemployment at around 50% and many evictions – led to massive social movements like the indignados.  Subsequently this turned into a political challenge (Podemos) to the bankruptcy of a 1978 regime led by literally thousands of politicians charged with corruption.  This radicalisation and particularly the mass mobilisations and direct action fed into the increased support for the nationalist currents.

Rajoy’s heavy-handed response to the referendum called by the nationalist majority in the regional government actually increased support or sympathy for the nationalist currents.  The police and army physically removed thousands of citizens defending their right to vote from the polling stations causing injury to over 700 people.  A new development was the mobilisation of the Committees in Defence of the Referendum (CDRS – now rebaptised in defence of the Republic) partly inspired by the radical left nationalist current the CUP(Popular Unity Candidacy). Young workers and students are prominent in these committees that are neighbourhood based.

Despite great efforts by Puigdemont to negotiate some sort of deal after 2.3 million people voted for independence the nationalist government was offered nothing and subsequently declared rather ambiguously (‘suspended’ pending further talks) the Catalan republic.  Even here the heterogeneity of the nationalist currents was seen in that Puigdemont was ready to accept new elections rather than declare but pressure from within his party and from the base pushed him further.

What we can say today is that nothing will be resolved until after 21st December elections and even then we could have an extended deadlock and a creeping crisis.

Voters will have three clear options on the 21st December

  1. a) the unionists who support 155, the PP, PSOE and Cuidadanos (a bourgeois centrist party);
  2. b) Unidad Podemos and En Comun who are against 155, but against the Republic and for an agreed referendum

c)the Nationalists who support the republic, PDeCAT(Catalan European Democrat party- moderate led by Puigdemont), ERC (Catalan Republican left) social democrats or the CUP (if you want an anti-capitalist position)

But what this crisis has shown are big divisions on the left both inside the Spanish state and in Britain over what attitude to take to the Catalan question.

The crisis in Unidad Podemos

Iglesias, the leader of Undidad Podemos, to his credit, did not denounce the October 1st referendum and encouraged participation although he said he would have voted no.  He also stood up against the repression both during the referendum and on article 155 and the imprisonment of nationalist leaders.  His line is that Spain should recognise its ‘plurinacionalidad’ (multi-nation nature) within some sort of federal system that is not defined.  Similarly he is in favour of the Catalan people to vote on their future in an agreed referendum with the Spanish state.

In this respect his line is clearly against the PSOE with whom he has been courting for a future progressive coalition government.  However this position, which mirrors the perspective of the Barcelona Mayoress, Ada Colau, does not take into account the fact that it is extremely unlikely that a Spanish government would agree a referendum that would accept the right of the Catalans to self determination.  The policy depends on waiting for some future hypothetical Unidad Podemos/PSOE government and would also mean convincing the whole of the PSOE which is not easy.  The other weakness is that it does not see how the dynamic of the nationalists’ right to self determination would fatally weaken the 1978 regime which he himself had previously denounced as undemocratic.

Within Unidad Podemos the Anti-capitalistas minority are more positive about both working alongside the nationalist currents and making the link between the constituent process in Catalonia and the political struggle against the 1978 regime throughout the Spanish state. At the same time they believe it is possible to integrate anti-austerity, progressive demands within the struggle for self-determination.

The sharpness of political struggle in Catalonia at the moment has led to a big crisis in Unidad Podemos there.  Discussion over which forces to talk to regarding arrangements for the 21st December elections has led to Iglesias intervening administratively inside Podem (the Catalan Podemos) and removing its leadership, partly through an online consultation of membership. The leader of Podem, Fachin, has resigned along with many others included the whole section in Llerida. Iglesias wanted no deals with even radical anti-capitalist nationalists and so has concluded a deal with Ada Colau and her En Comun movement.

Outside Catalonia the left has struggled with understanding the nature of the struggle and the failure of the Iglesias leadership to develop a thriving political culture within the membership does not help when difficult political issues come up.  The top down, online moderated structures with its overriding electoral focus makes this harder.

Ada Colau’s movement voted this weekend to end its coalition in Barcelona with the local PSOE (called PSC) over its support for 155 although in a narrow vote where she gave no indication of which way she would vote.  Municipal coalitions with the PSC have broken up throughout Catalonia.

The debate on the left about the Catalan national question.

Following some of the discussion about Catalonia one is reminded of the hoary old joke about the tourist asking directions from some local (usually it is a rural person) who in reply says  “Well I wouldn’t  be starting from here…”  Some socialists would like all the struggles they are involved in building or supporting to be nice and neat. In other words, horny-handed proletarians against the nasty bosses with no interference from the national question, gender, racism or anything else that also matters in everyday life.  Let us look at some of the reasons why some socialists are not supporting the Catalan right to self-determination or their right to have a republic.

“Well it is just one set of bosses against another isn’t it?”

In fact all  the key bosses’ organisations in Catalonia have opposed the movement and indeed have collaborated with the Rajoy government by moving their head offices out of the region.  The nationalist currents are neither the labour movement nor proto-socialist although there are many supporters within the labour movement. Middle layers, professional, cultural and rural leaders dominate its leadership.  But there are pro-nationalist trade unions which do have significant support as shown in the recent work stoppage.

Within the coalition a minority current, the CUP, is an anti-austerity and anti-capitalist current which prioritises mass mobilisation and inspires many young people. In any case a movement led by bosses would be wary of a process that may lead to economic difficulties that would jeopardise its interests.

At the same time any movement has to be assessed not just by its leadership but by the dynamic of the people mobilised within it. The Oct 1st referendum, the work stoppages, the CDRS and the demonstrations show quite high levels of popular mobilisation. There are not millions of bosses in Catalonia.  There is also evidence that the more neo-liberal current, PDeCAT is losing ground to the more social democratic ERC and that CUP influence is stronger.

“But isn’t it all about a rich region wanting to keep more of its wealth for itself?”

Undeniably this has featured in some statements and in some opinion polls but is it the dominant factor when dire warnings are regularly given about the threat to this so called wealth if there is secession.  This argument assumes that the transfer of funds from Catalonia to the rest of Spain is some sort of marvellous arrangement benefiting working people. In fact you can argue that much of the transfers go to investment in big projects that help the local bosses in other regions or end up in the pockets of corrupt politicians.

Remember too that Catalonia is as unequal as anywhere in Spain and it is mainly working people who pay their taxes so this idea that the transfer of tax is some sort of unproblematic quasi-socialist process that socialists should uncritically support is just not the case.  Is there a GDP threshold anyway for the right of nations to self-determination? So it is okay if you have a low GDP but if you are above a certain level you have not right.

Scotland, particularly when oil prices are high, is probably richer than the northern region of Britain. Does that disqualify it from demanding independence?  Historically it is not just poor countries struggles for independence who socialists have supported.  Socialists can argue for solidarity arrangements to operate within a federation of states post-independence, the CUP take this position.

“but most workers are against it anyway…”

It is the case that there is less support for independence from the hundreds of thousands of historic migrants from Andalucia and elsewhere.  Interestingly the nationalist currents generally do not make artificial divisions between Catalan speakers and the rest.  But there is no way you can argue that the massive numbers who voted for independence or are active in the demonstrations are all middle class. You would have to have a very reductionist definition of working class – limiting it perhaps to industrial workers.

The polls historically has shown an increase in support for independence over the last ten years and so more workers do support it today.  Another problem with the numbers game is how to assess the two million or so who voted in the Oct 1st referendum.  Some people have placed that figure against an ideal very high potential turnout  rather than a more realistic one  and concluded that it is still a minority. Without a clear referendum with no repression it is hard to estimate actual numbers.

“the unity of the working class is destroyed by this sort of nationalism…”

Some of the measures taken by the Catalan government such as against evictions were anti-austerity and subsequently blocked by the central government. Surely this was contributing to a potential unity of working people. Would an independent state provide a better basis for developing a progressive alternative than the struggles within the framework of an anti-democratic 1978 regime?

If Rajoy wins in his reactionary monarchist, nationalist position against greater democracy and by using repression efficiently, how will that help working class struggle or working class unity?  Radical mobilisations and successful implementation of radical measures inside Catalonia can inspire working class unity throughout Spain.  It would be harder for the government to resist struggles by working people if it was shown to lose in Catalonia.

Cheerleading for a progressive republic that does not yet exist is also a problem.

Among those left forces who have taken a broadly correct position on Catalonia – the SWP, Counterfire and the Socialist Party – there is a converse error to the ones just mentioned. This is to be a little uncritical of the nationalist forces and to overestimate the stage in radicalisation. There are still many people who are not pro-Rajoy who are against self-determination. Unless those forces are won over to perhaps viable variants of self-determination then it is difficult to see the consolidation of any sort of republic.   A republic is not just proclaimed but it has to have the forces on the ground to defend its institutions.  Today that is not the case. Demands focussed on improving people’s living standards and meeting their needs can win new support. As a CUP councillor stated in a recent interview:

“Independence is a means for the majority of the CUP…however for many people it is an end…But an end on its own will not work. Among the left of the independence movement everybody agrees that it is also a means to go further….what unites us is that independence is a necessary stage for achieving socialism and feminism.  We do not see a possibility of reaching these objectives within the Spanish state, given the relationship of forces and the form in which this state has been historically constructed.”

Whatever our precise positions on Catalan independence progressives and socialists should try and win support in trade unions and labour parties for motions denouncing repression, for the lifting of article 155, for the freedom of all political prisoners and for the right of Catalonia to self-determination.

14th November

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