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Tsunami of dissent floods streets of Catalonia

  • October 19, 2019

Land & Liberation

The uprising against the convictions of Catalan leaders was predicted. But by rioting, parts of the independence movement has entered uncharted territory.

On most days, Barcelona is noisy, its air toxic. But this Friday, most of the city was quiet and breathable, traffic arteries blocked, cruise ships rerouted and flights canceled. Briefly, and partially, Barcelona felt like a climate-compatible city of the future, even if its engines had been shut down for other reasons altogether. The noise and smell, normally everywhere, had been focalized by mass demonstrations, riot police and swerving helicopters, and as night fell, burning barricades.

Catalonia has now had four days of multitudinous marches, of rioting and blockades. Hundreds of thousands have marched, and equal numbers have participated in a social general strike blockading highways and thoroughfares, picketing shops and supermarkets.

Everybody expected the Catalan uprising. Not just because people awaited a reaction to the judgment against the Catalan leaders of the failed independence attempt in 2017, but because no substantial steps have been taken towards dialogue and compromise since then.

In Madrid, shifting governments have offered no concessions that could split the Catalan independence movement, partly because they do not consider the Catalan government a possible partner of dialogue on the question of an independence referendum or extended autonomy. Instead, independentist leaders have now been given prison sentences ranging between nine years for civic leaders and 13 to elected politicians involved in the 2017 referendum, and an international arrest warrant issued for the former Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, still in exile in Brussels.

For two years, the Spanish political and legal system has painted itself into a corner with trumped-up accusations and charges of rebellion and sedition. There was no way the supreme court could have ruled in a way that facilitated de-escalation and dialogue.

At the same time, there was no way the Catalan independence movement and radical democrats more widely could take these sentences lying down. After all, the Catalan leaders have been sentenced for the crime of setting up a democratic referendum on the future of their country, and for facilitating peaceful protests against the police violence that cracked down on the vote.

Certainly, the Spanish courts were right to declare the referendum unconstitutional, and for that very reason the Catalans were right to say the constitution is not democratic enough to allow a referendum. Between unequal rights, force decides.

In many ways, Spain and Catalonia are stuck in a dilemma which will never be solved by the courts.

Since 2017, the contradiction between the constitutional accommodation of Catalan nation building and the prohibition of Catalan self-determination remains and has only been intensified.

Of the three competing answers, none is currently feasible. Neither authoritarian Spanish centralism, nor independence, nor constitutional reform. Catalan aspirations cannot be crushed, independence cannot carry a parliamentary majority, nor can constitutional reform. This deadlock has not come closer to a solution over the past two years, and many have actively sustained it.

Indeed, the continuation of the conflict serves most major Spanish political parties well. Not least now, with elections coming up on November 10. The right-wing parties, Partido Popular and Ciudadanos, have long competed to see which could be the most centralist and patriotic party. Needless to say, the rapid and rabid rise of the Franco-nostalgic party Vox has not eased their nationalist twitches.

The governing social democrats of PSOE, whose unwillingness to enter into government with left-wing Unidas Podemos has triggered the third general election in less than a year, are no less willing to negotiate. They also have more votes to lose than to gain by compromising, and unlike their unwillingness to accept some of Unidas Podemos’ social agenda, disagreement with UP’s federalist accommodation of Catalonia is a great excuse to avoid any coalition to their left.

Overall, there is little flexibility, little scope for compromise, and so no capacity to learn from Machiavelli’s old insight, recovered by Amador Savater this week, that the best laws in the Roman Republic came out of disturbances. If disturbances cannot be a source of institutional change, Machiavelli warned, they become the source of anarchy.

Blockading highways is nothing new to the Catalan movement, nor is the call for a general strike. But the rioting and generalized use of coordinated tactics without the ultimate control of the leadership in political parties and civil society organizations marks a new phase.

Much of this is inspired by Hong Kong, as detailed in Quartz, and by a recognition of the limitations of the relatively orderly approach of 2017. Instead of being coordinated by the large civil society organizations Assemblea Nacional Catalana (ANC) and Òmnium Cultural, whose leaders have been jailed for calling protest actions, the movement has adopted a more distributed and anonymous approach facilitated by the Tsunami Democràtic app.

Back then I wrote that “any re-opening of the path towards independence would require a movement willing to use its capacity to render Catalonia ungovernable — a move unthinkable under bourgeois leadership, and minoritarian without it.” The current movements have accepted the need for mass disobedience, but by leaving its leadership and its more moderate elements behind, the possibility of building a social majority can easily slip away.

This week, we have seen Catalan politicians order violent police actions to stop protests, while encouraging civil disobedience. The imprisoned politicians have denounced the use of ”violence” by a small fringe, even if most of the violence reported by the media is more adequately described as property damage and self-defense against baton charges.

Thousands have been violently evicted after peacefully blocking the airport, many shot with foam bullets, and yesterday at least two protesters were run down by police vans. There are calls for the independentist leader of the Catalan government, Quim Torra, to step down.

The movement increasingly has the streets, but it no longer has government, nor a united social base. The constitutional deadlock is the same as ever, but the means to fight it are not. Perhaps many independentists will be anarchists by the end of this week, as Carlos Delclós has quipped. Certainly many will have to find their feet anew.

Bue Rübner Hansen

Bue Rübner Hansen has a PhD from Queen Mary University, London. He is an editor of Viewpoint Magazine, and has been an activist researcher in student, municipalist and migrant solidarity movements. His current research focuses on social reproduction, ecology and interest formation.

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