The two roads ahead for the Catalan independence movement

  • November 1, 2019

Land & Liberation

Favoring a discourse based on democratic rights will help gain the support of the non-independentist left and avoid ethnic tensions on both sides of the divide.

Two discourses permeate the Catalan independence movement. One of them argues that the Catalan constitute a differentiated group with their own culture and history, and therefore they merit their own state. This idea suggests that even if the Catalan struggle for more political autonomy had not faced a repressive response by Spanish central authorities, particularly since 2010, independence would nevertheless remain a goal in itself.

The other discourse justifies Catalan independence precisely because of this staunch refusal of the Spanish political system to discuss the territorial structure of Spain. This approach posits that, when it comes to revising certain political aspects of Spain, such as the monarchy or its plurinational character, democratic procedures are nowhere to be seen.

Both ideas are used to mobilize supporters, justify their actions and explain the success of independentism. Yet, the one that prevails will greatly determine the capacity of the Catalan movement to garner support among parties that are not exclusively based in Catalonia, and the broader non-independentist left in Spain.

The recent judgment against nine Catalan leaders and the uprising that unfolded in reaction to it make this choice even more urgent. Choosing the discourse that responds to the flaws of Spanish democracy will allow for the creation of a broad coalition and avoid the nationalist cleavage — promoted by the unionist right as well — to finally take over Spanish politics, something that would benefit right-wing parties on both sides of the national divide.

The two discourses

On the one hand, some nationalists argue that Catalans are a separate group, with their own culture, language and history, and that this justifies political independence from Spain. The definition and boundaries of this group have been problematic, particularly since around half the population in Catalonia does not support independence. Many have strong roots in other parts of Spain and are not native Catalan speakers. Regardless of how inclusive this definition is, the key aspect is that it speaks of a particular group different from the rest of Spain.

Both ethnic and civic forms of nationalism have been present in Catalonia for a long time, although Catalan nationalism has traditionally been identified as an example of civil liberalism, particularly in comparison with Basque nationalism, which has always had a stronger ethnic overtone in its definition of the Basque nation.

However, during the last few years, after the Catalan movement finally adopted the goal of independence, the national divide has become more substantial, both inside and outside of Catalonia.

Fierce debates over what it actually means to be Catalan or the extent of “tribalism” in the definition of the Catalan identity have ensued. For instance, some of these debates revolved around whether Catalan identity includes only native speakers of Catalan or whether those who decades ago immigrated to the region from other parts of Spain — and their children, who grew up speaking Catalan — can also be considered part of the Catalan nation.

Non-independent and non-Catalan political parties, particularly those on the right, have been responsible for encouraging ethnic discourses as a way to discredit the independence movement and use Spanish nationalism to rally support for the unionist cause.

A recent study has found that pro-independence political parties have toned down this ethnic discourse, perhaps in response to the way unionist forces portray Catalan nationalism. Nevertheless, this worrying form of ethnic nationalism can be occasionally found on both sides.

On the other hand, the liberal discourse understands independence as the response to a situation where any push for further decentralization or a discussion on territorial politics is firmly blocked by central authorities in Spain. Thus, self-determination is not an “exclusivist” claim of self-determination but a reaction to a faulty democracy unable to discuss its territorial structure.

Had it not been for the failure of democratic procedures in Spain, it argues, Catalans would be happy to stay within the country. Thus, rather that highlighting an inevitable clash between Catalonia and the rest of Spain, this discourse targets an elite that is unwilling to allow any opposition on certain issues.

The fact that the Catalan movement has been supported by both Matteo Salvini and the Hong Kong protesters illustrates these two threads of the Catalan movement. And even though both discourses are intertwined, there are some strains.

The attempt of some analysts to show that Catalonia is on average more progressive than the rest of Spain, as well as the ambivalent relationship between anarchists or other far-left groups and the pro-independence coalition, testify to these tensions. And certainly, outside of Catalonia, the right has put in a great deal of effort to convince the rest of Spain that Catalan nationalism is only about xenophobic politics.

Clearing the path for the right?

The two discourses could be valid and both have been relatively successful in mobilizing support. Yet, each of them has a clear winner. The nationalist discourse, in particular, favors right-wing political parties, both in Catalonia and the rest of Spain.

Agitating ethnic or national divisions within Spain, or explaining the situation as a conflict between Catalans and the rest of Spain, directly favors those political forces that are seen as the traditional guardians of the nation. And in Spain, it is the right that clearly has that role.

Moreover, within Catalonia, an emphasis on ethnicity shifts the focus from political rights and liberties, increases polarization across the ethnic divide and makes class alliances more difficult. This approach favors a grand coalition of the pro-independence right and left but puts the non-independentist left in a difficult position.

Heightened ethnic tensions on either side of the Catalonian border is not good news for anyone who cares about progressive politics.

A recent poll shows that half of Spaniards support the sentence, and around 20 percent go even further and think it was too mild. For anyone who cares about the democratic health of Spain, these are troubling numbers.

The problem is that, once the nationalist discourse dominates the political agenda, the Spanish left does not have enough room to set up a front against these injustices. With right-wing parties agitating nationalist identities, and even the socialists adopting some of their theses, a reminder that the recent events might harm any opposition movement within Spain is quickly forgotten amidst the identity struggles.

Changing the conversation

There is an alternative. Highlighting democratic rights and liberties would emphasize the most progressive aspect of Catalan nationalism, the one that constitutes a struggle against a Spanish political system where some issues are out of the discussion and where an attempt to push for those democratic rights meets a harsh, repressive response by state authorities.

If the emphasis on nationalism is toned down, there should be enough support within Spain to protest against a political system that, four decades after the transition to democracy, still blocks any possibility of reform on key issues, such as the existence of different national identities, the territorial distribution of power, or the monarchy. Events like the Altsasu incident in 2016, when eight young people were imprisoned on charges of terrorism after a bar fight with two off-duty policemen in a Basque-speaking town of Navarra, show that the shortcomings of the Spanish democracy are not only felt in Catalonia.

Of course, this is not about blaming the Catalan movement for the surge of a right-wing form of Spanish nationalism — which prioritizes the defense of the territorial unity of Spain over basic democratic rights — nor for the increase in support for the right and far-right.

However, for any social or political movement, the choice of a particular discourse or frame comes at a cost. It might be seen as unfair by some, but it is the pro-independence left in Catalonia who is in a better position to promote this discursive change, particularly since the social-democratic ERC is now the largest party on that front.

And perhaps more importantly, this would also be in the interest of the independence movement, at least of its leftist sectors. Having seen how far Spanish nationalism is willing to go, unless there is a profound political change among international actors, the independence of Catalonia is more distant now than it was two years ago.

Although it seems that Catalan nationalism is here to stay, the best we can hope for on the left — including those who are against nationalist politics on either side and those who support them — is that the identity divide does not blur class politics and that its clear stance against repression does not get lost in a fight over flags.

Even if some people still frame their support for independence as a struggle for the democratic right to decide their own future, changing the conversation can unblock a situation that, as it stands right now, is of no benefit for anyone on the left. Building bridges between the independence movement and the progressive forces outside of Catalonia could be a key strategic move for the independence movement in order to form a grand coalition against the faults of Spanish democracy.

Going beyond Catalonia or Spain, this analysis is also relevant for other social movements. Choosing a discourse that does not antagonize sectors within the same social class is key to building mass support around crucial goals without losing sight of progressive politics. Furthermore, paying attention to the prevailing discourses could even help global movements, such as environmentalism and feminism, build mass support and become successful Trojan horses for a progressive political agenda.

Francisco Villamil

Francisco Villamil is a sociologist and political scientist. He is a PhD candidate in conflict research at ETH Zurich.

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