Catalonia: Trapped between nationalisms

The problems of Catalonia are talked about too often. What problems of Catalonia? In Catalonia there is no problem; the only problem that could have arisen in Catalonia is posed by us; but the problem that is posed by us is not a problem of Catalonia, it is a universal problem. In Catalonia – there is a need to put it that way – there is no other problem than ours, and I have said this before, that it is not a problem of Catalonia, that it is of Spain and it is universal. In Catalonia there is no Catalan problem, because only the organised bourgeoisie feels that problem there, which is under the auspices of the Regionalist League. (…) The Regionalist League has sought, and has partly succeeded, to make all of Spain understand that in Catalonia there is no other problem than their: the regionalist. This is a falsehood; in Catalonia there is no other problem than that which exists among all the free peoples of the world, throughout Europe; a problem of administrative decentralisation that all the liberal men of the world accept; but a problem of national independence, a problem of autonomy that is tied to independence, that does not exist in Catalonia, because the workers there do not want it, we do not feel that problem, we do not solve the problem under those conditions.

Salvador Seguí, (from a speech given at the Casa del Pueblo of Madrid, the 4th of October, 1919)

On October 14th, nine catalan independence “leaders” were found guilty of sedition for the organisation of the 2017 independence referendum in October and the subsequent declaration of independence, voted exclusively by pro-independence catalan MPs on the 27th of October.

The response has been a week of massive protests (centred in Barcelona, but also occurring throughout the region and in other parts of the country), disruptions of transportation, a general strike this last Friday and daily confrontations with the police (with hundreds injured and dozens arrested).

While both the spanish and the catalan regional governments, and their respective parliaments, are divided and paralysed over what to do next, anarchists find themselves again in the uncomfortable position of siding with neither, while opposing and fighting against state violence, and defending more radical forms of autonomy, beyond “national sovereignty”.

And yet they have engaged in the protests, for what is at stake in this judicial decision is not only a “crime” by nationalist politicians (where “sedition” is so defined in the judgement that any opposition to the law may be deemed seditious), but that whenever struggle against repression emerges, the possibility of pushing against the supposed limits of any uprising is ever present.

While sympathies understandably lie with the street protests, one should nevertheless avoid any illusions about a future catalan government lead by the likes of Quim Torra (current president of the regional government), or in the past, by Artur Mas and Charles Puigdemont who both defended and defend aggressive neo-liberal politics and were quick to use the police against all public demonstrations of dissidence. On this occasion, in an effort to separate the “good, peaceful” protesters from the “bad, violent” protesters, local state authorities contended that foreign anarchist elements had infiltrated the protests against the legal judgment and independence demonstrations, to cause chaos. (Público 18/10/2019).

We share below three texts, the first a piece from Roarmag magazine, the second a chronicle-analysis of events, from the CrimethInc. Collective and lastly, a statement from the CNT-Catalunya. Past reflections on the catalan independence movement may be found here.

Tsunami of dissent floods streets of Catalonia

Bue Rübner Hansen (Roarmag 19/10/2019)

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, it’s 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 it’s 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 Catalan’s 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. Also they have more votes to lose than 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 disturbances. If disturbances cannot be a source of institutional change, Marchiavelli 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 app Tsunami Democràtic.

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 tear gassed for 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.

But as long as national independence is the end-all and be-all of the movement, it is hard to see a way out of the perverse symbiosis of Spanish and Catalan nationalism.

Catalunya: A Week of Escalation

Could the Riots Open a Horizon Beyond National Sovereignty?

CrimethInc. (18/10/2019)

Starting Monday, in response to draconian sentences imposed on politicians who promote Catalan independence, tens of thousands of people across Catalunya have engaged in sustained rioting and disruption. Although the majority of the movement remains pacifistic, a few thousand participants have rejected the leadership of political parties and organizations, opting for open confrontation with police. The various mobilizations are still taking place in confluence, however, making it very difficult for the police to control. Protesters have reportedly used caltrops, Molotov cocktails, and paint balloons to disable police riot vans, while keeping individual officers at a distance with lasers and slingshots and driving away helicopters with fireworks. In the following report, we review the events of the past week and explore what is at stake in this struggle.

As anarchists, we have a more robust conception of self-determination than mere national sovereignty. All governments are based on the asymmetry of power between ruler and ruled; nationalism is just one of several means by which rulers seek to turn us against each other so we don’t unite against them. We consider it instructive that the Catalan police have worked closely with Spanish national police throughout the last several years of repression; even if Catalunya gains independence, we are certain that independent Catalan police and courts will continue to repress those who fight against capitalism and seek true self-determination. At the same time, there is a longstanding tradition of anarchist and anti-state activity in Catalunya, and we are inspired to see some of this coming to the fore in resistance to the violence of the Spanish state. It is possible that the latest escalation of conflict in the streets of Catalunya will be a step towards the radicalization of the entire movement and the delegitimizing of state solutions.

Let’s look closer to see.

Monday, October 14

In retribution for the 2017 referendum and subsequent declaration of independence, Spain’s Supreme Court sentenced former Catalan vice president Oriol Junqueras to 13 years in prison; former ministers Jordi Turull, Raül Romeva, Dolors Bassa, Joaquim Forn, and Josep Rull were sentenced to between 10 and 12 years apiece. Former parliament speaker, Carme Forcadell, received 11 and a half years for sedition. Activists Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart were sentenced to 9 years each, also for sedition.

Several independence groups called for demonstrations and blockaded major roads in Barcelona. Early Monday afternoon, the Tsunami Democràtic group called for demonstrators to blockade the Barcelona airport. There were also blockades on train lines and many highways.

Showing the integrated functioning of all the different subsections of the state, the Catalan and Spanish police—the Mossos d’Esquadra and Policia Nacional—worked together to repress the demonstrators. They brutally attacked a large number of people. Still, as in 2017, the vast majority of demonstrators remained “nonviolent” in response. Some young people start to throw trash and light objects at police.

Tuesday, October 15

On Tuesday, the blockades organized by “Tsunami Democràtic” continued on a largely “nonviolent” basis, slowing and in some cases paralyzing rail, car, and air transit. More protests broke out that night. Goaded by police violence, people began to fight back, throwing heavier objects and setting fires in the streets.

The Assemblea Nacional Catalana (“Catalan National Assembly,” ANC) and various political parties had convened columns to march from across Catalunya starting Wednesday, taking the highways and thus blocking them, in order to arrive in Barcelona on Friday for a general strike and protest. The plan was for this action to be totally pacifist. This was basically a repetition of their 2017 strategy, in which they organized demonstrations on October 3, two days after the massive police beatings that occurred during the referendum on October 1, waiting an extra day before holding the protest in response to government repression so that people wouldn’t be reacting immediately to the violence without a chance to calm down.

Yet they also gave their approval to Tsunami Democràtic, which had planned all along to organize flash-mob-style protests immediately following the verdict. These protests, too, were intended to be completely nonviolent, but to take a more effective approach—targeting infrastructure rather than merely symbolic points. Either the organizers underestimated how many people would show up and stay into the night, or they overestimated their ability to impose pacifism after the 2017 experience.

Starting Tuesday night, events were clearly out of their hands. In Catalunya, the extent to which people employ combative and destructive tactics is generally a useful indicator of the autonomy of a particular demonstration, even though in and of itself utilizing more confrontational tactics doesn’t necessary imply a radical agenda. The parties have always insisted that everything must be peaceful, just as they have watered down the meaning of “independence,” using nationalistic discourse to and suppressing the anti-capitalist objectives that used to characterize the movement.

It’s not easy to summarize the political ideas of people fighting in the streets on the basis of their conduct, but it seems that the pacifists remain under the ideological dominance of the parties and “civil society” organizations like ANC and Omnium, whereas those putting up barricades appear to be open to a much wider vision of what the enemy is and the objectives of the actions could be. The former tend to be middle-class (or aspiring middle-class) and exclusively Catalan speakers; the latter group is much more diverse, including Spanish speakers (though still mostly Catalan speakers), immigrants, and others. When the more confrontational demonstrators express themselves, they tend to express opposition to the police, “the fascist Spanish state,” and to mention more economic issues.

We should always challenge the assumption that a movement is about one thing. A movement is only about one thing where there is an effective leadership controlling it. Left to themselves, people don’t tend to reduce their concerns to single issues. Reality is intersectional.

Hats off to the anarchists and other anti-authoritarian activists who have spent the last two years spreading non-statist, non-nationalist perspectives and analysis relating to this issue and creating the autonomous, horizontal spaces that have cropped up in this movement since 2017, outside the dominance of the political parties and the Marxist-Lenininsts who dominated the indepe movement before 2013. The emergence of this autonomous space is the key difference that distinguishes what is happening today from what happened in 2017—and we’re seeing its fruits in what is taking place in the streets.

Another major factor in the way that people in Catalunya have behaved ungovernably this week is that the Spanish state was stupid enough to imprison the pacifist politicians and CC activists who had effectively pacified the movement in 2017. The ones who had already effectively killed this movement, it seemed, until now.

Never underestimate states. Also, never underestimate statist stupidity.

Wednesday, October 16

On Wednesday, high school and university students declared a strike, which continued through Friday. ANC marches and highway blockades set out from many major cities. In the evening, people engaged in very serious rioting in Barcelona; substantial rioting took place in all three other provincial capitals, not to mention smaller cities like Manresa. Many of the clashes occurred outside the Delegations of the (Spanish) government or Guardia Civil barracks. There had already been significant rioting in Lleida and Tarragona on Tuesday night.

Catalan president Quim Torra and ex-president Carles Puigdemont declared that the rioters were “infiltrators,” but only the immediate followers of those politicians were stupid enough to believe this. The usual absurd conspiracy theories spread across social networks about masked protesters getting paid in envelopes of cash.

In Madrid, a fairly large anti-fascist, pro-Catalan demonstration took place at the same time as a fascist march against independence. The two demonstrations clashed and police separated them.

Thursday, October 17

ANC marches continued. Rioting took place again that night in Barcelona and other three provincial capitals. Fascists marched in favor of Spanish unity in Barcelona, attacking some protesters in favor of independence.

Friday, October 18

Today, the general strike is taking place in Catalunya. A Spanish judge has ordered that webpages linked to Tsunami Democratíc must be shut down—something similar to China forcing Apple to shut down an app used by demonstrators in Hong Kong.

The conservative People’s Party (PP) is calling for the application of the National Security Law—essentially, martial law. Meanwhile, it appears that a new political consensus may be forming. For a couple years Spain hasn’t been able to form an effective majority government; elections took place earlier in the year, but will have to take place again in November, because disagreements prevented the Socialists from forming a coalition government with Podemos. The fighting in Catalunya is driving a wedge between Podemos (which takes a soft approach based in dialogue, potentially open to a “legitimate” referendum) and Socialists (who take a hard approach rejecting any possibility of dialogue or self-determination). This creates the possibility of a coalition government involving the Socialists and the PP—assuming the PP, Citizens, and Vox parties don’t get enough votes to comprise the majority on their own, which they very well might not, as Spain remains majority left.

The riot cops are exhausted, probably only running on cocaine at this point. There are videos circulating of riot vans carousing down the streets with the cops using their sound cannons to shout “Som gent de pau.” This means “we are people of peace”—it is the slogan of the independence parties, but the cops mean it in a mocking, provocative tone. There are cases of the Mossos discipline breaking, of individual officers being isolated and beaten up, which never happened during the strikes of 2010 to 2012 or even the week of the eviction of the anarchist social center Can Vies. Several times, police were forced to retreat by combatants hurling rocks and even some Molotov cocktails. Even at the high point of the resistance defending Can Vies, it was rare to see police retreat; they just had to work really hard to advance, at which point rioters simply went elsewhere.

A mainstream newspaper reported today that fully half of the police riot vans have been decommissioned by damages, primarily to tires. It’s unclear how quickly they can repair them. If they lose their vans, they will be powerless; there are too many people in the street, using too much force. The state would have to send in the Guardia Civil or the military proper to maintain what they call “order.”

The real question is what will happen tomorrow, on Saturday. Today could serve as a catharsis, ending the unrest; it could be effectively repressed, if police bring in new resources and tactics; or it could be the day that the state recognizes that it has lost control and has to esclate repression. During the riots defending Can Vies, it was after the fourth day that the state recognized it had lost; on the fifth day, everyone was exhausted so the march was just a victory lap. But now, with perhaps double the number of police but several times as many participants, spread throughout Catalunya, the movement won’t tire as quickly. Though the pacifists condemn the rioting, they’re still marching and blocking highways, thereby adding to the difficulty for the state.

The Backstory, the Future

The Iberian peninsula has seen conflict between monarchists, capitalists, fascists, and proponents of state democracy, on one side, and anarchists and other proponents of liberation since long before the Spanish Civil War. It’s important to remember that the independence movement only took center stage in Catalunya after countrywide anti-capitalist struggle reached an impasse, undermined by many participants’ erroneous belief that democracy—direct or otherwise—could bring about the changes they desired.

In 2011, the 15M movement, a forerunner of Occupy, broke out in Spain, occupying plazas and clashing with police. That was just one chapter in a phase of struggle arguably peaked on March 29, 2012 with massive riots during a nationwide general strike. All around the world, this was a high point of grassroots struggle against the inequalities of capitalism and the violence of the state.

Yet rather than continuing to invest energy in grassroots direct action as a means of enacting change, many who had promoted direct democracy in the plaza occupations shifted to trying to rehabilitate state democracy via new parties like Podemos. Ultimately, as we chronicled here, the results were disappointing, serving to pacify the social movements without achieving their original goals.

In the ensuing vacuum, the independentista movement gained momentum, proposing a referendum as a way to make Catalunya independent—promising a state solution to the problems that had originally inspired people to mobilize against capitalism and government oppression. When Spain cracked down violently on the referendum, this left anarchists in an awkward position, wanting to oppose police violence but not to endorse national independence as the solution to the problems engendered by capitalism and the state. Of course, it wasn’t just Spanish police participating in the crackdown—it was also Catalan police. All the institutions that would supposedly serve the people after independence were already being used against them, as they surely will continue to be if Catalunya does at some point become an independent state.

All this shows the problems with nationalism and democracy. We support people in Catalunya defending themselves from police, courts, and other institutions of power; this is why the events of this week have been inspiring. But ultimately self-determination means abolishing these institutions, not reforming or reinventing them. The question remains whether the current struggle in Catalunya will radicalize more of the participants towards anarchist solutions or simply towards more violent means of pursuing national sovereignty. But those at the forefront of events will surely have disproportionate influence on the answer to that question.

CNT statement regarding the current situation in Catalonia

CNT – catalano-balear (14/10/2019)

In Catalonia we have a problem and you don’t have to be well prepared to reach this conclusion. We will not enter here upon an analysis of the causes nor will we take a political position on either side; in our organisation, we have different points of view regarding the claim of the catalan people to exercise their right to self-determination.

But if there is something that defines the trajectory of the CNT, both at the national and Catalan level, it is our rejection of repression.

The Spanish State has demonstrated once again that no matter how much the word “democracy” comes out of its mouth, it is anything but a democracy. After inadmissible leaks of the sentence to various media, evidencing the falsity of the separation of powers, today it finally came, a sentence which, beyond the affinities or adversities that can be had with the Catalan political class and particularly with the convicted persons, it affects us as an organisation that is committed to direct action and social mobilization in the street.

As the sentence is written, any public action, no matter how violent it may be, can be classified as a crime of sedition: a picket, a sit-in, a stoppage of an eviction … This is a frontal attack on our fundamental rights and we must not be naive: sooner or later it will be used against us. That is why we show our rejection of this sentence and join the clamor of a large part of Catalan society against it.

We have seen judicial barbarities of late, such as the condemnation of the youth of Altsasua and we have all expressed solidarity because we understand that it is an attack on the fundamental rights of people. We have also experienced the accusations of terrorism in the “Piñata” and “Pandora” operations against comrades who have been inarcerated and held incommunicado … We lived the “Scala” case and are tired of seeing how the State uses all the tools it has available to annihilate any initiative antagonistic to its power.

We are people, we are neighbors, we have the right to decide our future and our lives. It is not a matter of flags or homelands; it is a matter of individual and collective rights. Not to sympathise with our neighbors who are suffering from the anti-terrorism law today is petty and not libertarian, not to condemn disproportionate sentences is to stand next to the oppressors. We know that our action is in the street demanding justice and making our voice felt, offering our experience and learning from the people who accompany us, sharing and making us people. Promoting the creation of a seed of resistance and dignity. The streets have to be ours.

For all the people who have suffered and will suffer repression in our home and around the world, we must know how to be worthy as an anti-authoritarian and working-class organisation. That is why we are always in favor of people repressed by the state. Because the State, whatever it is, is our enemy.

We know where our place is: in the streets, in the jobs, in the universities. For the defence of our rights.

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1 Response to Catalonia: Trapped between nationalisms

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