Campaign posters for the Catalunya 1-O Referèndum

The Act of Referèndum

Foreign observers are easily confused by the Catalan referendum, the supposed 1st October 2017 (mischievously notated “1-O”) self-determination of the hitherto Spanish region of Catalunya. The British libertarian press, whose readership naturally warms to stories of plucky little Catalans struggling against the oppression of the Spanish Empire, is invariably befuddled by the lack of political plurality in the process. The very observed absence of such plurality, on a topic that routinely divides the population of Catalunya, itself reveals the “Referèndum” as the action solely of the independentist cause, not the holistic process of resolving the actions of all parties, which is what the word referendum usually indicates. The linguistic deception hidden in plain sight remains remarkably enduring propaganda.

The Referèndum script is similarly obvious to those who would see: The Parliament of Catalunya is the elected assembly intended to legislate for the autonomous region of Catalunya, to legislative principles established by its Statute of Autonomy, which derive from the post-Francoist Constitution that embodies Spanish democracy. The Parliament has no power by Statute to legislate on independence from Spain, but that doesn’t physically stop the Parliament from passing laws to establish both the referendum and the template for an independent state. The Spanish Constitutional Court may promptly declare the legislation unconstitutional, but no punishable offense occurs until a law is acted upon. This is a common principle in Spanish law, and to a good degree wider culture (reaction, rather than prediction), but is reduced to farce by an act that frees itself from the authority binding it. The deception at the heart of the Spanish Constitution, its unchallengeablity, challenged. Clever Catalans.

In the meantime a wild goose chase commences, in which the Spanish authorities attempt to stop acts related to the referendum. In practice that results in a lot of incendiary media coverage, as the Guardia Civil (one of the national Spanish police forces) impounds harmless pallets of contraband referendum publicity. The detention of the civil servants responsible just increases the stakes. Such Spanish oppression of human rights, free speech, democracy, autonomy, you name it, is actually in defence of just that – the Constitutional imperative that is protecting those principles on behalf of the entire Spanish population. But because the crime is called Referèndum it looks quite the opposite. Again, the deception hidden in plain sight.

Spanish adherence to Constitution is not dogmatic pedantry. Not merely a convenient mechanism for Spanish government to counter the separatist threat without actively engaging in political discourse. As the collective memory tells it (which is not always the same as what actually happened), all the communities comprising Spain fought (Francoism) to establish democracy, and it is that collective contribution that is now being disrespected by the Catalans. An insult to both modern democracy and the shared notion of equality between communities, a notion found in the 1812 liberal constitution of Cádiz that continually bubbles to the surface without ever properly overcoming absolutism. This is no small reconciliation that you ask.

Assuming the rule of law holds its nerve until polling day, the choice is expressed primarily in attendance, not the position of the cross on the ballot paper: It is a conflicted, certainly brave, possibly stupid, citizen who knowingly performs an unconstitutional act in order to register, in effect, their support for the very constitution they’ve just broken by their act. That’s the kind of moral legal argument that won’t trouble most of the populace of Catalunya, but it serves as a stark explanation of why the Referèndum is for those that wish to vote Sí, and why a genuine referendum could only be organised under the auspices of the Spanish Constitution. Albeit, as explored later in this text, logically impossible to organise as the idea of leaving Spain from within Spain undermines the very idea of Spain. Details, details. Surveys typically suggest a clear majority of those against independence will not vote, yielding a strong vote in favour of independence on a turnout of 50-60%. Turnout isn’t considered by the law (of the Parliament of Catalunya) that creates the independent state two days after a yes vote (Catalan politicians typically cite constitutional changes passed on similarly low turnouts, although that rather understates the magnitude of this change). So, like clockwork, Referèndum will deliver the Brave New Republic of Catalunya in the middle of the first week of October 2017. Historians may later judge this Referèndum to be a coup. A propaganda coup, obviously, because a coup d’état wouldn’t be very democratic.

Cue the musica epica, as the Spanish tanks roll down the Diagonal, and those plucky little Catalans make one glorious last stand against their oppressors… Simultaneously resolving the independentists’ problem with Spaniards – and Barcelona’s problem with turismos. Such legends are more attractive in the telling than the living. If anyone in Catalunya genuinely has the stomach for that, again, they are not obvious in the mainstream of independentists: Those whose demonstrations encompass a family picnic in the park, before standing politely where they are told and gesturing appropriately at the camera when instructed by the director. More plausible to picture a pair of rutting Stags, mammalian heavyweights keen to assert themselves in the herd, yet not so keen as to lose their antlers, and well aware that when the rut ends they’ll have to learn to live with one another. The Familia España may have a few more fraught years of Catalan angst to deal with, but ultimately All’s Well That Ends Well. And no, that doesn’t imply the return of “Catalunya Nord”, as Catalunya’s public television clone, TV3, affectionately refers to (contemporary French) Roussillon.

The Precept of Anarchy

There’s a more intriguing conclusion of the sort that only Catalunya in Spain could make possible: The Referèndum says almost nothing practical about the future state of Catalunya. Its philosophical imperative is apparently the continuation of something very much like Spain, just without the king and country. The creation of a new void to be instantly filled by the rich internal politics of Catalunya, a complex multiplicity of both the traditional duality of left and right, and the natively important duality of the rational and the human, that of the sort most Western democracies suppress because it complicates their decision making to the point of insanity. A Catalan politics that seems capable of dealing with everything except the idea of Spain – an Achilles Heel of a caveat, given its context.

Of course the Catalan state’s declaration of independence has no relevant claim under international law, will be duly left unrecognised by the international community, denying the new state access to international investment or the European Union or anything else that independentists commonly presume as a continuation by right. Why, oh Spanish media, even bother to ask, when no independentist has nor needs any idea of policy on borders or armies or…?

These are the perfectly reasonable concerns of a political system operating on just one axis of duality, as is the case for the Spanish government, as was the case in Britain until the Brexit referendum definitively upset that particular apple cart. But less so in Catalunya, whose politics have previously embraced a wider matrix of dualities, a greater multiplicity, implying less absolute resolution. The independent Catalunya will, from one of two perspectives, remain in Spain, and thus in Europe. And from the other perspective, the exact same Catalans are free in a state of their own. This dual-perspective solution transpires to be surprisingly practical, and not only because (the idea of) Spain was built on the distortion of perspectives: Most decisions internal to Catalunya were already autonomous, while most external were already defined in Europe and merely implemented as Spain. The external must continue to be viewed through the prism of the idea of Spain, akin to a god in nature, and while it may be considered a logical nonsense to claim to have escaped (the idea of) Spain, only to continue seeing the world through its prism, that approach is entirely consistent with the independentist imperative of continuation.

As the name of Catalan independentist movement hints, but – as we now begin to understand it – the movement could never rationally explain, the problem is with Spain: Modern Spanish democracy is too flat a duality to match the scope of the political matrix of Catalunya. The Catalan position becomes much more palatable to wider Spain by acknowledging the humanity of (the liberal constitution of) Cádiz, implying a mature Spanish democracy that embraces its nativity, not just its modern import from the West. But if the electoral impasse of 2016 is any guide, Spanish government can still only countenance a traditional duality of left and right. The last two centuries of Spanish history would seem to imply a cultural need for a corresponding moment of high drama – roll the tanks!

To this way of thinking, the act of Referèndum is a charade – not blatant propaganda, but a genuine test of one’s depth of perception. It does exactly what it says, but like all language, Referèndum needs to be understood in its own culture. Assume it can be communicated in a more universal tongue, broader Castellano, or global English, and one risks inferring nothing but, “Bueno, Pues Molt Bé, Pues Adiós” – Josep Lluís Trapero’s infamous “goodbye” in mangled Català and Castellano.

These perspectives found in Catalunya may be less limited than the current Spanish political perspective, but they are still limited. That raises the spectre of excessive optimism, that the hope of the Referèndum will exceed itself, as the politics of Catalunya is exposed as insufficiently multiplicitous to obtain, let alone exceed, the perfection of Oneness represented by the idea of Spain. This explains why the Referèndum is a binary choice, devoid of the usual internal plurality: Politics in Catalunya is inherently constrained by the very idea of Spain, which leaves no scope for internal debate on the subject of that which constrains it – “Spain” plus any additional relation is logically impossible wholly within Spain.

That the idea of leaving Spain from within Spain is moot, stems from its tortuously robust philosophical construction: Spain apparently succeeds in maintaining that which is external to Spain in an independent, but independently unchallengeable, ideal. If one can’t truly know the external as it actually is because, from within Spain, one necessarily views the external through the prism of the idea of Spain, one cannot easily step outside. The footnote offers additional explanation. To become truly independent would require a genuine philosophical independence. Feasible if Spain had arbitrarily imposed its oppressive alien philosophy upon a fundamentally incompatible Catalan nativity. Far less plausible for a people that (as the Crown of Aragon) were a partner in Early Modern Spain’s conception. Therein lies the unpalatable truth, that the culture of Catalunya is not so incompatible with Spain as to affect an escape from the prism of the idea of Spain.

The notion that the culture of Catalunya is none-the-less definitively different from Spain persists because of the local cultural polarisation of certain concepts, which avoids the need to actively consider those concepts in the political matrix: By allocating them a fixed duality, such concepts can usually be safely ignored, which makes mental space to deal with the more complex matrix of dualities we observe in Catalan politics. This is a common, perhaps universal, technique for managing complex information – different cultures merely polarise different concepts as befits their environment. In Catalunya, language has become one such concept – even though Català and Castellano have a common Latin root, with many similarities in vocabulary and structure.

English routinely conflates language with culture, and can betray a conflicted history when applied geographically, an ambiguous baseline which is perhaps even more than familiar to “Spain” than “Britain”. That the juxtaposition of Català and Castellano has become so pointed, in spite of contextual ambiguity, would seem to mimic the Referèndum. And superficially it does: The superficial analysis that those born to Català-speaking families (common in the predominantly rural inland core of Catalunya) tend to support independence, while those born of Castellano, (especially common in Barcelona, a melting pot for migrants from outside Catalunya) tend to want to remain as Spain. Except bilingualism (of Català and Castellano) is widespread in Catalunya – around 80% of the population are able to read and speak both languages, the younger the most likely to be completely bilingual: The strict polarity implied by the linguistic definition, and the Referèndum, disguises much commonality. Thus what is expressed in polarity is just a function of a binary proposition, while the unbounded expression may be of far more nuanced biases. Bilingualism naturally maps straight back onto the dual-perspective solution, Catalunya both in Spain and not – bilingualism a tangible example of the ease of switching of perspectives. Such a solution weakens those at the very centre of Spain, because it counteracts historic hierarchies of power: Generally the more territorially successful a people, the more broadly their language is spoken, the more diluted the relation between that language and its native culture, the lesser the scope for bilingual-style political structures. Castellano, widely used in the Americas, poses this problem for areas of Spain where Castellano is the most local language available, not least Madrid.

The Perceptual Prognosis

What weakens the centre, strengthens the periphery. Such is the life-blood of Spain. The Catalan Referèndum may be an act of the periphery, but it primarily poses a question of the centre. The idea of Spain remains unchallengeable from within – indeed, it would seem that only foreign intervention can destroy it, which is both unwelcome, and unnecessary, because what starts with Spain stays there. Spain’s Napoleonic-era spirit, its liberal equality, is being tested – but that test is inherently native, and should be regarded as indicative of the ground on which a balance can be found, not ground which itself is prone to collapse. By far the greatest challenge is to modern Spanish democracy, which is the most superficial of these three sovereign notions of Spain.

The Catalans’ causal tomfoolery with the Constitution, the act that frees itself from the authority binding it, betrays the weakness of transposing political structures without due regard for local nuances, exposing philosophical loopholes when implanted on different sets of political traditions. In normal circumstances, Catalan democracy operates on a greater range of dualities than Spanish democracy, the governance of Spain remaining resolutely between left and right. Perhaps that is to be expected, since the Spanish government is the gateway to the external, which for the most part is similarly blinkered. Internal governance is highly devolved to autonomous regional communities, engendering community-centric political structures which do not necessarily mirror the modus operandi of the centre. Spain is not a clockwork hierarchy, as 20th century United Kingdom, where lower geographical tiers of government are mechanically subservient to those above – the implicit presumption in some of the external expectations that the Spanish government will moderate or mediate the Referèndum. While article 155 of the Constitution affords the government powers to “take the measures necessary” to force compliance in extremis, that is the nuclear option, not the norm. Dualistic divisions are already emerging in the Congress of Deputies (the important lower house of the Spanish parliamentary system) over the Spanish response to Catalunya: The left generally favours a more fundamental, more plurinational, constitutional reform than the right, which is inclined to rebalance existing structures, such as autonomous community finance. These political positions will need to crystallize before the minority (right) Spanish government can obtain sufficient consensus to act on anything less than a direct assault on Spanish sovereignity. Evoking article 155 without a clear alternative policy risks a descent into direct rule (of Catalunya from Spain), which would represent a shift in power toward the center, not the periphery as required to ease tensions, and would place further stress on the autonomy embodied in Spanish constitutional democracy.

While it is perfectly reasonable to reach the conclusion that the Catalans are completely out of control, that conclusion is informed by a more limited perspective than that of the Catalans. On the act of Referèndum, specifically, the lack of internal plurality does indicates that even the Catalans have exceeded themselves by addressing the idea of Spain, which they cannot adequately from within. However, the act of Referèndum serves to highlight a more practical, potentially more manageable, difference in perceptions. Historically Western Europe has choosen to blind those that claim to perceive more than those around them: From the Cathar “heresy” to contemporary Dawkinism. And ultimately we should expect the same of the Referèndum. But in the meantime the agent of this imposition is eminently challengeable. A challenge that evokes its own form of moderation, a centre becoming slightly more attuned to that which it claims sovereignty over. That could look ugly to the external defenders of a certain generic brand of democracy that presumes the world optimal only in their image. The greater risk is, as ever, within Spain: The responsibility of the centre to change itself. Spanish history suggests that process is rarely smooth.

The second essay in this sequence that explores the current Catalan independence process, is 1714 and All That. It characterises hope.

Footnote: The Idea of Spain

Some additional explanation of the set paradox that is the idea of Spain. Necessarily incomprehensible from within itself, this philosophical construction of nation is perhaps more familiar than it first appears:

The fluidity of a nation, expressed in Castellano as “ilusión” and Català as “il·lusió” (in both languages – the positive hope for the good, both imaginary and realised), is maintained in an independent, but independently unchallengeable, ideal. The first is easily externalised: France, for example. As in the Bourbon dynastic desire to build Spain in the image of France. The philosophically difficult counter is to ensure this local ideal of France cannot be challenged by a Frenchman. Perhaps it is because ilusión is inherently temporal (aspiration of change in the not-now), that the vector called time is not also able to relate (and hence resolve) the actual basis for the ideal to the ideal of the ilusión, as we have come to expect in more mundane matters of entropy. This is what I will call the Quintradian perspective (named because it implies some abstract fifth notion of relation, beyond singular space-time): The simultaneously different perception of precisely the same thing by different groups, whose mutual perception bounds and binds the group. The Frenchman (to continue the example) who actually knows France can never be in the group that holds France in ilusión, because then they would not actually know France – at best they would hold two presumably somewhat contradictory understandings in their head, loose semblance of true belonging to either group, and thusly know nothing about “France” with certainty. Critically, at no point can they definitely challenge ilusión. Therein is the bedrock of a nation – and the bane of the supra-nationalism implied by globalism, there being no other globe on which to base human ilusión.