This photo-essay summarises the Catalan independence process by reference to seven photographs that trace events from the 11th September rallies to the aftermath of Catalunya’s December 2017 regional elections. This is a more accessible text than the original Patria and Patrimonio sequence, which started with The Act of Referèndum. This photo-essay also serves as a postscript, outlining the events in November, December and January.
2008’s global financial crisis curtailed the economic hopes many Catalans had enjoyed over the previous 30 years of democracy and autonomy. An alternative hope for better – a new “il·lusió” – was rekindled in Catalan Independentism, and El Procés came to take centre stage in Catalunya’s politics. Catalunya’s 11th September National Day had traditionally remembered the fall of Barcelona in 1714, which had ended the War of the Spanish Succession, an event that marked the loss of Catalan autonomy in favour of Bourbon, Castilian, Spain. Under the newly formed pro-independence Assemblea Nacional Catalana, 11th September became overtly political, and between 2013 and 2017 the day hosted mass-participation rallies, with around a million Catalans taking to the streets each year in support of an independent Catalunya.
The photograph is from the 2016 edition, “A Punt”, meaning the point is we’re ready: The previous autumn an Independentist collation had taken political control of the regional government, the Generalitat de Catalunya, and the core of Independentism naturally expected that collation to deliver the promise of independence. Attendees waved circular card points above their heads in the sort of theatrical performance one might expect at the opening of an Olympic Games. Unimaginative by nature, “E.T. phone home” was not the communication of the primitive species it may seem, rather a communication to an external world that by definition the (internal) participants could not themselves understand. These rallies largely mimicked historic independence movements elsewhere, as if recreating the Baltic Way was part of an internationally recognised process of forming an independent state: They were staged for the benefit of the external – God. Unfortunately, if God had cared in 2013, he’d largely lost interest by 2016, as attested by the relatively empty encampment purporting to host the world’s broadcast media.
For a proportion of the participants this surely did feel like attending a Francoist-era Catholic mass, their palpable un-enthusiasm (when out of camera shot) for this supposed act of political passion, revealing of the deep social matrix that brought them to this point. For example, participants pre-registered, even though the rally remained publicly accessible without such registration, with each person assigned a precise section of street on which to stand (illustrated in the photograph by “tram”), the number to be proudly shared with friends on social media. Paramount was to be seen, to say and do what was expected by the clan. That clan a resolutely middle class, typically older Catalan affair, largely devoid of the young radicals or downtrodden minorities that typically energise political rebellion elsewhere. Herein were the frustrations of the Catalan bourgeoisie, embedded in an intrinsically Spanish social model: The deception, the charade, at the heart of Independència – the internal struggle that defines Spain, merely taken to extremis by a people whose ilusión had long since exceeded their society’s internal capacity for hope.
That charade was eventually formalised in a Referèndum on independence, albeit one not recognised by the Spanish Constitution, and thus in practice a choice expressed by attendance at the polling station or not – any attempt to vote “no” a logical hypocrisy. What, by 1st October 2017, had become two deeply polarised positions within Catalunya’s population, cannot easily be conveyed by a single photograph. I previously referenced the graffiti in a lift shared by a hundred people, complaining that the concierge had removed Referèndum publicity. Or the stark juxtaposition of Independentists holed up overnight in their local school-cum-polling station, to the Galician community celebrating the festival of San Froilán. The photograph instead shows that local school-cum-polling station, Institut Sant Andreu, the following morning during polling.
Much media coverage was given to the excessive attempts of the Spanish national police (Guardia Civil and CNP) to close the polls, but actually these forces only closed 92 polling stations, and the vast majority of votes were cast without incident. Thus the photograph is far more typical of polling day: While there was no Spanish police presence here, and certainly no violence, a sense of paranoia pervaded the air. This felt quite unlike the civic administration of regular electoral polling in Barcelona. The gates were locked except to allow small groups of voters in and out, with the people waiting outside clapping those who had successfully cast their vote. Each act of voting may have been individual, but the motivation was collective.
Sant Andreu has enjoyed significant migration from outside Catalunya, a key factor against supporting Independència, and thus voters will have tended to be a minority of the local population. Across Catalunya as a whole, turnout was only about 40%, 90% of which voted in favour of independence. The mandate was clear, ambiguity having long since usurped plurality. However, it would take more than the expected two days for the referendum result to be honoured and independence to be declared. And when the declaration did come, none would be quite sure that it had.
Catalunya is España
History rarely records it – perhaps because it is assumed, or perhaps because it is not readily categorisable – but revolutions are an extremely stressful business. Especially when they drag on for weeks. I doubt anyone in Barcelona slept well in the month of October. A nervous energy pervaded the city, a shared fear, a mass uncertainty. Catalunya’s society may have grown adept at juggling ambiguity, but her ability was not unlimited. For many non-independentists, especially those who had hitherto regarded the Independence movement as an irrelevant sideshow, the stability of a life and home built on the immutability of Spain was suddenly gone. For Independentists, especially those who were being summoned daily by Whatsapp to ad-hoc demonstrations in defense of what they thought they’d voted for, the realisation that Independència had somehow yet to yield Independència grew confusing. Still, the Catalan outcome, if such a word can be said of its ambiguity, was probably most shocking for the rest of Spain. Catalan separatism had traditionally been carefully moderated, far more diplomatic than, for example, the Basque terrorism of ETA – yet here the Catalans were, threatening to unilaterally declare their own state.
Prior to October, mass-participation demonstrations had only occurred in support of Independència – the status quo reasonably presumed without campaign. October saw the largest demonstration in living memory for the unity of Spain. Many marchers were clad in flags – of Spain and (non-republican) Catalunya – so freshly minted that the creases shone through. The photograph shows a small part of the march. Just as the bulk of the Independentists attending the 11th September rallies had been bused in to Barcelona from the country, many of those present for the unity of Spain had travelled from outside Catalunya, especially Madrid and Castilla. The mood was arguably more genuine than 11th September, even if the principle aim of many of those attending was still to recount their presence to friends and family afar. Indeed, the supposed unity of the march was easily strained by its extremes, and not just on the political front line, as exemplified by a pearl-encrusted Castillan bourgeoisie woman’s nervous evasion of what she presumably recognised as right-wing thugs ahead of her in the march. The most anger I observed was in a small splinter group tearing down “Sí” campaign posters. The most surreal, a presumably oblivious local woman who had decided to walk a bow-and-arrow home from the shops.
The chants of “Puigdemont a prisión” would soon bear fruit, although as with every aspect of El Procés, nothing would be quite so straightforward.
November brought welcome respite from the trauma of October. Spain evoked a hitherto unused Article 155 of the Constitution to impose direct rule on Catalunya, pending fresh regional elections. (Ex-)President Carles Puigdemont fled to exile in Europe – geographically to Brussels. Other leading Independence politicians were summoned before court in Madrid and asked to repent their sins. Those prepared to state that there had, in fact, been no declaration of independence were generally bailed pending future trial. Others were remanded in jail near Madrid. Charges ranged from the misuse of public funds to outright rebellion. They joined Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez, the leaders of the two main pro-independence organisations, who had been detained on charges of sedition for their parts in the events leading up to the Referèndum. The Jordis, and those politicians that joined them, were widely regarded by their followers as political prisoners – a term rejected by Amnesty International, who instead emphasised the incarcerations as “excessive”.
In organising committees for the defense of the republic, Independentism had presumably expected Article 155 to herald a violent police crackdown or a physical invasion of Catalan institutions. But the Spanish government had evidently learnt from 1st October, and its direct rule of Catalunya transpired to be all but invisible. The Catalan civil service may have grumbled about “the oppression”, but they continued to accept their pay-cheques from their new, largely unseen, masters in Madrid. The only physical things to protest against were pre-existing symbols of Spanishness, such as the railways. Instead Independentism focused its exhaustion on its “political prisoners” – wearing small yellow ribbons, laying out vacant seats at events, holding candlelit vigils, and burying Soto del Real prison in letters. This combined with the local cultural tradition of creating personal, often private, shrines. One such shrine is illustrated here: Empty seats and tables are laid out, presumably for the prisoners, occupied in the meantime by the spirit of nature, the houseplants. The location is Girona, where Puigdemont had been mayor until 2016. Such Jordism offered a chance for the Independence movement to pause and regroup for the upcoming elections. While El Procés was in tatters, the ilusión of Independència perpetuated because there was no alternative vision of hope on the horizon.
Barcelona had spawned Ciudadanos, a new political party which had come to parallel Podemos, which was the political offspring of the 2011 Indignados movement. Each party offered an alternative to the traditional family-centric social model of Spanish political government: Ciudadanos lent on commerce, Podemos social activism, evoking characterisations of “new right” and “new left” respectively – albeit labels which primarily defined the traditional political structure they were attempting to change. Baptised in the crucible of Catalan Independentism, Ciudadanos’ broad policy position against El Procés (in favour of a post-national tripartite model of Catalunya-Spain-Europe) was already well defined and communicated. In contrast, Podemos’ activism had essentially been disinterested in El Procés, with the party pursuing a broad policy of plurinationalism inspired by Boliva – not the simplistic “sí or no” posed in Catalunya. Podemos, as local coalition “En Comú Podem”, consequently fought the December 2017 Catalan elections on everything except the primary issue – El Procés – and lost votes accordingly. Overall, the Catalan elections did little to change the balance of Independentism to Non within Catalunya, merely reshuffling the votes within each grouping. The prime impact was outside Catalunya: Ciudadanos became increasingly seen as a genuine party of government for Spain, a direct threat to the governing right-wing Partido Popular (Popular Party), while Podemos ended 2017 fractured.
Policies aside, the campaigning styles of Ciudadanos and Podemos differed greatly. When speakers, including Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias and Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, took to the stage in Nou Barris it was to appeal to the hearts of those people gathered in the square before them. And after two hours the crowd had warmed accordingly. None was concerned that the low December sun would leave the podium in the shade while over-contrasting the backdrop, thusly looking quite awkward for the media, because this rally fundamentally wasn’t for the media. A few days later Ciudadanos ended their electoral campaign with a rally in exactly the same spot, albeit with a very different production, stylised in the photograph. Here the crowd served simply as an audience in an open-air television studio – around 400 people, just enough to look “large”. Journalists reporting two thousand attendees were presumably watching on television. Each member of the audience was dutifully issued a Ciudadanos-orange coloured scarf (a parody of the yellow “Jordi” ribbons) and blanket (for warmth), then carefully seated under the lights. Regional and national leaders, Inés Arrimadas and Albert Rivera, jogged through the flag-waving audience in scenes reminiscent of modern United States electioneering. Each spoke for a matter of minutes, just enough to fill a YouTube video, then everyone went home, leaving the riggers that had spent the whole afternoon putting up the staging to take it all down again. Optimised for the contemporary polis, much of which would never physically attend a political rally, Ciudadanos’ campaigning wasn’t even the most virtualised of the election: Carles Puigdemont, under the banner of “Junts per Catalunya” (a corruption of “Junts per Sí”, For the Yes), addressed his rallies on a screen via a video feed from Brussels, while Esquerra Republicana leader Oriol Junqueras spent the whole campaign in a Madrid jail, where he was officially unable to give as much as a telephone interview.
Catalan politicians may have had faces, but their role had become that of tokens, objects representing something within the social order. That they were, none the less people, with their own self-awareness and fragilities, would becoming a defining theme in the period after the election.
Given prior events, the journalists waiting outside the Catalan Parliament for a clear result should have predicted they wouldn’t get one. The Independentist parties polled a slight minority of votes, but as in 2015, secured a slight majority of seats in the Catalan Parliament. The distribution of parliamentary seats had not been adjusted to reflect population changes since 1980, so votes from rural areas often counted for far greater parliamentary representation than votes from urban Barcelona. Consequently Catalunya elected an Independentist government (on skewed representation), yet could not secure a majority for independence in a (true) referendum. And thus the loop perpetuated. This and associated flaws in the Independentist logic have been neatly summarised by Tabarnia, a comic proposal to separate the half of Catalunya that tended to non-Independence (roughly Barcelona and Tarragona) from the electoral “oppression” of the more rural hinterland of Catalunya (deridingly called “Tractorluna”) that has tended to seek Independence for Catalunya from Spain. Tabarnia was not a new concept, but its re-emergence gave much needed Christmas relief.
While Ciudadanos secured the most seats by any one party, the Independentist block held an outright majority, and thus together could be expected to control the parliament and government. However their narrow majority was complicated by several candidates being in jail, or in Brussels, or in jail the moment they returned from Brussels. Further, differing strategies emerged between groups of Independentists:
- The more radical Republicans, notably the CUP, who genuinely wanted and expected independence, in October, were increasingly frustrated by the subsequent inaction.
- The moderates of Esquerra Republicana, who genuinely wanted independence, but after the trauma of 2017 had become more realistic about not being able to achieve it immediately.
- The core of Junts per Catalunya, who expected independence but, as the successors of the formerly non-Independentist “Convergència i Unió”, perhaps didn’t genuinely want it: Their unspoken aim to entertain the hopes of their supporters, because maintaining the promise of the Promised Land was perhaps politically more expedient than actually delivering it.
Puigdemont was proposed as president, but investiture would require him physically in Catalunya, so that investiture was suspended until his freedom (from legal persecution for the events of October) could be guaranteed, which of course it couldn’t without interfering in the judiciary. Since the initial investiture debate would never occur, the clock would never start ticking on the two months allowed to form a new government before triggering fresh elections – and thus the formation of Catalunya’s government, and her associated return to autonomy, might stall indefinitely. Faced with such an impasse, Independentism sought a compromise where Puigdemont would become the remote figurehead of the movement, keeping Junts per Catalunya’s requirement for “hope” alive, while a separate “executive” president and government kept the Catalan parliament functional and working towards the long-term (Esquerra) aim of independence.
Yet to invest Puigdemont as such a demigod would be to further disregard his humanity.
Based on his private messages, Puigdemont’s humanity had already been broken: His body “sacrificed” by the Independentist movement, his only remaining project to repair his personal reputation, to regain some semblence of self. An all too familiar paradox of celebrity – in Satre’s terminology, self and other: The individual so sustained by the hopes of others, that they lose their own identity to those others, and thus lose the very identity that those others require to focus their hopes upon. Albert Camus’ fragment from Le Premier Homme is particularly fitting: “I’m resolved on autonomy, I demand independence in interdependence” – for neither “solitaire” nor “solidaire” can exist in isolation.
For a society that had long since exceeded its internal capacity for hope, it is cruelly apt that it also now exceeds its own politicians. The continuing dominance of the family model, which is inadequate when scaled, engenders a void in the transactional responsibility within the Spanish state. Politicians can only remain virtual so long as they successfully navigate that state. When they fail, Spanish law will hold them individually responsible, even if, as here, they arguably only ever acted as a token of a wider social movement. None the less, such legal process serves to return their humanity, to return them to their own self. Herein a redemption for those imprisoned by the virtualised society. How fortunate Spanish politicians are to inhabit a bouncy castle of a state that will catch them when they fall.
For Catalunya herself, the price of her excesses is surely to be paid is her stasis. Her politics stalled in a never-never land, while other parts of Spain thrive – or at least have the political opportunity to do so. A neverland of hope never quite achieved, until Catalunya’s relative position grows so weak that the wider world once again contains differences to aspire to. To hope for balance is an oxymoron, a denial of human fluidity, and certainly a denial of the few short centuries of over-achievement that have cursed a people to never have it quite as good, to always hope for more than their society can provide internally. A hope that has rendered Spain the most unequal nation in Western Europe, as it relentlessly gorges upon itself, all but discarding a quarter or more of its citizens in the process. That scar runs very deep, but has hitherto been supressed by the social order – something Spain’s new politics will inevitably challenge, albeit at the risk of making Spaniards suddenly feel a lot less equal than they thought they were.
Peel away the veneer of traditional nationalistic separatism, and El Procés has served Catalunya admirably: By emphasising sovereignty, El Procés masked what was little more than a rearrangement of the Spanish social order in favour of the bourgeois. In suspending plurality, it showed just how easy it had become for Catalans not to perceive how the “other half” live. Admirably, because if politics can’t solve a problem – because it is fundamentally paradoxical or inflationary or both – then surely its role is to distract the polis from perceiving that problem. The flaw in El Procés was merely in exceeding itself and actually trying to declare independence.
For more on the topic of the Catalan independence process, read the Patria and Patrimonio sequence of essays. The first essay introduces The Act of Referèndum. The second, on hope, 1714 and All That. The third, Patria and Patrimonio, on state. Absolute Devolution, the fourth essay, on power. The fifth essay, The Moral of Sovereignty, characterises condominium.