Public Competition in Post-Independència Catalunya

Camp del Ferro

This essay examines how the art of public competition functions when one of its most important competitors is absent. The suspension of policy-making within the Generalitat de Catalunya, following the region’s failed bid for independence, provided an almost unique opportunity to observe the strategic processes and limitations of the art of public competition. The optimistic finances of metro line 9/10 set the context, followed by analysis of the reactions of the city and metropolitan area of Barcelona to the Generalitat’s hiatus. That analysis exposes vast differences in the funding models of higher and lower tiers of Spanish government, which can be traced to the availability of externally-financed debt.

“Public Competition in Post-Independència Catalunya” is the third in a sequence of four essays titled, “The Art of Public Competition“, which together explore the competitive model underlying Spanish public transport. An anthropological analysis of the tension between this internal model and that of globalised economics, reveals the distortion of external finance on the internal workings of the art of public competition. The first essay in the sequence establishes the policy context for the liberalisation of public transport in Spain. The second explores the workings of the art of public competition using the example of interurban buses around Barcelona. The final essay ponders the strategic interplay of risk, debt and optimism, using the example of Spain’s high speed railway network.

Beyond Line 9/10

Like many of Spain’s regional Autonomous Community governments, the Generalitat de Catalunya’s initial reaction to the 2008 financial crisis was to maintain many prior expenditure commitments by borrowing, with debts rapidly rising from a baseline of around 8% GDP to around 35% of GDP by 2014. Roughly half this borrowing now occurs through the nation of Spain, using a mechanism called the “Fons de Liquiditat Autonòmic” (Autonomous Liquidity Fund, FLA) which allows regional government to borrow on broadly similar terms as the parent country, and thus benefit from Eurozone rates, which in this period were close to 0%. FLA funds come at the cost of fiscal autonomy, since the autonomous community’s plans for debt reduction must be approved by the Spanish government. The other half of the debt is sourced directly, commonly from commercial banks, which in Spain have traditionally had a strong civic investment function. The biggest single debt within the Generalitat’s total is that of Ifercat, the Catalan agency tasked with new public transport infrastructure: 4 billion euros of debt, roughly 5% of the Generalitat total. Half Ifercat’s debt is owned by the European Investment Bank, a non-commercial EU institution.

Aside from a 45 million euro project to rejuvenate the Lleida-Pobla de Segur railway, a line historically notable as the epitome of politicised infrastructure, Ifercat’s only practical project was Barcelona’s Line 9/10 metro route. Over-ambitious from the outset, both technically and financially, the “longest metro line in Europe” followed an all too familiar pattern of costs spiralling out of control in an environment of inadequate risk management. Ifercat pursued increasingly desperate funding mechanisms to keep their project alive in the face of the worst global financial crisis in a generation. Instead of using the private sector to mitigate construction risk, or using the private sector to deliver the desired transport system as a single build-and-operate concession, Ifercat sought short term liquidity simply to keep construction underway. And ultimately the money still ran out, leaving an incompete tunnel right in the middle of the route – a tunnel which is still inhabited by a pair of Tuneladores (TBMs) that haven’t moved since 2011. Such an incremental approach to funding inevitably led to poorly structured debt, notably creating many “hidden” liabilities, above and beyond the headline of 4 billion euros.

In 2014 Independents de Qui attributed Ifercat with another 1.8 billion euros of future guarantees to public companies, but that value transpires to be a fraction of the total additional liabilities: Between 2008 and 2010 batches of Line 9/10 metro stations were sold as 30-year concessions, typically to consortia of those companies building the stations, with the money raised by the sale ostensibly used to keep paying the builders to build those stations. The concessionaires levy an annual charge for providing and maintaining their stations – totalling around 250 million euros annually, an anticipated 7.6 billion euros in total. That figure seems infeasibly high, equivalent to the fare revenue of the entire Barcelona metro system. For context, in 2016 (including the first 10 months of passenger service to the airport) Line 9/10 conveyed just 4% of all metro passengers. The exceptional cost of these concessions is partly explained by concessionaires funding their initial purchases through commercial banking – the rates of such loans were inevitably less favourable than the Generalitat might have achieved itself, had it been able to raise the money through the FLA. This difference was accentuated by the political vacuum in the wake of the Catalan independence process: FLA finance reflected the overall stability of Spain, while the commercial loans of the concessionaires reflected the future ability of the Generalitat to pay the concession fees: Not only was the Generalitat less politically stable (and thus more risky) than Spain overall, but its Line 9/10 concessionary payments were somewhat less integral to the institution of the Generalitat, hence more risky, than Spanish bonds to the nation of Spain. Concessionaires consequently found themselves unable to refinance their debts, adding to the overall precariousness of the Line 9/10 finances.

Operator “Ferrocarril Metropolità de Barcelona”, Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona’s (TMB) metro, also carries a significant burden – in so far as it clearly identifies in its accounts, 75 million euros annually for leasing trains and a further 53 million in Line 9/10 “fees”. The lease presumably includes all the 9000 Series trains built for Line 9/10, in spite of only 28 out of 55 trains currently operating there, so presumably only half of the lease cost should be apportioned to Line 9/10, giving a total of 90 million euros annually. As documented in Interurban Buses in Public Competition, TMB‘s budget is managed through ATM, which is funded from roughly equal parts fares revenue and government support, with about half of that government support coming from the Generalitat. Such accountancy primary serves to shift the Generalitat’s past capital budgetary excesses into the current revenue stream, and in the process makes TMB’s metro look far more dependant on government support than it would be if it hadn’t been saddled with Line 9/10. That arrangement surely serves wider political agendas, but as we shall highlight later, TMB metro’s dependency on the Generalitat is broader than just Line 9/10.

Belatedly Ifercat (as the Generalitat de Catalunya) has been reduced to barter, trading land with the Ajuntament de Barcelona (the city government) to raise the money to complete a handful of stations on the Zona Franca branch. Line 9/10 was the final grand project of Jordi Pujol, who dominated Catalan politics through the “Olympic” Golden Age of the 1980s and 90s. However, post-Crisis, the Pujol agenda of grandiose (“pharaonic”) Catalan ambition evolved into a quite different hope of Catalan Independence, and for Pujol’s successors Line 9/10 became a slightly unnerving ghost from the past – albeit one still pending the traditional Spanish political exorcism called the corruption trial. The post-Referendum political hiatus in the Parlament de Catalunya stalled even the fig leaf of a new bid to the European Investment Bank for another 750 million euros to complete the central section of the line. However judging by his subsequent media appearances the holder of that fig leaf, Ricard Font, who is a common thread between many government transport interests within Catalunya, was not idle following the Generalitat’s fall from grace in November 2017. And he was not alone.

Herein lay the shifting sands of post-Independència Catalunya, an administrative void hitherto controlled regionally by the Generalitat, suddenly contestable, perhaps for the first time since the 1970s. While it is convenient to categorise the exercise of power through discrete organs of state, it is common for leading individuals to serve in many organisations. Indeed it is common for such individuals to shift between political, administrative and academic functions throughout their careers, in a way that, for example, the British civil service would not tolerate. It is therefore more instructive to understand the role of these individuals as an extension of Catalan society. Catalunya’s administrative institutions strongly reflect Catalan society, not least because they require their staff to be able to communicate in Catalá – which is not widely spoken outside Catalunya, so (for better or worse) affords substantial protection. At its higher echelons, Catalan society is virtual – where being seen to, to be in control of, these are the rewards – a monetary salary is almost incidental. The longer the Generalitat remained paralysed, the less important its civil service positions became within Catalan society, regardless of whether wages continued to be paid. And thus perhaps without even analysing their motivation, senior individuals within the Generalitat logically sought somewhat similar roles through other institutions. Given the pre-existing tendencies to switch and accumulate roles, their search was perfectly intuitive. That starts to explain why this sequences of essays is subtitled the art of public competition: For what at first looks like a power battle between institutions is far more subtle, far more human – and that in turn makes it harder to analyse and understand from an external perspective, especially an objective one.

Continue reading “Public Competition in Post-Independència Catalunya”

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Interurban Buses in Public Competition

Exprés.cat

This essay explores the workings of the art of public competition, in search of the reasons for its conflict with liberalisation. It details the interurban bus “market” serving Barcelona’s hinterland, with reference to passenger usage, historical policy, administrative structure, and comparative costs. Analysis suggests a dualistic form of counter-balancing competition on key routes, regulated by the need to maintain equality between operators – albeit an equality bounded by the operators’ focus, which often masks an inequitable distribution of public funding within public transport overall. A pattern conflated by the tendency to emphasise only short run operating costs, and sometimes rely, almost blindly, on higher tiers of the state for fixed assets.

“Interurban Buses in Public Competition” is the second in a sequence of four essays titled, “The Art of Public Competition“, which together explore the competitive model underlying Spanish public transport. An anthropological analysis of the tension between this internal model and that of globalised economics, reveals the distortion of external finance on the internal workings of the art of public competition. The first essay in the sequence establishes the policy context for the liberalisation of public transport in Spain. The third examines how the art of public competition functions when one of its most important competitors is absent, using the case of post-Independència Catalunya. The final essay ponders the strategic interplay of risk, debt and optimism, using the example of Spain’s high speed railway network.

Exprés.cat

Given its thwarted railway ambition, it would be logical for the Generalitat de Catalunya (the regional government) to become more focused on (scheduled, public) interurban buses – which when combined with autopistas (motorways) can be competitive against railway journey times. The reality is not so simple. The Exprés.cat network was initiated in 2012 as a (peak-only) commuter service intended to make use of a new High Occupancy Vehicle lane on the C-58 autopista, a busy road that links the north side of Barcelona to Sabadell and Terrassa – territory already well served by both Renfe and FGC. Thereafter (Barcelona area routes e5 and later from 2013) Exprés.cat became largely a rebranding exercise (of marketing and vehicles) for pre-existing moderate-to-high frequency interurban bus services, albeit with some marginal improvements to frequencies or hours of operation. So while the Exprés.cat network does include key Renfe Rodalies destinations such as Vic, Mataró and Vilanova i la Geltrú, and covers the Mataró-Granollers-Sabadell corridor where the Generalitat had once hoped to build as a transversal railway, it also serves Igualada, an FGC terminus.

Expres.cat patronage data for 2017 can be be roughly compared to (the most recent) 2016 railway station usage data. FGC categorise journeys by station of origin, while Renfe provide separate totals for boarders and alighters. Renfe data for Rodalies line 3 exhibits significant differences between boarders and alighters – for example, twice as many passengers alight at Vic than board, while further up the line at Puigcerdà, ten times more people get on than off – skews not explained by underlying geography. To mitigate this error, Rodalies boarders and alighters have been summed and halved for purposes of comparison. While the nature of the Expres.cat network means almost all journeys counted will be to or from Barcelona, railway station data includes journeys involving intermediate stations. 34% of all Rodalies boardings (and 34% of all alightings) occur at Barcelona’s central stations, with a broadly similar proportion – a third – recorded by FGC. Assuming journeys between Barcelona’s central stations are negligible (such journeys will tend to use metro or bus), a third of all journeys board in Barcelona and a third alight in Barcelona, leaving a third that do not involve Barcelona at all. Ergo at any non-Barcelona station, half the journeys can be assumed to involve Barcelona. Assuming each of those boardings returns to its origin as a second journey, the total number of journeys between any non-Barcelona station and Barcelona is (conveniently) equal to the total number of boardings at the non-Barcelona station. While inevitably flawed in the detail, these assumptions allow rough comparisons of public transport mode share.

The table below compares Exprés.cat with the train on routes where both compete directly. Together these routes conveyed 6.3 million Exprés journeys in 2017, representing just under half of the Barcelona Exprés network’s ridership. The remainder of the Exprés routes do not match railway services sufficiently closely to warrant comparison (or in the case of Mollet del Vallès only started operation during 2017 and lack representative patronage data).

Annual Passenger Journeys (000s) by Exprés.cat and Train to/from Barcelona
Town Route Exprés FGC Renfe % Exprés Note
Sabadell e1 172 2190 3666 3 Exprés service is peak only.
Terrassa e2 89 3427 2705 1 Exprés service is peak only.
Universitat Autònoma via Cerdanyola del Vallès e3 839 1646 2820 16 FGC only serves Universitat Autònoma.
Igualada e5 872 191 82 Exprés patronage includes other services on the same corridor (see below).
Vilafranca e6 268 878 23
Mataró e11 1596 2378 40
Vic e12 541 736 42
Sant Pere de Ribes, Vilanova i la Geltrú and Sitges e14-6 1950 4391 31 Sant Pere de Ribes is not served by rail.

Igualada patronage includes other services on the same corridor, totalling over a hundred weekday departures in each direction, only about a quarter of which are Exprés services. However even a quarter of the quoted patronage would give Exprés a greater market share than FGC. This skew in favour of the bus is rational:

  • The railway station is on the east side of Igualada, not well sited for much of the town, in contrast to Exprés, which serves both east and west.
  • The Exprés travels to Barcelona in 70 minutes, while FGC takes at least 84 minutes, with broadly comparable frequencies.
  • Fares are identical for both modes (within the ATM system).

Vilafranca’s Exprés service is provided by the same operator, Monbus La Hispano Igualadina. It also has a small journey time advantage over rail, with broadly comparable frequencies in the peaks, but obtains a far lower market share – just 23%. The most obvious difference from Igualada is the location of the terminals – both rail and bus serve the centre of Vilafranca equally well. Indeed, the railway has generally better access to the centre of Barcelona, which for many journeys will offset the extra time spent travelling by train. On both these routes mode choice can primarily be explained by the transport economic logic of time minimisation, where the service associated with the lowest total (door-to-door) journey time tends to obtain the greatest market share.

The competition on the Mataró route is extremely mature – the railway is the oldest in mainland Spain, and the bus has been competing along the autopista since 1970. Journey time, frequency, terminal access and fare are close to identical for both bus and train – a pattern established by the Moventis group after buying Casas in 1996. The Rodalies secures the greater 60% of the market. A similar market share is achieved on the route to Vic, where the railway’s limited (single-track) infrastructure could make it vulnerable to high frequency bus-based competition – but in practice bus and train offer similar frequencies (with similar journey times) during the peak. Vic’s population is a third of Mataró, so neither the bus operator Sagalés, nor the rail operator Renfe, can expect to sustain Mataró-level frequencies from a much smaller base market. Short-run competition might lead one operator to attempt market domination by temporary over-supply of service (a form of competition seen in the early years of British bus deregulation), but with operations guaranteed in the short run (by a public mandate, such as a concession), competition can only occur in the long run. Where key competitive factors (fare, time, terminals) are similar for both competitors, a long run equilibrium emerges where each competitor offers a similar service and achieves a similar market share. Based on the Mataró and Vic routes, that equilibrium is currently slightly skewed towards Renfe, possibly by an intangible or irrational factor (such a social status bias towards rail travel). The equilibrium remains dynamic – for example an improvement by one operator, such as in vehicle quality, must be broadly matched by the other – and thereby competition serves to keep each operator “honest”, to keep their product offer current. As this sequence of essays progresses, it will become clearer that the “product” in this competition is more than just its transport utility, and that in turn makes this model of competition much more political and strategic than this initial economic introduction implies.

The Sabadell and Terrassa routes suggest that Exprés services that are unable to match the offer of the railways, risk achieving no tangible share of the market: Here journey times are similar (30 minutes from Sabadell, 45 from Terrassa), rail frequencies are better (typically every 10 minutes on both of two different railway lines, compared to 20 minute Exprés headways), and the railway has better access to the centre of Barcelona. On a rough calculation, vehicle occupancy on the Terrassa service averages just 7 passengers. Sabadell twice that, but still an underwhelming performance from one of the most highly trafficked interurban corridors in Spain. Cynically, these two routes serve only to justify the existence of the high occupancy vehicle lane they use. Neither route reflects well on its operator, Moventis Sarbus, which is apparently unwilling or unable to compete effectively. But since price and time are impossible to differentiate, they might reasonably retort – how? Well based on observations from other Exprés routes, match the railways by doubling or quadrupling the Exprés services’ frequency, and perhaps improve access to the centre of Barcelona. In theory both Sabadell and Terrassa have sufficient population (roughly 200,000 each, compared to Mataró’s 125,000) to sustain such high frequencies. Thus the question to ask is not how, but, why haven’t they?

In both Sabadell and Terrassa the competition between public transport operators has historically been between the two railways, FGC and Renfe’s Rodalies, as reflected in the patronage data presented above. Sabadell and Barcelona were historically also connected by bus, but only by a route intended to serve intermediate places – the A1’s one hour journey time and half-hourly frequency logically dissuades through passengers. FGC’s Sabadell service is less direct than Renfe’s, although the Generalitat has attempted to mitigate that by the 2016/17 extension of the FGC line within Sabadell, the results of which are not indicated in the (2016) patronage data. Thus to Sabadell and Terrassa, the competitive model outlined above functions as a railway duopoly. A third competitor, in the shape of a competitive Exprés service, adds nothing that the competitive model does not already achieve from its existing duopoly. That’s quite a statement to make, because a bus operator, whose buses typically have lower (full life) costs than trains, and whose infrastructure costs are distributed across many more users (especially private motorists), could compete here on journey time – and thus given a commercial market could challenge the (relative, monetary) inefficiencies of incumbant railway operators. But this market isn’t commercial: All this public transport is at the bequest of, and in substantial part paid for by, the public sector.

The Sabadell and Terrassa Exprés services are anomalies that logically will never be supported sufficiently to attain their (commercial) potential. That these routes were ever created is thus curious. As is the current intention to repeat the concept for Manresa – another strong railway duopoly and another peak-only Exprés service. The development of the Sabadell service may reflect the post-Crisis financial difficulty in completing FGC’s Sabadell extension – perhaps an attempt to try something different. Wider policy logic would seem to be utilitarian, although it can also be interpreted as the need to be seen to: The need to (be seen to) make use of the new High Occupancy Vehicle lane on the C-58 autopista, and the need to (be seen to) incorporate two of the largest cities in Barcelona’s hinterland within the coverage of the Exprés network. The utilitarian defense of transport that often isn’t, will become a recurrent theme of this sequence of essays – a function of an underlying tension between two different ways of societal organisation – of understanding, first touched on in earlier discussion of presence.

Continue reading “Interurban Buses in Public Competition”

El Procés in 7 Photographs

Parliamentary Selfie

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. Continue reading “El Procés in 7 Photographs”

The Moral of Sovereignty

Blanket Coverage

“The Moral of Sovereignty” is the fifth essay in a sequence that explores the current Catalan independence process. 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. This essay characterises condominium.

“Spain tells UK not to lose its cool”, glanced the Guardian. “UK accused of losing cool … by Spanish minister”, gawked the BBC. “Spain taunts Britain for losing its composure”, glared the Sun. In the “Did you spill my pint?” prelude to the perennial pub brawl that is Gibraltar, only the reasonable protagonist, Spanish foreign minister Alfonso Dastis, had reason to be confused. Lord Howard’s evocation of Margaret Thatcher’s military defense of the Falklands (Malvinas) hardly evoked the reasonable tone with which Spain had become accustomed to dealing with its European partners. A tri-century grievance born of the same succession war as 1714 and All That. A rock whose thirty thousand residents remain fiercely loyal to both Britain and Europe. And now a very particular problem for Brexit, the United Kingdom’s anticipated exit from the European Union.

Gibraltar is reasonably considered a colony within the European Union because its territorial status as a British Overseas Territory is shared with an array of small colonial outposts, all internally autonomous but reliant on United Kingdom foreign policy. Unlike the Crown Dependencies (Isles of Man, Jersey and Guernsey – those within the broad definition of the British Isles, but not the United Kingdom), Gibraltar is not part of the European Union Customs Union, but is part of the European Union: Gibraltar shares its European Union membership with the United Kingdom, although Gibraltar’s autonomy means European directives have to be specifically passed by Gibraltar’s legislature. Such a complicated arrangement, for so few people, inevitably perpetuates its own exception – an exception the likes of which that none could reasonably establish afresh. The United Kingdom’s Brexit thusly also applies to Gilbratar, regardless of the will of the people of Gibraltar. While colonial status implies a genuine claim to self-determination, and hence a theoretical return to Europe as an independent state, that would force an almost impossible choice on Gibraltarians, apparently between Britain and Europe.

In 2002 the British government attempted to resolve Spanish claims by proposing the shared sovereignty, condominium, of Gibraltar. The concept was not so unfamiliar to Spain, even if the only territory it currently shares (on a six month rotation with France) is a small uninhabited island in the Bidasoa river. Catalunya’s Pyrenean borderlands contained several oddities: Andorra’s sovereignty was shared after 1278, albeit as a suzerainty – a vassalage offering tribute to both the Count of Foix (later France) and the Bishop of La Seu d’Urgell (later Spain). The arrangement effectively lasted until the French revolutionaries of 1793 renounced their share, although Andorra wasn’t admitted to the United Nations, and thus definitively sovereign, until 1993. A similar conflict was resolved differently in Val d’Aran, which in 1313 swore fealty to the Crown of Aragon (later Spain) in return for the valley’s local autonomy – an agreement that held until 1834. And again for Cerdanya, which was partitioned by the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees to leave Llívia (the ancient capital of Cerdanya) surrounded by France – albeit only a mile from the principal bordertown of Puigcerdà, and thereafter a tough border to enforce. All three examples were defined by the disagreements of surrounding dominant sovereign powers, but in each case the actual outcome was locally pragmatic, as befits the reality of Pyrenean geography. Such pragmatism acknowledges the de facto, the situation in fact or in practice: For example, an Aragonese monarch may have had a de jure (in law) claim on Val d’Aran, but since the valley was inaccessible from the south during winter, de facto Val d’Aran functioned with a degree of autonomy, and it was eminently sensible to acknowledge that reality.

The idea of shared sovereignty for Gibraltar was overwhelmingly rejected in a referendum, ostensibly because Gibraltarians did not wish to be “Spanish” – a view thus far unchanged by Brexit. Spain may justifiably be considered the enemy, but this is primarily a de jure fear. De facto, Gibraltar is strongly influenced by adjacent areas of Andalucía: 12 million people visit Gibraltar each year, daily visitor numbers roughly equal to the entire resident population, indicative of high economic and social inter-dependence. Likewise, Gibraltarians are far more culturally mixed than their British colonial status may imply, as likely to carry a British name as a Spanish name. Gibraltar’s “Britishness” is necessarily overstated to foster cultural unity – a direct reflection on the contemporary dominance of sovereign power, that the pragmatism of local coexistence is so readily overwhelmed by the power structure of national authority. So while a British-Spanish condominium would reflect the local character of Gibraltar, the very involvement of such sovereign powers now renders the feudal pragmatism of the Pyrenees impossible.

The rejection of shared sovereignty reflects a wider trend in international law, where condominium has become the exception for the awkward cases, not the norm: Deployed by treaty or convention to territories with no intrinsic social complexity, such as Antarctica or the deep ocean seabed, or to manage states during transition, typically post conflict or colonialism. Catalunya’s contemporary state of ambiguity, described in Absolute Devolution, is not a traditional condominium: Not just because it lacks an agreed resolution, but more fundamentally because The Act of Referèndum emphasises the relative unimportance of territory.

As Lassa Oppenheim highlighted, “a state without a territory is not possible”, because since 1648 international law has followed the principles of the Peace of Westphalia, which resolved the European conflicts of the Reformation, and formalised early modern understanding of state as that territory belonging to a ruler. Any alternative notion of state, such as one that reflects its people, must be retrofitted onto a geographic territory: Westphalia’s territorial presumption is increasingly arcane, even for modern democratic, self-identifyingly European, virtually connected, Westphalia. As argued in Patria and Patrimonio, this definition of state is firmly linked to Enlightenment thinking. Spain had failed to dominate the early modern intellectual hegemony, her global dominance usurped by the Dutch, and was thus forced to internalise her social (knowledge) model within her territory and present that territory to the wider world as an absolute power, a Westphalian sovereignty. The idea of Spain, as explored in 1714 and All That, provided an appropriately robust structure – an internally liberating bouncy castle and an ilusión of the external – an external that could theoretically never be achieved.

Independence from Spain necessarily breaks the idea of Spain for that which becomes independent. In the most basic scenario – the continuation of prior societal norms as a new independent state – independence requires the idea of Spain to be cloned locally. That implies a transitional period, during which the independent state exists in the Westphalian world, but is not yet adapted to it: Catalunya risks exposure to the actual external its society had previously been protected from by the idea of Spain, and requires Catalunya to behave appropriately, to exude control, quite different from the internal bouncy castle of Spain. However, the state of ambiguity is inherently self-transitioning, since both states are simultaneous within – change does not occur at one moment, nor is the whole in flux at once. The nature of within is social, focused upon that area of social knowledge best able to readjust: So long as state remains conceived with the intensity of family, and does not fall in the void in transactional responsibility that bedevils the Spanish political state, any changes can be managed with efficacy. Thus change is through the ambiguity of both, not the objective cause and effect of a singular revolutionary act. The familiar philosophy of the idea of Spain is cloned without leaving the comfort of home, sparing much of the trauma that normally accompanies the birth of a sovereign state.

The theoretical weakness of that scenario lay in what is cloned: The idea of Spain manifests the external in the physical, a physical which apparently cannot be rendered in ambiguity, and so the independent state will tend to conflict over the same physicality as the Spanish state. However both states share the same concept of the idea of Spain, where the physical is relatively unimportant in the social model. The physical has always been the common domain in the political state, and thus the physical can also serve to counterbalance two concurrent political states: More competition than conflict, this balance of states serves the function of a Quantum ballot of the polis – both states perpetuate primarily in social simulacres, their relative support manifest in the physical. While all that may sound exotic, it is little different from the practice of many modern democratic states, albeit without the veneer of singular power. Spain is already highly developed in this regard: Its autonomic policy-making process has almost no reliance on absolute power, while its legal structure bridges a chasm between power and people, affording considerable flexibility between corpus of law and enforcement. The loss of the veneer of singular power would not primarily be a problem internally. It is simply not how sovereign states are supposed to function, and thus primarily confusing for the external.

The already highly autonomous Catalunya gains almost nothing from Westphalian independence, since the territorial state remains more-or-less the same. Little more is gained than the right to be called a nation and register a claim on Catalunya Nord. Full fiscal autonomy is moot within the monetary union of the Eurozone – greater responsibility for debt may even disadvantage an independent Catalunya. In spite of appearances, the Westphalian independence is not the type of independence sought by Independència. That confusion lay in the prior tradition of manifesting the external in the physical, which thus over-emphasises the physical, territory, in matters regarding the external. But as this sequence of essays has demonstrated, the physical is relatively unimportant to the function of Catalunya’s society. The consequent unimportance of Westphalian sovereignty allows Catalunya’s independence movement to safely deploy it as a charade – a game of perception, the demos at the heart of Independència. As an internal rebellion, Independència has no realistic prospect of success. But by embroiling the European Union, on terms which the European Union cannot readily respond, Catalunya strengthens its hand. A game hitherto played as Spain is now primed to take international law – and perhaps even the Enlightenment concept of state – by surprise.

Continue reading “The Moral of Sovereignty”

Absolute Devolution

Barcelona a Prim, Ciutadella Park

“Absolute Devolution” is the fourth essay in a sequence that explores the current Catalan independence process. The first essay introduces The Act of Referèndum. The second, on hope, 1714 and All That. The third, Patria and Patrimonio, on state. This essay characterises power.

The Battle of Ciutadella continues in perpetuity. Sure, they stormed the gates. But only to raise both flags upon Prim, the Catalan-born architect of Spain’s 1868 Glorious Revolution, the subsequently assassinated herald of a particularly turbulent period of political experimentation, from monarchy to aristocracy, via canton to federation, and then back to monarchy. The Iwo Jima moment captured by no one, because no one hopes for six years of tumult to restore the initial state. Sure, they were there. The core Madrid media all but glued to the stage behind, where the “Spanish” (many, but by no means all, Castilian) crowd politely listened to speeches of unity. The more separatist (Catalan and Basque) media camped outside the parliament ahead, where a dozen vans of “Mossos d’Esquadra” (Catalan police) waited apprehensively behind barricades for a riot that never materialised. Even the new-left-biased “Sexta’s” interest waned at the dearth of televisual anger. All with a story to tell, just not this one.

Bias is truth, because – in state – knowing is social. The disunity of a people, a state, reflected in the distribution of biases, the breadth of truths. To bridge disunity is to become an observer with no tribe. Hard enough within a state, ’tis the bane of a foreign correspondent, already lost between the language (as culture) of their audience and the language of that on which they report. Now transpose philosophies, and add a final twist: The external projection of an internal certainty, for an internal which is inherently not-so-certain. Welcome to Spain. Or in the ambiguity of Catalunyian, “Hola República Suspensus”, which roughly translates into English as “please see terms and conditions” – and into the Corsican separatist French of Charlie Hebdo as, “nous exigeons un debat”. These essays are thusly biased, not least by a language that has come to betray its assumptions – a hope of communication that is necessarily never quite realised.

British policy-making is causal and predictive, as befits its dominant philosophy. Policy is analysed or discussed, the method nuanced by the government of the day, then fixed in law. The aim of the process is to implement a robust piece of legislation, not “bad law” full of ambiguities that subsequently require judicial review or referral back to the legislature. This practice presumes a degree of stability or predictability in the target of the policy, and thus inherently struggles to manage rapidly-changing policy areas. Traditionally most obvious in technology, now the bane of a Brexit process that embodies both instability and unpredictability on a huge scale. The pragmatic short-term strategy of British government has been to centralise powers, so that it is best able to exert control over that which it cannot reasonably hope to legislate robustly upon. Brexit’s expected “return of powers from Europe” has thus stalled the devolution of powers promised in the wake of the 2014 Scottish referendum on independence. Not just for Scotland, but for the less obviously separatist regions of England, especially in the North – those that had progressively seceded power to the Place of Westminster during the 20th century, power that, in the 21st, Scotland had shown was possible to take back.

At its root, Spanish policy-making is far more fluid than in Britain. Spanish legislation is more solid than raw policy debate, yet often retains fluidity, as if a live trial upon society: Laws that fit society gradually take on a popular certainty, while those that cannot be accommodated by the social order are gradually reworked. The Spanish legislature is considerably less dependent on absolute power than the British, because it rarely has to enforce anything upon its society. A sense of absolute power is only important in the Spanish state’s dealing with the external. International law and relations presume sovereignty, absolute dominion, even if the reality within is more complex. The European Union routinely strains this structure by its reliance on the supposed absolute power of sovereign member states to implement policy directives, with no particular regard for the quirky transactional structures of policy-making within states. European policy directives that Spanish society can’t easily accommodate are implemented in a state of flux. The implementation of the European Union Services Directive to Spain’s taxi sector provides an example:

The 2009 Services Directive’s principle of “freedom of establishment” inverts the Spanish social principle of “visto bueno”, to ask permission beforehand. Unfortunately that inversion was not first applied to government, which continues to operate on the implicit assumption of “visto bueno” – that government will be given the opportunity to fix problems in law before they actually become problems, exactly the opportunity that the principle of freedom of establishment denies them. Now add a taxi business operated on the traditional principle of “autogestión”, somewhat akin to an extended family – its operations protected from other (competitive) agents by locally-administered regulation, built on three tiers of Spanish legislation (Law, Regulation, and Order) and often further augmented by local Autonomous Community legislation. What was thus unlikely to be a simple or socially acceptable policy change was none-the-less implemented with almost naive simplicity: A historically niche class of taxi licence officially named “arrendamiento con conductor”, but colloquially called VTC (“Voiture de Transport avec Chauffeur”), was reclassified as discretionary transport, much like a coach hire. That should have created a pre-booked “private hire” taxi market alongside the existing on-street “hackney carriage” market. In the (then) coming age of Uber and Cabify, services which would make pre-booking (via mobile phone application) as easy as hailing a cab in the street, both markets would merge. VTC licensing had previously been intended for limousine-style operations, far less prescriptive in its regulatory requirements than for regular taxi operations, but limited to a ratio of 1 VTC licence for every 30 regular taxi licences – a limit the reclassification theoretically removed.

Many autonomous communities, notably Madrid, issued new VTC licences, yielding different degrees of liberalisation in their respective local taxi markets. In Catalunya, nothing much changed. The region’s government, the Generalitat de Catalunya, continued to ignore new taxi licence applications, much as it had done for the previous three decades. Prior VTC licences became more flexible, but insufficient in volume to support the envisaged competitive market. The Generalitat’s head of transport merely acknowledges their “restrictive interpretation of the law“, referring to the contentious test of “underlying consumer demand” which a 1998 Order had arbitrarily defined as the 1:30 ratio (of VTC licences to regular taxi licences). Unfortunately such a fixed definition of “consumer demand” cannot reasonably be interpreted within the terms of the original parent Law – a law which must justify regulation within the Constitutional state, and thus ultimately takes precedence over an incompatible Order. So taxi legislation had already been in flux for 11 years prior to 2009. Arguably the entire policy approach had been misguided since at least 1987, when the Law was made compatible for European Economic Community membership: The Law emphasised econometric passenger demand, built on a systems theory conception of transport that de-humanises supply, when the prime policy requirement was to regulate taxi drivers’ working conditions – specifically drivers’ sense of ownership and security, to counter the excessive variability of their work patterns – in short, to maintain drivers’ sanity. European Union technocratic economic policy has consistently failed to understand this prototypical “gig economy“, both Commission and Parliament still struggling with taxi regulation. In the meantime “gig” workers in Barcelona’s internet-era food delivery businesses have already started edging toward the locally familiar model of cooperativism, in search of “economic sovereignty”.

In 2013 the Spanish government acknowledged the principle of “autogestión” – in effect, acknowledged the Spanish social order – and applied the historic 1:30 ratio to the Law (LOTT). Except the ratio had not previously been written into the Law, and it took another two years to modify the more detailed Regulations (ROTT) and establish a consistent body of legislation. Albeit for a now inconsistent reality: Since taxi licences are permanent, even transferrable, the 1:30 ratio could not be retrospectively applied in regions where it had been exceeded after 2009. Indeed, where previously exceeded, the actual ratio would likely forever exceed 1:30 and thus no new VTC licences would ever be issued again. Speculation ran rife, especially around contentious (unsuccessful) applications made between 2009 and 2013 – and perhaps also between 2013 and 2015, a particular messy period on which different regional high courts have reached different judgements. In Catalunya alone, thousands of applications are stalled pending the final judgement of the Spanish Supreme Court – awaited since July 2016.

In effect, the judiciary has been left to determine the balance of policy, a policy even the Spanish competition authority (CNMC) is reportedly split on. With a blurring of policy and law comes a blurring of political and judicial power, especially apparent at the higher echelons of state, where the risk to Spanish society of power becoming tyrannical is greatest. A similar pattern can be found within the structure of political power: As the Catalan crisis deepened, the executive government sought greater consensus within parliament than was strictly required for its governing majority – yielding to the policy concerns of the new-right Ciudadanos and old-left PSOE. The closer to the heart of the state issues become, the more blurred the three core institutions of power (judiciary, parliament, and government) become – an in-built protection against the rise of absolute tyrannical power. The same cannot be seen within Catalunya’s Independentist process because the structure is inherently unable to process a separation from itself – Constitutional Spain has no capacity to leave itself.

Modern Spain’s method of policy-making is no accident: The Spanish Constitution enshrines the “development of fundamental rights and public liberties” in Organic Law. Organic law is essentially a philosophical construction that allows the thing to be based on itself, a principle common to the founding charters of much of the United States, famously guaranteeing the rights of the people, in the people. The fiat currency of law, Organic law is ultimately based on trust. Spanish Organic law thusly emphasises competency, not hierarchy. Humanity, not divine right. Where the unity of Americans can lean on history (inverse prediction) to define “the people” as a continuation over time, Spanish unity has no such luxury: As concluded by 1714 and All That, ilusión is to be lived, not lived in the past. This societal need for a living constitution was moderated by the addition the monarch and military as living defenders of the unity embodied in an otherwise increasingly historic text. Unity is state, because knowing is social. A theme explored further in the next essay, The Moral of Sovereignty. The hierarchical (God-given or feudal) nature of traditional monarchy never intuitively matched the (structural or philosophical) autonomy of modern Spain. While in 1978 the monarch served to transition Spain out of dictatorship by preserving noble entitlement (the social order inevitably frames governance), the monarch’s constitutional role was always likely to grow awkward. Both monarch and military have transpired to be unpopular in Catalunya – the monarchy popularly considered frivolous, the military oppressive. Neither evokes the intended sense of unity. Their involvement may thus make the Spanish Constitution more vulnerable, not less.

Trust applies both internally and externally, which is where the concept of Organic law in the 1978 Constitution melds with the traditional idea of Spain (described in 1714 and All That). That idea maintains different internal and external perceptions, thus what appears absolute to the external, can remain fluid to the internal – the paradox held in the idea of Spain. Independently, each of these philosophical constructions has historically been robust – Organic law in the United States, the idea of Spain for Spain. The combination of these two constructions in modern Spain, each with its logical vulnerabilities, has a complex interplay:

Spanish citizens trust in Constitutional Spain as they trust in themselves, reflecting the broad pattern of Organic law. Yet as explored in Patria and Patrimonio, the transactional model of responsibility within state is functionally broken, and in complex policy areas citizens are trusting to little more than a void called “state”. The common physicality of state should enable transaction from the small-scale family model to the large-scale nation, but this physicality too often fails. “Simulacres et Simulation” are more indicative of Catalan societal reality, whose intensity the formal structured political state cannot match in physicality. The emphasis on the physical within the political state stems from the idea of Spain, which holds the external in ilusión, and rewards participation in the political state with the manifestation of such ilusión. The contention is that this manifestation is physical to avoid confusion with society itself – more specifically to retain the idea of Spain’s fundamental demarcation between internal (as social simulacres) and external (as physical ilusión). A political state operating solely at the functional level of its society could not maintain such a demarcation. The idea of Spain thus inhibits the transactional state which would be ideal for trust in Constitutional Spain. However the idea of Spain cannot be relinquished without removing its philosophical protections. Based on contemporary events, those philosophical protections are critical to the normal function of Catalan society.

Such analysis is flawed by its narrow logic and presumptive interpretations, but gives a general indication of the interplay between the two philosophical constructs that seem to guide modern Spain. The Act of Referèndum both admonished Catalan trust in Constitutional Spain and fatally exceeded the idea of Spain. The expected model of policy-making unavailable, the state dropped into ambiguity. In the absence of an alternative philosophical project, Catalunya lists precariously in unfamiliar waters. Her Independentist manifest still expecting sight of the promised land. And all the while, storm clouds gather across the Iberian sea.

Continue reading “Absolute Devolution”

Patria and Patrimonio

Sant Llorenç de Montgai

“Patria and Patrimonio” is the third essay in a sequence that explores the current Catalan independence process. The first essay introduces The Act of Referèndum. The second, on hope, 1714 and All That. This essay characterises state.

In September 1923, Miguel Primo de Rivera, the Captain General of Barcelona, lead a successful military coup d’etat for control of the Spanish government. Spanish society had never recovered from the humiliation of the “Disaster of 1898“, not least the Catalans, whose textile industry had previously benefited from favourable trade with what had remained of the Spanish Empire – a policy that had done nothing to assuage the Cuban separatism at the heart of the Disaster. Primo de Rivera’s paternal dictatorship manifest a pragmatic economic nationalism, in which government gave to the “working” population only in so far as it did not take from the “landed” interests of the elite. An improvement on Cánovas’ policy of absolutist suppression, that had contributed to 1898, but ultimately insufficient to avert the rise of the Second Republic, subsequent civil war, and altogether harsher dictatorship of Franco.

The railways of Spain mimic her geopolitics. That’s as true today as it was when the centralist government of Isabel II first offered state support in 1855, explicitly for new railways emanating from Madrid. An imbalance between the centre and periphery redressed in the 1870s and 1880s by the gradual formation of a near-perfect duopoly of the two dominant railway companies: Centrally-focused MZA and more peripheral Norte. The exception of Andalucía from this duopoly is notable for suggesting the geopolitics of Spain are not quite as simple as centre vs periphery: Not just that the regionally dominant “Compañía de Ferrocarriles Andaluces” remained outwith the duopoly, but that its ownership so closely mirrored wider political history – from primarily French investors in the 19th century, to Catalans in the 1920s, before collapsing into the state in the 1930s. While Spain’s railways were built as commercial concessions (the profit from their operation expected to fund most of the cost of their initial construction), the materials shortages caused by World War One had pushed operating costs beyond revenue. The creeping nationalisation of Spanish railways, which had started at the turn of the century as state protections for the railway industry, was looking increasingly inevitable by the 1920s. Sufficiently inevitable that the Spanish state could engage in railway building without incurring the wrath of the elite, just not yet in the more commercial territorial cores of the centre and periphery. Enter the era of the Explotación de Ferrocarriles por el Estado (exploitation of railways by the state), and the Málagan engineer Rafael Benjumea y Burín, the Count of Guadalhorce.

Ostensibly aimed at integrating Spain’s railways, the Guadalhorce Plan of 1926 primarily fulfilled Primo de Rivera’s policy of building “economic” infrastructure, albeit only in so far as it did not impinge on the interests of the elite – a caveat that essentially excluded economically beneficial railway investment. The fatal flaw in Primo de Rivera’s economic nationalism was his inability to apply it to the most commercial areas of the Spanish economy, commerce indicative of economic (especially industrial) benefit, because such areas remained wedded to the untouchable landed elite. Primo de Rivera’s policy none-the-less established a precedent for the state to provide infrastructure for the people, even if that infrastructure serve almost none of its implicit economic function. Most evident in railway policy, but presumably true of wider communications including power, this precedent combined with the 19th century expression of (especially central) authority through railways, an absolutism vested in God: As explained in 1714 and All That, the idea of Spain maintains the external as a god in nature, so to this way of thinking, railways serve as the physical manifestation of the external. The contemporary AVE high-speed Spanish railway network is built thus: The external, a (Bourbon legacy) mirage of France’s TGV, physically manifest for the people of Spain with scant regard for economic performance. The radial AVE network was delivered geopolitically over three decades due to the immense cost of railway construction to an internal economy which is not as strong as its external ilusión portrays. For now, radial only, the traditional peripheral counter-balance temporarily lost in a quagmire of regional autonomies that struggle to stand together against the centre, evident from the Mediterranean Corridor. Prediction, of operating costs and revenues, little more than a charade for soon-to-be bankrupt international investors, the bane of operations in a culture that can only comprehend mega-project solutions to its operational problems, but not a philosophical tenant of the idea of Spain, and thus to misunderstand ilusión – a hope to be lived.

The Guadalhorce Plan’s most infamous project was a transversal railway from south to north – Baeza in Andalucía to Saint-Girons in France – avoiding all the major cities of Spain – Seville, València, Madrid, Barcelona. Economically and operationally, such transversal railways are difficult projects to justify, even in densely populated, highly industrialised countries – a rational nonsense for relatively agrarian Spain. Yet perfectly suited to the geopolitics of the moment. In the nature of ambitious construction proposals, the Baeza-Saint Girons project outlived its moment: The project persisted (with a break in the 1930s, when Guadalhorce was in exile) until Franco’s post-isolationist stabilisation plan of 1959, which briefly injected American economic “sense” into Spanish railway development, directing investment into the productive core of the railway network. The only section to have opened, Lleida to Pobla de Segur, a glorious white elephant – that with the greatest of respect to Pobla de Segur (population three thousand), goes nowhere that warrants the cost and capacity of a railway. Spanish enthusiasm for underutilised geopolitical transport infrastructure evidently predates the “ghost airports” of the early 2000s.

Left to the tyranny of post-Francoist Spain, RENFE (Spain’s nationalised railway company) would have closed the Lleida-Pobla de Segur railway as part of their 1984 route rationalisation, a Beeching-esk response to financial deficits. Apparently under pressure from local people to save the line from closure, the autonomous community stepped in. By operating subsidy since 1984, ownership since 2005, and complete control since 2015 – the latest notable for de-implementing European policy, a shift in policy focus from national to regional, an unintended acknowledgement that the line’s original cross-border ambition was over. In addition to paying an operating subsidy of almost 2 million Euros a year, between 2006 and 2016 the Generalitat de Catalunya (the government of Catalunya, via its railway subsidiary FGC) invested 45 million Euros in the route, including a pair of new trains – which subsequently improved frequencies and patronage, albeit from a pitifully low base: Average daily passenger journeys (factoring in occasional tourist trains) had fallen as low as 200, strongly skewed to the short southern section between Lleida and Balaguer.

The epitome of politicised infrastructure, the very manifestation of the geopolitics of Spain, the Pobla de Segur railway was surely destined to illustrate the Generalitat de Catalunya’s publicity for the Act of Referèndum. The sidings at Sant Llorenç de Montgai station repurposed under the banner, “you were born with the capacity to decide – will you give that up?” With little visual pretence of neutrality, indicative of the politicisation of Catalunya’s principle civil institution, the citizen of the upcoming state of Catalunya is presented with a choice between the straight track ahead and the siding to the right. Humorous deceptions all: The straight track continues to Pobla de Segur, as close to nowhere as Catalunya’s railway network goes. The sidings have been airbrushed to show just one, avoiding any suggestion of the plural reality beyond. And not one of the two trains is in sight, the impending “choque de trenes” (socio-political train crash) left in the eye of the beholder. With specific historical context, the poster represents the perpetual geopolitical struggle that is Spain. Without, the enticing vision of a future on an empty set of railway tracks, reveals much about the relationship of people and state.

Continue reading “Patria and Patrimonio”

1714 and All That

Collioure, Catalunya Nord

“1714 and All That” is the second essay in a sequence that explores the current Catalan independence process. The first essay introduces The Act of Referèndum. This essay characterises hope.

As if to confirm his opinion, newspaper columnist Gregorio Morán was fired for decrying the sponsorship of the Catalan media by the independentist cause: In the Brave New Catalunya, state sponsored freedom would seem to have no place for freedom from state. While Morán’s fate was extreme, the loss of plurality that stems from the Act of Referèndum is undermining the very trust and stability normally promoted by the human biases of Catalunya’s social structure: Where the employment is substantially based on who you know (and high structural unemployment makes meaningful roles in society especially scarce for the minority), and sometimes being seen to do can count for more than actually doing (which gives rise to institutionalised virtue signalling), people need the space and respect to disagree. Without that plurality, tensions build between the individual and their tribe. Human decorum engenders a culture of agreement – real and imagined – or defaults to unhealthy silence. The resulting state is ambiguous. No place in Catalunya for the lively doorstep debates common in pre-referendum Edinburgh, nor for the inclusive plurality of “Scot”: Catalan is increasingly analogous to Independentista, a dangerous rift within Catalunya herself.

Such ambiguity is not universal. At the core of the independentist movement lay a heartfelt belief, an intensely directed hope, as genuine as any. Even a life-affirming sense of purpose, a contribution to community of the sort that individualism undervalues. But Vilanova does not a country make. Independència was not born of Barcelona, yet the city’s size, stature, and seat of government make it crucial to the success of an independent Catalunya. The reality of Barcelona is rather more ambiguous than the stage-managed revolution conveys. Altogether less discursive than the passive student protests, those characterised by their sitting. The rise of such ambiguity in Catalan society runs counter to the moderating influences of both modern Spanish democracy, whose suffrage is individual, and traditional Spanish absolutism, for which ambiguity is its indeterminant opposite. The Referèndum may indeed have crippled Catalan plurality by mooting the idea of leaving Spain from within Spain, but the Referèndum is also the only force keeping the “lid on the pot” of its culinary creation, preventing the social ambiguity that is more commonly called chaos from spilling out. While there is still hope for el procés, the Referèndum exerts direction (both in time and active control). Without that hope, both cause (lack of plurality) and effect (ambiguity) dissipate – as if to wake from a dream. Such a romantic description of what immature societies resolve in barbarism rests upon the inherent strength of the collective “il·lusió”: The “ilusión” of the idea of Spain as both the perpetual internal rebalancing that sustains it, and the collective management of hope. Time as oscillation and time as direction. These concepts will become clearer over the course of this essay.

A historic review diagnoses the Catalan independentist with either interminable optimism or acute amnesia: Throughout the five centuries of Spain, Catalunya’s epicentre, Barcelona, has hosted innumerable attempts to cede from, or otherwise destabilise, Spain. That none has succeeded in independència, even when directly comparable revolts in less intrinsically Spanish territories (such as the Netherlands) have, should bare consideration. That it does not, hints at the deeply internalised nature of this struggle, in which the attempt to separate gives unity to that which is being separated. This inherent tension between Spain and its constituent provinces is impenetrable because it is wrapped up in the idea of Spain. Impenetrability that substantially defined empire, from the Genoese bankrolling of Habsburg Spain on the seemingly endless riches of the Americas, to the prevailing model of colonial allegiance, which presented the Spanish monarch as an external god – something that endured until the Napoleonic era crisis heralded the coming fall. Since the empire was born of the same 1490s Golden Age that formed Spain, it seems reasonable to conclude the same principles were integral to the very idea of Spain, although the post-hoc nature of creation history clouds such analysis.

Castellano’s “ilusión” shares the same Latin root as English “illusion”, but their emphasis differs significantly: English illusions are empirically false, occasionally with an intonation of failed optimism. Castellan ilusión describe the positive hope for the good, both imaginary and realised. As does Català’s “il·lusió”. Language expresses culture. That hope, change over time, is deeply embodied in the way we sense the world. Sense, another word that is too readily mis-translated. A timely reminder of the difficulty of describing one culture through the prism of another.

Since unfettered ilusión is a plague, a cancer, prone to killing its host, ilusión must be 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 are 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. I will call this contention 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.

Much like the English, the Catalans reference the foundation of their contemporary autonomy to a year in which they were crushed by “the French”. English schoolchildren are traditionally indoctrinated with the idea that England starts at the Norman conquests of 1066 – even though another 150 years pass before the Battle of Lincoln demonstrates as much cohesive autonomy as Æthelstan had enjoyed in the century before the Normans. This method of teaching was parodied in “1066 and All That“, a book neatly summarised by its own subtitle: “A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates.” The myth that modern England started as a Dutch coup in 1688 is somehow less appealing to the English, yet would reflect much the same succession crisis (and corresponding adjustment of power) that Catalans celebrate in the 1714 fall of Barcelona, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession. A loss still cited as illegitimating Spain’s rule over Catalunya. Not for the last time in history, Catalunya found herself on the losing side of an internal Spanish conflict.

Hope is especially important to both, as both are managing the failure of hope that is the inevitable fall from the over-achievement of global empire. In this regard Spain, of which Catalunya is part, is the most advanced nation in the modern world: A century ahead of Britain, the Británicos’ interest in Spain should not be limited to the beach, or whatever the Olympic-tinted Barcelona guidebook instructs about Gaudí-land.

Superficially, the Catalan hope of the Referèndum is familiar to Brexit Britain: Catalans blame Madrid (meaning Spain), much as Brexiteers blame Brussels (meaning the similarly ambiguous “Europe”). Those that enjoyed the good times before the crisis of 2008 quite reasonably expect more of the same. Since the need to feel hopeful necessarily obscures self-analysis of past excesses, righteous indignation at the loss of the good times can all too readily be channelled into cannon fodder, killing “two birds with one stone” by the redirection of domestic tumult onto geopolitical opponents. The Catalan Bourgeoisie, at least for the moment, are simply better at controlling this game than the British Establishment. Similarly the risks of transitional instability are downplayed: Catalunya’s gentle October waltz into internationally-recognised statehood can look, to the neutral observer, just as implausible as Britain’s just-add-water “Empire 2.0” post-European economy. Cynically, such transitions serve only to create new low-points from which things can only get better. Again.

Comparison is actually far more difficult because of differences in temporality: Contemporary England (and to a lesser degree Britain) can be accused of living in a collective memory of past imperial glories. Britain’s causal analytical model affords protection from the external world by the prediction (increasingly to the point of insanity) of that which it thinks it can understand. A predictive process that references both past and future, which when faced with a particularly uncertain future, is prone to emphasise the certainty of the past. Quirky, Britain shares enough Hegelian temporality with its Northern European neighbours to lull it into the false assumption that the whole world thinks the same way. Catalans within Spain do not revel in quite the same temporal distortion: Catalunya could happily emphasise its successful expansionist medieval history. Alphons centred the Crown of Aragon on Barcelona in 1164, and over the next three hundred years Aragon grew to dominate the Western Mediterranean, before the union with Castille that lead to the formation of Spain, which became the world’s first super-power. An impressive ancestry. That instead Catalunya chooses to emphasise its subsequent struggle with Spain, is not just indicative of the inherently internalised struggle for and against Spain, but that hope has to be actively lived, not just remembered. Wrapped in the idea of Spain, (internal) ilusión is passively protected from the external factors of which there is little or no native understanding.

What liberates hope internally is also the bane of hope externally. The idea of Spain necessarily presents the external as a god in nature (a form of deus sive natura), so the Catalan independentist journey to the promised land is no mere metaphor (although, as in all matters of religious belief, such exposition risks insulting believers). The corollary, the internal liberation of hope – the bouncy castle called Spain – creates a vastly more robust play space than expected by the purely predictive. The people of Spain widely acknowledge the impending “choque de trenes”, the socio-political train crash, but there is no rush to prevent it because the consequences are understood to be internal – entirely a part of the fluidity that is Spain. Tears before bedtime there will be – but should a nursery be devoid of toys, just because they get broken from time to time?

Continue reading “1714 and All That”