Reanimating Regional

Delicious Deception

This essay outlines the regional biases of Spanish railway connectivity, reassesses the role of Castilla in the national railway, and ponders the balance between actuality and perception inherent in Adolfo Suárez’s doctrine of “café para todos“. “Reanimating Regional” is the fifth essay in the sequence “Café Para Todos“, an exploration of the contemporary relationship between the railways and the people of Spain. The first essay, “Saving Ferroviarias“, reviews the broad policy context of Spain’s passenger railways, highlighting the residual tension between pre and post-democratic eras, the financial impetus to make the high speed network more viable, and the evolving policy paradigm of rationalisation. “Disassembling Trenes“, the second essay in the sequence, deconstructs Spain’s current passenger railways to expose the deceptions of AVE and nation therein. “Deconstructing Estaciones” provides a demographic analysis of Spain’s railway stations, that explores the unserved areas and probes the differences between regions. The fourth, “Understanding Obligación“, builds a model of the human connectivity offered by Spain’s railways, revealing the patterns between Spaniards and the democractic tension therein, with income analysis that explores the import of “Obligación de Servicio Público”.

Regionalism

The previous essay, “Understanding Obligación“, modelled connectivity nationally, as expected by the national deception explained in the second essay, “Disassembling Trenes“. Yet throughout this sequence of essays evidence has emerged that points to an actuality that is altogether more local, especially on the periphery. The connectivity model is limited by its use of municipal geography, which logically precludes analysis within municipalities, but can give some indication of the importance of locality by additionally restricting connections to those wholly within specific geographic regions – Autonomous Communities or Provinces. The regional indices reflect how well people within a particular geographic area are connected to each other, not how well they are connected to major populations elsewhere in Spain, and consequently can produce very different results to the national model. The construction of the regional index’s population weighting differs slightly, with each region weighted by its proportion of the total analysed (Spanish) population. The result is interpreted the same as before, with 100 representing an average Spaniard in an “average” region (Autonomous Community or Province). That there physically is no such average place can make the regional index values slightly misleading if read in isolation. In particular, Autonomous Communities which contain only one province attain different indices for the same internal network because the overall average changes – the comparison is to communities and provinces respectively. However, since all indices notionally average to 100, direct comparison is possible. The table below shows the passenger rail connectivity of each province to the whole nation, their own community, and their own province. Initial analysis is for all operators, since non-Renfe services can become important within regions. The strength of each area’s “localism” or “nationalism” is expressed as “regionalism”: The bias toward either province (positive percentages) or nation (negative percentages), calculated as, (community + province) – (national + community), divided by the average of all three indices. The variance is that of all three indices, low variance indicative of consistency between each index.

Regionalism in Peninsula Railway Connectivity
Province and Community Connectivity Index (100 is “average”) Regionalism
National Community Province Bias Variance
Almería 50 124 45 -8% 19
Cádiz 109 308 183 +37% 101
Córdoba 191 421 84 -46% 297
Granada 26 163 116 +88% 48
Huelva 64 118 90 +29% 7
Jaén 81 176 134 +41% 23
Málaga 137 296 121 -9% 94
Sevilla 182 551 166 -5% 475
All Andalucía 120 319 129 +5% 127
Huesca 56 48 99 +63% 8
Teruel 39 35 83 +83% 7
Zaragoza 375 98 78 -162% 276
All Aragón 287 83 82 -136% 139
Asturias 158 238 298 +60% 49
Cantabria 85 199 250 +93% 71
Ávila 107 274 91 -10% 103
Burgos 226 377 87 -61% 211
León 182 289 173 -4% 42
Palencia 235 376 102 -56% 188
Salamanca 91 223 79 -9% 64
Segovia 124 220 81 -31% 51
Soria 74 17 77 +6% 11
Valladolid 239 461 76 -63% 373
Zamora 68 78 71 +4% 0
All Castilla y León 171 305 99 -37% 109
Albacete 200 390 126 -31% 185
Ciudad Real 160 250 219 +28% 21
Cuenca 100 140 90 -8% 7
Guadalajara 131 91 121 -9% 4
Toledo 66 52 66 +1% 1
All Castilla-La Mancha 126 179 125 -1% 10
Barcelona 284 413 346 +18% 41
Girona 75 134 189 +86% 32
Lleida 176 173 150 -16% 2
Tarragona 159 216 384 +89% 138
All Catalunya 244 350 323 +26% 31
Araba 265 210 67 -110% 105
Bizkaia 111 325 305 +78% 140
Gipuzkoa 149 269 314 +68% 73
All Euskadi 147 290 272 +53% 61
Badajoz 67 262 214 +81% 103
Cáceres 73 194 133 +45% 37
All Extremadura 69 237 184 +70% 73
Coruña, A 98 322 205 +51% 125
Lugo 97 182 118 +16% 20
Ourense 139 301 111 -15% 105
Pontevedra 134 341 154 +9% 131
All Galicia 115 309 165 +26% 101
Madrid 476 135 169 -118% 353
Murcia 190 152 190 +0% 5
Navarra 141 95 119 -19% 5
La Rioja 142 80 100 -39% 10
Alacant 131 248 244 +55% 45
Castelló 173 299 219 +20% 41
València 216 434 285 +22% 124
All Valenciana 179 349 262 +31% 72

Community connectivity indices tend to be higher than national connectivity indices: As introduced in the previous essay, “Understanding Obligación“, passenger rail is simply a better match to geography on the scale of most Autonomous Communities. In comparison national journeys tend to be too distant to generate sufficient passenger volumes for rail, while journeys within provinces tend to be too local in their character for rail to serve effectively. It is no accident that Renfe’s operations tend to be more regional than national. The exceptions to this pattern are of particular interest. Madrid, the most obvious exception, is discussed in the next section. The Ebro Valley (Huesca, Teruel, Navarra, La Rioja and Zaragoza) again emerges as an exception, its patterns owing much to the awkward set of Modern political boundaries, discussed both in the previous essay, “Understanding Obligación“, and again in the conclusion of this essay. Zaragoza emerges as the most nationally biased province in Spain – little Madrid, as Zaragoza was previously attributed, even outdoing the national bias of its namesake.

The term “regionalism” has been used nebulously, to apply to both Autonomous Communities and provinces, because some regions are specifically skewed to community connectivity, and some to provincial connectivity. Andalucía, both overall and by province, clearly emphasises the connectivity within its Autonomous Community, which is consistently much higher than both national and provincial connectivities. The province of Sevilla is not just the best connected of any province to its respective community, but the individual municipalities of Sevilla and neighbouring Dos Hermanas compute the highest Community Connectivity Indices of any municipality in Spain – indices which are more than three times higher than their respective connectivities to their own provinces. For Andalucía, “cohesión territorial” evidently applies to the territory of the Autonomous Community, yet this pattern runs counter to recent policy – both national attempts to link Andalucían cities to Madrid at high speed, and local metro-building, which is primarily municipal. Such policy might be explained as a contemporary attempt to readjustment the role of railways, away from that within the community, but it seems more likely that current policy merely reflects the current gap in funding discussed in the earlier essay, “Disassembling Trenes“: Adequate funding is only available for national LAV or local tram schemes – the Junta de Andalucía’s attempt to fund its own Sevilla-Antequera (for Granada and Málaga) LAV route having comprehensively failed. That the community even tried to build its own internal high speed railway, a feat no other Autonomous Community has seriously attempted on its own, can be attributed to Andalucía’s particular emphasis on community connectivity. Although, by attempting to build the line to the already best-connected capital city and province, Sevilla, the Junta might reasonably be accused of regional centralism – which, given the provincial tensions of Andalucían politics, is also a logical cause of failure.

Galicia follows a broadly similar, but less pronounced, pattern to Andalucía, with rail primarily serving community cohension, not the nation or the more local, with recent Galician politics also emphasising internal AV connectivity. The other “historic communities”, Catalunya and Euskadi (the Basque Country), show stronger biases towards provincial connectivity, as perhaps befits their contemporary political separatisms, especially once their outliers (Lleida and Araba) are isolated from the analysis. Tarragona has the highest connectivity with its own province of any province in Spain, with Barcelona close behind. Tarragona’s rail-served coastal strip is relatively urban in character, and the strength of the current campaign to retain stations at Salou and Cambrils (scheduled for closure when the parallel LAV line opens) provides some evidence of the importance of rail connectivity within the province – and specifically the tension between the regional promoters of the Mediterranean Corridor and more local public transport interests. As noted in prior analysis, the city of Lleida obtains high national connectivity, primarily through AVE, but the province itself is relatively rural and difficult to serve by rail: That the Generalitat de Catalunya none-the-less persist in trying, most notably in their recent redevelopment of the Pobla de Segur line, can perhaps be attributed to Lleida’s current lack of skew toward provincial connectivity, as found elsewhere in Catalunya. Although Catalunya has a substantial non-Renfe network, especially in and around Barcelona, the additional connectivity it offers is very marginal: The Renfe-only connectivity index for the province of Barcelona is 334, against 346 for all operators. Analysis of only non-Renfe operators scores 332. As argued in The Art of Public Competition, Barcelona gains indirectly, by promoting a form of competition between operators which ultimately raises the connectivity delivered by all.

In the province of València the Autonomous operator FGV delivers more connectivity than Renfe – the Renfe-only index is 205, compared to FGV’s 294 and an all-operator index of 285. While FGV operates a few routes that somewhat parallel Renfe’s, it offers little direct competition of the type seen in the province of Barcelona. Euskadi (the Basque Country) contains even greater difference between Renfe and non, with non-Renfe operators (Euskotren, plus metro in Bilbao) providing up to half the connectivity in the coastal provinces of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa – both connectivity within province and within community. Even where route competition exists (Donostia-Irun and Bilbao-Santurtzi) non-Renfe services tend to be more frequent, and overall any counter-balance appears more strategic than local. Yet the most curious facet of Euskadi is the province of Araba – in railway terms Gasteiz (Vitoria) – whose national connectivity is the strongest (quite unlike Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa), whose non-Renfe service is a municipal tram (with no impact on connectivity beyond), and whose current railway service pattern is almost incidental (to the provision of longer distance services). How many intending passengers have been confused to learn that Renfe cannot offer a journey, let alone a direct train, between Bilbao and Gasteiz? Gasteiz is a geographic oasis built on a plateau surrounded by mountains, which plays the role of isolated federal capital for the two rival Basque coastal provinces – and if that wasn’t enough, the southern half of Araba wholly contains the enclave of Treviño, which is administratively still part of Castilla y León: There is no shortage of explanation for the vast differences between Araba’s regional connectivity and that of the remainder of Euskadi.

Beyond those Autonomous Communities and provinces discussed above, there is a broad correlation between peripherality and localism: The Asturias, Cantabria and Extremadura are strongly biased toward internal connectivity, Valenciana less so, Murcia balanced, and the Castillas and Ebro tending toward national connectivity – although each contains provincial exceptions. As documented in the previous essay, “Understanding Obligación“, Extremadura’s national connectivity is undeniably poor, with relatively consistent income biases indicating no particular importance attached to any one conectivity scope (of national, community or province). However Extremadura’s internal regional connectivity is much more respectable than its national connectivity, with regional indices in the order of 200. A third of Extremadura’s population is concentrated into its four largest towns (Badajoz, Cáceres, Mérida, Plasencia), which can all be linked together by a single railway service – so what looks like a rudimentary service pattern actually achieves a reasonable level of connectivity for a reasonable proportion of the population. This focus on internal connectivity might help explain why many of Extremadura’s complaints focus on the quality of service delivery, complaints which the political system can only manage through physical assets, especially infrastructure. It follows from Extremadura’s strong internal connectivity that the region’s poor national connectivity is primarily rooted in a limited range of national destinations, something that could perhaps have been improved with some more imaginative service planning. Based on current service patterns, which are entirely OSP state supported, Extremadura’s LAV can expect to be served by a few daily AVE services, primarily carrying (and thus funded through) OSP Avant seats, offering a minimal service pattern which is unlikely to link beyond Madrid, and thus providing much the same national connectivity as now (just faster and more reliable). The Autonomous Community demands LAV as a link to Madrid because those are the terms on which LAV is funded nationally, but if LAV’s prime function is actually regional connectivity – something a Badajoz-Mérida-Cáceres-Plasencia LAV axis would improve still further – then almost any such improvement in Extremadura will create greater inequalities elsewhere, since Extremadura already has as good a regional connectivity as it can fairly expect. Regardless, the question of what policy objective Extremadura’s railways are serving – regional or national, actual or perceived – should raise policy concerns, because the region’s demographics are likely to dictate sustained state support of any future AV operation, support which might prove hard to justify in the midst of any future public funding crisis.

Continue reading “Reanimating Regional”

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Understanding Obligación

FEVE Crossroads

This essay builds a model of the human connectivity offered by Spain’s railways, revealing the patterns between Spaniards and the democractic tension therein, with income analysis that explores the import of “Obligación de Servicio Público”. “Understanding Obligación” is the fourth essay in the sequence “Café Para Todos“, an exploration of the contemporary relationship between the railways and the people of Spain. The first essay, “Saving Ferroviarias“, reviews the broad policy context of Spain’s passenger railways, highlighting the residual tension between pre and post-democratic eras, the financial impetus to make the high speed network more viable, and the evolving policy paradigm of rationalisation. “Disassembling Trenes“, the second essay in the sequence, deconstructs Spain’s current passenger railways to expose the deceptions of AVE and nation therein. “Deconstructing Estaciones” provides a demographic analysis of Spain’s railway stations, that explores the unserved areas and probes the differences between regions. “Reanimating Regional” outlines the regional biases of Spanish railway connectivity, reassesses the role of Castilla in the national railway, and ponders the balance between actuality and perception inherent in Adolfo Suárez’s doctrine of “café para todos”.

Modelling Connectivity

Transport models have acquired a reputation for becoming impenetrably complicated, their results rendered as factual knowledge however internally flawed their logics actually are. Spanish policymaking has its own form of complexity, that in the relationships between people, and thus complex modelling risks being distilled down into simple statements in support of a pre-determined policy position. Instead this analysis tries to place greater emphasis on understanding, using only commonly agreed tokens (people, trains, distance), and making only practical assumptions that hopefully reflect “common sense”. To that end, a model of connectivity across Spain’s passenger railway network has been built in simple stages:

  1. Basic Connectivity – who is connected by train to who: A matrix of routes between municipalities with stations on which at least one train per day links the pair directly. Each pairing is multiplied by the municipal population of the destination, the result for all pairs from the origin then summed and attributed to the origin. The population of the origin municipality is added to the result, which is assumed to have perfect connectivity to itself – an assumption that only tangibly affects the overall connectivity score of the largest, and avoids cities attaining worse connectivity scores than the suburbs that connect to them (because those suburbs would gain the connectivity of the city’s population, while the city would not).
  2. Service Connectivity – who is connected to who by what frequency of train service: As basic connectivity above, except each route pairing is additionally multiplied by a factor representing service frequency, ( 1 – ( 1 / daily trains ) ), where daily trains is the total of both directions. This formula gives no value to the first train (which logically supposes no possibility of return), but thereafter values of each additional pair marginally, as half the value of the previous pair. Such weighting places emphasis on attaining the most basic level of service, as befits the non-urban regional networks that are the focus of this sequence of essays, while weighting high frequency metro services very marginally indeed.
  3. Hinterland Connectivity – who is connected to who by what frequency of train service, but where people use the station with the best ratio of connectivity to proximity, not necessarily the nearest station: For every municipality (both with and without stations), calculate the straight line distance from the centroid of the origin municipality to all municipalities with stations within 150 kilometres, and then find the municipality with the highest ( Service Connectivity of municipality * ( 1 / distance to municipality in kilometres ) ), assigning that calculated value to the initial origin municipality. This gravity model reflects the tendency of municipalities with many more trains to attract passengers from more distant markets. The assumed distance tapper is approximate, but generally succeeds in both re-assigning relatively poorly served municipalities that are close to a much better served neighbour (for example, a municipality 10 kilometres away would need to offer at least 10 times better Service Connectivity than a local station), and assigning people in municipalities without a station to the most attractive station in their proximity (the best served relative to distance). Every place in Peninsula Spain is within 100 kilometres of at least one station, and the 150 km buffer ensures a range of stations are considered, including provincial capitals.
  4. Connectivity Index – how does this connectivity compare to that of the average Spaniard: Hinterland Connectivity is expressed as a percentage of the average for all the municipalities scored (in the base case, those within 150 kilometres of at least one station, almost the entire population of Spain), with that average weighted by population: For example, if Madrid represented 7% of the total population of scored municipalities, Madrid’s score would count towards 7% of the overall average. This population weighting serves only to distribute the resulting indices around a meaningful average, where a connectivity index of 100 is what the average Spaniard (with a station within 150 kilometres) would obtain. The indices are thus entirely relative to other members of the population, reflecting policy themes of balance and equality.

The underlying dataset used is that described in the earlier essay, “Disassembling Trenes” – essentially a frequency-based matrix of all non-tourist rail passenger services within Spain on Friday 20 July 2018, alongside the municipal Padrón from the start of 2017. In the interest of transparency and the benefit of any other interested researchers, the raw network analysed is available in Geojson format – as is, neither supported nor maintained, and obviously without the associated computation described above. Frequency-based connectivity models are far faster to compute than those that process detailed schedules, and also far easier to edit – allowing the impact of a change in service pattern to be tested conceptually, without providing the kind of detailed schedule operational planners only produce after deciding to implement a network change. That flexibility to use connectivity models for network design was unfortunately lost during the development of these techniques in Britain in the early 2000s, ultimately because central government’s desire to understand connectivity surpassed their desire to assist those who might improve it, a rationale subsequently perpetuated in academia. Yet basic connectivity models remain powerful tools for both grand strategy and network tinkering, and in an environment with little or no interchangeable electronic schedule data (such as Spain) their deployment can add insight where otherwise there is none: Spanish railway interests produce plenty of good technical information, but remarkably little relates services to people, and much of what does is pre-occupied with appeasing the god of high speed.

The aim of this analysis is to understand the broad patterns by focusing on the key relationships, not to attempt to model every conceivable detail: Journey distance is ignored, but in practice the pattern of direct routes will tend to constrain destinations, while the tendency to lower frequencies on longer distance journeys renders remote destinations with poorer Service Connectivity. The availability of realistic return journeys is also ignored, but the probability of such return journeys is inherent in the overall service frequency. Interchange between trains is ignored, since as discussed in the essay “Disassembling Trenes“, interchange is not a dominant behaviour in most of Spain’s non-urban regional networks. Local interchange, especially between suburbs and better-served city centres, is factored into Hinterland Connectivity – the reduced connectivity with distance may be assumed a crude proxy for the reduced attractiveness of interchange. Hinterland Connectivity similarly manages the few branchlines (such as FEVE‘s Collanzo line in the Asturias) whose services require interchange to reach any major destination. Hinterland Connectivity takes no specific account of the availability of alternative modes of transport to reach the railway network, although its tendency is to link groups of people in relatively close proximity, groups who tend to establish transport links between one another. The factors used in Service and Hinterland Connectivity calculations may seem rather arbitrary – and would be for detailed microsimulation – but their use here is in the production of strategic aggregated comparators, where broad consistency of approach is more important than precise local calibration.

The connectivity of the islands and north-African autonomous cities – Balears, Canarias, Ceuta and Melilla – cannot be adequately reflected in a railway model of Spain, since even islands with railways can provide no direct connections beyond their own island. Overall Connectivity Indices include island and autonomous city municipalities within 150 kilometres of a municipality with a station, so can affect the overall average score and thus the index, but in practical terms the results for these municipalities are spurious and cannot be compared to Peninsula Spain. Analysis of the connectivity of (only) non-Renfe operators has a similar weakness because the networks of these operators do not generally connect to one another – for example, however well FGV serves Valenciana, it cannot be fairly compared to a national network that links Valenciana to other parts of Spain. Non-Renfe operators can be important to specific local municipalities, and are thus important within the most local analysis, but add only marginally to the overall connectivity of regions: Even in the provinces best served by non-Renfe operators, Madrid and Barcelona, such operators only add about 10% to the overall Connectivity Index. Lleida’s extremely high connectivity poses a particular challenge to the Pobla de Segur route, which offers a relatively infrequent service whose only major destination is Lleida, and thus provides far less direct connectivity than Lleida herself. While the route is modelled, the connectivity it offers is usurped by Hinterland Connectivity at many place close to Lleida, and even at Pobla de Segur the railway offers only a marginal connectivity advantage, hence is almost invisible in the Connectivity Indices for local municipalities. Analysis of Renfe’s “commercial” non-OSP products ignores local OSP journeys delivered as shared seats on commercial services, leaving those commercial services only to stop for the benefit of longer-distance passengers. This is an accurate reflection on current operations, but produces local quirks such as removing one of the links between Badajoz and Cáceres while retaining that between Badajoz and Madrid – with the net result of reducing slightly the overall (commercial) Connectivity Index of Badajoz. Such reduced connectivity is, however, a reasonable reflection on the marginal nature of the commercial service provided.

Continue reading “Understanding Obligación”

Saving Ferroviarias

ADIF at Luarca station

This essay reviews the broad policy context of Spain’s passenger railways, highlighting the residual tension between pre-democratic and Modern eras, the financial impetus to make the high speed network more viable, and the evolving policy paradigm of rationalisation. “Saving Ferroviarias” is the first essay in the sequence “Café Para Todos“, an exploration of the contemporary relationship between the railways and the people of Spain. “Disassembling Trenes“, the second essay in the sequence, deconstructs Spain’s current passenger railways to expose the deceptions of AVE and nation therein. “Deconstructing Estaciones” provides a demographic analysis of Spain’s railway stations, that explores the unserved areas and probes the differences between regions. The fourth, “Understanding Obligación“, builds a model of the human connectivity offered by Spain’s railways, revealing the patterns between Spaniards and the democractic tension therein, with income analysis that explores the import of “Obligación de Servicio Público”. “Reanimating Regional” outlines the regional biases of Spanish railway connectivity, reassesses the role of Castilla in the national railway, and ponders the balance between actuality and perception inherent in Adolfo Suárez’s doctrine of “café para todos”.

The Human Semaphore

Five roads, two sidings. Three passenger platforms, one freight warehouse. Station building, two floors. Toilets, two sexes, immaculate. Ticket office, staffed and open. Next passenger train, five or maybe six hours hence. For now the daily freight approaches, light but double-headed. The station master dons cap and stands to attention upon platform one. Arm outstretched, flag clenched vertical. The human semaphore signal, the only sign of life. But all is not well in toytown. For taped to the unnecessarily large timetable case is a demand: “Por un tren digno para todas, más inversión pública y menos concesiones” – for a train worthy of all, more public investment and fewer private concessions.

This diorama, reminiscent of European railways of the early 20th century, is not primarily remarkable because it persists on the north coast of Spain a century later. Rather that the railway line on which it persists, that from Ferrol to Gijón, was not even opened until 1972 – its construction having spanned an entire era of “cohesión territorial” from Primo de Rivera in 1923 until the death of Franco in 1975. For Rafael Benjumea y Burín, the Count of Guadalhorce who served under both, “cohesión territorial” tended to emphasise land, a residual feudalism that characterised much policy of the period: Many of the routes Guadalhorce proposed connected Spanish provinces that had not been directly connected by the private railway concessionaires of the later 19th century, typically because those routes connected few people, hence would have generated little traffic and thus insufficient commercial return on investment. In retrospect, Guadalhorce’s railway-building plans were, almost by definition, economically irrational. But judged within Guadalhorce’s era, the policy failed not because of an entirely predictable dearth of traffic, but because of the inability of the fragile and isolationist Spanish state to fund such an expensive mode of transport in the absence of private capital: That the purely public state was not strong enough to deliver the “cohesión territorial” the state needed in order to maintain state is a basic and still largely unacknowledged arithmetic flaw in Spanish rail-based state-building, which in the current era has led the nation state to depend (financially) on a global world that by definition undermines it, a vicious circle expanded by the essay On the Wings of Hope.

Few of Guadalhorce’s proposed railways were completed, and even fewer were retained in the subsequent era of “democracy”. Modern Spain shifted the emphasis of “cohesión territorial” toward people. However that demos was structured too hierarchically, as if the external projection of Spain as a singular sovereign nation meant that Spain could be managed internally as an absolute power: A model which simply cannot reflect the interactions of the people of Spain, which are between people, especially between small but intensively known groups of people. This tension, first explored in the essay Absolute Devolution, routinely renders gaps in transactional responsibility, leaving the state held responsible for providing that which the populous cannot themselves fully comprehend. National in conception but often rather local in delivery, it is consequently widely understood that state-owned Spanish railway operator Renfe only offers services in certain places, yet there is scant understanding of why. While “democracy” may have shifted public expectations toward serving people – railways that offer passenger utility – the formal structure of that democracy still tends toward the projection of authority from what used to be called God – an idea of physical “presence” introduced in The Expectations of Competition. The combination is a state railway that should, by Modern Spanish democratic expectation, relate people together, but is too often moribund by a political structure that can only affect relations through physical infrastructure, and especially struggles to relate past infrastructure to contemporary use. A struggle that has now festered for a century, almost oblivious to fundamental demographic and economic change in the meantime, mocking any sense of societal equality appended to the modern rhetoric of “cohesión territorial”.

As explored in the next section, the long-run financial unsustainability of modern Spain’s high speed railway network now poses a threat to the whole national railway, a threat that logically perpetuates the evolution of Alta Velocidad (AV) into a more regional service, in search of more revenue-earning traffic – a gradual slide that started the moment Ciudad Real was accidentally added to the first Línea de Alta Velocidad (LAV), as described in Is Alta Velocidad Fast? But at least LAV was conceived to link large centres of population in an era when people mattered – even if the residual manifestation of authority, and more specifically the structural needs of Castilla (explored in the next essay, “Disassembling Trenes“), still appear to focus those links upon Spain’s largest city and capital, Madrid. In contrast Ferrocarriles de Vía Estrecha (FEVE), the traditional state operator of the metre-gauge railway network introduced at the start of this essay, remains resolutely stuck in the previous era: If the only aim is to link Galicia to the Asturias, it matters not that the population of Luarca are offered no same-day return railway journey to Oviedo, their regional capital. Or that the people of A Mariña (Lugo’s coastal belt) cannot use the train to travel to work or to hospital. Indigno indeed.

FEVE‘s suburban core is scarcely better, its combination of speed and frequency woefully inadequate to compete with modern autopistas (motorways) – or, in Asturias, even to compete with the traditional rival, Renfe. Oh, Renfe (Viajeros SME SA) may have taken ownership of FEVE’s passenger operations at the start of 2013, but the two organisations continue to maintain not only separate trains, but separate labour agreements, separate passenger information systems, and even separate ticket offices in certain shared stations. Such integration surely serves only to dilute FEVE’s abysmal financial performance: For example, across the whole of the Asturias, FEVE only carries about five thousand people each day across roughly 270 daily train journeys, averaging under 20 passengers per train. Just 14% of FEVE’s Asturian operating costs are covered from passenger revenue. That performance is on a par with Iberian-gauge Renfe routes slated for closure – such as the original line to Segovia which has been largely surpassed by an AV alternative – but is a travesty of market development given FEVE’s core Asturian operating territory around Oviedo: A fragmented, but still relatively high density of population, where the focus of much local travel is a city whose transport policies are intent on dissuading car use. Yet even Íñigo de la Serna – a native of the north coast, who must have been well aware of FEVE’s malaise – could only propose an 8-year survival package of track and trains: A strategy of maintaining a status quo that was defined in a very different era.

Although the town’s bus station is now in denial – their timetables not even afforded a proper display, in sharp contrast to local municipal bus services – Luarca is the L in ALSA, “Automóviles Luarca Sociedad Anónima”: A commercial business that has grown to become Spain’s largest bus operator, and is now part of a global public transport group. Much of ALSA‘s pre-1960s success can be attributed to the Galicia-Asturias corridor, an axis which then had no railway, and thus no incumbent rail operator with the legal right to deny ALSA their long-distance bus concessions. ALSA’s dominance was undiminished by the eventual arrival of the railway – ALSA’s current service through Luarca is faster, vastly better scheduled, and generally stops closer to the people it serves. And one look at Oviedo’s massive ALSA-dominated bus station suggests this pattern is not unique to Luarca: ALSA’s territorial victory marked by the building of a bus station on a site originally occupied by FEVE, a veritable stake driven through the heart of the vanquished. Yet there is scant evidence that FEVE ever tried to offer a competitive local transport counter-balance. The implication, that the railway was never intended to convey local people: Its plethora of local stations offering localities the mere “presence” of the state. A presence that, for Luarca, completely dominates the skyline with a behemoth of a concrete viaduct that looms over the town – an attempt to dominate nature in a town where nature dominates.

In the north-west of Spain nature is unstable: A pattern most obvious in its changeable Atlantic-driven climate, which is quite unlike the meteorological stability experienced by the rest of Spain. The far west of Britain understands a similar environment through the predictive analytic, but that is not a philosophical model integral to Spain. Instead the people of north-west Spain would seem to de-emphasise time as a continuum, since logically such time offers no stable basis for comparison and therefore no reliable platform for understanding. Perhaps taken to its extreme conclusion, the only time is now, which can only be understood in its moment. The pattern perplexes Castilians, but helps explain why the north-west produces such good managers of chaos. However the north-west is still strongly influenced by the Spanish “family” model of knowing – the intensely known group, not a knowledge that deconstructs the wider whole. But shorn of the implicit stability of environment assumed elsewhere in Spain, the people of the north-west are perhaps more inclined to focus on their immediate environment, narrowing the geographic scope of locality: The Asturias must feel like the biggest small place in the world. Consequently the instability of nature does not just make the theological Spanish state work extra hard to impose itself: It changes how locality is perceived – the geographic proximity at which the familiar becomes unfamiliar – which contributes to the substantial differences between the regions of Spain. Differences which national transport entities are somehow expected to manage fairly. For the national infrastructure provider, the “presence” offered by railway networks can surely never be enough to match the intensity with which locality may be felt. For the national public transport operator, the reduced distance from “home” at which the collective group dynamic fades and the individual survival instinct takes over, makes competition with the private car challenging. Yet here, as often, persistence in the face of the unachievable propagates the counter-balancing tension that sustains Spain.

Continue reading “Saving Ferroviarias”

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”

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”