Martín Alonso * ||
Doctor of Political Science ||
In a letter to Karl Jaspers, Hannah Arendt gives him notice about her friendship with Eric Hoffer and commends the writings of this self-taught sailor. Every scholar studying mass movements does know ‘The true believer’. Several excerpts chosen from that source serve to explain phenomena such as Brexit or the Catalan pro-sovereignty procés, on which this paper is focused.
First, here is the
recipe for the neutralization of an emancipatory social movement, which I like
to call Hoffer’s theorem: “The problem of
stopping a mass movement is often a matter of substituting one movement for
another. A social revolution can be stopped by promoting a religious or nationalist
movement”(19). This note illuminates the transit from 15-M to 11-S in Catalonia,
from the stratified or vertical mobilization of the former, to the identity (“let’s
them go to take a piss to Spain”) of the latter.
Second, the homogenizing effect of the action: “What matters is not the content of the cause but the total dedication and the communion with a congregation. […] The conflicts a mass movement seeks and incites serve not only to down its enemies but also to strip its followers of their distinct individuality and render them more soluble in the collective medium. […] Even mere marching can serve as a unifier” (90, 126).
Thirdly, the adversarial
process of creating the enemy as a mechanism to discharge frustration: “The force of a mass movement is proportional
to the liveliness and credibility of the enemy. When Hitler was asked if the
Jews had to be destroyed, he replied: ‘No, if we do it we would have to invent
them’ […] The technique of an active mass movement basically consists of
instilling and cultivating the proclivities and responses characteristic of a
frustrated mind” (95, 63).
Fourth, the peculiarity
of the nationalism of the rich: “Our
frustration is greater when we have much and want more than when we have
nothing and we want some. We are less
dissatisfied when we lack many things than when we seem to lack but one thing”
There is a vector going through the previous ones and it has to do with the mental furnishing of the members, which is fundamentally of an emotional order: it is nationalism. In his words: “nationalism is the most copious and durable source of mass enthusiasm” (4). The enormous mobilizing power of nationalism rests on its proteiform character, which precisely makes it so susceptible to populism. There is a voice that in its polysemy covers the main meanings of nationalism and it will help me to articulate the pieces of this writing: screen. I will deal successively with its functions as insulating, projective and emitting.
The screen as a mechanism of mental
immunization against empirical evidence
Hoffer writes: “All active mass movements strive, therefore, to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside of it” (82). Indifference to reality is one of the features highlighted by Orwell in his pages on nationalism. Examples of this screen effect are legion. A simple one: the sector that most followed the patriotic strike of October 18 was the educational one, as they say. What is omitted is the tuning between the Student Union calling for three days of strike and a big section of the staff of public – to highlight the adjective- high and university education. As I am writing (24/10), I read that students prevent access to the University of Barcelona (https://cronicaglobal.elespanol.com/vida/estudiantes-impiden-inicio-clases-ub_286365_102.html.
And what is also omitted
is the actual motive why situations affecting the specific conditions of
educational quality much more, such as the fact that Catalonia is the
autonomous community with the most school barracks (1,013, in 2019, according
to La Vanguardia, 01/10/2019) do not
provoke equivalent protest measures among the students. The answer must be
found in the first of Hoffer’s observations.
But, without a doubt, the element most affected by national soundproofing is the stratified dimension of secessionism: all indicators converge on a differential incidence of support for independence as in the upper side of the vertical line of status. It is enough to contrast the names appearing in the media and the statistical distribution of the surnames to observe the contrast: the yellow coloration correlates positively with the prestige scale: political, cultural, intellectual, sports, media … We observe for example the status of three personalities that have been meant as spokespersons for grievances and abuse: Guardiola, Piqué – letting aside his affairs with the Treasury – or Llach. Anyone who has read Fanon has trouble incorporating them into the category of the damned of the earth. As much as believing Torra when he matches himself up with Vaclav Havel, also a devotee of Jordi Pujol.
By the way, the ups and
downs of the Pujol family are another landscape that the nationalist screen has
successfully soundproofed. Not only those of Banca Catalana, where in view of
Pujol’s confession, the sentence unfairly favored the President, as prosecutors
argued. It is now five years since the Commission of Investigation in the Parliament,
when the matriarch of the Pujols, of whom three years later we learned that she
was dealing with missals with the Reverend Father in the parish library, said
that her children were broke and that Catalonia did not deserve that. Silence
of ERC: they saved Mas for the third time from testifying in the “Pujol
commission”. Silence also of the president of the commission, David
Fernández, of the CUP, very busy in the identity branch of the issue in an
unsurpassed exemplification of Hoffer’s theorem.
We must insist that it is not a Catalan differential fact but a generalized phenomenon that Emmanuel dalle Mulle has named as the nationalism of the rich, exemplifying it with the cases of Catalonia, Flanders, Northern Italy and Scotland. The reading in terms of class of the Catalan revolt has been signed off by Picketty in Capital and ideology.
The geographer Christophe Guilluy (No Society. The end of the Western middle class, Taurus, 2019) has transferred, black and white, Hoffer’s theorem to the Catalan case: “The independence movements often hide a process of social and cultural secession that, in reality, seek to dismantle national solidarity and validate the inequitable territorial model of globalization, that of large cities. More than a renewal of nationalism, it is first of all the secession of the bourgeoisie carrying the balkanization of the developed countries in a latent state. […] Presented as a case of cultural irredentism, the separatism of the Catalans reveals in the first place a reaction of the rich regions to the economic crisis and the collapse of the Spanish middle classes. […] It is mainly directed by a liberal-libertarian ideology characteristic of the new bourgeoisies. Thus, the Catalan nationalists were supported by a part of the Catalan bourgeoisie who wished to strengthen their position through fiscal independence, but also a youth of the left or extreme left who championed libertarian values, and the two groups supported the process of globalization and openness to the world and to others. The forces that lead Catalan nationalism are the same as those found in the territories benefited by globalization, they rely on the ideological alliance of economic liberalism and social liberalism. Under the nationalist varnish, in fact, we find the ideological foundations of the ruling classes and the new bourgeoisie. Here too antifascism is used as a class weapon. The ruling classes use a real nationalist sentiment to impose a neoliberal model that, consequently, harms the popular classes in Spain, but also in Catalonia, where the concentration of wealth and employment in Barcelona has operated to the detriment of the Catalan popular classes”.
is the effectiveness of these screens, in addition to misinforming and
immunizing against reality, which allows monstrous semantic formations, such
as, to cite the last, that of the Democratic Tsunami. If one thinks in
political terms, the Tsunami can only evoke the worst moments in the history of
the last century, which ended with the genocides of the Balkans and Rwanda.
They also allow a double standard that resists cognitive dissonance: Catalan
nationalists complain about Madrid’s neglect and lack of dialogue, but omit
that they have taken possession of institutions of all and that they have
discriminated against and excluded the non-nationalist part of the population.
Slogans such as ‘the streets are ours’ or ‘Catalan is not to be touched’, are not precisely examples of democratic pluralism or solidarity, but rather pruritus of supremacist psychologies trained in the art of feeling offended, just like – changing registers – the Franco family feeling mistreated by the State because of the exhumation decision while at the same time enjoying the prebends and privileges inherited from the Dictator, as well as a consideration his victims would have acknowledged. Surely convinced and irritated because we do not understand them. The Franco family also has its soundproofing screen. But the masterpiece in this field is the one referring to the fortunes of the Pujols and their biological and political families; because it is these ups and downs, as Siscu Baiges (El Triangle, 10/16/2019) explains, which ultimately are at the origin of the identity lighting of the procés; and the current warming because of the sentence is not alien to them, besides serving as a burning nail for the independence unity.
The receiving screen
In a second meaning, a
screen is a projection surface, which we can understand here in the
psychoanalytic sense. We know that the successful mass movements are those that
manage to furnish the minds and passions of the population with carefully
prepared contents. The stab in the back was the great propaganda find of
Nazism, Kosovo’s stolen fate of Serbian nationalism that burned Yugoslavia and
transformed it into those cursed Balkans; the two enter into the register of
victimhood that nationalisms feed when they leave the civic-cultural sphere, as
has happened with Catalan for a few years now.
Catalan nationalism, which, at the end of the last century, declared itself satisfied with the achievement of its historical objectives, has built in the last decade a typical story of stolen destiny that goes back to the rewriting of history since 1714. The element of theft covers from the symbolic aspects (“Spain vs. Catalonia“, as the title of the symposium said), to the materials (“Spain steals from us“). The functionality of the victimizing frameworks, often summed up in the accusation of endonomophobia, resides in the fact that they protect any conduct and that no response from the accused part is sufficient to cover the outstanding debt. In this scheme, any action by the aggrieved, however serious, is explained as a reaction or response, as a legitimate defense, against the attacks received. Julio Caro Baroja masterfully summed it up in The Basque Labyrinth: “Populist resentment cultivates the idea of a persecution to persecute, the idea of self-martyrdom to martyrize, that of the need for self-defense to attack and offend, terrorize and destroy”.
Just to return to the
concrete, out of the set of sentences affecting Catalonia, some of them as
subject to suspicion as the Banca Catalana or those that supported the
linguistic policy of Pujol, nationalism retains only those that do not match with
their preferences, and it is not content with a reasoned criticism but
challenges the judicial system in general and, by elevation, the democratic
condition of the State. Conceptual engineering, a work of spin doctors, serves
to model cognitive frames and graft them into the screen of victimhood
The most recent example is the media processing of the riots in Barcelona. From the framing as a public order problem implicit in the un-authorization of violence as attributable to undercover agents, it has been successively admitted that there could be pro-independence followers among the violent (Miquel Buch, Interior Counselor), through claiming them as patrimony of the secessionist movement (Mireia Boya, CUP), to explain them as a reaction to police repression by disallowing criminalization (David Partal, vilaweb: “they are our boys, the children of 1-O”), to end up demanding the purging of responsibilities of the police (Torra). That is to say, a public order problem is transmuted into a self-defense response to police repression and the “shared insult” (Toni Soler, Ara, 10/19/2019) that the sentence implies, it is understood, to the people of Catalonia, that patrimonialized synecdochial subject. Like the public space: “The streets will be always ours and, for about several days, also the highways” (Alber Om, Ara, 10/19/2019).
In this victimhood
reading, not only violence is justified but it is reclaimed as the sacrifice of
those most dedicated to the cause. It must be said that this approach between
the mental engineering of the riots and the sentence was facilitated by the
environmental preconditioning cooked over months in advance, conditioning that
explains the synchronization of the valuation of official voices in a dense
Smoke and fire were already present in the Arran posters prior to the ruling. And then there was no police, nor was there police in the marches of 18. The insemination of hatred towards everything Spanish, patiently practiced for decades, now bears its toxic fruits. As in these processes, the most radical discourse is the one that ends up imposing itself, so that at the present time one can speak of a CUPification of the mental framework of the procés.
In the victimhood
scheme, any answer has its justification, because the ‘abertzale’ motto of
“they will have done something to them” always remains. Since we are of a peaceful
essence, the separation from that definition, the launching of Molotov
cocktails, cobbles and other objects, can only be the result of powerful
external forces. Fighting them is an obligation, even if it involves a sacrifice.
Although it depends on which type of sacrifice: Toni Comín’s proposal for an
indefinite strike was explicitly unauthorized. In the same way as wealthy neighborhoods
have been exquisitely safeguarded in the chapter on destruction.
The tuned mirror of secessionism faithfully fulfills the task of returning to its users the superlative image consistent with the underlying narcissism, a supremacism that is reflected in the claim of a democratic superiority vis-à-vis Spain. The combined action of the Generalidad, the media and the built-in civil society organizations ensure this emotional homogenization that is reflected, like the screen, in the answers. Identical, gregarious responses; in the antipodes of personal and moral identity. Like those of Vox.
3. The emitting screen: singular
prints of the adjective choronym
If the protective function of the screen fulfilled the mission of preventing dissonant information and the recipient function was to flatter / stimulate collective self-esteem, the emitting function is destined to win the battle of the frame in the public space. Thanks to it, secessionism has managed to present a dichotomous sequence in which its profile appears embellished to the same extent as that of the adversary, the Spanish State, is degraded. The result is a sort of upside down world composed of a set of motifs repeatedly invoked until, according to Goebbels’ recipe, being installed in the convolutions of the allied public. Here are some of them.
a. Spain is an imperial state and
Catalonia an oppressed colony
The repertoire of the
frustrated nation, the occupation forces or the explicit mention of a colonial relationship
is omnipresent. Despite the fact that the autonomous institutions of Catalonia
and the recognition of the singularities from the language to the police – let’s
compare it with the French counterpart – is precisely the result of the
But the element that most clearly shows the alternative truth of secessionism is that Catalonia would effectively represent an unprecedented differential fact in colonial relations: the colony has a level of well-being superior to that of the metropolis, and of course much more favorable than that of the emptied Spain that should raise solidarity rather than grievance. And another element can be added to the irony: the Catalan rulers boast a popular mandate thanks to a Spanish electoral law that they have had no interest in replacing with their own.
b. Spain is a dictatorship and
Catalonia an exemplary democracy
Since it has been recent
news through the bombings against the Kurds that have caused dozens of deaths,
it is important to remember that the Catalan inverting discourse has assimilated
Spain to Turkey. In this it has followed a well-trained pattern applied by
radical Basque nationalism.
The connection between both separatisms is opportunely provided by an op-ed by Arnaldo Otegi in The Guardian (23/10/2019) of symptomatic title in the mouth of the one who signs it – “Spanish state repression in Catalonia may be shocking – but it’s nothing new” in which after stating that “For years Spain was able to disguise its undemocratic essence under the cloak of the “fight against Basque terrorism” and that, with respect to Catalonia, “This is why the state plays up, and at times instigates, violence in the region”, (which would tune in to the already corrected Torra’s version of the infiltrated), he dares to affirm that “Fortunately, the Catalan nationalist movement is committed to peace, as we are in the Basque country”.
Otegi’s commitment to
peace is truly a dialectical prodigy; member of ETA, condemned for it and then
again for collaboration from the direction of Batasuna, he has never disavowed the
violence nor repudiated the tributes to ETA’s members; but beyond what Otegi might
say or not, one of the scales to establish the democratic or dictatorial nature
of a country lies in seeing which side the damage falls on, that of the
security forces or the civilian population.
In Zutabe number 114, of April 2018, the pro-ETA media took stock of its history and disclosed some data about its activity. In its sinister accounting, ETA recognizes 365 attacks against the Civil Guard with 186 dead agents (not including family members, nor the first victim, José Antonio Pardines), 147 attacks against members of the army with 101 dead members, 215 attacks against police officers with 139 agents killed (there were actually 150, according to the report of the Memorial Center of the Victims of Terrorism, Cuaderno No. 7, March 2019) and 161 attacks against alleged police confidants, in which 103 died.
If we add to this the
listing of politicians of non-nationalist parties, 104 attacks with 68
political adversaries killed according to the Zutabe, on the one hand, and the difference between the number of
deaths during the dictatorship and in the democratic period, it is clear that
any attribution of a democratic character to the ‘abertzale’ deeds denotes
serious perceptual errors.
Of course, taking into account the enormous differences, because after Terra Lliure there have been no deaths in Catalonia; although it is worth remembering that José María Bultó’s convicted murderer, Carlos Sastre, acts nowadays as an organic trade unionist, as well as the links between radical ‘abertzalismo’ and sectors of Catalan radicalism, from Gonzalo Boyé to Arnaldo Otegi or Pernando Barrena. And, taking into account again the differences, the indicated scale can be applied and the distribution of those affected by the turbulences between police and protesters can be observed; they do not resist the comparison with any dictatorship. In a surrealist tone and register, it should be noted that a president is reclaiming pacifism while marching on an occupied highway accompanied by Ibarretxe, the one who claimed that “we must govern as if ETA did not exist“, something Torra could very well incorporate for his treatment of non-nationalists. So surreal it is that the Interior Councilor had to attribute that pacifism to the deepest strata of the President’s ethical stratigraphy.
C. Inconsistent perceptions in the
In the aforementioned
letter, Otegi calls for the intervention of the European institutions in the
Catalan dispute in favor of a negotiated situation that forces the hand of the
Two elements to underline: on the one hand, the disavowal of Spanish sovereignty as a consequence of the supposed undemocratic condition of its institutions; on the other, the preference for the denomination itself. This is a significant fact because it illustrates a problem of greater importance as it affects a wider scope than that of nationalism itself. For much of the left, social movements and their international correlates, including prestigious media, the expression ‘Spanish State’ is the usual form of denomination. So that one meets the mention of the different countries (France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland) by their substantive conventional name but upon reaching the case at hand, the choronym is reduced to an adjective condition (Spanish state), which is symptomatic of the assumption by broad groups of the mental framework of the rich and somewhat supremacist nationalisms.
Again, a good part of
the left and the Spanish alternative movements (or of the ‘Spanish State’, in
their jargon) assume with natural and justified reluctance the characteristics
of Spanish nationalism and, nevertheless, do not adopt the same prudential
attitude towards the peripheral nationalisms and, in particular, and this is
relevant to the ideological tonality of these actors, of the richest, because
Galicia does not usually shows in the listing.
It should be not at all obvious that those who with such determination justifiably presume to know what is behind appearances accept without further precautions the thesis that rich nationalisms are leftist and emancipatory. They have not investigated, for example, in the contradiction of that 2017 ‘country’ strike called from above and with the guarantee that the salary would not be discounted…, nor the totalitarian releasing of phrases such as “the streets are ours”, nor the rampant xenophobia which illustrated the expression “human beasts” of the self-proclaimed pacifist president.
This left also
unscrupulously assumes the soundproofing of nationalism when establishing
comparative criteria; it has not been seen, for example, disavowing Italy or
Germany when both countries declared the referendums of Bavaria and the Veneto
unconstitutional, not so long ago, and that, consequently and unlike in Catalonia,
these referendums were not held after the corresponding judicial decision. (Nor
have we heard complaints about that from Guardiola who lived in Italy as a
football player and was a Bayern coach). Nor did it disavow Canada for drafting
a Clarity Law that left responsibility for the decision on separation in the
federal parliament and which is invoked as a fetish just because it has not
been read in full.
Nor in these countries have such decisions been challenged by a certain left as they have been in Spain; which demonstrates a clear deficiency of sense of State in the Hispanic counterpart. In the same sector that later complains that the State is weak against financial sharks. How can a Welfare State be defended if the defense of the State is not assumed, of the structural plant from which to articulate a conception of citizenship that includes equality and solidarity – by the way, a word that has disappeared from the lexicon of the defenders of the right to decide?.
An evil-minded person would
imagine that if this “low quality” democracy fell, the successors of
today’s exquisite critics would reclaim it just to blame the new adversaries.
Always on the side of the winners¡ While now they question their credentials
under the sarcasm barely contained in the “78 regime” by those who,
to a large extent, did not know the true repression, not that of the screens.
Not being aware of these
differential starting conditions – which of course does not amount to
validating other outbursts of the Spanish right that so highly proclaims itself
as constitutionalist – and admitting that it does not intervene so as not to
increase the fracture or contribute to polarization, explains the comfort and
the exquisiteness of those who attribute the same responsibility to
secessionists who have monopolized power and to non-secessionists – of any
ideological tonality – who have been ignored for decades.
To posit that there are two extremisms just to wash hands and invoke dialogue as if they were comparable positions in legitimacy is something difficult to accept given the asymmetry of the positions. Asymmetry that is evident in the authoritarian dimension of nationalism when it does its best to prevent the expression of critical opinions, what I have called anti-mobilization. And that has a plastic expression in the valuation of anti-nationalist demonstrations: if they are not very crowded, they are discredited because the demonstrators amount only to ‘four cats’ and therefore do not represent anyone, but if they are massive, as in October 2017, they can only be fascist. Quod erat demonstrandum.
4. Cooling the public space
In their efforts to isolate unwanted similarities, secession advocates avoid mentioning cases that shed light on the drift of Catalanism, such as the case of Israel, which in a few decades has assumed the role of executioner in its extreme and more widespread version in time, and that of Brexit, which has destroyed a system endowed with exemplary institutions in a few years. The Balkan mirror is repulsive, but the British model offers relevant lessons. I will retain here only one, which characterizes the leading voices of independence, in the same way as British populism: the trivialization of insult and personal disqualification – the culture of ‘Zasca’ -, bad education, emotional warming, disrespect for the truth of the facts. In my opinion this is the main difficulty to deactivate the pressurization of the procés, to reduce the tension to a point where respectful dialogue is possible on equal terms.
And here it is necessary
to mention that those accusing the government of Sanchez of not wanting to negotiate
(by the way, it was the argument of the Zionist hawks when they said that they
did not have partners of the Palestinian side) are the same who assert again
and again that there are certain untouchable aspects, such as the language (only
catalan) or television. The same people, who, from those consummated facts
scratched out of the autonomist consensus, declare that the time of autonomy
has passed. If privileges are understood as consolidated rights, it is
difficult to establish a dialogue. The transit of the Old Regime illustrates
it; and taking advantage of the chronological incursion we remember the Varennes
escape, which Guilluy has evoked to describe processes such as the Catalan one,
according to the quotation offered above.
So we should start by tempering, by respecting the tone, by admitting that no one is the exclusive owner of the streets, nor of the institutions and, yes, nor of the truth. Although that does not mean assuming the relativistic recipe that everything is defensible and that the best solution is the average among all the proposals in the opinion market. We know that if someone climbs the mountain, he is left without coverage and cannot pretend that those who agree to live on the plain must climb half of the hill in order to communicate.
Hoffer summed up the
reckless strategy of populist leaders: “There
is less risk in being discredited when trying the impossible than when trying the possible. It is thus
that failure in everyday affairs often feeds an extravagant audacity” (79).
And Caro Baroja stressed in The Basque
Labyrinth: “The possible ‘identity’,
then, is threatened by those who want to take it to a degree of ‘impossibility’”
In short, it is about
acting in the direction of favoring the conditions to build a hospitable space
for all identities, because prior to being members of one or another collective
we are human beings and as such identical in dignity, as Gabriel Jackson, a
wise man resident in Barcelona for long years and now completely forgotten by
virtue of the soundproofing efficiency of the screen of the procés, wrote when these winds started
* Martín Alonso is the
author, among other books, of Catalanism,
from success to ecstasy, an in-depth analysis of Catalan secessionism,
developed in three volumes edited by El Viejo Topo, in 2015.