Josep Lluís Franco Rabell is a Spanish translator, activist and politician. Deputy of the 11th legislature of the Parliament of Catalonia between 2015 and 2017, he led the Catalan parliamentary group Sí que es Pot.
By a happy coincidence, the anniversary of “the plenary sessions of shame” in the Parliament of Catalonia – those unfortunate days of September 6 and 7, 2017 – has overlapped with the reading of a magnificent work by the Turkish writer and journalist Ece Temelkuran (“How to lose a country“. Ed. Anagrama), lucid analysis and vibrant democratic plea against national populism. The study of Temelkuran, although starting from the actual experience of her country – whose countenance is difficult for her to recognize and from which she has had to leave so as not to end up in jail, like so many opponents of Erdogan’s despotic regime – reveals the existence of some same guidelines under which this phenomenon develops. Some guidelines that are enacted everywhere: whether we are talking about the Trump presidency, the leadership of Boris Johnson at the head of Brexit, the Putin regime or the government of Viktor Orbán. Of course, the concrete development of populist movements bears the stamp of their respective national matrices, with their specific configurations and histories. More than that: they express a sick inflammation of national sentiments. But that is not the only trait they share. Quite the contrary, all of them translate the same crisis of the global order. Often they arise from the slow erosion of representative democracies, undermined by years of neoliberal policies and their corollary of injustices, social inequalities, and hopeless individualism. Defying a discredited rationality, they stand as an authoritarian response to the deep unease of our societies. Well, as much as some may admit it, the “procés” is fully part of that world dynamic.
The sessions on the 6th and 7th of September 2017represented a moment of decantation, of irremissible crystallization of the independence movement that had been growing over the last five years into a national populist phenomenon, rooted and with anti-democratic features. Both the texts that were approved – the Referendum Law and the Transitory and Foundational Law of the Republic – as well as the methods used by the parliamentary majority certify this. It has been repeated many times: that majority did not have the legitimacy or the legality to repeal the Constitution and the Statute, nor to skip all parliamentary procedures, trampling on the rights of representation of the opposition – and, therefore, of the citizens of Catalonia. However, from the populist logic, that majority did not have to worry about such “minutiae”, since they felt they were the exclusive representative of the authentic will of the people. It embodied the genuine Catalonia. And those who did not share its ideology were not only “enemies of the people”, but were expelled from the perimeter of Catalonia. After years of proclaiming the moral superiority of an honest and hardworking people, adorned with all the human virtues and permanently aggrieved and plundered by Spain, the other half – or more – of the country had been in a certain way dehumanized. The violation of the rights of the opposition was but the culmination of that process … at the same time as a message addressed to the dissident part of the nation: “You are not citizens of our Republic”. This story that dislocates the civil unity of Catalan society has penetrated deeply, like a fine rain on the parched earth of a country shaken by the last great recession in the world economy. Today, even in the most reasonable sectors of the independence movement, it is still difficult to take care of the emotional tear that it caused for thousands and thousands of citizens, especially among working people from other parts of Spain, to feel treated as strangers in the country they had raised with their effort … and even branded as “colonists of the Franco regime”. National populism is always built against an external enemy, the cause of all evil. Under such conditions, the resistance it encounters in society can only respond to interference from that enemy of the homeland. Independents – that is, true Catalans – or unionists. The adoption of terminology coined in blood in the Northern Ireland conflict has never been accidental nor innocent.
Naturally, the Catalan case has its peculiarities. But the “procés” is not as different from the Northern League experience as some prefer to believe. “Spain robs us” or “Rome is a thief”. We are before the secessionist impulse of a rich region of Europe, whose middle classes, frightened, give themselves up to the reverie that a solo journey would be better for them, Thomas Piketty tells us starkly. And it is true. To configure its own “demos”, populism needs to invoke the threat of diffuse adversaries and gloomy conspiracies: “the European elites who plunder the United Kingdom”, the immigration that threatens the jobs of the native people… or even that retrograde Spain that does not allow us to become a Denmark of the South. Far from being, as some claimed, a sort of corrective mechanism for liberal democracies far removed from their own citizenship, populism constrains democracy, discrediting its guarantee mechanisms, substituting plebiscite for deliberation and shaping the legal order and the institutions of the State according to the demands of a supreme and uncontested leadership. Boldness and brutality become virtues of this personified incarnation of the popular will. Boris Johnson can boast, saying that he will violate the agreements entered into with the European Union; Trump allows himself to encourage riots and threaten not to accept the verdict of the polls, if it is unfavorable to him; the Polish government is waging an open war against the country’s judiciary … In the same sense, the “Founding Law of the Republic” represented a veritable compendium of populist unreason, designing a regime whose judicial power was subject to the will of the President and where the Government decisions were not subject to any control by the courts. A State, moreover, whose national substratum would be defined by a “participatory process of the entities of civil society”, destined to imperatively prefigure the work of a future Constituent Assembly. Transitory dispositions? Experience shows that when populism seizes power, provisionality is perpetuated.
It will be objected that, in the Catalan case, the secessionist process ended in failure, when it ran into the strong will of the Spanish State and the opposition of the European Union to such an adventure. Someone could even say that the “movement” does not have an indisputable leader. That it is Puigdemont who wears the habits of the populist caudillo; but that, after years of insomniac struggle for hegemony, ERC could finally make the surprise to the nationalist right, perhaps giving way to a more pragmatic and dialoguing independence movement. “Hopefully”, one is tempted to say. However, there is a problem. On the one hand, all the pro-independence tendencies have drunk the cup of populism to the dregs. It is this movement that has given them mass influence, allowing them to remain in power amid a general debacle of European, national and regional governments, swept away by the shock wave of the 2008 financial crisis. The crisis, social and economic, caused by a pandemic that is still raging and threatens to reappear will keep the concern and fears of the middle classes. It is not for nothing that conspiracy theories, flat Earth and superstitions of all kinds flourish, here and there, symptomatically. Times of wrath will come, propitious to charlatans and miracle workers. Times still conducive to populist drives. Certainly, the fight will intensify within the independence movement. But it does not seem that it is going to do so in terms of continuity or explicit renunciation of the populist national drift of the “procés“. ERC, as a deeply petty-bourgeois party, lives on the edge of its insoluble dilemmas: on the one hand, it would like to occupy a pragmatic centrality, knowing that there is no “intelligent confrontation” with the State; on the other, however, it perceives the cultural change that has taken place in Catalan society. There is fatigue after a long period of tension, it seems that there is a favorable attitude to dialogue, to seek the improvement of self-government … However, all the polls indicate that, despite the chaos that reigns in their ranks, loyalty remains globally for the pro-independence vote – which could revalidate or even expand its parliamentary majority in the next elections. Oriol Junqueras and Marta Rovira, far from drawing conclusions from the failure of 2017, insist that it is about gaining time and support – the working population of the metropolitan area continues to resist – in order to prepare another stake. It is difficult for ERC to agree to a serious negotiation of the general state budget while feeling Puigdemont’s breath on the neck, especially if it also perceives that the embers of the movement are still hot under the ashes of the previous attempt. Of course, there is no “window of opportunity” in sight for a secession at this time. Nobody even dreams about it. But if independence is not on the order of the day as an achievable goal, it still prevails as a banner of mass regrouping. And the independence movement can only achieve that level of social adherence through the springs of a populist movement. Today it is not about independence, but about power, autonomic power. That is no small thing, considering the budget volume managed by the Generalitat, and the possibilities of placing cadres at the head of administrations and the media, of weaving dense client networks with companies that live off public procurement or entities in need of subsidies … Effective power, in short.
The problem is that these populist springs lead to a constant tension with the State – when times require cooperation and institutional loyalty – and perpetuate the division of Catalan society when a collective effort becomes most necessary. In a recent article, Joan Coscubiela warns us about the risk of going from the stagnation and self-absorption of these years to a long period of national decline. We are condemned to this if the country does not overcome the prolonged populist moment in which it has been – and continues to be – immersed. And, once again, it must be said that the left have a decisive responsibility. Not only in regard to the actions of the Pedro Sánchez government, opening new horizons for social improvement and a dialogical approach to territorial tensions, but also for the action of progressive forces themselves in Catalonia. The left has been slow to accurately diagnose the nature of the movement that was developing in its face and that was disrupting Catalan society, its institutions, and its coexistence. A part of that left still doubts in the face of populism. Here is the challenge of the next period. The left needs to deploy without complexes its own project for Catalonia, a federal and progressive project. The powerless epic of populism can only leave behind a trail of frustration, resentment and division. But, to weave an alternative project, you have to start calling things by their very name.