Can Europe Make It?

Catalonia and the paradox of unity

“This polarisation between two forceful pressures towards unity is leaving many people like me without any options.” Español

Simona Levi
4 November 2019, 3.51pm
Pedro Sanchez, Spain's PM (PSOE candidate) as electoral campaign begins. Barcelona, .October 30, 2019.
Xavier Bonilla/PA. All rights reserved.

Most authoritarian regimes or dictatorships have begun in the ballot box: they don’t have to be the result of an uprising or coup.

There are a few key ingredients that are essential for voters to embrace authoritarian options.

Firstly, they need to be worn down by constant financial insecurity. In Spain (Italy, and many other nations) this particular ingredient isn’t difficult to locate: it is already there. Various governments – and a handful of so-called “left-wing” and right-wing parties that are busy gobbling up as much of the pie as they can for themselves – have done a wonderful job in fostering fiscal injustice and deepening the divide between the ultra-rich, the regime and its clientele, and the people.

Economic injustice can easily turn into discontent against the regime if attention is not diverted. This can only be done in one way: by creating an enemy.

But economic injustice can easily turn into discontent against the regime if attention is not diverted. This can only be done in one way: by creating an enemy. The enemy can be internal or external, although an internal enemy is much easier to deal with.

Enemy images

In choosing an enemy, it’s essential that it is an enemy that can be easily defeated and humiliated. Voters need to see the enemy being crushed, dominated, repeatedly, and a touch of victimhood makes this victory all the more epic. The enemy’s flaws must be magnified or even completely made up, until their members are dehumanised: they are no longer a person but an abject monstrosity.

When it comes to Spain, this has been the case with Gypsies, Arabs, Jews and, yes, now Catalans. (No matter how often some in Catalonia try to deny it, this conflict has led to a majority in the rest of Spain looking on the Catalan with hostility.) Take one example, this time, a state-wide exercise in confirmation bias. During brutal police charges against the first, massive, peaceful reaction to the Catalan politicians’ sentencing – the occupation of the airport – the most-searched news item in Google in Spain was not about this fact, but that of a lady in Tarragona pushed over by a heartless independence supporter. This is how voters can divest themselves of any empathy, and, if necessary, even be induced to actively participate in the lynching. People’s anger is fostered by those in power, so that they can still feel human even when they have to slave like animals in precarious jobs to get by. They're left without any space for reflection, and then given this outlet to vent their stress, anger and frustration.

This polarisation, which quickly translates into fanaticism (i.e. people move further and further away from reality and attach themselves to abstractions and symbols such as flags), is essential. This is the main, and in many cases only, task fulfilled by political parties: to take a simple idea and repeat it over and over again in the simplest (most reduced and therefore unreal) form possible, in order to confront the opposition, who duly adopt and defend opposing simplistic ideas.

Your supporters are now sufficiently polarized. But you also need to exasperate and provoke your chosen enemy to the point where the only voice that's heard from the enemy is the one that best suits your purposes. You then magnify and promote those voices in order to criticise and simplify them; you ignore any other, more nuanced voices.

The goal is for there to be only one enemy position against yours: the exact opposite, so that the two positions are explained by their opposition to one another. Two positions that hold any other opinions to be either treasonous or irrelevant. Once we achieve this, we have an enemy that is just the one we warned the voters they would have. This convinces them.

Electoral fear-mongering

The enemy also needs to invoke fear. It’s important that it can be defined as violent, so that even though your voters can continue to lynch the enemy, they also need protection against them from “a strong government”. Photos of destruction, fires and barricades are indispensable in creating this self-fulfilling prophecy. If the enemy generates these images on their own, so much the better. But if not, it’s relatively simple to provoke them by beating them up with batons, for example, or removing their eyeballs, by having your police force shoot golf-ball-sized rubber bullets at their faces, as the Spanish police have done.

Now let's get back to the elections. We need to be realistic, let’s make no mistake: Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist Party, whether we like it or not, is the last possible firewall standing in Spain against a wave of much harsher authoritarianism spreading out from Catalonia, that could soon consume the rest of the country.

Don’t take this to mean I’ll be voting for the Socialists, I won't. Nor for Podemos, another party that is one source of our current problems. What I am saying is that most parties need voters to go to the polls viscerally surrounded by images of fires, shouting and symbols, in order for us to embrace one simple idea —as if that idea represented all our feelings and we identified completely with it. They like to turn our voting into a gesture of romantic, nihilistic surrender with little care for the consequences.

But it is our task as civil society not to hand ourselves over to the parties in such a way; after all, they would never hand themselves over to us. No one can ever completely represent us. Rather we must foster the circumstances to enable people to go to the polls in the spirit of solving a mathematical problem, because elections are just that: a mathematical problem in a sea of limitations.

Taking back the initiative

Civil society needs a shot to the arm to take back the initiative. In the face of neglect by politicians of their parliamentary duties, lost in a permanent electoral campaign, we need to provide stable solutions for governance that can help resolve citizens’ every-day problems, before the new, even fiercer economic recession that’s approaching takes hold.

If we can do that, with or without the political parties, then people’s lives will be the better for it. That will be the kind of place worth living in, the kind of place worth fighting for.

So where does that leave me in all of this? I believed that was the future that Catalonia had within its grasp, that it could be a positive example to be followed and replicated for positive change in Spain and throughout Europe.

I've had seen that there are a lot of people who believe the same as me. People who are not ideologically pro-independence for independence sake, but who simply thought that the proposition of the sovereignists before the 1-O referendum was the only response possible to the total absence of dialogue from a centralist state with a quasi-colonialist bent that was damaging not only to Catalonia but to the whole of Spain.

We believed that Catalonia was opening up a space for better democracy, better economic justice and better governance. I still believe that, up to the day of the Catalan referendum on 1 October 2017, this was a sincere possibility.

But in the light of what came next, and where it has led us, it seems clear that we were naive to believe that. Two years have passed since then and those who could have shown the world a different type of governance (the Catalan Government comprising the pro-independence parties) have failed to do so.

How can I criticise when there are people in prison paying a cruel, incomprehensible price for what happened?

This polarisation between two forceful pressures towards unity [1.] is leaving many people like me without any options. The myth of unity both repulses and terrifies me. Unity does not exist in nature. There is either cooperation through difference or the big fish eat the small fish (yes, in that sense the two fish are “united”).

The most terrifying thing is that this myth is deepseated in the collective psyche: almost nobody thinks of the idea of unity as a bad thing. Demonstrators still sing “the people united will never be defeated”, wilfully ignoring the major massacres of entire peoples before and after the creation of this motto. The powers that be have achieved a hegemonic narrative in which to speak ill of unity is a type of monstrous betrayal. It has been this way for centuries for the union of the flesh in marriage; it continues in many other forms of unity.

Now on both sides of Catalonia’s border fanaticism is winning. And I am not talking about the recent riots which, when they haven't been provoked, are not symptoms of fanaticism but the result of an unbearable unrest that needs to be addressed as such, without reducing it to the issue of public order which, in a blindly simplistic framework, it might be.

I’m referring to the fanatical polarisation around simple ideas that we see reflected in the electoral environment that authoritarianism has managed to install in order to win at the polls. The fanaticism of the strong crushing the weak, with the weak similarly rendered fanatical in the image of their own oppressor.

Why does fanaticism win? Because of this myth of unity.

Sanchez’ choice

The responsibilities of the Spanish State are clear to see, and they face no immediate incentive to make adjustments, as what interest could the winning side possibly have in making amends?

In short: Sánchez will engage in dialogue when it eventually suits him because he can afford to do so, and it would be absurd to believe he cannot and should not act in his own interests. But it is almost unforgivably naive to argue that he should betray his own interests for no perceptible advantage. And let’s be thankful if it does turn out to be Sánchez’s choice to make, because no other party that has the possibility of governing Spain is going to be interested in dialogue for at least a few decades.

Whether we like it or not, we can only try to shift the course of the losers because only they can be interested in doing something different (unless they’re happier playing the victim, which I hope is not the case).

In the name of “unity”, the two seemingly polar opposite parties in the Catalan Government remain united, so their lack of unity won’t be punished electorally. No longer do they represent two options, there’s just one option and whoever offers the most fanatical discourse wins.

The same applies to Òmnium and ANC, the pro-independence civil society organisations. But I believe – I hope – they don’t feel the same. If so, it should be possible to find a way for the different options to advance and live together while respecting their differences. Isn’t that what democracy is all about?

In the name of unity

There’s a part of the Catalan Government that talks about unilateralism, imposing the same type of arrogance over the 53% of Catalans that didn’t vote for independence as that faced by the 47% who did vote for it from the Spanish State. It calls for permanent public mobilisation, as if that were a political solution and not just a legitimate social reaction, without offering any plan on how to actually carry it out, sending citizens to face brutality from the very law enforcement bodies they themselves – the Government of Catalonia – command.

They call for “permanent mobilization!” then feign surprise when they discover that mobilisation also always includes provocateurs infiltrating the movement to provoke scenes of violence. The Catalan President attempts to give P. Sánchez orders, making a fool of himself, as he is plainly in no position to give such orders. The humiliation he faces over and over again is just what’s necessary to continue to humiliate “the Catalans”. All of this perfectly fulfils the function of the ideal enemy that authoritarian options need to win at the polls.

Both the members in jail and the ones that are not of the other party that make up the Catalan Government insist that the response must be better governance and more openness and listening. That might appear to be an opposing position, but the Government remains united even in the face of excessive force used by police on their own voters. Why? If they failed to respect this sacrosanct unity, they would be punished electorally.

There are plenty of people who disagree with Catalan President Quim Torra’s discourse, but ERC (the Catalan Republican Left party) is booed down whenever it tries to distance itself in any way. In the name of unity.

What a great contradiction it is to have so many people fighting against an unequal unity on the one hand while glorifying unity and uniformity within Catalonia’s borders on the other.

Students protesting against the jailing of nine Catalan separatist leaders and the police. Barcelona, October 30, 2019.
Students protesting against the jailing of nine Catalan separatist leaders and the police. Barcelona, October 30, 2019.
Xavier Bonilla/PA. All rights reserved.

Better democracy

As one student who was interviewed in the last few days said: “There are lots of ways to fight for things to change things for the better.”

If we unite them the same way the big fish “unites” with the small fish, so many people will be left without a voice. I’m not the only one who thinks that a border cannot be an end in itself, but rather that better democracy can and should be our goal. The option put forward by those in favour of Catalan sovereignty up until that fateful referendum on 1 October 2017 was attractive to so many people because it was a response to the arrogant failure to compromise, and because it represented a step towards such a better form of democracy. However, as each day passes, that narrative is becoming simpler and more repetitive and many of us can no longer continue to sympathise with an idea that seems to have transformed into something hollow and uncompromising, at least until we are shown otherwise.

Torra’s resignation could be that demonstration of statesmanship. But we need to see that there’s a plan in place for democracy and greater economic justice in Catalonia, regardless of whether it is with the current border or a new one. We need competent people in the important positions that affect our daily life, present and future. Right now, that’s just not the case. Without all this, independence is no guarantee that anything will improve per se.

Reaching consensus

This is urgent. There’s only a few weeks left before the election. After this ballot, a new, even more brutal economic recession will affect all of us, even though it will have been caused by an authoritarian government we didn’t vote for either (but which certainly won at the polls): the Trump government.

Given just how serious the situation is, analysing the context solely in terms of potential electoral gain would be suicidal.

In Catalonia, whether we like it or not, we have a collective responsibility to ensure that this doesn’t happen in Spain. We must refocus our efforts as an active civil society by reaching consensus on some key basics in various areas if we are to tackle the coming economic crisis on the one hand, and, on the other, the brutal democratic regression that short-term electoralism is promoting.

It’s both urgent and essential that we allow Catalan politics to abandon the myth of unity so that it can better represent different feelings and different solutions and for parliamentarians to cooperate in a constructive, distributed way without needing to merge. Given just how serious the situation is, analysing the context solely in terms of potential electoral gain would be suicidal.


[1]. The facts are there. On the one hand, repression will only intensify. The signs are unmistakable: democratically elected politicians sentenced to inhumane prison terms simply for carrying out their electoral programme (making them political prisoners); accredited journalists, among others, handcuffed and dragged by the police while doing their job; widespread use of weapons by security forces to mutilate demonstrators; the security force are themselves sent out as cannon fodder to create martyrs for the cause; pundits who fail to understand distributed intelligence denouncing dystopia as the Spanish government pre-emptively closes down websites accused of terrorism when their only activity has been to organise explicitly non-violent demonstrations…

On the other hand, on the Catalanist side, the insistence on unilateralism that proven to be impossible in practical and material terms, and political obstruction, blocking any possible solutions that might improve people’s lives, are a form of violence against an increasingly large majority of the population, whether they are pro-independence or not. Giving authoritarians what they seek is an irresponsible act we can ill afford. The discomfort and despair we stand to suffer will be the people’s to bear alone. It is the job of the political class to remove obstacles, particularly at a time when we are seeing a frightening shift to undemocratic practices that can only end badly.

“Repression isn't the answer.” A cursory glance at history shows us that if we fail to respond intelligently, repression will almost certainly be the answer.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData