Catalonia: the case for glocal rethink

We do not know which classes are at loggerheads. We have to engage in a profound rethinking of one of the greatest mutations of the last decades: the true complexity of our contemporary societies.

Pere Vilanova
2 December 2012

My learned friend Patrice de Beer expresses very well the ultimate issue at stake in stressing the fact that in the Catalan-Spanish tango currently in progress, “nothing is ever as simple as politicians would like it to be”. This is indeed what happened the other day with the regional elections in Catalonia. 

Another tempting conclusion might be this one: Catalonia as a “glocal” experience. To understand the current crisis between Madrid and Barcelona, one should bear in mind that many of its features are very “local” (like who are the Catalans, why are they so “peculiar”, why Spain is so “Spanish” in its approach to its non-Castilian affiliates, etc.). But that, at the same time, this is also a laboratory of how the current European version of the global crisis is pursuing many dangerous experiments, within a framework of “social Darwinism” which seeks to monitor who and what will survive the experiment. Some experts say, “chemotherapy is about to kill the patient”. This is true for the southern half of Europe, but this is also true on the Spanish and the Catalan scale. So, what lessons can we learn about these recent “glocal” events? 

This long introduction has to do with a conclusion. In times of crisis, politicians should be careful in building up a call for early elections on the basis of a “single issue” campaign. The Catalan government and President Mas have made a big mistake when placing all their bets on this kind of single issue campaign: it’s about independence, stupid! 

For, even if people’s bitterness and anger on this issue, or to be more specific, on the fatal gap between Catalonia and Spain, are very real, well rooted in history, and multiplied by the current structural crisis, the electoral results showed a more nuanced picture. The “social question” vote, the “protest vote” (or, as we call it here, the “vote against”), or even the fact that one of the new parties in Parliament (the CUP) is very independentist, but very leftist, and very anti-quasi everything having to do with the Institutional Establishment - all this plays a major role in explaining who won and who lost on that Sunday evening.

As for who won, in irrefutable numbers (ballots + seats) you have medium or small parties on the left and leaning towards “the right to decide” (self-determination), but also the Partido Popular and the small but growing pro-Spanish parties (Ciutadans). Those who certainly lost beyond any chance to disguise it: the ruling party Convergencia I Unio and the Socialist Party. A conclusion here: the Catalan version of a two-party system is down the drain, and we are drifting toward a more “Belgian” or “Israelian” chamber. Good or bad news? Time will tell. In theory it’s good, for it improves the diversity of social and political representation in the Parliament. But it’s bad for governance, meaning that the result will be a much less stable executive.

We did not see it coming:  media, analysts, opinion makers, politicians/political elites, nobody saw it. And now, as a clever columnist says, the very same people who failed to foresee it have spent a week explaining what happened, how, and why, as if we people have no memory of what was said for weeks on end before the election day. One could say that this is common enough in politics nowadays, but  (another “glocal” thing) nowadays everything is a click away, so the “experts” have the right and the duty to feel a little ridiculous. 

Perhaps we should go back to the basics and quote old Mao Ze Dong when he said (in another context, of course, haha): “the masses are never wrong”. Catalan voters made it “all wrong”: the turnout was 12% higher than the average over the last 32 years. Therefore, all opinion polls (all of them, including seven companies with a long experience in Catalan elections) were radically wrong, which seems to suggest that many of these new voters did not answer any opinion poll, or were marked as “undecided voters”. As for media, opinion makers, experts, the picture is quite dark: what were they publishing? Perhaps they were looking for a “self fulfilling prophecy” (both sides)?

And political elites, of course (again another “glocal” issue): next day, first thing in the morning, they started with the most classical political game (in the sense that General De Gaulle once labelled as the essence of “politiciens”), bargaining, saying all has changed or nothing has changed. They insist there will be a referendum (or the contrary, depending on which bench they sit on), as if there was no message coming out from the polls, and as if we all forgot that 2013 will be a much worse year for all of us, socially and economically. 

So: why are people so complicated? How and why do citizens vote more than ever, when scepticism and contempt towards politics and politicians is higher than ever? How can we measure accurately the growing gap between the Establishment –political, economic—and “us”, the famous ”we the people”. Let’s admit that we are not doing very well in explaining it, and the famous “civil society”, no matter how big the September 11 demonstration in Barcelona was (and it was really big), who went en masse to vote in remarkably “accurate disorder” on November 25.

Let’s take note of the growing gap between the real present-day performance of the global crisis and its internal consequences (employment, research, consumption, growth) in each country, and in each local sub-set - and the structural immobility of our political systems. After all, the gap is striking. Our governments, our electoral processes, our political parties, the functioning of our parliaments, the general complexity of our legislative and normative procedures, all these things, function according to the same formal mechanisms of the last decades (or one hundred years in Europe, minus countries under dictatorships like Spain, Portugal or Greece). 

This disparity between “economic processes” that spin about like free electrons, and our political systems based on institutional mechanisms from another century, generate a number of reactions in our societies. Thus the growing disaffection of the citizenry toward politics, the diffuse culture of the abyss between “us” (citizens) and “them” (politicians), with the additives “they’re all the same”, based on well-founded arguments derived from the proliferation of cases of corruption, patronage, and revolving door policies among the elites, and so forth.

Ideologies today range from indignation to fatalism, including the critique and rejection of the superficiality of the narrative of political parties, and their subsequent distancing from the citizenry. When you come right down to it, the problem is different: nowadays we may think (I do) that something like “class struggle” is still there (or call it “social cleavages” or “lines of social confrontation”), but we do not know which classes are at loggerheads. We have to engage in a profound rethinking of one of the greatest mutations of the last decades: the true complexity of our contemporary societies, their fault lines, their lines of confrontation, the fragmentation of their fields of demands, and above all, how their multiple ways of representing their interests have changed.

All this is global, but it is also valid for Spain and for Catalonia. How to overcome this structural failure of the traditional “social contract”? How to fight the vanishing of any “commons” (common values, common interests) that people could once see reflected in the public institutions (Parliament, Executive, Judiciary)?

The newspaper La Vanguardia (Enric Juliana: “La Cronica”, 02-12-2012) reports Mr Margallo, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Spain, saying about the last Catalan elections: “Well, we thought it was a terminal cancer, it seems it was only a pneumonia”.  No further comments needed, this guy is our representative in Europe and before the entire world.

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