On September 22, Esquerra Republicana MP Joan Tardà gave a speech to students of the University of Barcelona. He said: «We have the commitment to give birth to the [Catalan] Republic, but it is you who will lead it. And if you do not, you will commit a crime of treason against the generations that have not surrendered, and you will commit a crime and treason against the land”. It is not a speech delivered by the racist Heribert Barrera, honorary president of ERC until his death in 2011, nor by a Catalan supremacist of the 1920s like Pere Rossell i Vilar, author of La raça, but by an apparently progressive MP surrounded by young people calling for democracy in a popular revolt.
When Tardà speaks of «land» he refers mystically to the Catalan nation, and to a homogeneous, compact, indissoluble people. He appeals to something that does not exist and to a concept that is very undemocratic. As the Argentine philosopher Juan José Sebreli says, one can only speak of homogenous people in a truly divided society: the identity of that supposed people is only achieved in contrast to an «other». According to Sebreli, «a democratic conception of the people does not postulate unity, but, on the contrary, values division, conflict, plurality.»
Tardà encourages young Catalans to rebel and create a Catalan republic, but he addresses only a fraction of society and young people, and he knows it. What he indirectly demands, and perhaps not so indirectly, is that they forget the other side: they must assume that they are the popular will. Behind this statement is the idea that those who are against the will of the people are no longer political subjects. In the separatists’ imagination, they either do not exist or they are traitors.
Not only does Tardá appropriate popular will as his own. He also claims the will of a nation, a mystical entity only understandable through intuition or instinct (hence phrases such as «you have not understood anything», or the idea that «you have to be there to understand», common in many nationalists). This notion of un sol poble is widespread: people mistake the independents supporters with all the Catalans. According to a survey Catalan Government’s Survey Institute (CEO) of July 2017, 41.1% of Catalans are in favor of an independent Catalonia, compared to 49.4% who oppose it.
When talking about “the youth”, you have to be just as cautious as when you speak of “the people”. The concept alludes to a certain virtue and purity, but is often used in a condescending and interested way. Tardà appeals to the romanticization of the youth, to the idea of the rebellion of the young, in order to forget about the 41% of young Catalans (aged between 18 and 24 years) who are opposed to independence. The young separatists contrast radically with the young people who rejected Brexit in the United Kingdom. In the 2015 referendum, 75% of citizens aged between 18 and 24 voted to remain in the European Union. The young remainers understood that the idea of sovereignty and identity backlash of the leavers was contrary to their conception of democracy, in which majorities cannot snatch rights from minorities. Staying in an improved EU is preferable to nationalism. The same can be said of the place of Catalonia in Spain.
For many brexiteers, democracy was merely expressive, a moment of rage without consequences. The flowers, songs, students, and the playful component of the popular rebellion of these weeks in Catalonia recall the 1968 events -the revolution as an expressive vehicle of identity reaffirmation. The referendum is the final performance, no matter what comes next. But if in 1968 what inspired the protests was anti-authoritarianism and a subversion of moral rules, here the young people who play as revolutionaries do so in defense of a very limited conception of democracy: an idea of reactionary sovereignty, based on closed borders, and a concept of emancipation that implies eliminating the rights of a silenced and silent opposition, and where the nation is above democracy.
When they take to the streets, these students do not defend the rights of their land, but defend, at best, only their own, and at worst, political leaders who have patrimonialized what was public and who have used the institutions in a partisan way and with a nationalistic purpose. It is quite possible that not all demonstrators agree with the actions of the Government, but have indirectly ended up defending their protests. There are no nuances in demonstrations -just like in referendums.