In English Voices From Spain

Catalonia: The Assault on Language

Originally published in Spanish: «Cataluña: El asalto al lenguaje». Manuel Arias Maldonado. Revista de Libros.

It is well known that barely two years after the defeat of Nazism, the German philologist Viktor Klemperer published a remarkably important book, titled LTI. Notizbuch eines Philologen, documenting, from the author’s daily notes since Hitler came to power, which were also the base for a multi-volume personal diary published in 1995, the resignification of language carried out by the Nazi political apparatus. Lingua Tertii Imperii: The Third Reich’s Language. Or, as he explains, the “Nazi-speak”: from the recurrent use of “heroism” associated to militarism to the “Curse of the Superlative” that characterizes its political rhetoric. Klemperer soberly analyses how Hitler’s totalitarianism succeeded to kill the notion of public truth and distort the use of words to make them mean what its leaders wanted them to mean. “How many concepts and emotions [they] have poisoned and damaged!”, he laments. And, seventy years after, we can only nod in sadness.

Obviously, nothing like Nazism has appeared in our horizon. But we are suffering the unhappy political consequences of another operation of linguistic contamination, carried out by Catalan pro-independence movement over the last few years. This is not a collateral effect, nor the result of a spontaneous contamination: the so-called pro-independence roadmap made clear since the beginning —it is actually written down in black and white— that language should be subverted, distorting the usual meaning of words, so the meaning favouring their goals could spread widely enough through the social body. This was the only way to amass the political capital needed to challenge the state from regional power and do it, as we watch in perplexity, until the end. Or nearly: this weekend we will start to know. So we can, this way, to confidently speak about “pro-independence speak”, lately also supported by far-left parties (Podemos and Comunes) that have aligned themselves with the separatist groups and occasionally contributing with conceptual findings of their own.  

Needless to say, we live in a pluralist society that enjoys of wide free speech, therefore pro-independence movement can not monopolize the tools through which public language manifest to the citizen’s ears. However, the success of pro-independence resignification does not come without a price. Some crucial resources do have been used for that end, which, apart from that, benefits itself from social logics described by psychologists and social scientists: spirals of silence, emulation dynamics, conformity to peers. Furthermore, not only public media, but also most of private media outlets (and social media) have echoed this language, contributing this way to its insidious spreading during the crisis years, when the openness of citizens to the new language view a significant increase: one more time, we need to insist that back in 2006, only 11% of Catalan citizens supported independence. This means, among other things, that everything has happened since then has been exploited by the pro-independence movement; what counts is not what happens, but how it is perceived. And any Gramscian would agree that it can be no coincidence that the Catalan elites —by definition more influent at defining communication contents— pursued independence with the greatest impetus. The data on this regard are conclusive: the higher the incomes, the greater whish for independence. And, of course, the higher the incomes, the greater the influence.

Some other factors are necessary, of course, to explain a phenomenon that has brought about the greatest constitutional crisis in democratic Spain. However, language has singular relevance due to its constitutive nature: you do not need to be a Lacanian to recognise that language is something more than a simple interpersonal communication medium. It is through language that we see reality, with the indispensable support of affections, that, leaving aside the most basic emotions linked to survival, are also modelled by language or, if you prefer, intertwined with it in a complex way. Consequently, the language itself gains an affective valence —political concepts trigger certain sensations or emotions in us, frequently linked to the sense of belonging to a social group or moral tribe.

This is not the place to present a detailed analysis of the “independence speak”, but we can outline a description of its more representative samples. All of them present a subversive will that makes far more difficult any political dialogue worthy of such name: such is the divergence between the usual meaning —chosen by History— of words and concepts and its new-found meaning. In alphabetical order:

Catalan People. Unique subject of pro-independence speech, legitimating entity of the right to decide subjected since time immemorial to the multi-shaped Spanish repression, the «Catalan people» is defined in the populist fashion: as an organic community composed by the good Catalans —right now, only the ones who support independence—, excluding everyone else, and struggling against external enemies that try, over and over again, to suffocate their freedom. This Volk has one only voice and one only representative: the pro-sovereign coalition that, in spite of its internal diversity, touchingly keeps itself together in its defence of independence as the only possible conclusion of the not less famous Catalan process. When Mr Puigdemont write his missives or pronounce his speeches he speaks on behalf of the “Catalan people” and “its whish for independence” —unequivocally formulated in the referendum of October 1st and its associated “democratic mandate”— is deliberately concealing that never has been a majority over 41% that supported independence, and therefore, the “Catalan people” is not “the pro-independence movement”. The spokespeople of the Volkgeist is backed by a fractured society instead a “one people”.

Catalonia. Catalans, or good Catalans are those who support independence, and the not-Catalan, or bad Catalans, are those who do not support it. Alluding constantly to “the Catalans” and “the Catalans’ will”, nationalism pursues a metonymic effect, through which, the whole (Catalonia) is designated by the part (independence supporters). Consequently, who do not agree with nationalism —or, alternatively, consider themselves as pro-catalanism but not pro-independence— would be beyond a restrictive definition of Catalonia and the Catalan. Just remember how very relevant people in Catalan culture as Juan Marsé have been branded as “renegade”, as traitors to Catalonia, for not adhering to the pro-independence ideas.   

Civil Disobedience. The independent cause is so fair to the eyes of its advocates that resisting the enforcement of laws is presented as a case of “civil disobedience” that would equiparate the rebel independentist—this comparison has been actually made—  to Rosa Park, the woman who refused to sit on the area restricted to negroes by whites in a southern bus in her country back in 1955. This way, the suggestion is that the “Catalan people” would being subjected to an injustice of such magnitude that widespread civil disobedience would be justified, since the rules derived from the “1978 regime” would lack legitimacy, and such legitimacy would derive exclusively from the “Catalan people’s will”. Pep Guardiola already said it: “The people’s voice is stronger than any law”. Therefore, with an unfair power, disobedience would be justified. This exaltation has the complementary function of hiding the real (insufficient) support to independence.

Democracy. In our political system, which is a constitutional democracy, democracy is a representative pluralist democracy, subjected to guarantees as the rule of law, separation of powers (including the independence of judiciary) or counter-majorities institutions. However, when the pro-independence movement speaks of democracy, normally it refers to something else: a plebiscitary or democracy by acclaim where the sovereign will of the people is above the law. So only one democracy exists —the one that would allow, on paper, to achieve the goal of independence. The plenary session of Catalan Parliament of September 6th constitutes a successful staging —or foretaste— of this; on the other hand, the Law of Transition passed the next day, advances a regimen with illiberal tones where the ordinary guarantees of constitutionalism are undermined. Furthermore, when the Catalan is identified as the independence supporter, and democracy as the plebiscitary system, it becomes possible to discredit the “bad Catalan” as a “bad democrat”. Two for the price of one! Similarly, Spain would not be a genuine democracy, and that is why the pro-independence movement gets to present itself sometimes as the unselfish accolade in the necessary regeneration of the Spanish rotten political body.

Dialogue. While this word designates the most civilized medium for mutual understanding and channelling political conflicts, the Catalan pro-independence movement employs it with a two-folded purpose: first, to present itself as pacific and democratic in opposition to Madrid’s intransigence, often by opposing “doing politics” to “brandish the law”; second, disguising the imposition of their demands —whether by forceful holding of a self-determination referendum or through negotiating the terms of an independence unilaterally declared— behind the mask of democratic deliberation. It is well known that dialogue requires certain conditions and has some limits; Mr Rajoy is not lying when he says that some things are beyond the power of the government to address them. Additionally, the leak of a separatist “roadmap” where the strategy to “generate conflict with the state” is clearly detailed corroborates that their calls to dialogue are a distracting manoeuvre instead of the expression of a genuine purpose of understanding within the constitutional frame.

Facha. Pejorative term with semantic long history across Spain, originally an informal abbreviation word to describe the falangist or a supporter of falangism, an ideological current of fascism that acted as a foundation for Franco’s dictatorship. During the democratic period that started with the constitution in 1978, it has been a recurrent defamatory term. While it originally designated to those nostalgic of Francoism, soon it began to describe both the right-centre voters and the critics of Catalan and Basque nationalism. Its current employment by the pro-independence movement almost constitutes a semantic parody, since it has ended up being used —from the identification of Spanish democracy as some kind of re-edition or continuation of dictatorship— to denigrate anyone who opposes to independence, both inside and outside Catalonia. It attests the negative symbolic charge that still today, 42 years after his death, has the dictator’s figure. We even saw it painted in the streets: “Franco is back”, can be read in some walls in Barcelona.

Human Rights. In this case, secessionism carries out a different operation, by using a legal concept with universal scope, politically and even emotionally charged, proceeds to stretch it in order to cover assumptions where it could not be applied. For instance, the limited police violence of October 1st would be “an attack to human rights”, like the ban itself on the referendum would be so too. We would be facing something similar to the “Curse of the Superlative” denounced by Klemperer, an exaggeration aimed at making something look what it is not. The exaggeration, by the way, is a crucial weapon to shape the inherent victimhood of all nationalisms.

Legitimate. The pro-independence movement not only pictures secession as a legitimate end (even though it does not fit in the Spanish constitutional order), but also it draws such legitimacy from popular mobilization as manifested in annual Diadas, or from the participation in the vote held by former Catalan president, Artur Mas (the “participative consult on November 9th 2014) and president Carles Puigdemont (the referendum on last October 1st). The concept of political legitimacy is twisted this way, making it to depend on de facto situations —mobilization— and presenting as democratic what is only plebiscitary. In fact, the democratic legitimacy is a refinement of the factual legitimacy (legitimate is what we believe is legitimate, whatever it actually is) and the legal-rational legitimacy (embodied in the existing rules), because for a particular institution or decision be legitimate, they must be not only legal, also the procedures for its establishment or agreement must be democratic-liberal, abiding with the constitutional legal order and the limits settled for the self-government on behalf of individual and minorities rights.

Oppression. In order to justify the necessity of independence and gaining adepts to its cause, nationalism has accustomed to describe Spanish democracy as a repressive re-centralizing dictatorship that seriously infringes the interests of “the Catalan people” and violates its “human rights”. In this sense, nationalism has converged with the populist rhetoric deployed by Podemos since its irruption in the Spanish political scene, which has focused on denouncing the so-called “1978 regime”, presented as a continuation of Francoism by other means. This Spanish oppression —sometimes simply “Castilian”— would be evidenced in incidents or situations as the permanent “stealing” by the state, re-centralization policies that no one gets to specify, or an “annulment” of the Catalan Estatut that never took place. And, of course, after it manifested itself through the “brutal police violence” on October 1st (quite diminished, according to the facts), such state oppression would culminate with the “disproportionate” and “anti-democratic” activation of Article 155 of Spanish Constitution, aimed at the restoration of constitutional law in Catalonia. It is not that Franco is back —apparently he never left.

Pacific protest. Or “pacific mobilization”, alternately. The emphasis is on “pacifism”: an anti-constitutional demand —which violate the rights of Catalan non-independentist citizens, systematically expelled from the public space and singled out as anti-democrats, or fachas, or bad Catalans— is presented as a legitimate and unavoidable claim just because it is not violent. Historically, such pacific nature was in contrast with the terrorist violence employed by ETA in the Basque Country; Catalan nationalism would be different, albeit there was a terrorist group (Terra Lliure) that perpetrated one murder and left several injured through its activity between 1978 and its declaration of fire cease in 1991. Nevertheless, the pacific character in the pro-independence movement is rather questionable. The rhetoric aggressiveness showed toward non-nationalist Catalans, and the use of excluding categories to refer to them point to symbolic forms of violence easily recognisable. On the other hand, at least during the intense wave of mobilization that started in early September, we have seen attacks against the offices of pro-constitution parties and incidents of harassment to the Civil Guard and the National Police. Finally, it is interesting that the supposedly “pacific” nature of the pro-independence movement is presented as a merit that must be acknowledged, as if we would have to thank that no one is being shoot.    

Political prisoners. After the pre-trial precautionary detention of Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sánchez, leaders of the Ómnium Cultural and National Catalan Assembly, civil organizations devoted to promote the independence cause with lavish public funding, on alleged charges of sedition for his enthusiastic involvement in the harass against the Civil Guard officers who —on functions of judiciary police— were searching the offices of the Regional Economy Minister last September 20th, the pro-independence movement was quick to describe them as “political prisoners”. It is usual tactics of subversive movements, as we know well from our historical experience on the Basque Country; a political conflict is invoked as a justification to break the law, in order to present the offenders as political prisoners and not as Criminal Code infringers. This manifestation of the increasing abertzalization of the Catalan process will not be the last, as we will see it as the judges apply the laws: the defendants will be all political prisoners. Thus, the benignity of secessionist’s intentions (“we just want to vote”) are magically projected over its actions regardless of the criminal codification —a traditional mechanism of revolutionary thinking, accustomed to spare no means when it comes to the “right” ends.

Repression. In line with its depiction of Spanish democracy as a neoFrancoist dictatorship covered with the fake clothes of democracy, the pro-independence movement consistently describes the state actions in terms of “repression” —on the whish to vote, of the Catalan culture singularity, of Catalans’ human rights, of its pacific exercise of freedom of speech or of the Generalitat powers. Any sanction resulting from a failure to comply with the law is thus presented as the hysterical overreaction of a Spanish authoritarianism. The point is that any independence supporter perceives the state’s actions as inherently repressive and therefore anti-democratic, which in turn legitimates —in a permanent feedback— the pro-independence movement’s actions. This is the goal pursued by the “pacific disobedience” campaigns promoted by the CUP or Catalan National Assembly: to generate a reaction than can be properly packaged and presented as overreaction. Incidentally, it creates a peculiar contraposition between democracy and law: only the pro-independence mobilization would be democratic; it would not be so the constitution («we did not vote for it», as more than one would add) nor the laws. Again, the concept of plebiscitary democracy the core of which is the expression of popular will; everything else is irrelevant.

Right to decide. Clever phrase that defends the idea that there is a legitimate Catalan demos that must to decide on its future on its own, by means of holding an independence referendum, even when the sense of what is being “decided” remains outside the phrase. It is so effective that Catalans who claim they want to vote are far more than the ones who claim they want to vote for independence, even when independence would be more likely if the vote is eventually held. So, paradoxically, that a non-existent right in the present circumstances —the self-determination right— is presented in phantasma as an inalienable right of the Catalan people. And democracy is implicitly presented as the political regime that must allow to vote on any content.

Let me finish here. The sample, I think, is sufficiently illustrating. We could add some of the most recent rhetoric manoeuvres, most of them derived from the general frame I have detailed. Is the case of many of the responses received at the government invoke of Article 155 of constitution; Mr Puigdemont has suggested that the state has stepped out from legality and Mrs Forcadell has described the abovementioned rule as anti-constitutional, while others have mentioned a coup d’Etat perpetrated by the Etat and even have denounced a suspension in toto of democracy. The pattern is the same: inversion of the established meaning of words; politiczation of language to make it say what is convenient to our goals; argumentative sentimentalization aimed to produce outrage and enforcing the aggressive belonging to the Catalan organic community. But given how far we have got, there can be no doubt that the psychopolitic operation of nationalist-populism has been a complete success.

This is the only way to understand this peculiar bloodless coup d’Etat produced in the language in the first place. And it is only the product of the thorough spreading —trough the speech and political symbols, institutions and civic organizations penetrated by political power, public media and education system, the horizontal communication in social media —of what Klemperer called Sprachkrankenheit, or language disease. Rarely the famous Humpty Dumpty’s statement has been more relevant: it is not the meaning of words what matters, but to know who is in charge. About who has been in charge in Catalonia we are in no doubt; about the meaning given to words, neither.

Who knows? Maybe someday an obscure Catalan philologist will appear and, armed with a humble notepad, provide us the detailed chronicle of the independentist assault on language.



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