In English Voices From Spain

Possible Back Then

Originally published in Spanish: «Cataluña: lo posible anterior (I)». Manuel Arias. Revista de Libros.

In an entry in his diary, dated on April, 1966, Ricardo Piglia says, by mouth of his alter-ego Emilio Renzi, that he would like sometimes to “go back to certain times in my life, and live them with the awareness I have now”. For instance, he adds, to re-start History in 1956. He points out that this is a great novelistic subject. The Conrad’s Lord Jim who wants to go back to the day that he acted despicably and change it; in a Borges’ tale (“The Other Death”), appears a soldier that makes a Faustian deal to go back to the battle where he acted cowardly, and to die on it instead as a hero; the newly rich Gatsby insists in change the decision of a woman that rejected him in the past. Piglia concludes: “Definitely, it consists in thinking the past with the categories we use to imagine the future. What was previously possible”.

If we were to apply this particular methodology to the relationship between Catalonia and Spain in the light of the events in the last few weeks, all of us would find something to be changed to never having arrived to this point. Which form of hindsight intervention would be chosen by each one will depend on how the problem is interpreted and, therefore, on the causes or decisions that one attributes with a greater impact. The options are multiple: the wording of the Title 8 of Spanish Constitution, the Andalusian rebellion demanding the famous “coffee for all”, the popular acclamation of Jordi Pujol in the context of his imputation in the Banca Catalana case, the linguistic immersion policy, the shift to Catalanism by socialist parties, any aspect related to the 2006 Catalan Statute (included the signature campaign arranged by the People’s Party), the shift to sovereignism by Catalanism, and so on, until the recent passing of the Law on Transition in the Catalan Parliament. No one knows what would had happened if any of those factors never existed, and we will never know.

In fact, there is no consensus about how we should to conceptualize the ongoing insurrection. For some, we are facing a bourgeois revolution where the rich pursue the emancipation from the poor, or at least, to enjoying the full power in a newly-created state of their own; for others, we are dealing with an ethnicistic re-edition of anti-liberal nationalisms of the 1930s, which includes the pretension —inherent to separatism that claims to be not nationalist— of building a social paradise on the shores of Mediterranean; finally, there is no lack of those who ascribe the Catalan secessionism in the widest populist wave triggered by the Great Recession, where Brexit or Donald Trump’s election would be among its consequences. Of course, nothing is more annoying for a Catalan separatist that being included in such questionable pack, convinced as he/she is that is defending the true democracy from their Spanish gravediggers. Down with Francoism!

As it results, this collective hallucination does not prevent an external observer to find a relationship between the anti-establishment protest and Catalan separatism. Among them, an undeniable similarity in their discursive strategies —both of them make a distinction between a people and its (external and/or internal) enemies; they claim moral superiority over the Other; invoking the people’s general will as the only rule for making political decisions; they show little respect for pluralism and the institutional mechanisms that try to preserve it; they enthusiastically resort to street mobilization and the eternal hyperbole. We are not in the 1930s and it would be surprising, in spite of everything, that protests lead to a street war. Unfortunately, this is no obstacle to the concurrence of low-intensity violence, diverse forms of intimidation and, of course, a consistent symbolic violence. This is where nationalist supremacism manifests itself with most clarity, barely veiled behind the democratic, even modern, facade lent by its leading actors: not every separatism can boast of a supporting statement by the Primavera Sound Music Festival. We hear about renegades and traitors, school boys and girls being rallied, dissenters being harassed in the streets and social media. Finally, there is something of bourgeois revolution: middle classes that claim full sovereign power in opposition to a superior power, rallying the citizens on behalf of an offended “people”. Hence the propagandistic success of the “right to decide” and the bizarre comparisons to Rosa Park or South Africa under apartheid. The fact that an adult citizen could publicly argue that Catalonia is an occupied country since 300 years ago is otherwise a conclusive homage to the powers of ideology, straightly understood in their original sense of false awareness: to firmly believe in a fiction.

Nonetheless, something is wrong. None of the above descriptions seems to fit, even if all of them make much sense. In the face of secessionist phenomenon, it is easy to feel puzzled; the sort of puzzlement not very different of that we experience when we read one of Kafka’s stories. I am not talking about the subject, but the pitch —as if what is happening in Catalonia were misplaced where it actually is; as if it should be in someplace else. The reason, in my view, is clear. The whole project secessionist employs language, symbols and emotional registers that not match the context where they are being deployed. A social group that speaks the “opressed people” (by imperial or colonial power) language has told to itself a tale typical of a different era and different circumstances. It has pictured itself as a representative of all Catalonia and at the same time has characterized this fake totality as the liberty leading the people in Delacroix’s picture. But we are neither in the 1830s, nor Mr Rajoy is Charles X. Surely there are some who believe this, otherwise the sums would not add up. And maybe because of the delusional feature of such belief, the secessionist threat has been usually dismissed as rather a rhetoric pressure aimed to gain new powers or budget allocations. How such anachronistic threat could come to be true in a region traditionally so rich in intelligences?

As noted by Fernando Vallespín, the future Catalan Republic is a utopia where everyone can project his or her longings in a time deprived from the old good hopes in the future; some dream of an Ampurdán free of Spanish traces and other dream of a reestablishment of socialism. Even there are some who whish to get rid of the ongoing criminal charges at the National Court! This polysemy could be able to poison the most penetrant intellects; we would not be surprised that a reader of Putrid Homeland by W. G. Sebald returned the book to its shelf before joining to the Diada. Misplaced, as we said, because in democracy, specially where power is massively decentralized, secession is not a reasonable project.

If we look from the perspective of the “previously possible”, it would be certainly a long shot that the constitutional Spain were able to get rid of territorial tensions that have found in the Catalan crisis their most acute expression so far —with every respect to the 800 dead at the hands of ETA’s terror. But could not be more wrong who —nationalists the first ones— point to a supposed “Spanish nationalism” as a co-equivalent cause of such tensions. It can not be categorally affirmed that such Spanish nationalism does not exist, but it is manifest that it has been latent until this precise moment. Leaving aside the proverbial small groups linked to Falange, it is hard to identify this nationalism in a country more similar to Germany than to France in regard with national symbols. To see an ordinary citizen with a Spanish flag stuck to the car is so rare that we seem to think that a member of the diplomatic body is passing by. Unsuspected pros of Francoism! That is, a Francoism that, by seizing the national symbols, made very difficult the affective association to them and healthfully repressed its exhibition. It was too much to expect Spain to become this way in the first post-national nation, able to found the state legitimacy without needing any sentimental exhibitionism at all. Since such sophisticated society remains to be seen, we might conclude that the Spaniards directed their tribal affects in another direction, whether historical (or new-found) nationalities, or cities —Seville, for instance— provoke the fervour in their inhabitants. Our apparent post-national identity was, then, an illusion. In other words, the affective vacuum generated by the Francoist intoxication of the concept of Spain was filled by our inner nationalisms, albeit not all of them have been equally successful in their endeavour to delegitimise the common significates. Because the latter did exist: remember that almost the 92% of Catalans voted for Constitution in the 1978 referendum, denying the idea of a Catalan Volk that goes through history relentlessly resisting the Spanish oppression.

That said, we must be alert on our own biases —moral tribalism affects to us all. Few doubt that our constitutional text is improvable in a pro-federation fashion and, even in the symbolic territory, progresses can be made toward more substantial forms or recognition; a recognition which, recalling Hegel, maybe makes the world go round —like it or not. Unfortunately, this requires a will for cooperation and democratic loyalty, requisites that the events in the last few weeks allow to put into question. Anyway, democratic societies had too much work to do across the world. Remember the critics to Emmanuel Macron when, by condemning with no reservations the colonisation of Alger, he questioned the French nation’s heroic narrative. As a colleague told me recently, all the History courses taught in schools and high schools could be understood as courses on Formation of National Spirit; socialization processes in a particular collective identity. While this might be true, the devil is on details, since not all national identities are equal or equally articulated. Where the infamous Francoist course tried (not always successfully) to create straightforwardly a sentiment of adhesion to the dictatorial regime, the teaching of History on democracy pursues —or should pursue— the taught of an History common to all Spaniards, including the history of their different integral parts: a basic construction that indirectly socialize us in a political community. And if this is not the case, it should be —showing the same respect for difference than for totality.

But we have not arrived there yet. We were counting down the hours to the October 1st, date marked in red in the separatist calendar. I do not believe necessary to explain why this referendum should not be held: it is against Constitution, and therefore, illegal. The state should prevent it by all means necessary; the means that, while I am writing this, have been applied with maximum prudence. More interesting, however, is to discuss the convenience of holding a referendum after the October 1st, as an agreed solution to the process. According to opinion polls, many citizens think that it would be desirable. Also many public figures, outside and inside Catalonia, have expressed their opposition to the illegal referendum precisely for being illegal, but at the same time they bet on another one with full guarantees. Not like this, they seem to say, let us do it right. Of course, it would be interesting to compare the number of affirmative responses obtained this way with the resulting from a different “framing” of the question. What would happen if the respondent were asked if he/she supports granting to Catalonia the right to decide? Because there could be a paradox where the violation of rules is rewarded —the negotiated referendum could be eventually the result of an illegal referendum. So we would find ourselves in a reasoning similar to what expressed to me an English-speaker journalist, to whom the only problem of the referendum would be its “illegal” quality, a quality easily modifiable by changing the law. If only everything were so easy!

I am not sure that everyone who supported the holding of a negotiated referendum are aware of its implications. A singular characteristic of representative democracies is that they are more complex and sophisticated systems than its individual actors; just consider how easily we associate democracy to ballot boxes. And it can be hardly overstated the necessity of a serious discussion about the convenience of holding such referendum, whichever the level of support showed by polls. Returning to the “previously possible” about Piglia talked, it would be desirable that now we do not make a mistake that we will have to regret in ten or twenty years, to the extent of whishing to going back from future to rectify. Bringing the previously possible to the reflexive awareness of present looks like the Nietzsche’s eternal return, according to which, what we do will be happening over and over again in an endless loop. We better make it right. So we need to live in full awareness, which implies to think with full awareness. In the matter at hand, to carefully reconsider the opportunity of a referendum that should not be held just because we are starting to feel very tired, because of exhaustion.

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