In English Voices From Spain

“The coup showed that the state will defend itself, and that many Catalans actually like it”

Photo by Antón Castro

Orginally published in Spanish: “El golpe que mostró que el Estado se defiende y que además le gusta a muchos catalanes”. Ramón González Férriz. El Confidencial

6th May 2018

The Catalan secessionist procés [TN: Catalan for ‘process’] has been the greatest challenge so far to modern Spanish democracy. But aside from a local phenomenon, it is also part of a global movement casting doubt on the classical liberal order, teeming with propaganda and post-truth and turning politics into one big selfie. This is the story told by Daniel Gascón (Zaragoza, 1981) in El golpe posmoderno ([TN:The Postmodern Coup, published by] Debate), a brief and forceful essay on Catalan secessionism –in which Gascón’s deep admiration for George Orwell and Christopher HItchens shines through– structured in fifteen lessons democrats can learn from it.

QUESTION. Why is what happened in Catalonia in September and October of 2017 a postmodern coup, according to your book?

ANSWER. What happened was what Hans Kelsen, the great classic jurist, defined as a coup d’état, jumping from one legal order to another. But some other elements typically present in coups, such as more or less explicit violence, were absent. I also find it postmodern in the ambiguity of its development: it was simultaneously real and not real. If it had worked, it would have been unstoppable. If it doesn’t work, it’s plausibly deniable. This is what we’ve seen: that the postmodern world, a bit like that of the Baroque, often deals in illusions.

Q. But you think it was a coup.

A. Yes, it was a coup with peculiar characteristics, such as the use of state structures against the state itself. Or the fact that the secessionists did not need to take control of the media because the media were already theirs. It was also an extremely slow-motion coup. How do you cross a red line in a way that’s unstoppable? You cross it very slowly. And that’s exactly what happened.

Q. Your book reflects on a certain perplexity: Spain’s prosperity and the relatively good functioning of its institutions –even after the economic crisis– had convinced us that we would never go through something like this.

A. It’s rather surprising that people in a prosperous country, with fairly high levels of freedom and autonomy, can embark on something like this and embrace this sort of great democratic defence, oblivious to the fact that half the population is against them. But that very prosperity has been a key factor, not in the eventual outcome, but in allowing us to avoid greater ills at present. It’s allowed people to get involved a bit frivolously, but it’s also kept the situation from getting completely out of hand.

Q. There’s also the manipulation of language on the part of Catalan nationalism, the use of anti-Franco terminology in a sort of postmodern parody: political prisoners, exile, repression.

A. This has been one of the most interesting and decisive factors. Secessionists have been very adept at inserting terms that even non-secessionists ended up using, using language and its associations with Spain’s past to construct a mythology. There’s been a hyperinflation of language, with constant use of superlatives: political prisoners, cultural genocide… The conversation on the Internet has favoured this: in the midst of the economy of attention, you need to yell very loudly to make yourself heard. And it’s not just the secessionists that have exaggerated, but they have done so constantly. For instance, in finding parallels, they started out by saying Catalonia was like Scotland, then like Québec, and now it turns out it’s like Kosovo. It all ends up sounding a bit laughable.

Q. In your book, you put Catalan secessionism into the context of a crisis of the classical liberal order. It’s a response to a crisis which is not that different from Brexit, Trump’s election or Russian propaganda.

A. Gabriel Colomé said the other day in an interview that Catalonia has been the first laboratory for post-truth populism. With the added advantage of not having to turn to Russia Today, Russia’s international propaganda organ, because it had its own TV station. Populism hasn’t worked in Spain at the national level, and even Podemos has had to change its message. But it has worked in the secessionist strategy, probably aided by the nation-building process initiated by Jordi Pujol in the nineties. He managed to create a feeling of unanimity against an external enemy that wasn’t even Spain, but something vague known as the Spanish state.

Q. Yet this post-truth strategy has its limits: you can get two million people out on the street for a demonstration and make them believe Catalan independence is possible, but you can’t really go beyond the symbolic.

A. That’s exactly the idea of this book. That’s why it’s a postmodern coup. Secessionists say: if we set up a sort designer revolt, a postmodern revolt, the modern state will not have the tools to defend itself. It will come across as brutish, it will crush us violently and international opinion will not stand for it. But what we’ve seen is that the modern state has more tools than anticipated and that reality is stubborn: you will hurt the economy, and you’re in a classical liberal order where it turns out following the law is essential, because it’s made up of countries built on laws.

Q. The secessionists clearly miscalculated.

A. In his book Cataluña ante España, Xavier Vidal-Folch explains that Catalan secessionists’ illegal unilateralism has made many nationalists in Europe, who may perhaps have sympathized with their cause, temper their support, and this has left them isolated. These other nationalist movements are negotiating with their governments, but they don’t intend to break the law. The biggest mistake you can make is always to believe your own propaganda, as a number of secessionists have done. This comes from an old idea among Catalan nationalists, which was already present in Prat de la Riba: the idea that Spain is a state but not a nation, and that it’s a state that will not be able to defend itself because even Spaniards themselves don’t like it. After everything that’s happened, we see not just that the state will indeed defend itself, but that many Catalans actually like it. A state is many things: it’s an insurance company, a system for ensuring solidarity between classes and generations, but also a repressive machinery. And secessionists knew this, and that’s why they wanted to create their own. But it makes sense to be defeated by a state stronger than the one you hoped to create.

Q. All this has been permeated by the what you call the procés kitsch. It’s not that there isn’t a Spanish, or Spanish nationalist, kitsch, but Catalan secessionism has made its own visible to everyone, with demonstrations and symbols that were an aesthetic tribute to what they saw as their own goodness.

A. Here I draw on novelist Milan Kundera, who wrote abundantly on kitsch. The idea is that you feel moved at your own moral beauty. It’s something we’ve seen a lot during the procés, for instance in those performances in town squares in which people would lock themselves up for a few hours in fake prisons in honor of the so-called political prisoners. Even though this has happened more strongly in Catalonia, I think this is a contemporary phenomenon, a certain general emotivism that we might realise is a larger current if we look around at the rest of the world. In this too, Catalan secessionists have been ahead of the pack. We see this moral narcissism in many collective protests and in a great deal of online behaviour. Their demonstrations were like one big selfie.

Q. The window of opportunity for drastic change that opened with the financial downturn is closing, or has closed already. Not just for secessionists, but also for certain sectors of the left that became their allies, whether tacitly or explicitly, in their attempt to destroy the so-called ‘Regime of 1978’ [TN: a derogatory term for the political system established under the Spanish constitution].

A. The alliance was forged at a time in which it seemed that Spain as a vision had dried up. As Fernando Vallespín notes, people could attach their own personal utopias to the idea of breaking with the past: you could imagine your republic as feminist, as selfless… Besides, any surprise at the alliance between the left and secessionists is absurd, because it has been a constant, not just in Spain but also elsewhere. But this was more than just a two-headed monster: you actually had the anticapitalist party supporting the most business-friendly one; the atheists joining the staunchest Catholics. Civil society had been totally co-opted. We don’t know how long it will take for reality to be acknowledged, how long secessionists will manage to keep clinging to trials, supposed exiles and so-called political prisoners in order to deny what’s obvious. Being slightly optimistic, I think the situation will change and many people will get tired when they realise independence is impossible.

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