In English Voices From Spain

Daniel Gascón: “Nationalism needs poets”

Photo by Elena Alfaro

Originally published in Spanish: “Daniel Gascón: el nacionalismo necesita poetas”. Borja Bauzá.The Objective.

15th June 2018

Daniel Gascón (Zaragoza, 1981) is an essayist, screenwriter and writer, and runs the Spanish edition of the prestigious Letras Libres magazine. He has also translated Christopher Hitchens and Mark Lilla; the former was one of the most provocative intellectuals of the Anglo-Saxon world until his death; the latter remains so.

Gascón has devoted a lot of time to trying to understand how the Catalan affair has come this far. The result of all his hours studying the situation is a 200-page essay titled El golpe posmoderno (The postmodern coup, Debate) which contextualizes the events of last autumn and calls into question fundamental aspects of the dominant narrative surrounding the secessionist process. In Gascón’s view, what happened in Catalonia is part of a global trend seeking to undermine the classical liberal order through nationalist propaganda. He does hold, though, that in the case of Catalonia the secessionists have had the invaluable aid of Mariano Rajoy’s government.

I’d like you to explain your book’s title. Why is this a coup?

It’s a coup because in Catalonia there’s been an attempt to go from the existing legal order to a new one, though the latter was not contemplated by the former. In other words, there’s been a leap in the dark that has broken with the law. This, according to Hans Kelsen’s classic definition, is a coup.

And why is the coup postmodern?

The adjective postmodern is used because it’s a coup with very specific features. For example: the violence has not been explicit. The secessionists hoped their opponents would be the ones to use explicit violence, so they might delegitimize them in the eyes of international public opinion and of Spanish citizens themselves. It’s also a postmodern coup in its amphibious nature–if something was moving forward, it was an inalterable fait accompli. But if or when it failed, it was depicted as merely symbolic, just a practice drill. Another peculiar feature has been the use of state institutions, like the regional government, against the state itself. Or the reliance on the media. They never felt the need to take over any newspaper offices because they had media at the service of the cause from the start. Finally, I find it rather curious that this rebellion originated in a place with a per capita income of over $25,000 and sought to attack a constitutional democracy. All these elements make the coup postmodern.

You frequently discuss Brexit in your book. Where does the Catalan process fall in the international context?

Brexit and the Catalan process are similar in their retreat into identity; both have an external enemy, a colonizing mother country to combat. They also share their rejection of mediation; suddenly, it’s all about plebiscitary logic. And, of course, there’s the manipulation of facts, like when the promoters of Brexit claimed they would improve the British health service, or when some secessionist economists held that Catalonia would collect a bunch of money once it got rid of Spain. By the way, both the UK and Catalonia have a long-standing parliamentary tradition. They’ve never been places known for embarking on crazy utopian adventures. Indeed this conservatism was part of the pedigree of political forces that somehow ended up promoting things as romantic and passionate as Brexit and the Catalan secessionist process.

You also mince no words in criticising the Partido Popular (People’s Party) in your essay. You accuse them of lacking reflexes and sensitivity.

Let me start by acknowledging that this was a difficult situation to manage. Very difficult. However, having said that, the PP has been extremely inept. I remember, for instance, when Artur Mas put forth his proposal of fiscal renegotiation. He knew from the outset that the proposal would fail. What he was looking for was a rebuff. If the PP government, at that point, had set up a table for everyone to sit down at to negotiate the financing of Spain’s devolved regions, Artur Mas wouldn’t have had the brushoff he was looking for. They didn’t even have to make concessions. Just listening would have been enough.

A much more recent instance of ineptitude was when Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría said that it had been them, and not the judiciary, that sent the secessionist leaders to prison. How can it even cross your mind to make such a statement? You’re sending the message that institutions belong to you more than to others. This is something you have to be very careful with, because what I think is fundamental in this story is the rule of law. Much more so than the attack on what we consider the Spanish nation. In my view, the most worrisome aspect of secessionists’ departure from the law –not of secessionism itself, which is as legitimate a political option as any other– is their attack on the rule of law, which is why the state has to be meticulously respectful of it in its response to the secessionist challenge.

So you’ve felt that there hasn’t been a political response.

Of course. And I’m not talking about sitting down with the secessionists to negotiate. What I mean is a more clever and creative political response. But Mariano Rajoy chose to have other institutions, like the judiciary and the Crown, play a leading role in order to avoid the burnout of politically confronting the secessionist process. Very in character for Rajoy, to be fair. Careful, it’s not that I’m against judges and the Crown paying a role. But what you can’t do is have them be the only ones in the picture.

Was what happened on 1st October a mistake?

It was a serious mistake. Starting with the repeated claim that the referendum would not take place. You can’t say such a thing if you’re not completely sure it’ll be true. And it wasn’t, as we now know. On 1st October, there was a vote. It was full of irregularities, but there were people voting. And then, of course, there were the police charges at the polls. Conclusion: you’re giving the secessionists an epic moment for free, and delegitimizing Spain in the eyes of the world while you’re at it.

You’re giving away an epic moment to people who are already way ahead of you in terms of narrative.

Of course. You’re fulfilling their prophecy.

Another thing that’s often reproached is Rajoy’s government’s lack of communication, particularly in the international arena.

Well, they should have explained the Catalan situation and its context abroad. But since the PP never saw the secessionist process as a battle in the court of public opinion, things as basic as Catalan autonomy, income levels in Catalonia or Constitutional issues, to name just a few examples, were completely unknown outside Spain. So there was only one version of events circulating abroad: the secessionist version. It’s true that a liberal democracy can’t engage in propaganda the way a wishful adventure like the secessionist process does, and this puts you at a disadvantage in terms of competing for control of the narrative, but I don’t know–it was a bit like watching a football match in which one team –the Constitutionalists– jumps onto the pitch 45 minutes late. A case in point is the surprise expressed a few weeks ago by an American intellectual who, after reading my book, told me he had no idea Catalonia was one of the wealthiest regions in Spain, nor that it had such levels of autonomy.

In my experience, Americans who know the situation well mostly have trouble understanding how a nationalist movement like the one in Catalonia –well-off and currently facing no cultural repression whatsoever– can present itself as left-wing.

Well, although we all seem clear on the theory –the left is internationalist, so there can’t be a left-wing nationalism–, in practice the 20th century is full of instances in which the left and nationalist movements have gone hand in hand. Many left-wing regimes had nationalist components, or else turned to nationalism to stir up all sorts of feelings. It’s a debate that remains open–how such an alliance is possible.

Anyhow, Spain is a special case due to a host of historical associations that cannot go unmentioned if we truly want to offer a serious analysis. It can’t be ignored that the left and what we now call peripheral nationalist movements were once on the same side in the fight against the Francoist regime. I think that’s why the centre-right of peripheral the nationalists is seen as somewhat more left-leaning than the Spanish centre-right. Despite the two sharing many moral and economic stances; even despite the fact that, in some cases, the peripheral nationalist centre-right displays a much stronger identity component than the Spanish right.

But there are left-wing nationalist parties.

That’s true, although in the Catalan case it doesn’t seem very logical. Here’s a political project that opposes the redistribution of wealth because it doesn’t want to give any money to the poorest parts of Spain. And redistribution is part of the left’s DNA. Not to mention the social fracture between those who favour secession and those who don’t, with divisions that very often correspond to ethno-linguistic fault lines. A movement based on social class and ethno-linguistics doesn’t seem very leftist. But, as I’ve said before, to understand why there’s a left-wing nationalism in Catalonia it’s important to review Spain’s history.

Another thing worth noting is that part of the left, including the Catalan left, has distanced itself from the secessionist process. And it has done so, among other reasons, because secessionists want to promote a project that doesn’t even garner half of the vote.

This fracture within the left is very interesting. There’s the left that says that this is a senseless confrontation between flags and that there are much more important issues to fight for, and then there’s the left that says that the secessionist process will help spark a political and social revolution and break the status quo.

José Ignacio Torreblanca has written about this revolutionary left in El País. But the thing is that these leftists need to ask themselves whether their fellow travellers on this revolutionary journey, a deeply corrupt and business-friendly right, are willing to pursue a left-wing republic for Catalonia. Because right now each sector among the secessionist envisions its own utopia and that’s fine. Yet it’s worth wondering what would happen if they achieved their goal–would they have a republic prioritizing business and friendly relations with the rest of Europe or would it be an anticapitalist republic?

And then, as you say, there’s the left that doesn’t buy into the secessionist narrative; the left that actually believes in solidarity among territories and that wants to improve the system rather than destroy it. A left that believes in the idea of Spain and that is represented by part of Podemos–the sector led by Íñigo Errejón and Carolina Bescansa.

It’s true that Podemos have always like the word “fatherland”.

Errejón has, mostly. Although the truth is they’ve toyed with the concept of the fatherland, but the thing is you have to actually fill the concept with some kind of meaning or you’re left with an empty signifier.

Is there any difference between patriotism and nationalism?

To me it’s like the difference between eroticism and pornography–it’s patriotism when I do it and nationalism when others do.

So there’s no difference, then?

Well, we could say patriotism is based on affection and a feeling of belonging somewhere, whereas nationalism adds to that a component of superiority; nationalists don’t simply feel proud of their roots, they also use them as a reason to feel they’re better than others. But that’s the theory. In practice it’s hard to separate the two concepts. And it’s easy to go from one to the other–it happens before you know it.

Another consequence of the secessionist process: it has managed to bring Catalans who oppose secession out to the streets.

We all knew an opposition existed, but we figured it was disjointed and unorganized. It’s a group of people who didn’t seem particularly interested in politics but who suddenly became aware of the magnitude of the problem and decided to join demonstrations in Barcelona. This is perhaps one of the least expected consequences of the process. And it also highlights that this is, first and foremost, a problem among Catalans.

Going back to the issue of the narrative, I wanted to ask you about Quim Torra. His election as president of the regional government seems to have been a huge strategic error, because as you pointed out in an article in The New York Times, this is somebody who has publicly expressed xenophobic ideas. In other words, his discourse flies in the face of secessionists’ attempts to present themselves as an inclusive movement. Why choose Torra?

To be honest, I don’t know. It’s possible that he’s simply managed to climb the ladder by presenting himself as somebody who’s manageable and will continue to follow Carles Puigdemont’s orders. Someone, that is, who will not stop pursuing confrontation. A confrontation that fewer and fewer people seem to embrace—there are political leaders seeking to bring the situation back on track. Torra would be the opposite: a leader for those who want to keep up the fight.

In any case, I too think that Torra’s election is a huge anomaly. I operate on the premise that the secessionist movement is very diverse and includes several  strands of thought. Yet there’s something that they all agree on, and it’s their denial of the “supremacist” label. Well, how curious: now that they’ve got a leader who has not merely made an occasional subtly supremacist remark, but who is in fact an open supremacist, a guy who if not racist is not far off… now they go and close ranks around him. This is in effect like relinquishing any moral superiority. And that makes me think they’re desperate.

Anyway, I’m sure that deep down many secessionists dislike Torra; they wouldn’t want to be photographed with him. Logically. I mean, this is someone who goes around certifying your Catalan-ness based on your political ideas and your language. He’s smudging up the self-image secessionists like to see in the mirror. Torra is a boycott to their own marketing campaign.

But, like you say, despite any internal dissent, outwardly the secessionist movement has closed ranks around Torra. Just look at the reactions to the Times article.

Because in the current Catalan political climate, people become indulgent; you tend to forgive things and might even see them as half-normal. It’s like that video of Donald Trump saying you had to grab women by the pussy. His supporters immediately said it was just locker room talk and not that big a deal. I remember hearing the response and wondering what kind of locker rooms people go to. It’s a bit like that with Torra. When I’m told that his articles were just a reflection of table talk and that they’re being taken out of context, I feel the urge to reply that maybe the table talk itself was unacceptable to begin with. In other words, I think that things often need a fair amount of context to be properly understood, but sometimes things actually need to be taken out of context to clearly understand them. If Torra had said what he said but referring to Muslims or Gypsies, would his current supporters be supporting him? I doubt it.

Some reacted by saying that there’s also an anti-Catalan phobia in Spain.

It’s a false comparison. Yes, there’s anti-Catalan phobia in Spain: boycotts of Catalan products are a case in point. And it’s misguided and stupid. But its existence isn’t enough to warrant the comparison. Because you can’t compare a fanatical journalist or a far-right party-member on Twitter with no representation in the Spanish political system to the president of the Catalan regional government, who is additionally supported by several parties.

Just out of curiosity: did the Times ask for an article on Quim Torra or was it your idea?

Both. When he was elected I decided to write to an editor I know there. I told her I thought it convenient to focus on Torra for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above. She replied that it was a good idea and why not do it myself. So it was sort of half and half; I advised them to explain who Torra is and they proposed that I do the job.

I’d like to touch on the topic of violence. The secessionist movement has been criticized by the far left, who says you can’t stage a revolution and expect it to triumph without breaking any eggs. But as you’ve said before, the secessionist strategy hasn’t been to avoid violence, but rather to wait for the state to be the one to use it against a peaceful movement. To what extent do you think the strategy has been successful?

Let’s see: home rule has been suspended, there have been economic losses, there’s been a social fracture, there are several secessionist leaders in prison and others are in a self-imposed exile. All in all, I’d say it hasn’t worked out great.

Even so, I’d like to share a few thoughts on the topic of violence. In the first place, we now know there was a plan in place to control –and defend– the territory if the Catalan republic was proclaimed. That is to say, the secessionists had also studied how and when to exercise explicit violence. In the second place, I agree with those who say that in the course of a revolutionary process you’ll have to use violence if you hope to succeed, but in this case I wouldn’t put the lack of violence down to strategy alone, but also to prosperity. Prosperity makes people reluctant to take to the streets. In the third place, the strategy of the secessionist movement has been a bit like blackmail, like when they implied that they deserved some kind of congratulations for not having used violence despite the many reasons they had to do so. And finally, I think the harshest violence hasn’t been the one exercised by one side or the other, but rather the one exercised by reality: the fact that nobody internationally has recognised the secessionist movement or its aspirations, and that financial markets have punished the adventure. I think the blow reality has dealt this dress rehearsal is the harshest of all.

My previous question was more directed along the lines of something I discussed with Jordi Amat a few weeks ago: future generations and those who have been politically socialized in a climate of conflict. Do you think the strategy of receiving blows, the strategy of martyrdom if you like, is intelligent if the goal is to radicalize the young?

There’s no doubt that what happened in autumn has created a huge site of memory. The secessionists managed to vote after fooling Spanish intelligence services and despite the blows they were dealt. Clearly, this is a powerful episode for the secessionists, who were greatly assisted by the Spanish government in securing it for their narrative. In this regard, it doesn’t really matter that the figures for the injured of 1st October were inflated or that the sessions of 6th and 7th September in the half-empty regional parliament saw half of Catalonia deprived of their rights. The epic, memorable, powerful narrative belongs to the other half.

Since we’re discussing the lack of violence, and now that you mention how the Spanish intelligence services were misled, are you surprised by the secessionists’ ability to organize?

Yes, I think their ability to organize and mobilize has been impressive. I also think that ability has given us a great deal of narratives, comparisons, metaphors and publicity hooks that have favoured the secessionist movement. In this regard it’s been quite admirable. However, they’ve had a great advantage: they don’t need to be coherent. Look, for example, at their role models. First Quebec and Scotland, then Slovenia and now Kosovo. Or look at the accusations they level, for instance, against Ciudadanos (TN: the liberal-democratic and strongly anti-nationalist Citizens Party). They’re accusing them of ethnicism. I mean, seriously, you’re defending Torra! They’re also very clever with the use of language: they’ve turned self-determination into “the right to decide”. How could you possibly oppose such a thing?

There’s a chapter in your book called “The discreet charm of supremacism”. Could you explain your point of view?

Manuel Arias Maldonado says the role of an intellectual is to establish scales of degree. I agree. That’s why I don’t like it when people refer to Catalan nationalists as “nazionalists”. It’s a counterproductive use of language that stems from getting carried away and exaggerating. Calling somebody a supremacist, or saying that they embrace a supremacist doctrine, doesn’t mean they’re nazis.

Having said this, it’s obvious that Catalan nationalism has a supremacist component. Yes, it claims to be civic and inclusive, to support the notion that you can become Catalan without having been born in Catalonia, but as soon as you scratch below the surface you run into the presence of the other, the immigrant who arrives and does not assimilate the way you’d like him to, and the feeling of strangeness a nationalist might initially feel towards that other can quickly and unconsciously evolve into a feeling of superiority. I feel like that way of looking at the other as strange has become second nature in Catalonia. I’m not just talking about the way they’ve closed ranks around Torra, which we’ve already mentioned. I’m also referring to that article in which Oriol Junqueras talked about the Catalan DNA, or the interview in which Artur Mas said that Catalans have Carolingian blood. Yes, granted, it might be that in the cases of Junqueras and Artur Mas these were just metaphors, but then I remember that quote by Milan Kundera, that a single metaphor can give birth to love, and I can’t help wondering if that applies to hate as well. You have to be careful with metaphors.

There’s a line in your book that I found very intriguing: “One virtue of nationalism is that it gives intellectuals something to do.”

Let me explain. Nationalism revolves around narratives, myths. Ok. So who builds these narratives and myths? Intellectuals and poets. Nationalism needs poets. In fact, if it first arose in Germany it was precisely, and among other reasons, because German poets resented French domination. So you have to be weary of poets’ resentment, because in the end you get what you get.

In the case of Catalonia it’s very interesting to see how Catalan intellectuals have adhered to the secessionist process. Jordi Amat tells the story very well in his Largo proceso, amargo sueño (“Long process, bitter dream”, Tusquets): how Artur Mas, upon his return from that failed negotiation in Madrid, discovered that a great deal of intellectuals were willing to applaud his decision to move towards secession. Normally, you don’t see such allegiance to a political leader in constitutional democracies. But I guess in the end power always finds its sycophants. In this case, people who have used their position to describe how Spain has oppressed Catalonia and create an epic tale around this. What I find interesting about the Catalan case is the gall with which some academics, like those of the Wilson Collective, have embarked on the fabrication of a narrative.

But intellectuals are presumed to have a certain critical awareness, aren’t they?

Yes. Supposedly, intellectuals should have critical awareness regardless of their sympathies and antipathies. In fact, among the intellectuals of the constitutionalist camp there’s a raging debate around tons of issues. What’s more, almost everybody I talk to agrees that the PP government made a mistake: the debate revolves around when exactly.

I have to ask about Pedro Sánchez and the ministers –especially the female ministers– he’s appointed. What’s your take?

I don’t really know what I think of Pedro Sánchez’s cabinet yet. It’s too soon. For now all we know about Pedro Sánchez is that we know nothing. I mean, he’s proven to be very audacious, very determined and very capable of reinventing himself. But we’ll see. The appointments seem fairly sensible overall and they seem to suggest a pro-European trend. Nothing to object, at least initially. But anyway, he faces a significant weakness in parliament and he’ll have a hard time bringing any proposals to fruition, but as far as the topic we’re discussing is concerned, I don’t think Pedro Sánchez has given in to nationalism.

What the PP say…

It’s worth remembering that the PP offered the PdeCAT a group of its own in parliament just to save Rajoy.

Let me bring this to a close by mentioning Spanish nationalism. Quite a few people think it’s back due to the secessionist process. As an argument, they point at the Spanish flags waving from balconies all over the country. Do you think they’re right?

I think there’s been some exaggeration with this. There are people who think that Spain should be a uniform country, people who want to use the secessionist process to dismantle the system of devolved regions and start recentralizing the country. This is true. But reality is at odds with this. Spain isn’t France. Our historical evolution has followed a different path and Spanish identity is anything but uniform; we’re a diverse country with many cultural differences. Something I love, by the way, because I see in this a form of wealth. Honestly, I doubt those who want a homogeneous Spain have any chance of changing this reality.  

As for the flags, I find people’s double standards pretty funny: we have to empathize with the Catalan nationalist waving a flag in Barcelona because those are his feelings, but when we see a Spanish flag, a constitutional flag, we have to throw up our hands in horror because we’re surrounded by fascists and lowlives. Seriously: no.

Last question: what do we do about Catalanism?

Catalanism is a rich cultural tradition that has been put at the service of secessionism of late. Consequently, I think right now it’s out of the picture. There are people who want to rebuild it and use it to build bridges and consensus. I also think we need to rebuild the fabric of affections. And this is something you won’t achieve with anti-Catalan phobia, which is a position as irrational as it is absurd.

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