Catalonia: everything stays the same, so everything must change

Submitted by martin on 23 December, 2017 - 8:24 Author: Martin Thomas
Flags in Barcelona

"If we want everything to remain the same, everything must change", says the young aristocrat Tancredi to his uncle, the Prince, in the turmoil of Italian unification as portrayed in Lampedusa's novel The Leopard.

Catalonia's election results on 21 December may be a matter of everything having to change because everything has remained the same. The results surprised mostly in how little change they showed in Catalan opinion and in Rajoy's response. Thus they have made the status quo pretty much untenable, short of all the parameters being changed by a large revival in Spain's sick economy.

In the optic of Keynesian theory, economic crises appear as the result of "rigidities" or "stickiness" or "traps" in which dislocations in capitalist relations do not get adjusted incrementally, but explode because the adjustments get blocked by "rigidities" or "trapped" into relatively closed loops. Something of the same in Spain and Catalonia today: disharmonies and the blockages in the system accumulate; at least for now, "stickiness" stops incremental adjustment; and the disharmonies escalate. The lack of gradual mending-by-slippage creates a dynamic for cleavage.

When Catalonia's regional government called an independence referendum, in October, Madrid prime minister condemned the referendum as "unconstitutional", and sent cops to Catalonia to obstruct it, sometimes by violence.

His proposal to break the stand-off was new regional elections in Catalonia. The Catalan government refused. Spain's conservative prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, used Article 155 of the Spanish constitution to sack the Catalan government, impose direct rule from Madrid, and order new elections.

Were it not that the Catalan separatist leaders stepped back a bit, attempting no mobilisation to obstruct the Madrid coup, and instead focusing on the new elections, Rajoy's move could have led to low-level civil war, with clashes between Spanish and Catalan police.

The 21 December Catalan election took place with the leaders of the pro-independence party in Spanish jails or, choosing exile to avoid jail, in Brussels. The biggest street demonstration of the election campaign was in Brussels, when some 20,000 Catalans travelled there to support the exiled leaders and demand the EU offer to mediate between Barcelona and Madrid.

After all the drama, and after a sizeable rise in turnout (to 82%, from 75% in 2015), the election results showed only small changes from the last Catalan election, in 2015. The pro-independence parties won a small majority of seats in the parliament (70/135 this time, 72/135 in 2015) with a slight minority of the votes (47.3% this time, 47.8% last time).

This outcome is partly due to Catalonia's electoral system giving votes in rural areas (which have a clear pro-independence majority) more weight than votes in Barcelona (which has a clear anti-independence majority). But the degree of electoral distortion is small compared to many other systems.

Rajoy's bid to scare off voters from independence failed, even though aided by thousands of firms anxiously moving their head offices from Catalonia in the meantime. He is still on the same track, though. Judges have ordered investigations of more Catalan leaders; some may soon be arrested. Rajoy has refused to talk with Puigdemont.

The election results showed a slight shift to the right. The leftish coalition Catalonia in Common, including Unidos Podemos, which opposed both unilateral independence and the Madrid coup, went down from 8.9% of the vote to 7.5%.

In the pro-independence camp, the left-wing CUP did much worse than in 2015. The traditional mildly-leftish pro-independence party, the ERC, did worse than predicted by the polls. It was outpaced by exiled prime minister Carles Puigdemont's socially-conservative JuntsxCat. That was essentially a return to normal: JuntsxCat is the successor to the CiU which, as the main conservative party, dominated most regional governments in Catalonia from the fall of the Franco dictatorship to 2015.

The figures should cool down the talk from Socialist Appeal and the Socialist Party of the Catalan independence movement being a sort of incipient socialist revolution.

They do nothing to change our agreement with those leftists in Catalonia - and the majority of the big-city working class - who believe that the creation of a new border between Catalonia and Spain would be regressive rather than liberatory. Catalonia has already won substantial autonomy within Spain and rights for the Catalan language, compared to the Madrid-centralist repression of the Franco era, and could plausibly win whatever further autonomy it needs (within a period of years, if not with Rajoy in office) without erecting new borders.

As Bogdan Denitch asked in his 1994 book on the break-up of Yugoslavia: "How much of the contemporary Catalan unhappiness with a unified and today quite decentralised Spain is based on the Catalans' better economic situation [compared to the rest of Spain] and their desire to keep their earnings?"

Yet Catalonia has a right to self-determination. It has a right to choose, even if the people of Catalonia do not as yet link that choice with a drive for social advance. Even if we may think that the rise of the independence idea represents a search for "realistic" ways of escape from the economic plight of Spain since the 2008 crash, and a diversion and distraction (in fact unrealistic) from socialist politics.

Money wages in Spain have stagnated since 2010. With inflation at about 2% a year, real wages have been steadily dwindling. They were 9% behind 2009's level by 2013. The official unemployment rate stands at 16%, and 38% for young people.

There were big social protests in the city squares in 2011. Some of the energy from them went into a new left-wing movement, Podemos. Launched in 2014, it quickly and briefly led opinion polls in Spain, and got about 20% of the vote in Spain's 2015 general election. But, despite absorbing the Izquierda Unida movement into itself, it has so far proved unable to consolidate the impulse for social change into a solid advance based on the working class.

Its promises of super-democracy inside the new party have proved illusory; it has lost some of its never-very-sharp radical edge; and its opinion-poll rating, though still sizeable at 15%-18% across Spain, is down rather than up on 2015.

Little wonder that many people have turned to Catalan independence as a more tangible prospect of change, even though most of them can scarcely believe that Puigdemont's rootedly conservative, and historically corrupt, party will bring much social relief.

The other paradox of the 21 December results is how little has changed in all-Spanish politics.

Rajoy has been in office since the former PSOE administration was swept out in 2011 on a wave of revulsion against the first after-effects of the 2008 crisis, which now look like mere passing woes. He rules not through any mass opinion that he can resolve the economic impasses, but on the basis of disillusion about alternatives.

His current administration is a minority government. After two elections in 2015 and 2016 failed to produce a majority, he regained office only after months of jockeying finally drove, first, the Citizens' Party (which did well in the 21 December Catalan poll) to support him, and, second, the social-democratic PSOE to abstain. Even then he could get only 170 out of 350 MPs to vote for him as prime minister.

Rajoy has been able to pursue his thuggish policy towards Catalonia only thanks to the complaisance of the Citizens' Party and the PSOE in Madrid.

Opinion polls across Spain, again, show a system in impasse, with no outlets for its wearying tensions. Rajoy's PP is at 30%, down from 33% in the 2016 election. The Citizens' Party is up from 13% to around 20%; the PSOE is up a fraction at around 22% to 26%.

In the aftermath of the Catalan election, Rajoy said he was not looking for an early all-Spanish general election. Citizens', PSOE, and Podemos have made no loud call for one.

Catalonia's main pro-independence parties, JuntsxCat and ERC, have signalled no appetite for another attempt at a unilaterally-organised referendum or declaration of independence. Their immediate focus will be on a series of justified democratic demands: the lifting of charges against their leaders, the ending of Article 155, negotiations with Madrid, and a path to a recognised independence referendum. The immediate prospect is for stalling by Rajoy, and exacerbated, sullen tensions.

Socialists should support the justified democratic demands, while at the same time pressing for political mobilisation to oust Rajoy and create paths for everything to change, constructively and in the direction of social solidarity.