Catalonia crisis in-depth: Why? And what next?

By Marta Abascal Centenera

The castell, a human tower built traditionally in festivals in Catalonia is very much like the region’s independence movement. On the bottom, a large group of people called pinya are in charge of sustaining its weight. On top, the enxaneta crowns the tower while triumphantly raising a fist. In this analogy, the enxaneta is Carles Puigdemont, the man of the hour, the President of Catalonia and the face of this self-determination crusade. And he could not stand where he stands if it weren’t for the pinya, the citizens, the working class, the civilians; 90% of whom voted “Si” in the O1 referendum. But why was the castell built in in the first place? What is the foundation of the human tower and how deep does it go?

In order to understand the relationship between Catalonia and Spain, we need to look back to the 19th century and the birth of the two as nations. Let’s break it down. Precapitalist Spain barely resembled the idea of a unified state that Franco ́s fascist regime tried to convey and that has prevailed until today. A nation is a stable group of people existing in the form of an organized jural society with a common idiomatic, territorial, economical and cultural base. Rather than that, feudal Spain was a conglomerate of different communities with their own cultures and languages. Another important fact is that the origins of a nation go hand in hand with the origins of a capitalist society. In fact, it is no other but the material need of a cohesive market together with a strong hegemonic bourgeoisie that urges a regional, linguistic and psycho-cultural confluence to establish itself as a nation. This exact process happened in Spain and Catalonia simultaneously, separately and very differently. This leads us to what is perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle: the fact that two diverse capitalist projects were born within the Spanish nation at the same time. To further comprehend the disparities between them and why they failed to achieve unity we need to take a hard look at the impact of the Industrial Revolution in different regions of the Peninsula (Catalonia was always way more advanced in the process of industrialization); the dynamics of each market (for instance, Spain’s market was heavily reminiscent of the feudal system); and a number of other decisive factors that are too complex and boring to explain in this article.

Basically, we are looking at two bourgeoises that have been in conflict with each other since the very birth of capitalism and Spain as a “nation”. But why does Catalonia want independence? We have already outlined where the roots of such desires lie, but there is no way 2.26 million people feel so strongly about some intricate beef between elites that started almost 200 years ago. What they care about is how that translates to their day to day life. This brings us to the role of “political Catalanism”, the main actor of the independent movement that since the late 19th century has been inveigling the people of Catalonia towards independence. Puigdemont ́s campaign relies almost entirely upon emotion and the fetishization of idiosyncrasy. It appeals to an abstract sentiment of nationalism and sovereignty, together with the promise of a better future for Catalonia as a new state.

However, it would be incredibly patronising to dismiss what the majority, the pynia, wants just because the enxaneta ́s motives seem dubious. Catalonians are far from naive, and they have manifested an overwhelming determination and commitment to the independence castell for decades in the form of demonstrations, rallies, opinion pieces and of course the referendum and the following general strike. They have done so against all adversity, and even after the barbaric aftermath of October 1st, during which central police forces left over 900 injured voters, they are still hell-bent on achieving their goal of self determination.

Because of the particular way a castell is built, if the person on the top falls, the rest of the tower will collapse, injuring themselves and the people acting as a safety net. Similarly, the smallest faux step taken by Puigdemont could also have disastrous consequences not only for him but for his followers and independentists too.

The Catalonian President stated in an interview prior to the referendum that if the turnout was strong enough, he would declare independence within the following week. However, ever since the referendum, Puigdemont has been juggling with his alternatives, which raised concerns of the whole process ending up in smoke. On Tuesday, the coalition JuntsPelSì (United for “YES”) finally signed the declaration, but it wasn’t voted on in Parliament and therefore its significance is of symbolic and not juridical nature.

Nevertheless, the Central Government has deemed it provocative enough to unleash Article 155 of the Constitution. The text provides that the “Government may take necessary measures to oblige an Autonomous Community to enforce its obligations to the Constitution. The circumstances in which it may do so are, of course, that such community has breached the Constitution or seriously violated the general interest.”

In short, it would mean military intervention in the region and the arrest of several actors of the campaign, including Puigdemont himself. This has sparked an international dialogue on legality and democracy, a debate that goes beyond the rule of law and wanders into philosophical matters. Detractors of the independence process claim that what isn’t legal isn’t democratic, but it is much more complicated than that. The principle of legality must be understood as a principle that veils for the wishes of citizens, and if the law does not make it possible for these wishes to be fulfilled legally, the will of the population shall be imposed. That is the most profound and authentic form of democracy and its relationship with the law. A Carta Magna that does not recognise the right of self determination, a cardinal principle in modern international law, is flawed and antidemocratic. The Catalonian referendum on October first was illegal, but it was ultimately legitimate.