Guest Post. The Catalan Referendum: Anubis versus Demos

Today is a day without precedent in Spanish and Catalan history.  To mark the occasion, I’m posting this very personal take on the unfolding crisis by Tamara Djermanovic, writer, professor of Humanities at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, and a very good friend of mine: 


Anubis versus Demos

Out of all the extraordinary measures undertaken by the Spanish state to prevent the Catalan independence referendum, one particular detail stands out for me: the government’s decision to name the operation Operation Anubis. To give the name of the Egyptian god of death to an operation that has consisted of arrests, the confiscation and seizure of ballot papers and referendum materials and other repressive actions intended by the Spanish police to ‘defend the integrity of the state’, is, at the very least, an unfortunate choice of words.   But sometimes symbolic details can be more revealing than the bald facts.

Consider, for example,  how and why the Catalan independence movement came to adopt an explicitly nationalist and separatist orientation over the last two decades.  This was primarily due to the centralist policy of the ruling People’s Party (Partido Popular), coupled with the economic crisis.  This combination broke the consensus that emerged in the last years of the Franco dictatorship and continued in the democratic era, according to which Catalonia would accept regional autonomy in exchange for remaining part of Spain.

The collapse of these accords was first confirmed in 2010, when the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy decided to abolish the Catalan Statute (Estatut) voted in 2006 by the National Assembly of Catalonia, thereby depriving the Catalans of some of the same freedoms enjoyed by other regions of Spain, such as the autonomous region of Andalusia, which has a very similar statute.

History tells us that in 1714 Catalonia lost the independence which it had previously enjoyed under the Crown of Aragon, when the Bourbons came to power and forcibly imposed Castilian rule on the rebellious Catalans.   The Bourbon monarchy’s Nueva Planta decrees not only abolished Catalonia’s  ancient privileges, freedoms and charters: they also ended a democratic political culture that had prevailed in Catalonia for centuries, in which all social sectors participated in important decision-making, and acted as a restraint on the absolute power of the king.

For a brief period Catalonia managed to recover its independence in 1931 under the Spanish Republic.  With the defeat of the Republic during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the national and cultural rights of the Catalans were suppressed until Franco’s death in 1975.

To many Catalans, the past has now become part of the present, and ushered in a new political era that is being hotly debated across Catalonia.   At my own university, one of my colleagues describe the actions of the Rajoy government as a return to the ‘ Dark Spain’ of the Franco years, with its ‘right-wing politics, which always had a very strong anti-Catalan orientation.’ Another Humanities professor insists that the repressive actions carried out by the Spanish government ‘ not only violate the spirit of democracy, they also highlight the neo-Francoist lineage of the government itself.   Two other colleagues, who are not supporters of an independent Catalonia would rather ‘talk about something else’.  At the campus entrance, students trying to bring all academic activity to a halt hand out leaflets declaring We can’t allow this.

Beyond the campus, a tragicomical situation is unfolding, as thousands of policemen sent by the Spanish government to prevent today’s  referendum are billeted in hired cruise ships  moored ‘secretly’ in the ports of Barcelona and Tarragona, painted with cartoon characters bearing images of Daffy Duck and Tweety Pie. Port workers, who include people of many different nations and nationalities, have unanimously refused to provide services to these docked vessels.

The general feeling amongst all citizens living in Catalonia, regardless of their position on the issue of independence, is that the actions of the Spanish government represent something unprecedented in Spain’s democratic history, and that it is irresponsible at the very least to recreate a climate that recalls the Civil War simply in order to head off the possibility of secession.

Had the government allowed the referendum to take place, it would have provided an opportunity for the many Catalan citizens who are not in favour of independence to make their voices heard.   Judging by the request of an anti-Catalanist neighbor who requested that the ‘ talking elevator’ in my building be changed from Spanish to Catalan, there are a lot of people here who oppose secession.

For my part, I have a Spanish passport and Catalan citizenship.  But I was born in Belgrade, which I left 26 years ago to escape the situation in the former Yugoslavia.  I would very much like to live in a country which does not appear on magazine covers and newspaper front pages, and which does not send police to my city in the name of the god of the dead.

Spain Versus Catalonia

Political struggles demand that you take sides, but there are some political confrontations that you just wish weren’t happening.   Watching the struggle for Catalan independence unfold over the last seven years, I have certainly not felt like a neutral or indifferent bystander.  Indifference is not possible when dealing with a country – Spain,  that I love – and a country within a country – Catalonia, where I lived for nine of the best years of my life and which I also love.

Throughout the last seven years I have often felt that I was watching a political tragedy unfold with potentially devastating and uncontrollable consequences for both Spain and Catalonia.  I have never believed that Spain would allow a ‘divorce’ like the one agreed between the Czech Republic and Slovakia – or which would have almost certainly happened here had Scotland won the independence referendum.

Not only is Catalonia too important politically and economically for Spain to let it go, but a successful Catalan separatist movement would open the way to secessionism in the Basque Country and other regions. There is no way that the Spanish state or army will allow that to happen.

Knowing this does not mean that I could side with the Spanish state, especially a state represented by one of the most corrupt political parties in Europe, the Partido Popular – a party so riddled with sleaze and corruption that it constantly amazes me to find it still in power, and which combines these failings with a political cloven-footedness and instinctive authoritarianism that too easily reveals the party’s Francoist lineage.

The Partido Popular’s corruption, coupled with the overwheening centralism that led it to rescind the reform of Catalonia’s autonomy statute in 2010, has led millions of Catalans to embrace the secessionist cause to an extent that was unimaginable when I lived in Barcelona in the 1990s.   Contrary to the arguments of Thatcherite reactionaries such as Mario Vargas Llosa – Catalanism does not represent some retrograde and anachronistic retreat into ‘nationalism’.

Nationalism and self-determination can take many different forms, from the racist US Confederacy and the ethnonationalist chauvinism of the Bosnian Serbs to the progressive political and socioeconomic aspirations that were partly responsible for the rise of the SNP – and the Catalans.

Personally, I would prefer to see such aspirations pursued outside a nationalist framework,  but regardless of what people like me might think, millions of Catalans see an independent state as a means of pursuing them, and when it comes to the issue of self-determination, their opinions are what counts.  Because self-determination is exactly what it sounds like; it means the right of a particular people to define its own political future.

The secessionist movement which has now coalesced around the Junts pel Sí coalition has campaigned peacefully with skill and passion,  and built a genuine popular movement.  It has compelling political, cultural and historical arguments on its side for an independent Catalan state – even if the arguments about ‘paying too much to Madrid’ are not amongst them, to my mind at least.

That said, the case for self-determination has not yet been won.  Independence cannot be decided on the basis of a 51 percent vote and previous surveys have not even reached that.  A political transformation of this magnitude requires a much higher participatory threshold and a much higher majority – and a broad consensus within Catalonia.

For all that the secessionist movement has achieved these last seven years, it is by no means clear that such a majority exists.  Nevertheless the movement has certainly made the case for a broad democratic consultation,  and the Spanish government’s repeated refusal to allow this has been a monumental political error.

Now, showing the political tin ear that it has always shown, Rajoy’s administration has turned to repression, whether confiscating ballot papers, arresting Catalan officials, threatening members of the Catalan government with sedition, or attempting to subject the Catalan police the Mossos d’Esquadra to the direct control of the Interior Ministry

Such actions are grist to the separatist mill.  They have further discredited Spanish institutions in the eyes of many Catalans, bringing back old memories of the Francoist era, and threatened to turn the ongoing confrontation into an explosive crisis with grave implications for the future of Spanish democracy.

Rajoy and his supporters have used the law and the constitution to justify the government’s clunking response, but legalistic arguments aren’t  a valid response to a popular movement of this scale, and repression will not succeed in extinguishing it.   The only way this confrontation can be defused and worked through – one way or another – is by a process of democratic consultation, which allows the Catalans to decide their own political future.

If the secessionist movement has not yet won its case for independence, it has surely won its right to put its case to the same kind of popular vote that we saw in Scotland and the UK, and which the Kurds are currently demanding in Iraq.

That shouldn’t mean a referendum with no participatory threshold.  Independence is too serious a business to be decided by a first-past-the-post race in which whoever gets 51 percent ‘wins.’  The parameters should be agreed on, the referendum should go ahead, and Spain should accept the result.

Because, if the government doesn’t allow this, and continues on its present course, then it is by no means beyond the bounds of possibility that Catalonia will be placed in a state of emergency and that we will once again see the Spanish army in the streets of Barcelona.  And as ambivalent as I might feel about Catalan independence, that is not something that I will ever support



Trump Goes to Westphalia

There is nothing entirely new under the sun when it comes to US presidents and US military power, at least since the end of World War II.  All American presidents, whatever their political inclinations, preside over a quasi-imperial system of military power that spends spends more than twice as much on the military as the rest of the world put together.   They take it for granted that America has the ability to destroy any country in the world many times over; that America, and only America, can maintain military bases pretty much wherever in the world it chooses; that it can use its military power whenever and wherever it chooses; that it can ‘intervene’ in the internal affairs of any state it chooses, and can act whenever it sees it necessary to eliminate potential threats or regional ‘challengers’ to its global dominance.

Some presidents, such as Reagan and George W. Bush,  depict this military power as an instrument of divine will, that is always used for benign ends in moral confrontations between good and evil – a rhetorical tradition that reaches all the way back to the ‘evil empire’ to the ‘axis of evil’ and ‘moral clarity’ espoused by Bush’s two administrations.

Most presidents have tried to align with the wider interests of the ‘free world’, the ‘West’, civilization, the international liberal order etc, and many US allies share this assumption, at least most of the time.  Even when pursuing American economic or strategic interests, the more intelligent US administrations have always prefer to project military power within a multilateral format, building coalitions and working within international organisations like NATO or the United Nations where possible.

When this is not possible, or when these organisations don’t behave the way the United States wants them to behave, then it will act alone, perhaps dragging in a few partners as a multilateral fig leaf.  Given these precedents, we shouldn’t be entirely surprised by Donald Trump’s performance at the UN yesterday.  As in George Bush’s big international speeches there was a lot of theology and God, accompanied by Old Testament divisions of a world divided between  the ‘righteous many’ and the ‘wicked few.’

Taking a cue from Flannery O’Connor, Trump even warned that some nations were already ‘going to hell’.  There were some spectacularly crude explanations for this hellishness, from Trump’s suggestion that ‘international criminal gangs… force dislocation and mass migration; threaten our borders’ to his  crude analysis of Venezuelan ‘socialism.

There was also a lot of emphasis on about ‘sovereignty’, and ‘sovereign nations’, such as the assertion that ‘Strong, sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny, and strong, sovereign nations allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God.’

Such observations have been interpreted by some commentators as a reaffirmation of the old ‘Westphalian’ international order after the R2P interventionism of the last few decades.  This is giving Trump far more coherence and credibility than he will ever deserve.  One minute he was suggesting that the best way to ensure international order was to allow ‘sovereign’ states to act selfishly.  At the same time he persistently singled out members of the ‘wicked few’ such as Syria, Iran and Venezuela, because of the way their governments treated their ‘own people.

At one point, Trump told his audience that military action might be necessary against Iran, not only because of its supposed role in exporting ‘  violence, bloodshed and chaos’ – something the US itself knows a great deal about – but also because ‘The longest suffering victims of Iran’s leaders are in fact its own people.’

So are we ‘Westphalian’ or still ‘post-Westphalian’?   No point in asking Trump because he probably doesn’t know.   Still it’s worth remembering that R2P was never the altruistic ‘post-Westphalian’ phenomenon it was supposed to be.  After all, the US had been intervening in the affairs of other states for decades before such ‘humanitarian’ interventions were justified as an international ‘responsibility’ that  supposedly overrode the notion of the sovereign Westphalian state.

From Clinton to Obama, the US flirted with R2P when it suited its national interests or geopolitical agendas, ignoring some dictatorships and autocracies and only targeting the ones that were seen as potential ‘challengers’.  Yesterday Trump was more or less arguing exactly the same thing.   Nevertheless his speech left a lot of jaws dropping, and there was an unmistakable sense when it was over that the world had become a more dangerous, unstable and unpredictable place than it was when he took the podium.

Such anxieties aren’t entirely unfounded. American politicians have often reveled in their ability to ‘destroy’ countries that opposed them.  A drunken Nixon once talked about nuking North Vietnam and flooding dykes.   Hilary Clinton warned that the US could ‘obliterate’ Iran.  John McCain composed a little ditty about doing the same thing. Even Obama once politely reminded Iranians that the US could destroy their country if it chose to.

Few presidents have issued such threats with the same bullying arrogance that Trump displayed yesterday.  There was no talk of ‘regime change’ or ‘surgical strikes’ to ‘take out’ missile sites.  Just a little joke about ‘Rocket Man’ and the casual, almost bored suggestion that the US might have ‘no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.’

Thus, with a little flourish of a speechwriter’s pen, 25 million lives were rendered worthless, invisible and disposable – to say nothing of the devastation and carnage that will spread through South Korea and beyond if anyone attempts to resolve this crisis militarily.

No doubt Trump would just munch on a piece of chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago through all that, but the rest of us should be genuinely alarmed to hear such bloodthirsty Al Capone-like language delivered at an institution that,  for all its failings, still embodies the possibility collective security and multilateral, non-military solutions to international crises that was first mooted after World War I with the failed League of Nations. .

The US cannot be held uniquely responsible for the disastrous game of chicken that is now unfolding with Korea, but the Trump administration has made a bad situation worse and yesterday’s speech does not suggest that it has any intention of changing course. Trump declared yesterday that ‘No nation on Earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles.’  True, but the experience of the last two decades suggests that when it comes to the axis of evil, only countries that have them can guarantee their survival.

To say that this is not a desirable outcome does not even begin to describe it, but Trump’s frat-boy belligerence will do nothing to prevent it.  And North Korea isn’t the only looming conflict on the horizon. Trump’s attack on the Iran nuclear deal made it clear that sections of the US military and political establishment are still intent on ripping up that agreement –  regardless of whether there is any evidence to prove that Iran has breached it.

Trump is not interested in evidence.  He is listening to Saudi Arabia, to  the likes of John Bolton and Benjamin Netanyahu, whose applause blew like tumbleweed through the stunned auditorium yesterday, and that is very bad news indeed.

Because whether or not Trump has gone Westphalian, this is a president who combines the emotional empathy of a toddler with the instincts of Lucky Luciano and the military hardware of a superpower, and unless some serious diplomatic and popular pressure can be brought to bear on this administration soon, he and his fellow plotters stand a very good chance of unleashing precisely the kind of catastrophic confrontation he has been boasting about.




Twilight in Brexitland

Yesterday evening I shared a horrific post on Facebook about a tetraplegic woman whose disability benefits have just been cancelled, and has just been summoned to a job interview by her local job centre.  As shocking as it was, this dreadful decision was a fairly typical example of the cruelty and incompetence that has been repeated again and again under the brutal sanctions regime introduced by successive Coalition and Tory governments.  Most of the commenters were as outraged as I was, but there were also messages like this:

No shame when it comes to the white British benefits office. Maybe if she was immigrant that’s might of made a differance (sic).

It’s deeply depressing to know that someone took advantage of such an awful tragedy to express such thoughts.    Once upon a time I might have written off such comments as a occasional freak intervention from some semi-literate racist nurturing their Nazi memorabilia in some dank basement somewhere.   But such interventions are not occasional and they are not from the fringes.

They are all over the place.  You can find them, in below-the-line comments sections on any online forum that has anything to do with immigration – or not.  When a Frenchwoman living in Kent announced last week that she was leaving the UK because of racism and xenophobia, her comments section was sprinkled with racist and xenophobic comments and jeering invitations to go back home if she didn’t like it.

There is a lot more where that came from, and a lot worse too.  Twitter is seething with hatred of this kind, whether directed at foreigners. immigrants, Muslims or people of colour.   Diane Abbott gets hundreds if not thousands of such messages everyday. Gina Miller has been threatened with gang rape, lynching and acid attacks simply because she tried to ensure that Parliament had a say in the Brexit negotiations.

What’s happening on social media is also happening on the streets.  In July this year the Independent reported that incidents of race and faith-based attacks rose by  23 percent in the eleven months since the referendum –  from 40,741 to 49,921.    These incidents included acts of physical violence, acid attacks and verbal insults.  There are undoubtedly many more, since many victims of verbal attacks don’t go to the police.

What is striking about so many of the incidents that are recorded is that – like the comments and tweets on social media – many of their perpetrators clearly feel emboldened, empowered and legitimized by the referendum result.   They feel their time has come, and some of them are clearly dreaming of some kind of ethno-nationalist reckoning in which all the people they don’t like ‘go home’ – even if this country is their home.

Once upon a time some of these people might have felt ashamed to say what they’re thinking; now they don’t.  And why should they?  When Gina Miller said she might have to leave the country, Arron Banks’s Leave.EU – a mainstream lobbying group – merely laughed and tweeted that it hoped other ‘liberals’ would go with her.  Why would people feel any reservation about expressing hostility to immigrants when politicians boast of their ability to turn the UK into a hostile environment?  When ‘commentators’ can tweet about ‘final solutions’ and call refugees ‘cockroaches’ and still get a slot on the Jeremy Vine Show?  Isn’t it all just free speech?

Every week and sometimes everyday, the Home Office – an institution which currently embodies everything that is most malignant about the British state and society – displays how hostile it is by deporting or threatening to deport another immigrant or group of immigrants.

Meanwhile politicians um and ah, or shake their heads about the public’s ‘concerns’.   Some, like the iniquitous and loathsome fraud Boris Johnson, mutter darkly about ‘dual allegiances’.  When they’re caught out deporting tens of thousands of students using false language tests, they don’t bat an eyelid.   When it’s found that their own estimates of students who ‘overstayed’ their visas are wildly over the mark, they just change the conversation and boast of their ability to keep more people out.

Left-of-centre politicians aren’t always much better.   Some talk of the need to exclude immigrants in order to win votes in their constituencies or prevent exploitation or the undercutting of British workers by migrant workers.  Others, like the dreadful Frank Field, celebrate the draconian proposals in the Home Office’s outline document for a post-Brexit immigration policy.

Few pause to wonder where all this is leading us.  It’s a truism to observe that you only stand a chance of curing yourself of an illness if your illness is actually diagnosed and recognised, and right now we are becoming  a sick society – sick with xenophobia, anti-migrant paranoia and unacknowledged racism hidden behind discussions about ‘culture’ and ‘numbers’ and ‘social cohesion.’  We slowly but inexorably poisoning our society with our own fears, prejudices and hatreds.   We are becoming mean, vindictive, callous, bitter and aggressive, constantly whining about what immigrants have supposedly done to us without thinking through what we are doing to them – or to ourselves.

Not only are our politicians ignoring and even pandering to these sentiments, but the government is actually instrumentalising the Home Office to act on them and turn them into policy.   We didn’t get to this situation overnight, and the referendum is by no means uniquely responsible for it.    But there is no doubt that in the last eighteen months, the UK has become a deeply unpleasant and threatening place for many foreigners and immigrants – and for many who simply look or sound foreign – and it may get a lot worse unless we can stop it.

So we need to recognize how serious this is, and we need to act.  The tendencies that have been unleashed these last eighteen months do not express the majority sentiments of the population, but too many of those who don’t share them have not condemned them – or have not argued forcefully against the arguments that foreigners and immigrants are responsible for the social problems of 21st century Britain.  Such arguments aren’t even restricted to the right – I’m constantly coming across them from sections of the left – albeit wrapped up in a veneer of progressive politics and concern for the working class.

We need really major mobilisations to counter these developments.   We need to make the positive case for immigration and diversity and we need to make it loudly.   We can’t pretend that we are too British and too intrinsically decent to descend into a racist and xenophobic swamp.  We can, because any society can.

We need the famous silent majority to stand up for the kind of society we have begun to build –  a society that is comfortable with diversity and open to the world, where foreigners are welcomed, not considered the enemy.  We need to push the xenophobes and racists back to the fringes and restore the shame that once forced them to keep their bitterness and rage to themselves.

Because if we can’t do this, then we will be complicit, and we will also be trapped perhaps for decades, by the dangerous forces that have been unleashed, and which will leave few people unscathed if things proceed along their present course.