Independence, the ones at the top and the ones at the bottom

The following argument is often used to explain the diversity of the Catalan left on the subject of Catalonia vs Spain: in Catalonia there are several lefts because every one of them is affiliated with either Catalan or Spanish nationalism. So all the lefts that are keen to remain in Spain --within a federal, confederal or regional arrangement-- would roughly subscribe to the Spanish nationalist mental framework. Conversely, the lefts that support independence from Spain would identify with Catalan nationalism. Such two opposed nationalisms would account for the existence of several lefts in Catalonia, whose national objectives would be impossible to reconcile. This is a useful --and seemingly coherent-- explanation, but I would argue that it does not help us to understand our political reality.

If things were as I have just described them, Spanish unity would be a non-negotiable issue for all the left-leaning Catalan parties which still believe that Catalonia should remain part of Spain. Yet, to give just one example, ICV --who recently proposed a confederal relationship with the rest of Spain-- have been quick to emphasise that they cannot rule out support for independence in the end. As a matter of fact, only last week a pro-independence group was formally created inside the green-socialist party. Likewise, we can find federalists, confederalists and separatists in EUiA and Podemos.

If things were truly like that, independence would be an unconditional, absolute goal for the separatist left. Yet ERC’s current leadership keep saying that independence is justified only because it is the best way for Catalonia to actually move forward in terms of social justice and welfare. This is the same party that, despite advocating independence, committed to Pasqual Maragall’s bid to turn Spain into a federal country a decade ago.

Therefore, I think that there is an alternative thesis that explains the facts much better: most of the Catalan left is fundamentally non-nationalist. Not all of it, of course, but most of it is. And this applies not only to its leaders, but to its voters, too. What does that mean? It means that, as far is this left is concerned, the national axis is subservient to the socioeconomic one (or, if you like, to the right-left axis). In other words, their priority is the socioeconomic axis.

So, why is it that all the non-nationalist lefts reach such different conclusions with regard to the national axis? Starting from different analyses of Catalan reality, how come some conclude that independence is too risky for some of our working classes while others are certain that only independence will bring sustained social progress in Catalonia? All the various lefts in Catalonia are committed to self-determination, they share the same social objective, yet every one chooses its own different path to get to it.

A good friend from ICV recently said to me: “When it comes to independence, what worries me is that the Catalan elite might have a tighter grip on the new country than they’ve had on our regional institutions so far. While we have been part of Spain, we’ve had few checks and balances. But with independence it will be even harder to stop the elite from taking over our democratic institutions”.

A while ago I had a conversation with some ERC friends: “The Catalan elite is terrified by the independence process. Since the 19th century, their power has traditionally come from their connections with the Madrid ruling caste, to use the term that Podemos favours. That’s why the vast majority of Catalonia’s gentry opposes independence. Without the support of the Spanish caste, it will be much harder for them to protect their hegemony. It’s the Madrid-Barcelona connection, in a word. You don’t need to belong to the Círculo Ecuestre (1) to understand this! That’s why Duran fights tooth and nail to prevent independence. And that’s why the Catalan elite are angry with Mas: they see him as one of their kind that has deserted them and, time and again, they try to show him the error of his ways”.

Three simple but relevant conclusions can be drawn from this discrepancy in the analysis: the differences between the non-nationalist Catalan lefts are largely strategic rather than substantial or ideological; they have a shared ultimate goal (social justice); and in terms of their strategic differences, not everyone can be right, certainly not to the same extent.

We should note that the nature of the ideological and strategic discrepancies is very different. The former stem from values and, given that all values that respect democratic principles are equally valid, all ideological positions are also equally legitimate. The strategic options and the analyses that they are based upon have a closer tie with truth: since, in principle, there is only a single truth, when analyses differ we can infer that somebody (or everybody) is wrong. Surely all those who believe that theirs is the shortest route to the same destination can’t all be right at the same time.

So who is right in this debate of the non-nationalist Catalan lefts about the national axis? The fact that the elite who see CiU as their natural reference have turned their back on Mas certainly does not make him a left-wing leader. But this split indeed disproves the thesis --so widespread among the Spanish left-- that claims that independence is a functional project of the Catalan “ruling classes”. The fact the Catalan elite is so reluctant to abandon Spain is an indication that Catalan independence --like Scotland’s-- is an opportunity especially for those at the bottom.

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(1) N.T.  Barcelona’s Círculo Ecuestre is an exclusive social club whose members are generally wealthy and influential.

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