Catalan nationalism isn’t the progressive cause you might think

Many independence supporters are wealthy, insular and resent subsidising poorer people in Spain. This is not a case of David versus Goliath.

For many Europeans, it was impossible not to feel sympathy for Catalans when images of riot police suppressing an illegal election appeared all over the media at the beginning of October. Then came the dismissal of the Catalan government by Madrid after the Spanish senate approved the execution of article 155 of the constitution. Finally, a judge in Madrid ordered eight members of the deposed Catalan government to be remanded in custody pending possible charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement of funds, among others.

These events have aroused controversy in the sphere of European public opinion and garnered Madrid some criticism for its handling of the crisis. However, most analyses lack understanding of the movement behind the Catalan drive for independence, namely Catalan nationalism. In the runup to the next regional elections scheduled for 21 December, it might be useful to provide English-speaking audiences with some facts that have remained somewhat obscured.

To begin with, Catalonia is far from oppressed under any sensible analysis. It’s one of the highest-income regions in Spain, representing about a fifth of its GDP. Catalans are more educated and have lower unemployment than the Spanish average. Since 1977, Catalans have enjoyed a regional government vested with extensive powers in tax matters, education, public services and foreign representation, and they use and promote their own language to the point of marginalising Castilian, which happens to be the most widely spoken language in Catalonia.

Although regional institutions were suspended from 1938 to 1977, Catalan bourgeois elites have displayed remarkable survival instincts, entering into alliances with the forces of the Spanish right whenever they deemed it necessary to maintain order. Catalan conservative nationalists have ruled the region for more than three decades in the democratic period. These same nationalists have voted in favour of about half of the national budgets during this period. If changes are to be made in Spain’s federal structure, they shouldn’t be based upon the false assumption that Catalonia has had no role in national politics.

It is worth reminding ourselves of which Catalans have had a role in Spanish politics. It has been, overwhelmingly, the Catalan elites, which brings us to another important detail: Catalan nationalism is neither inclusive nor progressive. Catalonia is inhabited by two cultural communities, each representing about half the population. But in terms of income, social status and influence the difference is stark. The Spanish-speaking population, immigrants or descendants of economic migrants who arrived in the 20th century, is, on average, less wealthy, less educated and less politically mobilised.

Contrast this with the extraordinary degree of mobilisation among Catalan nationalists, who have colonised all the regional power centres, and a subsidised press and civil society. Lower-income citizens vote overwhelmingly for non-secessionist parties such as Ciudadanos (liberal), PSC (social-democrat), Catalunya Sí Que Es Pot (left) and PP (conservative) that today add up to about 48% of the vote, more than the ruling coalition. This bloc is more popular in urban Catalonia, as opposed to the more nationalistic rural interior.

Catalan nationalism has featured clear appeals to ethnicity, and any reader can search on the internet for dog-whistle or outright supremacist statements. Common messages have included “Spain steals from us”, “Subsidised Spain lives off productive Catalonia”, or posters showing ragged kids from southern Spain living off the taxes paid by the Catalan middle class.

In the last few years, secessionists have attempted to give a sheen of democratic legitimacy to an essentially ethno-linguistic movement, conveniently sidestepping concerns over the rule of law. “This is all about democracy”, they said. Nothing was said, though, about the fundamental nature of the vote, which was nothing other than an attempt to deprive non-secessionist Catalans, the majority, of their citizenship rights. Arnaldo Otegi, a former member of Eta, turned activist for the Catalan nationalist cause, said on Twitter: “Democracy consists in respecting what people say. Laws come after.”

This movement’s nationalism and populism are reinforced by the current international context. The last great recession spurred the ascent of leaders wedded to identity politics and plebiscites, two factors that frequently lead to polarisation and social fracture. It’s not hard to find parallels with other phenomena in Europe and the world. Think about them rather than pondering romantic ideas about oppressed peoples fighting for their civil rights. Catalan secessionism, like the Padania version in Italy or Brexit, is at its core a questionable, selfish goal. It may be up for debate, for sure, but it’s not right to present that debate as being one of freedom versus oppression, when there is clearly so much more to the picture.