Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Catalan populist lab is running out of ideas

Catalonia will live on Sunday another regional election, where the pro-independence parties will fight to keep under control what has in practice become their propaganda machine, an Autonomous government with a budget of more than 40 billion euros, which includes a public TV station with 2300 employees.

The pro-independence movement is now more divided than ever, with at least 5 parties competing among themselves. In the electoral campaign, their only agreement has been to sign a handwritten document whereby each of them commits not to enter in a coalition government with the Catalan Socialist Party, an ally of the Spanish Socialist Party governing in Madrid, and the franchise of the European socialdemocracy in the region.

Five and a half years after the pro-independence parties established an 18 months roadmap to independence, and almost 10 years after they started the “process,” Catalonia remains in Spain, Spain is very high in the rankings of full democracies, and it remains a member of the European Union, the Eurozone and the Schengen space.

When it all started, in the years of the global financial crisis that hit heavily the European periphery, the European project was in crisis, and the Spanish government was in the hands of the conservative Popular Party. Things are now very different. Only the solidarity with some former members of government that were sent to jail for their illegal declaration of Independence in 2017 keeps the movement mobilized. These politicians enjoy a very generous penintentiary regime, and are in fact actively participating in the electoral campaign. The Spanish government is in the process of considering their pardon.

Some details are difficult to follow when one is not familar with local events, but what has been happening in Catalonia is in my view of interest for scholars of populism and nationalpopulism.

It has many of the characteristics of any populist movement, as defined for example by experts Hans- Werner Müller and Federico Finchelstein: erosion of democratic institutions, a rhetoric that emphasizes grievances, xenophobic tones (in this case, against Catalan citizens with origin in other Spanish regions), and a convenient definition of what is the “people” and who is a genuine member of it.

It is also an example of a plutocratic populist movement, with a supply side contributed by a risk-loving upper class and a demand side of middle and upper middle clases, whose economic and cultural anxieties are exploited. Many of the upper class individuals who initially supported the movement or viewed it with sympathy, now try to distance themselves from it, especially after thousands of firms moved their headquarters in 2017 after the legal uncertainty created by the illegal declaration of Independence.

The economic cost of the “process” goes hand in hand with the social cost of divisions and the decline of the respect for institutions.

A left-wing rhetoric by some pro-independence leaders is combined with an almost absence of voters from the lower-middle and working clases, for the main reasons that these social sectors have their origin in other Spanish regions, and do not have Catalan as their first language. This is very well explained in an article by Oller, Satorra and Tobeña published in Nature.

Catalonia combines being a peripheric region in Europe (which makes it fertile ground for a populist left), and a rich region in Spain (which makes it fertile ground for a populist right).

Xenophoby and supremacism, openly or by innuendo, have spread under the justification of what is a combination of a fiscal revolt of a relatively rich region (as explained by Piketty in his last book), and an ethnolinguistic conflict that so far has been basically non-violent, but which has shown many cases of intimidation and intolerance.

The mobilization of identity to break up re-distributive coalitions has been for long a strategy chosen by olygarchies especially in times of crises. 

How to defeat nationalpopulisms like this one is not easy, but must combine some of the recipes of German scholar Müller (dialogue within the law, support for institutions  and especially representative democracy and separation of powers) and the Canadian politician Dion (doing all that, and confronting populist leaders with arguments, and also with with grace).

Mostly without knowing it, but by trial and error, this is what the Catalan Socialist party, the main rival of the pro-independence coalition, is doing in this election.

Denouncing the supply side hipocrisy should not be incompatible with addressing demand issues, that is, some of the economic and cultural grievances. There are also lessons here from Biden and the Democratic Party in the US: organize, campaign, develop infrastructure, and promote an ethic of commitment and civic engagement with democracy and fraternity among the youth, intellectuals, academics and civil society leaders. All this has to be done, because the Catalan national-populist lab has run out of ideas, and the experience has been very costly for society.

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