At the moment Catalan politics is far from being a millpond. Rather, there is a noticeable undertow. At the surface, we have the current of the independence process. Underneath there is a broader current, that of a Catalan society which felt choked, that recognises itself as a nation and wants to change its status quo, although it remains hesitant about independence.
Down below there is an opposing current that is even willing to deny Catalonia’s very existence. Under such political appearances, there was a more profound phenomenon already in progress, a substitution or a shift in the nation’s direction. It would appear that the political subject is changing.
At this point I ought to mention the famous Catalan bourgeoisie, a social class that methodically pictured itself in contrast with their servants, the Spanish immigrants. This network of patrician families developed its own folklore, trends and even their own political party. This social group pictured itself, but was also drawn by the court in Madrid as a ghost, “the Catalan bourgeoisie”. This ghost acted as a decoy for the social group that truly holds the reins of Spain’s resources, a gang of parasites that pillages the public resources whom we could justly refer to as “the Madrid bourgeoisie”. The famous and picturesque “Catalan bourgeoisie”, depicted as selfish and provincial, conceals the existence of the likes of Villar Mir, Florentino (1) and so on; in contrast, they are supposed to be cosmopolitan, serious, enterprising businessmen. If, by chance, anyone peeks through the curtains that conceal this network, the argument is that, in fact, none of them are from Madrid. Indeed, it is not their place of birth that brings them together, but their ideology (Spanish nationalism) and their interests (draining the state). The Spanish language, too --spoken with various local accents--, which is part and parcel of Spanish nationalism.
There is no doubt that, in the 20th century, the Catalan bourgeoisie was Catalonia’s backbone and gave the nation its structure. However, in order to understand the successes and limitations of this nation, it is essential to acknowledge the wounds and the grudges that paralysed it. There is a Spanish novel, Últimas tardes con Teresa (Last Evenings with Teresa), that captures these internal relationships and their drama. This patrician regime ensured that Catalonia would not dissolve into Spain but, at the same time, it became --and still is-- the binding that kept in place a certain classist vision of Catalonia that prevented it from evolving into a national project that might have, otherwise, been attainable.
This project had boundaries. Firs of all, they took over from the Spanish state and they built a comfortable nest while resigning themselves to endless bargaining for the benefit of the members of their own social group. What CiU argued for and obtained in their negotiations did benefit certain interests, but they were not necessarily the interests of the majority of the people. Duran i Lleida’s (2) historic loneliness suggests that the journey has come to an end and his time is over. The stagnation of the Pujol era opened the door to new experiences and the infamous tripartite Catalan coalition government of 2003 was the first attempt at a government by the others.
In order to conquer a fortress, a traitor within is often required. Like Adolfo Suárez was to francoism, so was Pasqual Maragall to the Catalan patrician class. Maragall’s figure marked a transition to a new era. Besides the political differences with the previous period, his government saw the arrival of a new political discourse: that of Carod-Rovira’s ERC.
Catalan nationalists saw Maragall’s PSC as suspect because it was subservient to Spain’s PSOE, but ERC stood the same --or higher-- moral ground as CiU. Carod and the ERC leadership expressed a form of Catalanism that was as firm as it was civic and extended its legitimacy to everyone in Catalonia. The leaders of ERC themselves came from a working-class background from outside the capital’s bourgeois circles, which gave them credibility.
ERC managed to turn militant Catalanism into a meeting place for Catalans of different backgrounds and traditions, blending national and social policies.
Later, Montilla’s presidency was merely a transit administration. President Montilla himself was the incarnation of what Pujol had patronisingly recognised, years before, as “the new Catalans”. By then, though, the PSC had lost all its Catalanist legitimacy, crushed under the weight of the process of the new Catalan Statute. The PSOE apparatchiks struck down both the Statute and the PSC.
When Mas became president, things appeared to slip back into the old ways, at least on the surface. Yet the social process persevered underneath. It was then when Madrid’s intemperance forced civic mobilisation to emerge by itself and take centre stage.
It was the massive demonstrations that changed the course of Mas’ life and his figure, affording him a hitherto unforseen meaning and destiny. Obviously, today’s Artur Mas is not the same man who was sworn in as president. Like Pasqual Maragall before him, Mas had to choose his social group and lead an undefined political movement.
History follows its course and it is too soon to say whether Mas is opening a new era in the history of Catalonia or he is a transit figure. One thing is clear: it was the emergence of the popular classes and their leadership in Catalonia’s national struggle that burst the old banks and granted him his current dimension. Today, any collective national project in Catalonia must be truly national and social and must belong to the social majorities. The result of the recent local elections in Barcelona city underscores this historic trend.
Nobody can say how Catalonia will evolve politically, what political and administrative solutions Catalan society will choose. Because of the recession, the Spanish political leaders and parties that had been in power have gradually lost their legitimacy. This is the narrative that feeds Podemos, a political party led by a Madrid group that is dead set on conquering power from within the regime’s institutions and holding on to it. Catalonia is not a reality onto itself and Madrid’s media reach every corner in Spain. The new Spanish dynamic is linked to Catalonia’s own.
The crux of the Catalan political process is knowing to what extent Spain’s tidal wave of delegitimisation of its ruling elites will penetrate Catalonia and crash into or interfere with an independence movement led by political parties encumbered by their past history.
(1) N.T. Villar Mir and Florentino Pérez are influential, Madrid-based tycoons whose companies may have benefited from having close ties with the Spanish authorities.
(2) N.T. MP Duran Lleida was the leader of CiU’s parliamentary group in Madrid. The coalition has recently split and Duran’s role in Madrid now seems uncertain.