News from Catalonia, by Josep M. Muñoz

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In 1954, right in the middle of General Franco’s dictatorship, the most European Spanish historian of the moment, the Catalan Jaume Vicens Vives, published a book that was destined to make a small fortune. The conditions in which it was written and published were that of harsh censorship, in which many things could not be called by their proper names. To start with, Vicens Vives had originally titled his work We the Catalans but he was obliged to change it to the more innocuous News from Catalonia. Only 15 years had passed since the end of the devastating civil war and the Catalans, defeated as a people, needed to know “who they were” before they could move into the future.

In 1960, Vicens reedited his small book. He added new chapters, products of the evolution of his own thought processes. In particular, he now focused his reflections on the relationship that, historically, the Catalans had established with the structures of power. Using the metaphor of the Minotaur, Vicens considered that since Catalonia had been integrated into the Spanish monarchy, Catalans had gotten out of the habit of being in power, which they saw as something more and more foreign. Vicens had described in his books the evolution of Catalonia as two sides of the same coin: the decadence of the 15th century, with the consequent loss of the political “charter for navigation”, had been followed by a renaissance that began in the economic sphere and followed in the political and cultural.

In that way, the 19th century in Catalonia—known precisely as the Renaixença or renaissance, in which Catalonia ended up transformed into “Spain’s factory”—was characterized by a decided desire of the Catalans, who up to that moment had been kept away from power, to intervene in Spanish affairs. Catalonia wanted to fashion Spain after itself, which was nothing more, according to Vicens, than another way of being European. That is, the Catalans wanted to modernize and -Europeanize a backward Spain, which was in the hands of the dominant Castilian classes which socially and economically had little to do with the industrialization that Catalonia had experienced. Therefore, for a period of years the Catalan industrialists and politicians proposed various ways that Spain could recognize Catalonia’s singularity, at the same time as it attempted to construct an efficient Spanish State. Political Catalanism, the name that this movement ended up adopting, was always a movement that simultaneously tried to regenerate Spain.

But Catalonia found it very difficult to have its proposals for regeneration accepted. The crisis of 1898, in which Spain had lost the last remains of its old colonial empire on the other side of the ocean after a humiliating defeat at the hands of the United States, convinced many Catalans of the practical impossibility of that “fashioning” or modernizing. Catalonia instead turned back on itself. Vicens underlines how the two great social and political movements at the turn of the 20th century in Catalonia saw both a bourgeois Catalanism and a working class anarchism, which shared a common mistrust of the Spanish State and the real possibility of effectively modernizing it.

The history of the 20th century has not been very different in some respects. Catalonia has continued to be one of the economic powerhouses of Spain (it represents 16 percent of the total Spanish population, 20 percent of its GDP, and 26 percent of its exports). It has continued to struggle to fashion Spain in its own image, and to establish a framework for peaceful coexistence that started with its recognition as a linguistic and cultural reality, as well as a differentiated social and political one. In 20th-century Spain, there has been no democracy without a simultaneous recognition of the right of Catalans to self-government, and there has no been no dictatorship without a simultaneous repression or prohibition of this right. That is, the century began with a meek attempt at self-governance in the form of the Mancomunitat of Catalonia of 1914, which was overturned in 1923 by the dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera. The Second Republic was born in 1931 with the explicit agreement that led to the Statute of Autonomy of the Catalans, which was approved (not without many reservations from the Spanish Jacobins) in 1932.

The long dictatorship of General Franco, which lasted until his death in 1975, was the result of a bloody civil war (1936–1939) that began with a military coup d’état. One of the causes of the coup was the adamant opposition that the civil forces that began and supported the putsch felt toward the self-governing Statute of the Catalans, which was immediately suppressed. One of the results of the dictatorship was the dramatic prohibition of the public use of the Catalan language and the attempt, which failed in the end, but was not for that reason any less damaging, of annihilating its culture. Out of the Franco dictatorship came a negotiated process known as the “Democratic Transition”, a product of which was the Spanish Constitution of 1978, which was known, perhaps with some exaggeration, as the “Constitution of the Catalans” thanks to the responsibility that some Catalan politicians had, both from the left and the right, in its drafting.

The State of the Autonomies, described in the Constitution of 1978, meant a recognition of the plurality of the Spanish State, but it left many areas undefined, with many ambiguities. Another historian, the Frenchman Pierre Vilar, harshly qualified it as “artifice rather than edifice”. Still, the edifice has sheltered, imperfectly, with more or less constant tension, the demands of most Catalans during 25 years. At the beginning of the 21st century, however, its limits became clear: the Statute of Autonomy approved in 1979 within the framework of the Spanish Constitution was not sufficient to hold back the “recentralizing” will with which the Spanish democratic governments, once the Transition was over, focused their vision of how the new Spanish State should be articulated.

In particular, the operation (begun by the right with the implicit acquiescence of the left) of pivoting the new state around its capital, Madrid, was transformed into not just the political capital it had been for centuries, but above all into the center of Spanish financial power. It brought about the design and articulation of a radial design where everything begins and ends in the center—“Great Madrid”. The political mistrust toward the two traditional industrial poles of the peninsula—Catalonia and the Basque Country—was clearly implicit in this bet on the “radial Spain”, a bet that had its maximum expression in the grandiose network of high-speed railways that began to be built during the years of illusory plenty. (And about which a high-ranking American statesman exclaimed, “We’re not wealthy enough to pay for something like that!” Soon it would become clear that the Spaniards weren’t either.)

Meanwhile, the feeling began to grow, weakly at the onset but fully part of the mainstream now, that the contribution that Catalonia makes to the Spanish coffers does not have a sufficient corresponding return in the form of investments or infrastructures. Since “radial Spain” was constructed contrary to economic logic and instead only for political reasons, Spain has neglected its Mediterranean flank, which paradoxically, is where the bulk of its exporting power is located. In that way, in the name of interterritorial solidarity, the trains have been modernized while the engine car has been weakened. The result is that the whole train goes much more slowly, with one of the engineers fuming that they’re withholding his coal.

Faced with this situation, the majority of Catalan political forces tried to shield the self-government’s jurisdictions (or reserved matters, if you will) with a reform of the Statute of Autonomy approved in 2006. The process was full of incidents, and ended quite badly. The People’s Party (a pro-Spanish rightist party, which is a minority party in Catalonia) brought the new Statute to the discredited Spanish Constitutional Court, despite the fact that it had been approved by both the Catalan and Spanish parliaments and by the citizens of Catalonia in a referendum. The ruling of this high court, with pressure from multiple angles that dragged out the process until 2010, delegitimized the foundations of the Catalans’ self-government, and seemed to cut off the path that the Spanish Constitution of 1978 had opened.

Currently, a remarkably wide majority of Catalans have defended, on the streets and at the polls, their “right to decide”. This stems directly from this ruling, and from Spain’s desire to “recentralize” power in both the economic and political terrains. The latest polls say that 57 percent of the registered voters would vote right now for Catalonia to become “a new state in Europe”.

What has brought us to this point? Keep in mind that independentism has never before garnered majority support in Catalonia, not even among openly nationalist forces. I think I can sum it up this way: in the same way that the American Colonies rebelled against the power of the British with the slogan “No taxation without representation”, today a substantial portion of Catalans, whose motives are more democratic than strictly nationalist, are saying no to an excessive fiscal imposition and to a clearly insufficient recognition of their political rights. The inability of the Spanish State to confront the Catalan question, by giving them political recognition or the financial sufficiency which Catalans demand, is what has made many (though not all) Catalans say today, “Goodbye, Spain”.


Josep M. Muñoz

Historian and editor. Ph.D. in Contemporary History from the University of Barcelona. Muñoz is the author of Jaume Vicens i Vives (1910–1960): una biografia intel·lectual [Jaume Vicens i Vives: An Intellectual biography] (1997). He has held a variety of professional positions, and since 2000 is the editor of a cultural monthly magazine, L’Avenç, and the related tiny publishing house that publishes books on history and literature.

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