Review of ‘In the mire: a federal alternative to the Carlist soviet’ by Joan Coscubiela

1pqoiekjf1Democracy hijacked by identity

‘This book is the child of doubt.’ So begins the book by first-time author Joan Coscubiela, offering some insight into the intellectual honesty of this historical and adroit Catalan trade union and communist leader.

And they are not idle words. To acknowledge the practical failure of the two fundamental principles of left-wing politics in the last fifty years can hardly be called insignificant. I am referring to not managing to integrate migrant workers in Catalonia under the ‘one people’ paradigm and the now questioned advisability of exercising the right to self-determination (‘perhaps it is not the wisest thing to do at this time’).

He defended both policies with a passion throughout his long political career, first as general secretary of the Comisiones Obreras union (1995-2008), then as a member of the Spanish parliament (2012-2015) and, finally, as a member of the Catalan parliament (2015-2017).

This is no small exercise in self-criticism by a man well-acquainted with political life in constitutional Spain since its very inception. At the same time, his biography serves as a useful inroad towards understanding the development of the present situation in Catalan society and the actions of its leading political figures from a historical perspective.

The child of Castilian communist workers who migrated in the early 20thcentury, Coscubiela is also a son of both La Barceloneta, the humble fishing quarter where he was born, and the work and strife of the trade union movement. He possesses the bold, terse probity of one who owes everything to his values, discipline and work, as he demonstrated when, during the vote for the act of independence, he accused the independence movement of scorning democracy and hijacking it for its own ends. That intervention -which, he confesses in his book, upset him and took him some time to digest, going, as it did, against his instincts as a party man- made a huge impact and was key to delegitimising the acts of the separatists in the eyes of the public.

His history as a staunch supporter of the right to self-determination lent unquestionable veracity to the previous allegations of arbitrariness voiced by the Ciudadanos(Citizens), Catalan Socialist and Popular parties, whose accusations were considered by many untrustworthy and biased, coming as they did from representatives of Spanish nationalism contrary to the referendum.

The last Catalan legislature saw an end to his life in politics. In his own words, he represented people who did not recognise him, the Comú/Común conglomerate, the new leading light of the radical left which emerged from the discontent caused by the economic crisis. And so his political career was curtailed.

From his somewhat free-verse position between secessionism and constitutionalism, this fierce defender of self-determination, but not of independence, forwards three theories in his book through which to understand the profound social processes behind the present situation:

  • The nationalists have turned demands for social justice between the classes into demands for identity between peoples;
  • the political elites are behind the recent secessionist radicalisation of the electorate, and
  • the project to create a Catalonia with an exclusively Catalan identity has failed.

The book is arranged in three parts. The first two provide an interesting personal account and analysis of the causes behind the attempted secession of Catalonia in October 2017. The third and perhaps patchiest chapter outlines some ways in which to manage the situation.

Here is a summary:

  1. How the class struggle became a clash of identities

The preface explains how the ideological pillar of Catalan politics over the last fifty years, all summed up in the motto ‘Catalonia, a single people’, an essential concept when it comes to understanding the political action of the independence movement, came into being and was subsequently distorted.

Originally conceived by the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC) and then taken up by the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) to integrate Castilian-speaking migrants, it was championed for three reasons: to avoid the social alienation of working class migrants; to maintain their bargaining power and to prevent the workers’ movement from splitting along Catalan nationalist lines.

The principle, the author tells us, was subsequently incorporated as an indispensable doctrinal pillar of the nationalists, too, but with other objectives which are ‘clearly manifesting themselves as exclusive,’ because ‘it feeds the imaginary… of them and us’ regarding Spain and Catalonia.

And so he concludes that ‘the independence movement has played the role played at other points in history by social conflicts… and has become the only utopia available.’ 

  1. How a multiple identity became a single and exclusionary identity 

The author explains how the political elites fabricated the now-dominant secessionist paradigm from a number of components: an ideology established since the reinstatement of the Government of Catalonia; competition for votes in the nationalist camp and the propagandist endeavours of the media akin to the Catalan government.

He describes how, over 23 years as president of the Catalan government, Jordi Pujol established independence as ‘sittingon the horizon’. He shows this by citing resolution 98/III, passed by Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Republican Left of Catalonia) and Convergència i Unió (CiU, Convergence and Union) as early as 1989, which was followed, he states, by another thirty resolutions of a similar nature.

Another key element was the constant one-upmanship practiced by Convergencia Democrática de Cataluña (CDC, Democratic Convergence of Catalonia) and ERC to win the nationalist vote, which led, as of 2010, to a growth in the secessionist sentiment among the population.

Coscubiela acknowledges the responsibility of the non-nationalist left in this emulative process, stating that the tripartite government made the ‘mistake of placing… the focus of government action on statutory reform, instead of launching an alternative project of a more social nature.’

The book devotes a good number of pages to another fundamental component of the nationalist radicalisation process: the media’s uncritical magnification of the ‘powerful story of independence as the solution to social problems’ and how it spent its time ‘not informing, but organising demonstrations.’

He supports his claim with several examples. The hype sold by public television and radio about the popular consultations, packaged as ‘star items in the news,’ despite, he reminds us, and contrary to the information provided by TV3, the poor turnout in his neighbourhood of La Barceloneta. Or the alleged plundering of Catalan finances by Spain which the pro-government media reiterated for years; the supposed €16,000 million deficit which not even the Catalan Government’s Minister of Economy Andreu Mas-Colell recognised, setting the figure at just €2,000 million. Or how, over a number of weekends running, Catalan public television broadcast in instalments the reports of the Advisory Council for National Transition, the aim of which was ‘to explain the benefits of independence’ as the solution to social problems.

And he devotes a section to the ‘emotional intimidation and environmental asphyxia’ which has led those who oppose independence to being qualified as ‘bad Catalans, anti-democrats and even traitors,’ and whose magnitude, considering that ‘these attitudes have not been anecdotal’, has led him ‘to cast doubt on the non-violent nature of the independence movement.’

  1. How dreams clashed with reality and created a rift in Catalan Society

Shrewdness, Coscubiela tells us, was the separatists’ buzzword in those last few years. Meanwhile, he recalls, with more anger than irony, how two recognised masters of politics, Pujol and Salmond, spoke out repeatedly against precipitating constitutional change without the necessary consensus, because, according to Pujol, it could have a ‘boomerang effect’.

And so it did. The unilateral declaration of independence fractured Catalan society and this became evident in the mass demonstrations in favour of Spanish unity held in October 2017.

The independence forces denied this division because it meant ‘breaking the belief in a single, compact Catalonia’ and recognising that the conflict existed in the very heart of Catalan society.

In this context, the emergence of Ciudadanos is interpreted as an expression of the breakdown of the ‘one people’ myth.

Far from the much flaunted shrewdness, the cause he points to is the simplicity of the actions of protest and the rapid emotional return they generated. Because this created an illusion which morphed into a great fiction and distanced the independence movement from a rational government and the real world.

The author goes further when he calls into question the pacifism of the independence movement, which has exercised a constant ‘strategy of emotional bullying’ against those who hold contrary views.

This is particularly true of recent years when non-separatists have been disqualified as traitors and anti-democrats.

He claims that describing Spain as a country to which there is no solution is an unacceptable supremacist attitude and he warns of signs of the emergence a xenophobic ultranationalist right.

This nationalist strategy has not only limited its support in society but in recent years has helped shift the core of the conflict from one between Catalonia and Spain to one also present in Catalan society itself.

‘The “process” has led to the destruction of popular Catalanism and its capacity for inclusion.’ This and not the repressive actions of the State, he tells us, is the great obstacle to progress towards independence.

  1. The author’s proposals

Coscubiela denounces those who wish to reform everything forever without reaching any kind of agreement.

He insists that we face multiple disputes: identities; distribution of power, economic interests and grievances. In order to address them, he suggests the following actions:

The discord regarding identities and the distribution of power could be alleviated by specifying the plurinational character of the State and establishing an asymmetric federal reform which simultaneously ensures cooperation and solidarity, recognises the uniqueness of Catalonia with respect to the other peoples of Spain and permits bilateral agreements between the federated states.

Economic matters should combine more sovereignty and fiscal powerwith greater horizontal equity between the autonomous communities, and cites, without going into much detail, a study by a group of economists.

He feels that the origin of the all-important matter of dignity, or of its counterpart, affront, lies in the competitiveness generated between the different territories. According to Coscubiela, comparative grievances, the demand that every territory should be equal, are what have truly driven this issue.

In Andalusia, the left resorted to the region’s grievances as an autonomous community ‘to cover up the vacuum left by the lack of political alternatives in the socio-economic field’ and in the Valencian Community, the right also attacked the distinctions made in favour of the top-tier communities, like Catalonia, when it specified in its latest statute that it would automatically assume any power obtained by another community.

These are, in a nutshell, the lines of argument in this interesting personal account.

  1. Comments

By overlooking the recent economic crisis and that there is now an entirely new generation of nationalist leaders, the author’s analysis leaves out several relevant issues which go some way to explaining the present radicalisation of the independence movement.

He also fails to explain the incongruity of proposing a plurinational Spain while supporting the notion of Catalonia as a single nation.

Similarly, he insists that globalisation produces an identity-based or localistic backlash, but does not provide any practical cases to back up this claim and fails to recognise that it contradicts the origin of Catalan nationalism at the end of the 19thcentury.

More serious yet is his proposal that horizontal agreements be permitted between the federated territories, which would favour Basque and Catalan irredentism, with their territorial ambitions of creating Greater Catalonia and Vasconia, which would include Valencia and the Balearic Islands, and Navarre, respectively, and even parts of France. Without any further explanation, the reader is left to wonder what other function this option might fulfil than that of strengthening nationalism and seriously disrupting coexistence in these communities.

Furthermore, if this idea is considered acceptable, then the Swiss option of splitting up federal states when the population so wishes should also be contemplated. In 1979 the Canton of Jura gained independence from canton Bern, but part of its original territory remained under Bern’s control (link).

The author’s argument also flags significantly when he defends differential treatment for Catalonia, but ignores the fact that the federal principle relies on all the territories in a state having equal status.

Likewise, offering constitutional or economic solutions and referring the reader, without further ado, to the work of others (link) seems a bit lame and impromptu.

All of this suggests, as all political contributions do, that the solution is more a delimitation of the issues under discussion -many as inordinately naive as they are lacking in an empirical basis- than a suggestion with specific, achievable content.

At times, he also adopts an unnecessarily harsh tone, for instance when he devotes several pages to disqualifying other political leaders (although he does show some humour when, for his duplicity, he brands Junqueras as the cardinal).  Such an unnecessarily retaliatory manner robs the reader of a chance to understand those social sectors which other parties legitimately represent. Equally as gratuitous is to pile on the flattery when it comes to members of his own party. These sections would have benefitted from a bit more balance in both form and content.

A case in point is his abrasive obsession with Ciudadanos as a party which ‘champions recentralisation’. The lack of explanations or references to support this assertion would seem to suggest that such unwarranted remarks are the result of his frustration on realising that the inclusive project of the Catalan left to form a single benchmark nation, the Catalan nation, has failed. And is instrumental, as the author acknowledges, in advancing the project of the nationalist elites and fostering social division.

The situation now finds this trade unionist, always dedicated to improving the lives of others, racked by doubt.

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