As the Madrid government threatens direct rule in Catalonia, Jack Sherwood reports on the situation in Barcelona.
It is to be a “week of decisions” says Catalan government advisor Jordi Turull. But it is also undoubtedly to be one of open political conflict in Catalonia - by the end of the week perhaps a very physical one.
On Saturday in Madrid, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced the imposition of Article 155 of the constitution, which under his terms will strip the region of all measure of autonomy. The terms of enactment of the article, to be approved by the Senate this Friday could include: deposition of Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, the sacking of the Catalan cabinet and all ministers and senior departmental officials, stripping the Catalan parliament of its powers, calling early elections “as soon as possible” according to Rajoy and within six months at maximum, along with the Spanish state assuming control of the Catalan police, public broadcasting media and internet infrastructure.
Such terms have been labelled as “outside the law” and the greatest attack on the civil and democratic rights of Catalan people since the Franco dictatorship by pro-independence political commentators and left wing parties.
In response to the announcement, governing parties of the region have called a parliamentary session to begin on Thursday to discuss their response to the imposition of Article 155 the following day, which is certain given the ruling Spanish Tory party has a majority in the Senate, and, expectedly, to lift the ‘suspension’ on the unilateral declaration of indepence for Catalonia.
In Barcelona on Saturday, several hours after the announcement from Madrid, no less than 450,000 people filled the streets around the central Passeig de Gracia boulevard for a mass protest against the jailing of two leaders of mass civil pro-independence organisations the ANC and Ominum Cultural, the “Jordis” (Sànchez and Cuixart), on charges of ‘sedition’ - or rather for helping organise such mass pro-independence rallies and facilitate the referendum.
The scale of the turnout and the fervour of the mood can only have been enhanced by Madrid’s announcement, and large numbers of people held bright red placards bearing a distinctive new logo: “Republic NOW!” (República ARA!).
The placards and accompanying social media barrage seem to have been launched by the CUP radical left independence party and grassroots campaign, which has been and continues to be one of the driving forces in bringing about the immediacy of independence in contrast to the tactical moderacy of the centrist government leadership.
But the slogan was also produced by large banners from the dozens of local Referendum Defence Committees initially formed to protect polling stations and ballot boxes, but which have continued as growing community assemblies. In Lleida, the sixth largest town in Catalonia, such a banner led a march of many thousands on the same evening.
The call for an immediate declaration of independence was importantly joined up in these banners and in protestors’ chants with the wider demands of the demonstrations “for our rights and freedoms”, where the atmosphere in the streets was much changed since the shock and foreboding of the mass vigil (250,000) on the Tuesday preceeding in Barcelona in response to the initial imprisonment of the ‘Jordis’.
Indeed, the urgency of the demand for ‘Republic now’ and the more agitated mood on the streets was undoubtedly brought forward in part by an impatience and almost despair amongst many, particularly self-organising communtiy groups and radical independentists, with the hesitancy and conservative approach of the Catalan government leadership. The latter ambivalently declared independence on Tuesday 10th October only to immediately suspend this, with offers of ‘dialogue’ and ‘mediation’ with a Spanish state which has rejected such tenders over many months.
As people have heard the threats of greater repression continue from Madrid, community assemblies have continued, and decisive action from the Catalan government has seemed wanting, there has developed a broad recognition - even within the more cautious wing of the independence movement such as the Assemblea Nacional Catalana and the ‘Republican Left’ - that the current political situation comes down to a choice between defending democratic “rights and freedoms” by declaring independence imminently, or facing with the same imminency further repression and complete democratic disenfranchisement at the hands of the Spanish state.
The radical CUP’s call for ‘Republic NOW!’ has sought to advance on this spreading sentiment of complete antagonism to the Spanish state by matching the phrase to the slogan “Bread, Shelter, Work” (Pa, Sostre, Treballo) in its publicity. This nods towards the Spanish government’s austerity agenda of cuts to regional funding, and its takeover of the finances of the regional government, which the latter has claimed has left it unable to provide for some of the most vulnerable in society.
Equally, speaking to many in Barcelona, with independence more imminent and grassroots community organising swelling, the idea of a potential post-independence economic transformation in society is one which has come more and more to the fore, in echoes of the Scottish independence campaign.
The recent role of the trade unions in the crucial general strike against repression on October 3rd (initiated by a few radical unions) that buoyed the movement onward, strengthened this sense of a class struggle here in the conflict with the Spanish state. It included dockers that refused to serve ships carrying Spanish national police and the same firefighters who were greatly commended for defending polling stations with their bodies on the day of the referendum.
And the mass mobilisation of the Catalan working class having brought the movement to this point, it now finds the fate of Catalonia at its feet.
Of the people
Whether or not the Catalan government decides finally to fully declare independence this week, the imposition of Article 155 will strip it of all powers in the Spanish state’s eyes, and the Madrid government is urging the Catalan people to act accordingly.
If the former does not make the declaration it risks the demoralisation and demobilisation of the independence movement for the foreseeable future, and a shift towards significant internal discord.
In the case of a unilateral declaration, the chief Spanish prosecutor has said on Monday that he would order immediate arrest of the Catalan President on charges of “rebellion” (up to 30 years imprisonment).
In either case the legitimacy, authority and indeed existence of the Catalan government and public rests with the will and action of the people.
Organisers in the Referendum Defence Committee for the town of Mataro have said "Those that made the referendum possible make the republic and the constituent process possible.” The promise from the left of a more participatory democratic process through independence fhas been an appealing one.
It is the case though that from Friday, when Article 155 is expected to pass, only the people will make even a regional government possible. As much has been said by Catalan government minister Raül Romeva and one of the governing party’s president Lluís Corominas, who have called on millions of voters to disobey orders from Madrid.
It seems much less likely that community assemblies and public servants will defend a regional government which will not in fact enact for the referendum result.
Given the quandary of a non-declaration position for President Puigdemont and his government, an independence to be carried through by the Catalan people themselves seems their only seriously viable political option, if one of greater personal risk.
And this means an independence to be carried through against the forces of the Spanish state. Against a paramilitary national police force, in the face of an ongoing flight of major banks and businesses and with the opposition of almost all other international states and institutions - particularly the EU, whose Commission has been forthcoming in its support for Article 155 and Spanish state repression.
Who will defend, in physical and organisational terms, the Catalan government, public institutions and representatives and the regional public media?
Thousands of the Guardia Civil national police wait on stand-by for instructions to move in, in the boats docked at Barcelona harbour or nearby.
A recent social media meme, in a perhaps not entirely serious echo of Lenin’s famous call of the April theses to urge a workers’ revolution in 1917 Russia, depicted a pamphleteer bearing the slogan “All power to the Referendum Defense Committees” (it was ‘to the Soviets’ - the democratic workers’ councils in Russia).
Some ‘Defence Committees’, including new ones, in areas such as Masnou, Casc Antic and Poblenou, have already renamed themselves defence committees “of the Republic” (no longer ‘of the referendum’).
But who if not these assemblies, joined with radical trades unionists - the dockers and firefighters and others, and with the activists of the CUP party, might organise this defence?
Whilst mobilising millions to the streets, the mass civil society organisations the Assemblea Nacional de Catalonia and Omnium Cultural have been careful to emphasise the need for dialogue and avoiding open confrontation with the Spanish state. They are unlikely to take any intiative of this kind, but if not formal organisational support then at least support from their networks of activists should be engaged.
Catalunya en Comú, the left electoral platform supported by Podemos, Izquierda Unida and Barcelona en Comú, has consistently opposed indepence (though not the referendum) and still recommends against a unilateral declaration despite strongly opposing the implementation of Article 155. Of course some activists here might also be drawn into other initiatives on pro-democratic grounds. The Catalan sister-party (PSC) of the centrist Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) has thus far followed the national lead, vehemently opposing independence in alliance with the governing Spanish Tory party and supporting Article 155, though many of its regional mayors are now disputing this.
The positions of these electoral parties look to prove both unappealing and untenable as Article 155 is implemented, and the focus of organisation for the defence of independence and Catalan self-government points only one way: towards the CDR assemblies, towards the radical left, towards the mass and militant mobilisation of the working class directly confronting the authority of the Spanish nation state. The placards of such demonstrators in Lleida on Saturday read, “Without disobedience there is no independence.”
Confronting the coup
With Friday set to see the Spanish government impose a draconian autonomy-stripping version of Article 155 on Catalonia’s public insitutions and government, and the latter expected to respond by declaring independence, grassroots campaigns and unions in the region are mobilising, hardening positions and readying themselves for a fight. The paramilitary Guardia Civil national police stand waiting in the port of Barcelona, yet the tactics of the Spanish state in wresting control are yet to be seen, particularly given the damaging political blowback of the referendum day violent police raids.
Monday saw the main Catalan high-school teachers union USTEC-STEs call on the ‘educational community’ to “resist the demands of a [Spanish] state that, based on the lessons of reality, can no longer be considered democratic”, labelling Article 155 a “legal excuse to implement a dictatorship” and announcing a mobilisation for Wednesday October 25 at 1800 hours, in front of the town halls of the shire capitals, “open to all society and all organisations”.
On the same day, the Catalan Journalists Union (SPC) announced it "radically and totally" rejected the planned Spanish state intervention in Catalonia's public media and will "give full support to the media workers of the Catalan Broadcasting Corporation in the demonstrations of rejection that will undoubtedly occur.” In the evening many hundreds of workers at the Catalan TV network (TV3) held a mass assembly to discuss how to respond to Madrid's announcement that it will seize control of the network. The Federation of Services, Mobility and Consumption (FeSMC) of the Catalan General Workers’ union has expressed its solidarity and support for them.
The student ‘Universitats per la República’ campaign has announced a strike day for Thursday, having been a militant and successful driver of the referendum and independence campaign since its launch this Spring.
Last week a social network “to extend and promote peaceful and non-violent civil resistance” named ‘En peu de pau!’ (On a peaceful footing!) was been launched, with 35,000 followers already on Twitter and gaining regional television coverage, claiming to draw on the tactics of firefighters, dockers and farm workers so far in the referendum campaign.
Referendum/Republic Defence Committees are organising assemblies throughout this week and some have invited ‘En peu de pau!’ to put on resistance workshops to the hundreds of participants.
All these forces and many more, including the anti-capitalist independece CUP party, must combine to resist the ‘coup d’etat’ - as it has been widely called in Catalonia - from the Spanish state upon the Catalan government. The latter must call this working class to the streets to defend against the interventions of the paramilitary national police and/or rely on the radical left within these parts of the movement to mobilise as it is best placed to do so: from a position of willful and principled opposition to the capitalist Spanish state, with a social vision centred on the empowerment of ordinary people to take greater control of society.
The position of the regional Mossos d’Esquadra police force, which has yet to support ‘occupying’ Spanish state police, could be crucial. They officially come under Spanish state control with the imposition of 155, but have said they will continue to “guarantee of protection and service to people in Catalonia” and their unions have denounced the article. Standing against the national police would mean a serious escalation of violence, and joining with them surely the end of the regional government, unless facing incredible popular opposition.
So the Mossos must surely be pressed very strongly upon by the popular movement, which might equally call upon firefighters, dockers and others to organise, militate and step into the ‘front line’.
Democracy in question
All this aside, if a Catalan Republic, or indeed autonomous region, is to survive and Spanish state repression and attacks are to be best opposed, international solidarity will be essential.
Clearly this does not come from the nation states or institutions of the European Union; it means solidarity mobilisations and campaigns at least Europe-wide, against our own national government’s hostile positions and those of the international financial and business institutions which are already lined up against the possibility of a radical democratic break with the conservative state of Spain.
And as foreign affairs minister Raul Romeva pointed out this week, the Catalan dilemma raises even more penetrating questions: "How can the European Union live with this situation? How can the EU democracies survive and how can they be credible if they allow this to happen?"
We can take inspiration from the mass assemblies and demonstrations in Catalonia, and we must support their resistance to a repression which will not end in Spain. Governments across Europe, including our own, that enforce anti-democratic measures on their peoples - from attacks on workers rights, to destruction of public services, privatisation and racist division - need to be broken down by these radical mobilisations from below.
- This Saturday in London: Europe, The Left and The Fight Against Neoliberalism, the second session at Storming the Heavens: The Russian Revolution 100 Years On.
Ona Curto Graupera the coordinator of the Catalan pro-independence CUP Party will be speaking in the session and giving a first hand account of what's happening on the ground in Catalonia and the positions and prospects of the Left. Book Now!
Jack Sherwood has been an organiser in the People's Assembly and Stop the War.
Based in Bristol, he coordinated the largest demonstrations and public meetings in the city 2014-2019: against austerity, in support of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of Labour, over the Junior Doctors' struggle and against the British bombing of Syria.
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