September 12, 2018

Viva La Independencia

They’ve waited for 300 years, and they’ll wait for 300 more.

National days typically commemorate the birth of nations.

Australians celebrate their national day on 24 January, Americans do it on 4 July, and the Brits have a typically British mishmash of dates, with the English picking 23 April as St George’s Day; the Scots plumping for 30 November as St Andrew’s Day; the Welsh have 1 March as St David’s Day; and the Irish have St Patrick’s Day on 17 March, as seasoned pubgoers can testify.

National days, above all, symbolise the establishment of some form of sovereignty and “freedom”. However, critics would argue that the social contract is about as binding as Monopoly money and that citizens aren’t free because their individual sovereignty has been collectivised into an aggregated “nation” which citizens have no option but to identify with, including its intricate cultural motifs.

However, not all people are in the same boat.
Musket-wielding Catalan attends Independencia rally.

Spain’s most prosperous region, Catalonia, celebrates its national day on 11 September – a day that comes with a whiff of emancipated dread far and wide – and a date that marks the end of freedom rather than its beginning.

History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme

On 11 September 1714, the reigning King of Spain, Philip V, abolished Catalan independence and ushered in what became known as defacto “absolutism” across most of Europe – a status-quo that reigns to the present day.

Incredibly, the region’s national day commemorates the fall of Barcelona during the War of the Spanish Succession and the subsequent loss of Catalan institutions and laws.
Catalans carry flags depicting a red star over a purple background, indicating Communist affiliations.

For those unaware, an absolute monarchy is a form of government in which a king or queen has total control over all aspects of society. Accepting Absolutism creates the Divine Right of kings -- the idea that monarchs are God’s representatives on earth and, therefore, are answerable only to God.

Absolute monarchies took hold for the same reasons modern governments get away with creating dystopian societies: when people are afraid, they tend to become willing order followers to avoid a perceivably worse fate. 

In King Philip’s time, people regarded absolutist monarchs as a necessary evil to ensure peace and prosperity. Absolute monarchical power was pitched as a silver bullet solution to disorder and chaos, with Europeans willing -- after being strongarmed with skullduggery and fear-mongering -- to have their local autonomy and political rights taken away in exchange for peace and safety. Sounds all too similar to today.

Proud Catalan wears Barcelona away jersey with “1714” printed on his back, representing the co-opting of Catalonia by the Spanish monarchy in 1714.

Despite their history being soured by the events of 1714, Catalans commemorate their national day with a strong sense of “we still remember” with this year’s events turning into an independence rally following last year’s controversial referendum.

In October last year, the now-former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont attempted to re-establish Catalonian independence by rallying 47% of Catalans to vote for de facto independence from its federal keeper. The resulting political turmoil led to Mr Puigdemont being deposed and eventually fleeing Spain altogether, pursued by Interpol and the Spanish authorities.

To this day, pro-independence parties have never scooped more than 50% of the vote in regional elections. Support for seceding from Spain reached a record high of 48.7% in October 2017 but remains stubbornly low at around 40%, with 48.3% of Catalans opposed to independence. Ouch.

The freedom struggle is as tricky as it ever was, with partisan Catalans quickly discovering that becoming an independent state is far more complex than first thought, especially when half your brethren are indifferent about where their tax money goes.

What makes the climb even steeper is that Catalans cannot agree on which version of independence -- should they ever acquire it -- suits their region best. Some would like reciprocal cooperation with the EU, whereas others see the EU as a larger version of Spain – a federalist entity seeking to assimilate not only the Catalan way of life but Spain’s too.

Catalans attend street carnival to celebrate Catalan culture.

Aside from politico-economic unions, Catalans are further divided on how their domestic legislation should be drafted and enacted. According to many Catalan independence supporters, the region must operate with its own currency and extricate itself from its overbearing policy dictator to the same degree as India did when it obtained independence from the British empire in 1947.

On the flip side, a large batch of Catalans prefers a more integrative mechanism with its neighbours, more akin to Andorra, a state that actually succeeded in attaining independence from Spain in 1814 or 1993, depending on who you ask and their definition of independence.

Further still, other Catalans would like something that resembles what Australians and New Zealanders have with their “federal parliamentary constitutional monarchies”. One could call these “suzerainty”, but sovereignty would be a stretch. Nevertheless, many Catalans support living as a loose orbiter of the Spanish mothership.
Adversarial lady flaunts Spanish flag to the latent displeasure of nearby onlookers.

The bottom line is that many Catalans say they crave independence but cannot agree on what flavour they prefer.

Shouting about independence

This year’s national day saw almost 2 million people take to the streets of Catalonia’s capital Barcelona, although their reasons for coming were somewhat different.

Some came to celebrate Catalan culture and its way of life...
Mass congregation of rally attendees, waiting for political glitterati to take the pulpit and provide emotionally-arousing nationalistic bluster.

Others came to protest the ongoing subjugation of high-profile political activists and call for their release, including the forcibly illusive Mr Puigdemont...
Catalan activists seeking the release of political prisoners march through Barcelona’s streets.

And some were already there...
A man partial to the odd sherry snoozes through the Independencia day jamboree.

Catalans are divided – not only regarding the state of their nationalism but, on a deeper level, what nationhood looks and feels like.

Around 50% of Catalans voted to remain under Spanish rule, but the remaining half, desperate to secede, is squabbling with itself, just as much as with their supposed common enemy.

The fractured freedom movement has made it easy for Spain’s ruling elite to paint Catalan separatists as fickle and idealistic. Worse still, the amount of Catalan infighting is growing because each faction is trying to become a new Spain -- or at least that’s the perception for many ordinary, apolitical and, dare I say, secular Catalans.

Then there’s the touchy subject of tourism. Catalans are starkly divided on welcoming tourists to their inner sanctum.
Graffiti critical of tourism found across the city.

The split is not based on generational, financial, political or demographic grounds, although somewhat of a bias does exist regarding the younger zoomer generation that has, in effect, the most optionality when it comes to welcoming tourists.

Zoomers are more likely to want to travel and live in a foreign country or learn another language themselves. Their minds are most susceptible to foreign subversion, or so the Catalan fear-mongers like to claim.

According to commentary from dozens of self-professed, loud and proud Catalans, it would seem people form an opinion based on their individual experiences rather than being mere extensions of their identity-politic. Who woulda thunk it?
Unequivocal statement scribed by an unidentified Catalan advising visitors to venture back from whence they came.

Catalans living in areas particularly partial to lowcost-airline-affiliated lager louts pebble-dashing their pavements with regurgitated authentic seafood paellas are most opposed to foreign influence of any kind. The people seeing their property rents and living costs exceed income growth are also displeased. The people that feel the most economically disadvantaged are the most critical of tourists.

Also, suspicions of wealthy Catalans backing the independence movement only via mouth but not with fingers and toes are rife.

Catalan estate agents and salesmen of various descriptions would probably baulk at any kind of anti-tourist sentiment. The two industries, in league with most others, have made Catalonia an economic dynamo helping Spain soothe its large government debts and precarious public finances.

In the convoluted game of economic snakes and ladders, theoretically, everyone should be benefiting from libertarian border controls, freedom of capital, more foreign investment, more visitors, taller buildings and more “growth”.
Catalan street performer demonstrates his agility, balance and ability to put bread on the table.

Locals are supposed to benefit monetarily. Tourists benefit as satisfied customers. Businesses benefit from administrating it all. The local government benefits from higher tax revenue given the spending everyone is doing. The truth is that the liberalised status quo has benefitted most Catalans, but the ones left behind are supremely vocal, righteous and media-friendly.

Many Catalans claim that internationalisation has led to wealthy foreigners gazumping poorer Catalans who are more financially desperate than culturally proud, which, after a few generations, leads to a hodge-podge of living styles that greatly differs from what one would call traditionally Catalan, Spanish or European. They claim freedom of movement and capital dilutes their culture and slowly wrestles away political control over local life via surreptitious economics.

They may have a point. Financial difficulties in many minority communities, and those that feel abandoned by the system, has shifted attention from safeguarding cultural traditionalism towards financial security.

Meanwhile, those that benefit from the economic largesse are also incentivised to forget about “being Catalan” and focus on becoming progressive entrepreneurs with a jet-setting lifestyle. 

Thousands of Catalans own multiple properties, rent them at high rates to gorging Barcelona tourists, and then, have the option to glorify in their entrepreneurship or, more commonly, to keep quiet about their rosy portfolios. It all depends on whether they have any militant Catalan friends, presumably.

You would imagine only a small number would have the gaol to earn a pretty penny from the supposed anti-Catalan economic juggernaut stampeding all over Catalan history and heritage, but then, show up at an independence rally complaining about Spanish meddling and heckling tourists.
Catalan protestors reconsider advancing as smoke fills the air.

With everyone’s pockets jingling, many Catalans feel their culture is slipping away. So too is the pro-independence movement because of the struggle to agree on what being Catalan actually means.

The movement’s participants and the broader population flail and try to grasp onto anything resembling stability in such choppy waters, including moreish life rafts such as language. They compensate by religiously using their mother tongue in an attempt to preserve their identity.

It is difficult to estimate, but swathes of people in Barcelona feel they are a living blend of all three conceivable identities they can potentially select: Catalan, Spanish or European. Very few are staunchly tribal.

Also, the growing number of ethnic minorities in the region, such as Asians and Africans, were noticeably missing from the Catalan pro-independence movement possies, possibly not feeling very Catalan, or simply of the mind that it’s not their concern.

Collectively, the mingling mass of pro-independence supporters wandered and loitered, drifted and idled, showed up and dispersed like ripples in a lake, or maybe just a lost shoal looking for a port.

Catalan freedom-seekers looking for a port.

Only a select few said they are “independent” in the sense they consider themselves sovereign and free from all man-made government authority. In other words, anarchists who simply want to live in a world with no masters and slaves.

With actual anarchist numbers depleted, hooligan-esque Independencia activists have taken their place with the media’s blessing. A true anarchist would never damage property that did not belong to them or evict an innocent person from a place because of ideological differences.

A true anarchist would also never bemoan that someone else has bundles of money while they had none -- they would only bemoan physical restrictions that prevent them from earning their own.

With such simple yet powerful philosophical ideas sorely lacking among independence movements worldwide, the Catalan version has the same hallmark: people crying out for independence and urging revolution to create an alternative form of government tyranny as a substitute.

However, the freedom fighters aren’t done yet.

Despite being idealistically fractured and politically divided, Catalans are joining forces with Flemish folk, Scots, Brits and anyone else riding the Independencia wave.

Police station in Barcelona following a visit from the local bovver boys.

Despite speaking different languages and hailing from different cultural backgrounds, this new breed of diplomatic freedom fighter is scanning the entirety of Europe to fortify resolve. Concurrent independence movements in Belgium by the Flemish, the Basques (another one of Spain’s semi-autonomous regions) and Scotland have served as usable catalysts.

Several other Spanish regions could also throw their hat into the Independencia ring, and all would probably bicker until the cows came home about what nationality actually meant in their specific region. Convenience-gushing modernity has infested more minds than people thought, including an understanding of their roots.

“We are here to support our Catalan neighbours because we both are going through the same process and struggling with the same roadblocks,” says Adams, a Flemish independence campaigner who came to Barcelona for the day to support Catalonia’s freedom movement.
Adams, a Flemish independence campaigner from Belgium.

“Catalans are being repressed by Madrid’s ruling elite, while the Flemish people are being repressed by the ruling elite in Brussels. What makes our situation even more insulting is that Flemish people makeup 60% of Belgium’s population but must call themselves Belgians,” he said.

The UK is currently on course to sever its ties with the EU after going through extensive rigmarole to reclaim its economic and political independence from the trade bloc. It’s not just Catalans struggling to establish autonomy and a self-governing way of life.

“The situation is grossly unfair, but the tide is changing. Awareness and people’s will to resist the ongoing injustices perpetrated in the name of economic growth and prosperity,” says Adams.

He also adds: “Spain and Belgium are powerhouse economies, but the truth is that a large portion of their wealth has been generated on the backs of people that do not classify themselves as Belgian or Spanish.”

Sailing for sovereignty

With many of its political figureheads imprisoned or scattered around Europe and much of its citizenry split over Catalan independence, or even what it really means, there is trouble ahead for Catalonia as a state.

For its people, as individuals, the place remains one of the most idyllic and prosperous regions in the world. Despite Spain’s claimed subjugation of Catalans, the region is wealthy and offers both locals and foreigners superb opportunities in all conceivable areas. 

The question comes down to financial security and lifestyle. To achieve both requires knowledge, understanding and wisdom to make difficult decisions, including how to be self-sufficient enough to prosper on an individual level.

It seems that 50% of Catalans are ready to roll up their sleeves and do something to preserve a culture with many flavours. Meanwhile, the other 50% expect their vague perceptions of culture and heritage to be safeguarded on their behalf by people 500km away, as they focus on other more exciting things like sipping sangria, savouring authentic seafood paellas and watching football.

Written by George Tchetvertakov