From Barcelona Peter Wagner writes to friends and colleagues about the Catalan referendum on independence.

Direct democracy often forces to crude choices on fundamental questions that are hard to reconcile with conceptual nuancing. The referendum on independence organized by the Catalan government sees intellectuals who would otherwise share political sensitivity take diverging, sometimes opposite positions. A letter addressed by Peter Wagner from Barcelona to friends and colleagues sparks a debate among political theorists on emancipation, formal/constitutional legality, (in)variants of nationalism, democracy and social rights. Meanwhile, from a remote galaxy, the 'Catalan question' sends back the echo of a broader political praxis question: whether and how the shadow of nationalism can be avoided in the inclusion and mobilization of large numbers committed to radical change. Publicly addressing this problem, as political tension soars in Catalonia and elsewhere, is important to avoid that questioning the nature of change becomes an afterthought.

We thank Peter for allowing Security Praxis to make his position public, and very much welcome public comments and reactions.

the editors

+++UPDATE, 3 October 2017+++

We publish in the form of fragments of a public debate an exchange among scholars and political theorists triggered by this letter written on the eve of the independence referendum in Catalonia. Taking into account the new reality of brutal police repression in the streets of Catalonia, the stream of the discussion has to be broken into two. Comments written in response to this first letter on Saturday 30th September can be found as updates to this post.

Reactions written on Sunday 1st October or later, including a second letter/reply by Peter Wagner himself, can be found in a new post.

Peter Wagner is ICREA Research Professor in the Department of Sociological Theory, Philosophy of Law and Methodology of the Social Sciences at the University of Barcelona. His research interests are in social and political theory and in historical, political and cultural sociology with a particular emphasis on the comparative analysis of contemporary social configurations and their historical trajectories. His recent publications include: The Moral Mappings of South and North. (Edinburgh University Press, 2017) and Progress: A Reconstruction (Polity Press, Cambridge 2015).

Barcelona, 30 September 2017

Dear friends and colleagues,

You will all have followed – and some of you lived – the current situation in Catalonia. I write to you out of a sense of urgency, because of the speed with which the situation changes – and, in my view, deteriorates. Outside of Spain, reporting about the situation often does little in terms of conveying facts and even less in helping to understand them. Within Catalonia and Spain, there is a lot of pre-conceived partisan reporting. Maybe more importantly, many people live in circles of friends who share the same opinion and provide themselves with little means to understand other views.

I write as a foreigner who has lived in Catalonia for many years. Thus, I want to convey to those of you who live elsewhere why the situation is of concern much beyond Catalonia and requires a better understanding by many of us who care about freedom, rights and democracy. To those of you who live here and maybe even have the right to vote here I want to suggest a somewhat different angle on matters, to widen the horizon. I say so without arrogance: there are certainly many things I cannot see or not fully understand. But especially in situations of conflict, not only commitment is demanded, but also perspective – and the latter is sometimes easier to gain without being fully immersed.

To avoid misunderstandings later, let me start by saying that there is without doubt a “Catalan question” that is of considerable significance, something which Spanish politics often tends to deny in an overly homogenizing view of society and an overly neutral, procedural understanding of political and judicial institutions. Here, however, I do not want to explore the history of this question nor its social, political and cultural connotations. It is here only important to underline that this question is important, and that its denial is the major reason why it has never been adequately addressed.

For present purposes, I want to focus on the recent developments and its political expressions and consequences. The attitude of denial and rejection by Spanish institutions has played an important role in the recent rise of the Catalan independence movement, in particular since the Popular Party returned to government in Spain in 2010. Since then, the Spanish government has exclusively used judicial – and, in recent weeks, police – means to unsuccessfully contain the rise of Catalanism in absence of any political perspective on the matter. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has to be considered a prime responsible for the escalation during the last three weeks.

Looking from the other side, a referendum about the future relation between Catalonia and Spain became the focal point of the Catalanist mobilization. The idea was to agree such a referendum with the Spanish government, having the examples of Québec and Scotland in mind. This possibility kept being denied, and when it was tried without being agreed, it was outlawed. As a consequence, the pro-independence parties campaigned the last Catalan elections in September 2015 in terms of a quasi-referendum. The votes for the alliance Junts pel Sí (United for the Yes) and for the left-wing party CUP would be considered to be as a vote in favour of independence. As it turned out, Junts pel Sí and CUP together fell short of a majority of votes – less than 48% - but gained together a majority of seats in the Catalan parliament. Currently, the Catalan government is formed by Junts pel Sí and supported by CUP.

With apologies for the length of this account, this election outcome is where the current problem starts. The Catalan government interpreted it as a mandate to proceed with independence claims. Facing persistent immobility in the Spanish government, it first rewrote the procedures of the Catalan parliament, overruling the legal advice by the parliament's own experts. Then, it pushed a law on a referendum and a so-called law of rupture, equivalent to a unilateral declaration of independence, through the parliament. The passing of these laws violates the Catalan Constitution – the Estatut, until then seen proudly as an expression of Catalan self-determination. And in the process, the opposition parties were denied the right to proper debate and amendments. If Catalonia were a state, this would be considered a coup d'état. If Catalonia were a member state of the European Union, its government would be compared to those of Hungary and Poland. The laws resemble the Enabling Law (Ermächtigungsgesetz) in the Weimar Parliament of 1933, even though the Catalan government did not even bother to secure a two-thirds majority.

Here I come to my main concern (thank you for holding out). Since then, the Catalan government tries to give the impression that there is a dual legality, one Spanish and one Catalan, the former imposed and the latter freely self-determined. It operates in close asociation with social, non-governmental organizations, such as the National Assembly of Catalonia, which have been pressure groups for independence, sustaining the high level of mobilization of the past years. Thus, the Catalan government conveys the idea that it does what Catalan society wants, conveniently overlooking that Catalan independence has not been the majority view in any election or opinion poll ever. It derives the justification of its breaches of existing laws and constitutions from a false assertion.

As a consequence, one observes an Orwellian re-signification of basic political concepts. The city of Barcelona is full with posters calling for democracy, rights and freedom. But democracy now comes to mean the imposition of the will of one part of society on the other. Freedom means to do what one wants, without respect for the others with whom one shares political institutions. And right refers to the capacity to change the legal framework without regard for the meaning and purpose of existing rules. The Big Brother here is not an all-powerful state, it is a highly mobilized section of society. The Catalan independence movement is committed to non-violence, but it does not shy away from a radical destruction of the conceptual basis for living together.

Catalanism is today grounded on a peculiar version of friend-enemy politics. The enemy here is not other people; there is no adversity as such to the Spanish-speaking part of the Catalan population. The enemy is the Spanish state, which is made responsible for everything wrong or evil, even that your morning train to work is late (this is not a joke). Whatever the deficiencies of this state may be, however, the Catalans have co-created it in the difficult “transition” from the Franco dictatorship and have freely participated in its practices ever since. The current mobilization tends to deny this and is unwilling to consider rights and responsibilities today in this context.

The counter-argument to this is that it is the immobilism of Spanish politics that has left no other choice. But there has been considerable movement in the last few years. For the first time, there is a Spain-wide political force that supports the case for referenda of self-determination, namely Podemos and its allies. Furthermore, the Socialist Party returns to earlier debates about federalism and underlines the pluri-national chracter of Spanish democracy. A democratic, “republican” understanding of the Catalan question would have picked up on these developments rather than embarking on a friend-enemy confrontation that can only lead into a dead end.

To repeat: these reflections express no view on the appropriateness of independence. I can see the case for independence, and I can recognize arguments both in favour and against it. But I am neither a Catalan nor a Spanish citizen, who are those who have to decide about this matter. It is clear that a large majority of Catalans wants a referendum on this question, so they should have it. And the outcome of such a referendum then should be the basis for future decisions. But the needed referendum is not the one the Catalan government is currently organizing in breach of law and democratic principles.

If I were to plead anything, it would be for those of you outside of this situation to not mistake it for a conflict between oppressor and oppressed. This is how the Catalan independence movement tries to present the case, but it is easy to see that there is no oppression in Catalonia that supports this reasoning. The judicial and police measures of the past weeks are excessive, and they are certainly ill-conceived if meant as a solution to the conflict. But they are a response to the breach of basic laws and rules by the Catalan government. For those of you who are here, I would be glad if I had at least opened the way for seeing that the enemy is not outside, but in the currently very widespread – way beyond Catalonia and Spain – lack of understanding that democracy does not mean to do what one wants, but the attempt at giving oneself one's rules for living together in mutual respect for the others who participate in this attempt. In other words, I meant this as a reflection about the current need to preserve democratic institutions and practices, as imperfect as they may be.

Best wishes,

On 30 September 2017, at 16:57, Svjetlana Nedimovic wrote:

Dear all,

Perhaps this should have been discussed some time ago. It is very difficult to talk about this at the eve of 1 October - I myself find it difficult to focus on anything but concerns for all of you there.

Having moved to the 'dark side' i.e. street political activism, I am no longer too keen on academic debates on political praxis.  I have perhaps become too aware of the limitations of academic formality (and in the matters of formality of the case itself, I very much relate to the argument that legality itself allows for very limited understanding of democracy) and its dependence on the status quo in many respects. So much so that I cannot but think of these two as two radically different worlds. I must add however that my bias comes from a relatively recent personal experience of my very sudden, almost violent transition from the academia to a street movement - had I not left academic reasoning behind me, I would have not lasted long among Bosnian protesters.

As aware I am of the dangers and chaos of direct democracy, I am much more scared of layers of representation which now serve to ornament and hide domination mechanisms. As crude the yes/no choices are, that is what politics is made of. One keeps trying to move beyond that but I am yet to see political mobilizing around conceptual nuances - for better or for worse... However more often than not it is not about yes or no as such but what collectivities do with the answer afterwards. One ought to note as well that many of the political evils of the day have fallen upon us through most elaborate and sophisticated elections mechanisms of representative democracy.

On the other hand, I come from the region of the Balkans where less then 3 decades ago, political conflicts of the bureaucratic elites translated into ethnic tensions and ultimately war. I cannot be more alert than I already am to flags, political fever and police on the streets. Friend/enemy logic is something that is my everyday experience. My historical experience therefore makes me most hostile to any shrinking of political or cultural space while my ideological profile resists nationalism as a mechanism to hide the real sources of exploitation and domination. I would therefore hate to see Catalan conservatives instrumentalize this referendum and struggle overall in order to build yet another chauvinistic bourgeois state, emptied of any democratic substance, serving the interests of capitalism. That been said, I ought to add however that a supranational project such as European Union has proved to be equally harmful in the same sense: facilitating interests of financial elites, allowing neocolonial plunder of its peripheries and exploitation of its own populations while supressing any alternative political idea, albeit in a more refined manner than earlier in history – at least for the time being.

If however people on the Catalan left, such as CUP , and generally, leftists across Spain, see this referendum as inevitable on the way to challenging a conservative state order and building a very different political and socioeconomic future for all who live there, if they see in this a chance for working towards a very different understanding and practice of democracy to become part of everyday life in at least one corner of Europe and to set a revolutionary wave in motion, and this I believe to be the case - I must say that I am most supportive of the referendum as a step of this political struggle. The left must stand with the masses and work to resist both the reactionary central state and their own regional reactionary elites.

To be honest, in any case, I would be willing to take my chances with a referendum if I were there - however slight they may be. If nothing else, when I see police in full gear defending democracy, my intuition is to resist - one does not grow up in the Balkans for nothing:) I cannot see this situation as anything else but the oppression and this, be it my leftist idealism, would actually guide my political actions if I were there.

Wishing all of you in Barcelona a peaceful tomorrow and many more of peaceful days to come, with my special thoughts and wishes for courage, calm and hope to my friends L and G, who now physically defend their political vision, at these difficult times.

Svjetlana from Sarajevo

Researcher for University of Barcelona on the project "The Debt" and an activist of a Sarajevo-based, left-wing organisation "Jedan grad, jedna borba" (One city, one struggle)

On 30 September 2017, at 18:05, Andreas Kalyvas wrote:

Dear Peter,

I thank you for sharing your thoughts on the current situation in Catalonia and Spain.

I share your concerns about the importance of constitutional legality although I strongly believe that there are always extraordinary moments and exceptional circumstances in democratic politics that can justify its violation. In the present case, however, I do not think there are any compelling political or normative reasons to justify such a breach. Not only they appear illegal but also, and most importantly, illegitimate.

There is a tendency to compare the Catalan government's demand for a referendum to the cases of Scotland and Quebec but to me it seems homologous to the Italian Northern League's position, despite their obvious political and ideological differences. Beneath the democratic and anti-fascist rhetoric, framed in terms of linguistic and cultural rights, it is fiscal independence (and egoism) that overdetermines these two nationalisms. And all this, in times when solidarity with the poorest regions of Europe should have been a central priority for the European Left - as the Greek case has amply demonstrated. Have we really thought, for instance, how a Catalan secession might affect the poorest regions and citizens of Spain? We are suddenly all preoccupied with cultural identity and symbolic recognition while neglecting the economic dynamics of inequality and the significance of material redistribution and solidarity. It is this neglect that sets me apart from many Catalan comrades.

From a broader perspective, I cannot understand how a new national state, based on ethnicity as its core identity, can in any way advance the emancipatory project of a democratic and anti-capitalist Europe. It is a retrograde struggle with objectives that reproduce and reinforce collective essentialism, unify the Right and the Left on nationalist grounds while cultivating artificial divisions, and divert us from the real and deep problems Europe is facing today.

To put it simply, the Catalan demand for a referendum and the dream of secession must be described as what it is, a nationalism for the privileged and the rich in neo-liberal times of austerity.

All the best and good luck,


Andreas Kalyvas
Associate Professor
Department of Politics, The New School for Social Research and the Eugene Lang College


Cover photo: Josep Tomàs, TS_9274 Barcelona 28 de setembre de 2017 Plaça de la catedral Clam musical del referèndum BW