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The conservative Catalan nationalism of Quim Torra

 

 

By Dick Nichols

 

May 24, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Is new Catalan president Quim Torra just another right-wing xenophobe, as claimed by Pedro Sanchez, leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), the equivalent in the Spanish state of Marine Le Pen in France, Gert Wilders in the Netherlands, Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Hungary’s Victor Orban and their counterparts in Denmark, Sweden and Finland?

 

As the battle over Catalonia’s right to self-determination increasingly gets fought out on the European stage it is vital for any democrat to answer this question correctly.

 

A useful starting point is the Torra essay with which Citizens leader Inés Arrimades sought to horrify the Catalan parliament and Spanish public opinion in the May 14 session of the Catalan parliament (Arrimades nearly always speaks in Spanish when addressing the Catalan chamber because her audience is overwhelmingly made up of Spanish-speakers within Catalonia and beyond.)

 

The complete essay, which appeared in the December 19, 2012 issue of the pro-independence web-based daily El Món, is translated as an appendix to this article.

 

What is immediately clear from reading Torra’s piece is that it is not, as Arrimades gave her listeners to understand, directed against the Spanish or Spanish-speakers in general. The “beasts” that feature in the article are not the Spanish as a collective but a particular sociological type: the Spanish individual who recoils from anything Catalan—the Catalanophobe. It was not in Arrimades’s interest to make this clear: her scheme was to take some phrases out of context and imply in them a universal anti-Spanish xenophobia that is not there in the article.

 

From outside the social and political universe of the Spanish state Torra’s essay—imparting bestial attributes to Catalanophobic behaviour—seems to suffer from the same sort of visceral revulsion that it ascribes to Catalanophobia itself. However, to put the two attitudes on the same plane is to miss the essential point. Catalanophobia is an extreme, sociopathic, expression of the core—the chronic—problem of the Spanish state: the denial by its establishment (main parties, legal system, monarchy and media) of the right to self-determination of Spain’s component nations. It is the result of generations of cultivation of hatred and suspicion towards those whose difference potentially makes them a threat to Spanish unity.

 

For those for whom this unity is the supreme law, any strengthening of Catalan (or Basque of Galician) specificity simply represents a menace. This is the reason the history of these three national collectives has been one of fighting to their maintain language, culture and customs against direct repression, discrimination and studied indifference from ruling Spanish-nationalist, Castilian-speaking “normality”. This is why Citizens was first established as a supposedly necessary champion of Spanish-speakers who had to suffer their children being educated in Catalan.

 

Given this fact of life and history, Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) leader Pedro Sánchez’s assertion that Catalan nationalism of Torra’s type is the same thing as right-wing populism in France, Germany or Sweden is an Orwellian inversion of reality. It paints those whose right to self-determination has been trampled underfoot as the oppressors and supremacists. And, in the case of Sánchez and the PSOE, these Catalan “oppressors” are to be countered with the full force of an organisation which boasts that “we are the left”—even as it competes with the parties of the right to be toughest against the Catalan right to decide.

 

The fact that Sánchez’s shameless support for the right’s Spanish-patriotic crusade may help the PSOE in the short term in its life-and-death struggle with Podemos for hegemony over the all-Spanish left goes a long way to explaining the enthusiasm with which its leader is accusing Torra and the Catalan independence movement of racism.

 

‘The destiny of Catalonia above all’

 

This critical distinction once grasped, what is the character of Torra’s brand of Catalan patriotism?

 

Torra is a socially conservative Christian Democrat, for whom Manuel Carrasco I Formeguera, founder of the now-extinct Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC) and executed by the Franco dictatorship, “has always been my maximum political symbol”. Torra was a long term contributor to the web-based bulletin El Matí, which began life as the name of the pro-independence minority within the UDC.

 

In 2009, he joined the formation Reagrupament (Regroupment), which started as a tendency within the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) opposed to its participation in the 2003-2010 ”tripartite” government led by the PSC and including Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV). Explaining why a social conservative like himself had joined Reagrupament, Torra wrote in 2009:

 

The attraction of Reagrupament as an electoral option is precisely this, the turning upside-down of the political discussion in our house. Now it’s no longer a question of ‘Catalanism of the right’ or ‘Catalanism of the left’ (if anyone in Catalonia knows what these things exactly mean), nor ‘liberalism’ or ‘social democracy’, nor even of ‘Christian democracy’ or ‘socialism’: today the battle is between ‘unionism’ and ‘independentism’, Spain or Catalonia, province or State. When the homeland is living through a moment of national emergency, when the risk is being run of the nation dissolving like a sugar cube in a glass of milk, when all the alarms are simultaneously sounding as to our survival as a people, the ideological discussion can in no case be the axis that separates us: above and beyond lies the destiny of Catalonia.

 

This remains Torra’s position to this day—the struggle for Catalan independence always comes first and only those leaders who have sacrificed themselves to this goal are worthy of respect. Consequently, the permanent temptation for the Catalan pro-independence left—chiefly the ERC—to form a “social” alliance with Catalan forces linked to the all-Spanish left has to be rejected outright.

 

At the same time, the socially retrograde positions of Catalan leaders who have stood up to the Spanish state get minimised. Examples are former ERC leader Heribert Barrera (advocate of the progressive expulsion of migrants) because of his “fierce intransigence against giving a millimetre in the conquest of our freedoms”; former president Artur Mas (one time critic of the ruling PP for its lukewarm neoliberalism) because of his commitment to calling a referendum on independence; as well as corrupt Catalan president Jordi Pujol, because ... “wouldn’t the pro-independence movement be irresistible if he fully joined it and led it?”

 

In the same vein, in the unending debate within Catalan nationalism between the poles of cautious consolidation of social support for independence and bold and hopefully inspiring confrontation with the Spanish state, Torra belongs in the second camp. His heroes include Francesc Macià (in 1931 the first Catalan president of the modern era) who in 1926 conducted a failed liberation invasion of the country from the French Pyrenean town of Prats de Molló. It is clear that Torra regards Puigdemont in a similar light to Macià.

 

‘The Spanish’

 

Alien to any class analysis of Catalan and all-Spanish social reality, Torra’s diagnoses of Catalonia’s afflictions in his writings and tweets have featured the crimes of “the Spanish”, who are treated as an undifferentiated horde oppressive of Catalan rights, language, literature and customs. Here are some of the new president’s tweets between 2011 and 2014:

 

• “Shame is a word that the Spanish eliminated from their vocabulary years ago.”
• “The Spanish only know how to plunder.”
• “Jokes aside, gentlemen, if we keep going down this road many more years we run the risk of ending up as mad as the Spanish themselves.”
• Hearing [Citizens’ leader] Albert Rivera talk about morality is like hearing the Spanish talk about democracy.”

 

Nonetheless, substitute “the Spanish” with “the Spanish establishment” in the above phrases and they are perfectly accurate, just as is this 2010 comment of Torra’s on Spain’s October 12 “Day of the Race”, celebrating the conquest of Latin America:

 

The Spanish conquest [of Latin America] between 1492 and 1650 carried off more than 70 per cent of the 70 million people who were living there when Christopher Columbus arrived. More than 200 languages have disappeared. The archive of the Indies reveals that in 1503 alone 185,000 kilos of gold and 16 million kilos of silver arrived in Sanlúcar de Barrameda from the American colonies. At present prices this gold and silver would liquidate the debt of the entire continent, and there would still be some left over. In short, five centuries later, more than 200 million people are poor and 79 million are poverty stricken, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL)…

 

Spain, essentially, has been an exporter of misery, materially and spiritually speaking. Everything the Spanish have touched has become the source of racial discrimination, social difference and underdevelopment.

 

Yet when writing about Catalan history Torra’s nationalism expresses nostalgia for supposed ancient glories that are not sufficiently celebrated in today’s Catalan schools. Here, for example, he deplores the lack of celebration of the 700th anniversary of the Catalan mercenary expedition that took Athens in 1311 (and whose troops pillaged and raped just as the Spanish conquistadors did two centuries later):

 

An exceptional opportunity to explain a part of their history to our boys and girls, maybe the only part based on victories and legendary adventures and which should serve to create a collective national narrative … So used as we are to defeats and failures, for once we have glory and triumphs to offer, to explain that names like Llúria[1], Rocafort[2] or Entença[3] are something more than streets in the Expansion[4] and to try to explain that these four provinces [of Catalonia] have been an empire. ..

 

Seven hundred years ago we conquered Athens—Athens no less!—why not revisit the occasion? Let friendly shades, the old ghosts of Catalan culture surround us and under a burning sky, the most burning sky possible, of a blazing red, let’s dream again of the nation we once were, the country of navigators that conquered Mare Nostrum and turned it into our sea.

 

In Torra’s writings Catalan history is viewed as the decline of a once-hegemonic maritime power, worthy rival of the Genovese and Venetians, until its rights and freedoms were finally extinguished after the 1714 conquest of Barcelona by the Borbon forces in the War of the Spanish Succession. It is the national sentiment of a ruling elite prone to feel it was cheated by history, betrayed by its supposed allies and never given its deserved role. When he was the director of Barcelona’s Born Historical Centre, Torra said that “1714 was our Year Zero”.

 

Given this outlook, Torra’s positions on social struggle are no surprise, even as he shows compassion and concern for those stuck at the bottom of the heap (as in a 2011 piece on the struggle to survive in the Barcelona underworld). In June 2011, he described the “Surround the Parliament” action that arose from the May 2011 indignado square occupation movement as equivalent to the February 23, 1981 failed military coup against the Spanish parliament.

 

The socially conservative Torra in not a neoliberal. On the basis of two decades of experiences in the Swiss insurance industry he wrote the book Swiss Knifings, noting:

 

The big corporations and multinationals are under pressure for returns as short term as by tonight or tomorrow at breakfast time. … Confronting this vertigo in an epoch of uncertainty and lack of definition such as the capitalist world has never experienced before is reserved only for the strongest, the most evolved individuals. Today, Darwin would arrive at the same conclusions if instead of boarding the Beagle and spending five years travelling the world he took part in a shareholder AGM for five minutes.

 

Catalonia in the Spanish state

 

Torra’s thinking tends to see everything in terms of conflicts between nations. In the Catalan case, he has also expressed the common sentiment in conservative Catalan nationalism against the injustice of civilized, productive Catalonia’s forced inclusion in the oppressive, backward and bureaucratic Spanish state, compelled to fund its poorer regions, but without the Basque Country’s command over its own tax income.

 

This sentiment is at bottom due to the peculiar character of Spain, in which the capitalist elites in the most industrialised and most socially advanced parts of the country (Catalonia and the Basque Country) were at best conceded only secondary positions in the Castilian, later Spanish, state machine—made up of the monarchy, armed forces and Catholic church and the judicial and civil service systems with which they maintained their rule.

 

At the same time, given the fact that large parts of the working class that have generated value for the Catalan (and Basque) economic elites have come from the most poverty-stricken parts of Spain (Andalusia, Castilla-La Mancha, Murcia), it’s inevitable that many immigrant workers identify Catalan national sentiment in its entirety with the Catalan rich and that anti-Catalanism always tries to makes use of class resentment to produce a “social” justification for its denial of democratic rights.

 

No scientific study of Catalan history would deploy the category of “the Spanish” as Torra does, but it remains perfectly understandable as a reaction to national humiliation, in the same vein as the reaction of other oppressed nations to their oppressors, such as Irish aversion to “the Brits”, or Polish hatred of “the Russian”. Even less are the shortcomings of Torra’s conservatism nationalism a justification for denying the Catalan nation its right to self-determination.

 

Reactions on the pro-sovereignty left

 

Within Catalonia, some reactions from left supporters of Catalan sovereignty to Torra ascension to the presidency have been sharply critical. For example, historian and journalist Marc Andreu, interviewed in the May 14 edition of the web-based journal Crític commented:

 

Torra’s narrative represents an important step backwards for Catalanism. He has an essentialist and ethnicist vision, quite unusual in the history of Catalanism…

 

That the pro-independence left should support for president someone who is so far to the right is strange … Torra’s narrative creates a feedback loop with that of Citizens…

 

[The] cultural hegemony of the [independence] process has been won by the most conservative right. They used to say that the process was turning the country leftwards, but now we see that not only is it not turning to the left, but that it has ended up strengthening the narrative of the most conservative right wing.

 

But is Torra free to implement his conservative nationalism in the present Catalan political context, even if he wanted to? In the same number of Crític Jesús Rodríguez, editor of the web-based daily Directe, noted:

 

[A]n identity-based, essentialist personality has been nominated president, someone opposed to the values that have emerged from the republican independence process, values that are mainly of the left. Nonetheless, I ask myself: will that be what be projects in his work of government? I don’t have that clear because the process, especially in its last phase, since October 1, has had an impact on pro-independence people who before were more conservative and reactionary. If the government of Quim Torra follows an exclusionary political line, it will commit suicide. Either he changes his way of seeing Catalan politics and society… or he’ll have a very short term in government.

 

In the new context created by the formation of Torra’s government the job of the left outside Catalonia is clear enough: to strengthen support for the country’s right to decide and solidarity with its struggles against Spanish state oppression. Action along this line will in turn give heart to left and progressive people inside Catalonia and contribute to the independence process continuing to move leftward.

 

In such a context Quim Torra’s ideas as conservative Catalan nationalist intellectual will find less and less space for practical expression.

 

Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.

 

Appendix: The language and the beasts

 

Opinion (El Món, December 19, 2012)

 

"They are here, amongst us. Any expression of Catalanness repels them. Theirs is a sick phobia"

 

By Quim Torra

 

At home my parents made sure an old copy of a book that all we brothers had read passed from hand to hand: When the beasts spoke by Manuel Folch i Torres. Father was unbending and considered that one could not grow up without having read it, along with Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring and Josep Maria Folch i Torres’s Bolavà. It was a delightful book where owls, bears, elephants, fawns and bumblebees spoke, a collection of fables for the education of children.

 

Now you look on your country and you see the beasts speaking once again. But these are beasts of another breed: birds of prey, vipers, hyenas. These beasts have a human form, and drool hatred. A disturbed, nauseating hatred—like false teeth covered in slime—against everything that the [Catalan] language represents.

 

They are here, amongst us. Any expression of Catalanness repels them. Theirs is a sick phobia. There’s something Freudian about these beasts. Or there’s a glitch in their DNA chain. Poor individuals! They live in a country of which they know nothing: neither culture, nor traditions nor history. They are waterproofed against any event that conveys the Catalan reality. It gives them urticaria. Everything that is not Spanish and in Castilian just bounces off them.

 

The beasts have names and surnames. We all know one of them. The beasts abound. They live, die and multiply. One of them starred the other day in an incident that has not yet arrived in Catalonia and that deserves to be explained as an extraordinary example of the bestiality of these beings. Poor beasts, they cannot act otherwise.

 

One of the few airlines that has accepted Catalan as normal is Swiss. If you have taken any of their flights to the Swiss Confederation, you will have discovered how they use our language when it comes to taking off and landing the aircraft. An exception, given that, unfortunately, with the rest of the companies we get treated exactly as what we are, the last colony in Europe.

 

Well, a couple of weeks ago one of these beasts travelled on a Swiss flight. On arriving at its destination, the typical observations prior to landing were announced in Catalan. Automatically, the beast began to secrete its rabid saliva. A sewer stench arose from its seat. It twisted, restless, desperate, horrified by having to hear four words in Catalan. It had no escape. A mucous sweat, like that of a toad with a cold, was pouring from its armpits. Just imagine the state of the beast, after such a long time—those that can live in their Spanish world without any problems, hearing four words in a language they hate! Outraged, he decided to write a letter to a German newspaper in Zurich, complaining about the treatment he received because “his rights were violated” since Spanish is the "first" official language of Spain. And the complaint of the beast was published and given prominence.

 

Thank God, the good friends of the Casal Català of Zurich replied and clarified matters (so many [Catalan] embassies and consulates and, look, a small Casal Català is the one that has mobilised thanks to the decency and dignity of his members).

 

But why do we have to mobilise every time? When will the attacks of the beasts end? How in 2008 can we put up with so much harassment, so much humiliation and so much contempt?

 

Notes

 

[1] Roger de Lluria (Ruggiero di Lauria in Italian) was a Sicilan admiral who served with the Crown on Aragon. See here for more infomation.

 

[2] Bernat de Rocafort was the third leader of the Catalan expedition, from 1307 until 1309. See here for more infomation.

 

[3] Bereguer d’Entença led the Catalan expeditionary force (almogàvers) after the death of their first leader, Roger de Flor.

 

[4] The Expansion (Eixample) is the area of Barcelona designed after the original city walls were demolished in the mid-19th century, lying between the old city centre and surrounding villages. See here for more detail.

 

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