What Scotland can learn from the referendum from below in Catalonia


The authors of a new book on social movements write for CommonSpace on the lessons Scotland can learn from events in Catalonia

By Donatella della Porta, Francis O’Connor, Martin Portos and Anna Subirats

IN our recently published book, we argued that referendums have become increasingly a means for movements to bring about fundamental structural change. We coined the term referendums from below to analyse the mass grassroots engagement in some recent referendums, principally in Scotland in 2014 and the array of micro referendums and consultations in Catalonia until 2014. 

However, the intensity of developments and the flagrantly repressive state response to the referendum in Catalonia have given us an opportunity to further assess our findings. Beyond the findings in the book, recent weeks have confirmed two further critical factors, one reassuring, the other much less so.

Firstly, a mobilised populace can neither be co-opted nor easily discouraged, and secondly, states, even EU ones, are willing to casually override any pretence at democracy to uphold their power.

Mass mobilization does not simply draw upon existing political resources and energies but also generates them.

What, one might ask, is so interesting about mass participation in a referendum? Unlike most referendum campaigns which unfold to the wilful apathy of the general populace, the mass engagement inherent in referendums from below, restricts the space for convenient backroom political compromises between political elites. 

When it seemed that President Puigdemont was on the verge of reaching an agreement with the central Spanish government, grassroots opposition to it decisively contributed to the Catalan parliament’s (arguably symbolic) unilateral declaration of independence.

There is also a fundamental difference in the capacity of resistance to threats posed by judicial and political authorities. Mobilisation fatigue assails even the most committed of movements: in Catalonia, throughout the summer of 2017 there had been a decisive fall off in mass mobilisation and even a drop in the polls for support for independence. 

Based on police estimates, while 1.6 and 1.4 million people rallied for self-determination and independence on the 2013 and 2014 National Day of Catalonia (11 September), barely one million turned out in the 2016 and 2017 events.

According to the Generalitat’s Barometer of Public Opinion, in contrast to 48.5 per cent of Catalans who declared support for independence in November 2013, only 34.6 per cent described themselves as being pro-independence in July 2017.

Yet, when it became clear that the Spanish authorities were determined to impede the holding of the vote, as if from the movement muscle memory acquired over the previous decade of mobilisation, the Catalan movements sprang into action.

People were organised through ‘referendum defence committees’ and subsequently ‘republican defence committees’ to hide ballot boxes before the referendum, occupy polling stations, physically protect the ballots on referendum day, and take to the streets to demonstrate, strike and block roads and trains throughout the subsequent weeks.

Mass mobilization does not simply draw upon existing political resources and energies but also generates them. More than a month after the referendum, the pendulum of political momentum has swung back to the streets. 

In Catalonia, an entire generation of activists has been tempered in the hitherto peaceful struggle for independence, and these organisational skills and know-how are a far greater threat to centralised state interests than any simple party-politics institutional opposition. 

Especially, young students (university and high school) first mobilized in large number in the streets, and subsequently in the voting booths, and then back to the streets again.

The networks and skills acquired over years of activism and referendum campaigns are resilient and can potentially be called upon, in times of crisis or existential threat, even if they appear dormant. 

As Lenin reputedly stated, “the basic question of every revolution is state power” – and even supposedly democratic states will not hesitate to use force to uphold it when that power is threatened. 

The movement’s strength in Catalonia notwithstanding, the Spanish government has reverted to institutional repression and police brutality: the national police and the infamous Guardia Civil injured around a thousand Catalans on referendum day, as well as seizing voting papers and electoral booths. 

Confronted with a unilateral declaration of independence, the national government and the parties that support it – including not only the centre-right PP and Ciudadanos, but also the social democratic PSOE – unilaterally revoked Catalonia’s autonomous powers. 

A not-so-independent judiciary arrested the leaders of two of the major Catalan civil society organisations, Assemblea Nacional Catalana and Òmnium Cultural, on charges of sedition. Eight former members of the regional government were jailed pending trial on charges of rebellion, a Spanish judge issued an international arrest warrant for the ousted members of the government that had temporally relocated to Belgium, plus charges were levelled against multiple other Catalan political figures.

Recent polling on the next Catalan elections to be held on 21 December does not show a clear majority on any side, and it is likely that the electoral outcome will return a similar balance of power. 

READ MORE: Catalan activist Anna Arqué: “Freedom is something you fight for every day”

Referendums from below have profound transformative consequences and can be constructive tools to foster democracy and favour mass engagement. However, referendums as a democratic device are hampered by a majoritarian logic, and might not be the ideal mechanisms to resolve fundamental issues in deeply divided societies.

The principal implications for other nations like Scotland, seeking to obtain independence, are that the networks and skills acquired over years of activism and referendum campaigns are resilient and can potentially be called upon, in times of crisis or existential threat, even if they appear dormant. 

However, the speed with which the Spanish government, mired in scandal and declining popularity (strikingly similar to the contemporary Tory government), escalated political tensions and reverted to repression, should not be casually dismissed by the Scottish movements.

You can buy a copy of Social Movements and Referendums from Below: Direct Democracy in the Neoliberal Crisis here.

Picture courtesy of byronv2

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