Thursday, June 21, 2018

Behind Venezuela’s crisis: Nature, money and modernity in a petro-state

Introduction

As widely reported, Venezuela is immersed in a major economic, social and political crisis that shows no signs of early resolution.

Among its pressing problems, says Steve Ellner, are “four-digit annual inflation, an appalling deterioration in the standard of living of both popular and middle sectors, and oil industry mismanagement resulting in a decline in production.”

The report by Ellner, a long-time scholar and resident of Venezuela, is highly recommended for its analysis of the economic situation and the constellation of political forces, as well as the limited options facing the government headed by Nicolas Maduro. President Maduro was re-elected May 20 with a 68% majority but 54% of registered voters abstained due to the call for an electoral boycott by the major opposition coalition.

Compounding the country’s many home-grown difficulties, some of which were triggered by the sharp drop in global oil prices of recent years, is the economic war being waged internationally against Venezuela. As Ellner explains, Washington’s hostile actions, which have escalated since Obama incredibly labelled Venezuela an “extraordinary threat to national security” of the USA, “have impacted the Venezuelan economy in many ways.”

The Trudeau government is playing a major role in this offensive against Venezuelan sovereignty, its economy and political leadership. It is participating in the OAS-sponsored Lima Group of right-wing Latin American governments aimed at isolating Venezuela internationally. Immediately following Maduro’s victory in the May 20 election, Ottawa slapped new sanctions on Venezuela, accusing the country’s leaders of murders and other human-rights abuses, and hinting that Canada might ask the International Criminal Court to prosecute Maduro’s government.

Venezuela’s crisis — heavily impacted by the decline in state oil revenues — has led many, including some on the left, to question the resource extraction and export strategies characteristic in varying degrees of all the “progressive” governments elected in Latin America over the last twenty years.

Those strategies have deep roots, however, in the history and social structures of Latin America established by foreign conquest and occupation and as they have evolved in the two centuries since most countries gained their formal independence from their colonial masters.

An outstanding analysis of the 20th century background is Fernando Coronil’s book The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela, first published in English in 1997 and later translated into Spanish by a Cuban, Esther Pérez. Coronil (1944-2011) was a Venezuelan anthropologist who spent much of his academic career teaching in the United States.

Fernando CoronilA classic of Latin American economic and social history, Coronil’s book was published by Nueva Sociedad in 2002, then reissued in 2013 by the publisher Alfa, in Caracas. “One of the fundamental books for understanding Venezuela,” write the editors of Nueva Sociedad in its March-April 2018 edition (No. 274), it “helps us to advance in an analysis of current problems in Venezuela in light of a rentier model that began in the 1930s and has lasted under the Bolivarian Revolution, which today is facing its most critical moment.”

Fernando Coronil

The 2013 edition of the book contains a prologue by Venezuelan sociologist Edgardo Lander, reproduced in almost its entirety in Nueva Sociedad. Published below is my translation of Lander’s text. Where Lander quotes Coronil (indented text), I have substituted the English text from his book, with the relevant page references.

Coronil wrote in advance of the recent work by Marxist ecosocialists such as Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster on the ecological content in Marx’s work, most of which is still unknown in Latin America. One can only speculate as to how a reading of their studies might have modified his critique of Marx’s alleged failure to incorporate nature in his analysis of the process of wealth creation.

A further caveat for readers in the “Canadian petro-state,” where the Trudeau government is so committed to ecologically disastrous tar-sands extraction and export that it has — contrary to all economic logic — nationalized Kinder Morgan’s Canadian assets to ensure construction of the TransMountain bitumen pipeline expansion to the west coast.

There is a fundamental difference between Venezuela, where rent from oil is the main source of state income, and Canada with its developed manufacturing and service sectors and diversified economy. As Trudeau says, the TransMountain pipeline is an integral part of his government’s Pan-Canadian Framework on fighting climate change — even though the Framework text does not mention pipelines, and his fossil fuels expansion strategy completely belies his claims about Canada’s leading role in fighting climate catastrophe. But mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction account for just over 8% of Canada’s GDP, and energy products (oil, natural gas, etc.) account for about 14% of Canada’s exports. That’s a huge difference from Venezuela, as documented by Lander and Coronil. It’s the difference between a highly developed settler state in the imperial metropolis and a peripheral underdeveloped state in the global South.

– Richard Fidler

* * *

The Magical State is still there

Continuities and ruptures in the history of the Venezuelan petro-state

By Edgardo Lander

Coronil Magical State book cover

Modernity and the neglect of nature and space in social theory

The starting point of Fernando Coronil’s extraordinary study of the historical trajectory of the Venezuelan petro-state, with its ruptures and continuities, is a critique of the hegemonic Eurocentric conception of modernity and its meta-narrative and the analysis of the theoretical and political implications that the exclusion of nature and the priority of time over space have had in the dominant paradigms, both liberal and Marxist.

The author argues that in neither the neoclassical nor Marxist conceptions is nature centrally incorporated as a part of the process of wealth creation, a fact that has huge consequences. In neoclassical theory, the separation of nature from the process of wealth creation is expressed in the subjective market-centered concept of value. From this perspective, the value of any natural resource is determined in the same way as that of any other commodity, that is, by its utility to consumers as it is measured in the market. From a macroeconomic point of view, the remuneration of the owners of land and natural resources is conceived as a transfer of income, not as a payment for a natural capital. This is the conception that serves to support the system of national accounts used throughout the world.

Coronil says that Karl Marx, although he thought the “trinity form” of labor / capital / land “holds in itself all the mysteries of the social production process,” ends by formalizing a conception of wealth formation that occurs inside society as a capital / labor relationship, and leaves out nature. Since value is created in the capital / labor relation and nature does not create value, rent is understood as corresponding to the sphere of distribution, not to the sphere of wealth formation.

According to Coronil, to the extent that nature is left out in the theoretical characterization of the production and development of capitalism and modern society, space is also being left aside from the perspective of theory. By abstracting from nature, from resources, from space and from territories, the historical development of modern society and capitalism appears as an internal process, self-generated by European society, which later expands into “backward” regions. In this Eurocentric construction, colonialism disappears from the field of vision as a constituent dimension of these historical experiences. Accordingly, the presence of the peripheral world and its nature in the constitution of capitalism disappears from view, and the idea of Europe as unique historical subject is reaffirmed.

Once nature is incorporated in social analysis, the organization of work can not be abstracted from its material bases. Consequently, the international division of labor has to be understood not only as a social division of labor, but also as a global division of nature. To break with this set of divisions, particularly those that have been built between material factors and cultural factors, Coronil proposes a holistic perspective of production that includes these orders in the same analytical field. He conceives the productive process simultaneously as creation of commodities and social subjects.

A holistic approach to production encompasses the production of commodities as well as the formation of the social agents involved in this process and therefore unifies within a single analytical field the material and cultural borders within which human beings form themselves as they make their world.... This unifying vision seeks to comprehend the historical constitution of subjects in a world of human-made social relations and understandings. [p. 41]

An appreciation of the role of nature in the formation of wealth offers a different view of capitalism. The inclusion of nature (and of the agents associated with it) should displace the capital/labor relation from the ossified centrality it has been made to occupy by Marxist theory. Together with land, the capital/labor relation may be viewed within a wider process of commodification, the specific form and the effects of which must be demonstrated concretely in each instance. In light of this more comprehensive view of capitalism, it would be difficult to reduce its development to a dialectic of capital and labor originating in advanced centers and expanding to the backward periphery. Instead, the international division of labor could be more properly recognized as being simultaneously an international division of nations and of nature (and of other geopolitical units, such as the first and third worlds, that reflect changing international realignments). By including the worldwide agents involved in the making of capitalism, this perspective makes it possible to envisage a global, non-Eurocentric conception of its development. [p. 61]

In this way, Coronil is theoretically and politically located within the spectrum of critical perspectives of Eurocentric paradigms of modernity and capitalism, diverse perspectives formulated from the experiences of subaltern modernities, that is, from histories and experiences distinct from those of universal history. These histories are those of the majority of the population of the planet, for whom modernity meant colonialism, slavery, extermination, imperial subjection and exploitation.[1]

I argue that this amnesia about nature has entailed forgetting as well the role of the “periphery” in the formation of the modern world, an active “silencing of the past”[2] that reinscribes the violence of a history made at the expense of the labor and the natural resources of peoples relegated to the margins. [pp. 5-6]

The state in the peripheral countries exporting nature

Coronil argues that the exclusion of nature has important consequences for both Marxist and liberal theories of the state.

To the extent that state theories have construed the states of advanced capitalist nations as the general model of the capitalist state, the states of peripheral capitalist societies… are represented as truncated versions of this model; they are identified by a regime of deficits, not by historical differences. But a unifying view of the global formation of states and of capitalism shows that all national states are constituted as mediators of an order that is simultaneously national and international, political and territorial. [p. 65]

This historical difference is a product of the locations that these states have in the international division of labor and of nature. In the process of global accumulation of capital, the main contribution of peripheral countries subjected to colonial relations and imperial control was primarily not the transfer of value but the transfer of wealth, that is, the export of nature. This has enormous consequences for the processes by which states were constituted in these countries. In characterizing the rentier state of peripheral countries whose economy is fundamentally based on the export of nature, we are not simply adding an additional characteristic to the theoretical model of the state: we are talking about a model that, in many ways, differs from what has been theorized as the state in capitalist society.

In metropolitan capitalist countries, states are financed primarily through the withholding of part of the value created by labor subject to capitalist relations (taxes). In this sense, states are dependent on society, on the set of social relations and subjects that operate within it. On the contrary, in the peripheral states exporting nature, the state has as its main source of income the rent of the land. As a landlord, owner of the land and / or subsoil in the name of the nation, the state retains — in the form of rent — part of the wealth extracted from nature. This feature, shared by petro-states with other peripheral countries that are mono-exporters of nature, provides them with a greater degree of autonomy in respect to society, insofar as their income depends less on labor and on the creation of value in their national territory. Incorporating into the analysis the three elements of the wealth creation process (nature, labor, capital) “helps us see the landlord state as an independent economic agent rather than as an exclusively political actor structurally dependent on capital.” This landlord state, even if it is in a subaltern position in the world system, may come to have a greater degree of internal autonomy than what is characteristic of the metropolitan states and may in some way be placed over and above the society.

Constitution of the magical state in Venezuela

Combining, among other factors, the aforementioned theoretical assumptions and the suggestive image formulated by José Ignacio Cabrujas about the state in Venezuela, Coronil formulates the notion of the “magical state” as a perspective from which to unravel to some degree the processes by means of which a state model has been constructed in Venezuela “as a transcendent and unifying agent of the nation.” According to Cabrujas, the appearance of oil in Venezuela creates a kind of cosmogony: the oil wealth had the force of a myth. Thanks to oil it was possible to move quickly from backwardness to a spectacular development. In these conditions, a “providential” state is constituted that “has nothing to do with reality,” but instead emerges from the magician’s hat.[3]

In his journey through twentieth-century Venezuela, Coronil highlights three periods as critical historical milestones in the formation of this magical state and in the process of its constitution as the central location of political power: the dictatorial governments of Generals Juan Vicente Gómez ( 1908-1935) and Marcos Pérez Jiménez (1952-1958) and the first government of Carlos Andrés Pérez (1974-1979). These are three historical periods that correspond to significant increases in oil income. The author states that Venezuelan historiography and the meta-narrative of democratic Venezuela have established an antagonistic rupture between a backward dictatorial country and a democratic and “modern” one. This rupture in the narrative of democracy is used to obscure the extraordinary continuities that have existed in the Venezuelan state since its constitution as a petro-state in the 1930s during the dictatorship of General Gómez until our day.

Coronil believes that “it was during Gómez’s ‘traditional’ regime (...) that it became possible to imagine Venezuela as a modern oil nation, to identify the ruler with the state, and to construe the state as the agent of modernization.” As early as 1928, Venezuela had become the second largest oil producer in the world and the primary exporting country. Thanks to this oil wealth, the Gomecista state managed to appear as the “transcendent and unifying agent of the nation.” With a monopoly not only of violence, but also of the natural wealth of the country, the state appears “as an independent agent capable of imposing its dominion over society.” The foundations of a state and a political system are established in which political confrontations and class struggle would mainly be about access to the state as a primary source of wealth.

After the transition that begins with the death of the dictator in 1935 and the experience of the Acción Democrática (AD) triennium in which “the people” appear as a central reference point, the Pérez Jiménez dictatorship seeks to reconceptualize the relationship between state and people.

The nation’s social body became more marked as the passive beneficiary of its natural body, seen now as the main source of the nation’s powers.... Nature appeared as a social actor not independently but through the mediation of the state. But the military state claimed to represent the nation directly, without the mediation of the people.... This shift marked a subtle but perceptible displacement in the locus of historical agency from the nation’s social body toward its natural body — from the people to nature. [p. 168]

In the New National Ideal of Pérez Jiménez’s government, modernity was understood as “a collection of grand material achievements” that, thanks to the high oil revenues, were used to make large investments in infrastructure, industries and services. Public investment was promoted over private investment, and was especially concentrated in large enterprises like the petrochemical and steel industries (generally associated with the enrichment of senior government officials). The four-fold multiplication of oil prices at the beginning of the first government of Carlos Andrés Pérez laid the foundations for the Greater Venezuela discourse and the popular imagination of a Saudi Venezuela, a land of unlimited abundance, reinforcing the centrality of the rentier petro-state. This imaginary reached its highest expression in the nationalization of the oil industry.

The case studies that are part of the chapters in which the author studies this government illustrate the ways in which this political system operates. Through an approach in which the local conjunctural processes (and the action of the subjects involved in these processes) are interwoven with the tendencies operating in global capitalism, our understanding of both processes is further enhanced. His detailed analysis of the experiences with the tractor factory (Fanatracto) and the automotive policy is extraordinarily illustrative. These studies allow Coronil to unravel the internal operation of the rentier petro-state, in particular the contradictions that are generated within the government with regard to the promotion of industrialization policies and the way in which the contradiction between rentism and value production ends up making these projects fail. A new unfulfilled illusion of the magical state.

The Faustian trade of money for modernity did not bring the capacity to produce but the illusion of production: money brought modern products or factories capable of generating only a truncated modernity. By creating an industrial structure under the protective mantle of petrodollars, the modernization programs of General Marcos Pérez Jiménez and President Carlos Andrés Pérez promoted industries that showed a persistent tendency to function more as traps to capture oil rents then as creative means to produce value. [p. 391]

But the imaginary of the magical state, of the state capable of solving all problems and guaranteeing progress and abundance for all, was broken when the long crisis that had been developing during the governments of Luis Herrera Campins (1979-1984) and Jaime Lusinchi (1984-1989) finally exploded with the Great Turn, the neoliberal adjustment negotiated by Carlos Andrés Pérez with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) at the beginning of his second government (1989-1993). The reaction, the Caracazo in February and March 1989, symbolically represented the definitive break between the popular sectors and parties and the state of the Pacto de Punto Fijo.[4]

These events marked a crisis of the populist project that had defined the relationship between state and pueblo since 1936. With the shift to free-market policies and the dismantling of populist developmentalism, dominant discourse began to present the people not so much as the virtuous foundation of democracy, but as an unruly and parasitical mass to be disciplined by the state and made productive by the market. [p. 378]

The living conditions of the popular sectors continued to deteriorate with deepening polarization between an increasingly internationalized privileged elite and an impoverished majority alienated from the political system. In these conditions of a severely divided society (although this division was not recognized by the elites or by the political system), there occurred the attempted coups of 1992, the removal of Carlos Andrés Pérez and, finally, the election of Hugo Chávez Frías as president in December 1998.

The Magical State, Modernity and Nature: current challenges

The Magical state has much to contribute to the debate on the current Venezuelan political process, on central issues such as the state model, the role of oil and the implications of rentier extractivism as a model of society, even if it is called “socialist.” Coronil argues, as indicated above, that in the imaginary of democracy in Venezuela a Manichean view of the primitive and the modern was created, establishing a separation or total rupture between dictatorial regimes and democratic regimes. Similarly, in the current process, the narrative of the revolution and the Fifth Republic is an attempt to define the beginning of a new historical moment in which the continuities that continue to operate despite all the changes that have occurred are completely erased from the collective consciousness. This silence has to do fundamentally with the state model, the relations between society and the rentier petro-state, and with the specific modalities of this society’s relationship with its natural environment, with oil. It is a silence that, insofar as it is installed in the collective consciousness because we are said to be in another historical time, the Bolivarian Revolution, which has nothing to do with the past, denies us the very possibility of understanding what is happening in the country, as well as the possibility of imagining future alternatives to this petro-state model of society.

The certification of the hydrocarbon reserves of the Orinoco Oil Belt as the largest in the world has given a new and vigorous impulse to the idea that oil will guarantee a future of progress, prosperity and abundance. The imaginary of Greater Venezuela is now replaced by that of Venezuela as the Gran Poder Petrolera, the Great Oil Power. The idea of ​​”sowing the oil,” traditionally understood as the unrealized ideal of using the resources from the oil rent for the development of other productive activities, is altered and converted into the use of that income to make the massive investments required to increase production and increase dependence on oil production and export. Between 2010 and 2012, oil represented 95% or 96% of the total value of the country’s exports, together with a significant reduction in non-oil exports in both absolute and relative terms. In 1998, non-oil exports amounted to $5.529 billion; by 2011, these had fallen to $4.679 billion. In the intervening years, private exports, almost exclusively non-oil, were reduced by half (they went from $4.162 billion in 1998 to $2.131 billion in 2011). In the same period, the participation of the industrial sector in GDP fell from 17.4% to 14.5%.[5]

After 14 years of the Bolivarian Revolution, Venezuela is more rentier than ever. The state has regained its place at the center of the national scene. With its oil income — according to the official discourse — it will once again have the capacity to lead Venezuelan society towards progress and abundance. A new and essential component is now added to these already traditional relations between petro-state and society. In the absence of a critical debate on the experience of 20th century socialism, “21st century socialism” is declared to be the goal of the Bolivarian process, and the need for a single party of the revolution is postulated. Despite what the Constitution says, the tendency is to associate socialism with more state. The nationalized companies come to be called, by that fact alone, “socialist companies.” The petro-state thus becomes the vanguard that directs social transformation and its strengthening becomes an expression of the progress of the “transition towards socialism.” Unlike the socialist experiences of the last century, a new type of relationship between state and party is established. Instead of a revolutionary party that controls the state, the petro-state has been used to create, finance and lead the party. As a model, there is still a predominance of a raison d’état in that the state is identified with the nation, with the people and with the common good, and is therefore the place in which all the initiatives and main decisions must necessarily be concentrated. This discards, denies, mutilates, the only way through which the democratic transformation of society is possible: broad, varied, multiple processes of autonomous social experimentation that emerge from the diversity of practices, memories and projects of the various peoples, social sectors, regions and cultures of the country.

The Great National Petroleum Consensus of the nation’s quasi-ontological identification with oil was again sealed with the 2012 presidential elections. Despite the profound contrasts on practically all other issues related to the model of the country proposed in the electoral campaign programs, government and opposition alike coincide on one point: the proposal to double oil production to take it to six million barrels per day by the end of the presidential period 2013-2019.[6]

There have been repeated references by Chávez and in the public policy documents of these years to the need to get out of the rentier and monoproductive oil logic. These are reiterated in the election program presented by Chávez in the presidential elections of October 2012, which states: “Let us not be deceived: the socio-economic formation that still prevails in Venezuela is capitalist and rentier.”[7] Consequently, the need is formulated: “To promote the transformation of the economic system, based on the transition to Bolivarian socialism, going beyond the capitalist oil rentier model towards the productive socialist economic model based on the development of the productive forces.”[8]

Likewise, in recognition of the severity of the global environmental crisis, one of the five Great Historical Objectives formulated in this plan is to “preserve life on the planet and preserve the human species.” This is specified in the following terms:

Build and promote the eco-socialist productive economic model, based on a harmonious relationship between man and nature, which guarantees the rational, optimal and sustainable use and exploitation of natural resources, respecting the processes and cycles of nature. Protect and defend the permanent sovereignty of the state over natural resources for the supreme benefit of our people, who will be its principal guarantor. Contribute to the formation of a great global movement to contain the causes and repair the effects of climate change that occur as a consequence of the predatory capitalist model.[9]

However, and very contradictorily, another of the major objectives of the plan is “to consolidate the role of Venezuela as a world energy power.”[10] To that end, as already mentioned, the plan proposes to double the level of oil production, especially by expanding production in the Orinoco Belt, to take it to 4 million barrels a day, and a huge expansion in gas exploitation to reach 11.947 billion cubic feet per day by 2019.

With this extraordinary expansion, which requires very high amounts of investment and technologies that the country does not have, Venezuela’s dependence on oil is increased in the long term and the participation of transnational, public and private oil corporations in the Venezuelan oil business is expanded. In many of the contracts through which massive credits were obtained by China it is established that they will be paid with oil. This means that just to maintain the current levels of fiscal revenues in the future, the Venezuelan state would have little latitude and would be committed in the long term to increase production and export levels of crude oil.

From the standpoint of the socio-environmental impact, the consequences of this leap in production levels would certainly be much more severe than the devastating effects of a century of oil production in the country, especially in Lake Maracaibo — the largest in Latin America — which has been converted by both transnational corporations and the state-owned oil company into an “area of ​​sacrifice” in some of the largest “collateral” environmental damage in oil production on the entire planet. The deposits of the Orinoco Belt are made up of heavy and extra-heavy oils and hydrocarbon sands whose exploitation requires huge volumes of water and generates much more toxic waste than the exploitation of lighter petroleum. The country (as well as the continent and planet) run the risk that the extraordinary river system of the Orinoco and its delta will suffer the same consequences as Lake Maracaibo.

Thus this political project can not be detached from the logic of the rentier petro-state and the recycled imaginary of Greater Venezuela, nor is this even conceivable. What is revolutionary in this program is not to alter the relationship of Venezuelan society with oil, or to suggest some other way to understand the relationship of society with nature. No, what is revolutionary is to deepen the rentier logic and the role of the state in its function as a great decision-maker and redistributor of the rent. In this government program what defines the revolutionary character of petroleum policy is gauged by three criteria: the state captures the rent, the value obtained from this income is maximized and these revenues are used for the benefit of the people.

Finally, our oil policy must be revolutionary, which has to do with who captures the oil rent, how it is captured and how it is distributed. According to this vision, there is no doubt that the state should control and capture the oil rent, based on mechanisms that maximize its value, in order to distribute it for the benefit of the people, seeking the integral social development of the country, in more just and equitable conditions. This is the element [so the argument goes] that would differentiate us from any other oil policy.[11]

The imaginary of progress, of the role of oil as the lever that will guarantee the modernization of the country under the direction of the state, has an extraordinary continuity here. The following text by Carlos Andrés Pérez as he nationalized the oil industry could easily be confused as an expression of the common sense of the Bolivarian imaginary of this new illusion of Venezuela as a great power:

Venezuelan oil must become an instrument of Latin American integration and a source of global security, human progress, international justice, and balanced economic interdependence. It also must become a symbol of Venezuela’s independence, its national will, and its creative capacity as a people and a nation. Venezuelan petroleum is an encounter with our destiny. There is no better place to express it than in the presence of Simón Bolívar, who taught us to believe in our people and knew how to fight to show what we are capable of achieving.[12]

The confluence of the logic of the magical state with the Leninist logic of statism and vanguardism and the charismatic / messianic style of Chávez’s leadership contradicts, and again and again blocks the advance of the very widespread processes of participation and autonomous organization of the popular sectors. The dependence on the “downloading” of state resources for community projects is systematic. A political culture is installed of a cult to the “comandante-presidente,” to “our leader,” and there are constant references to something being done because “Chávez commanded” or issued “orders that have to be obeyed.” It has been publicly stated that the decision to define the Bolivarian process as socialist was made by Chávez alone. And all this can only undermine the construction of a democratic culture, insofar as that involves building collective consciousness, because no matter how much social organization is built, all the most important decisions are taken elsewhere.

On the basis of the same relationship with nature and the same model of a rentier petro-state, it is not possible to produce significant transformations in Venezuelan society. It is possible to create a model of state capitalism in which the rent is better distributed and is directed primarily to the previously excluded social sectors. Higher levels of equity and reduction of exclusion can be achieved, but it cannot generate the political-organizational and productive capacity of the whole society that is required for its transformation. In this way, nature will continue to be devastated and the possibility of making a reality the pluricultural republic of which the Constitution speaks will be denied.


[1] Among the more important contributions to these radical critiques of Eurocentrism are the production of the Subaltern Studies Group of India, the contribution of African theorists such as V.Y. Mudimbe and the influential texts of Edward Said and Martín Bernal. In the Latin American context, Coronil actively participated in the collective construction of the modernity / coloniality perspective, among which outstanding figures are Aníbal Quijano, Enrique Dussel, Arturo Escobar and Walter Mignolo.

[2] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Beacon Press, Boston, 1995.

[3] One of the greatest riches of the book is the way in which it processes the dialogue between the theoretical-conceptual production of the academic disciplines of social sciences and literary production, the plastic arts and Latin American popular music. The analysis is further enriched with references to authors and works that are not part of the canon of social sciences and that have the virtue of looking at things from another place, from other perspectives, from other sensibilities: Jacobo Borges, José Ignacio Cabrujas, Rómulo Gallegos, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Alejo Carpentier, among others.

[4] Political agreement to guarantee the transition after the fall of Pérez Jiménez, who enabled a bipartisan system formed by AD and the Committee of Independent Electoral Political Organization (known by its acronym COPEI). The Communist Party was excluded from this pact. [Nueva Sociedad editor’s note]

[5] Banco Central de Venezuela, “Información estadistica. Exportaciones e importaciones de bienes y servicios,” http://200.74.197.135/c2/indicadores.asp.

[6] The proposal of Henrique Capriles Radonski can be found in “Hay un camino. Petróleo para tu progreso,” <https://henriquecapriles.wordpress.com/2012/08/05/petroleo-para-el-progreso/>.

Hugo Chávez’s election program is at “Propuesta del candidato de la Patria comandante Hugo Chávez para la gestión bolivariana socialista 2013-2019,” Caracas, 11/6/2012, <www.mppeuct.gob.ve/sites/default/files/descargables/programa-patria-2013-2019.pdf>.

[7] “Propuesta del candidato de la Patria comandante Hugo Chávez para la gestión bolivariana socialista 2013-2019,” supra, note 6.

[8] Ibid., p. 9

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Op. cit., p. 12.

[12] Carlos Andrés Pérez, “Speech on the Law for Nationalization of Oil,” 29 August 1975, https://tinyurl.com/ycobt4jg.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

New governments in both Spain and Catalonia: Will the impasse persist?

On June 1, less than three weeks after a new government was finally allowed to take office in Catalonia,[1] the Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party (PP) — which had headed the central state’s harsh repression of Catalan self-determination — was defeated in a parliamentary no-confidence vote prompted by a High Court conviction of leading PP officials in a public contracts corruption case.

The vote, initiated by the Spanish social-democratic PSOE, was supported by the left party Unidos Podemos and Catalan and Basque nationalist parties in the Spanish parliament. PSOE federal secretary Pedro Sánchez became Spain’s new prime minister.[2]

These events open a new phase in the Spanish state’s ongoing institutional, social-economic and national-territorial crises, and present the left forces in both Catalonia and Spain with some major challenges.

It remains to be seen whether relations with Catalonia will improve under the new government in Madrid. Sánchez had aligned his party firmly behind Rajoy’s opposition to the October 1 independence referendum and in support of the trusteeship imposed on Catalonia under Article 155 of the 1978 Spanish constitution. However, to win Catalan nationalist parties’ support for its no-confidence motion, the PSOE promised to establish normal relations with the new Catalan government and undertook to revisit Catalan laws blocked by the Constitutional Court on appeal from the Rajoy government.[3]

At minimum, these promises, if effected, would require the withdrawal of charges against the jailed and exiled Catalan leaders and an end to the Madrid government’s control over the Catalan government’s economic policy although the PSOE has not indicated any such intention. The PSOE has now promised to implement Rajoy’s austerity budget, which it had voted against just days before its no-confidence motion. And although the Article 155 trusteeship formally ended with the investiture of the new Catalan government, more than 100 political activists, most of them associated with the grassroots Committees to Defend the Republic (CDRs), were arrested during the last two weeks of May. Some face charges of “terrorism” because of their role in organizing peaceful protests against the repression.[4]

Spain’s left party Unidos Podemos (UP) can play an important role in the period ahead, both within the parliament (71 seats vs. the PSOE’s 85) and “in the streets.” However, it will have to resist UP leader Pablo Iglesias’ offer to join the government. “This orientation,” writes Dick Nichols, the Barcelona-based correspondent of Green Left Weekly, “runs the risk of making Unidos Podemos co-responsible for retrograde policies that the PSOE won’t abandon, especially in regards to not taxing the rich and big business and abiding by obligations to meet European Commission spending limits.

“A more fruitful approach, as already flagged by the Podemos tendency Anticapitalists, would be to adopt the ‘Portuguese approach’ of that country’s Left Bloc and Communist Party: to support all progressive initiatives of the ruling Socialists while fighting for other progressive measures that they are avoiding and mobilising the people in support of them — all the while defending the government from the attacks of the right.”[5]

In the following article, a leader of the Catalan independence movement outlines a strategy for carrying forward the struggle in the months ahead around actions aimed at building popular support for a project of “radical transformation, emancipation and popular empowerment.”

Readers who are aware of the debate in Quebec over the mandate to be given that nation’s proposed constituent assembly[6] may be surprised at Iolanda Fresnillo’s insistence that the Catalan assembly initiated by the pro-independence forces should invite and encourage the participation of “those that do not share the preference for independence.” She points to the fact that there are many working people in Catalonia who have not been attracted by the republican project associated with the pro-austerity capitalist parties that dominate the present independence movement. Many of them have immigrated with their families in recent years from other parts of the Spanish state and elsewhere in search of jobs and better living conditions. In fact, the native Catalan population now forms just less than one half of the autonomous territory’s population.

Fesnillo is convinced that many of these people can be won to support a progressive and inclusive Republican project in the course of a democratic debate open to the widest number. What is key to this process is that the population continues to mobilize en masse for the release of the prisoners and an end to the repression, and finds new ways to build “strategies of social transformation” starting, perhaps, at the local or municipal level. And as the recent arrests of CDR activists indicate, the central state’s opposition to these mass democratic manifestations — if countered with effective defensive struggles — can convince many more in the course of these experiences to support an emancipatory democratic Republic as an alternative social and political project.

This article was first published in Catalan in the on-line publication Sentit CriticOpinió I anàlisi.[7] My translation is based on the Spanish translation published in Viento Sur.

Richard Fidler

* * *

Five challenges the pro-independence left will have to confront, now that we have a Government

By Iolanda Fresnillo

iolanda-fresnillo-1024x680With the investiture of Quim Torra as the 131st president of the Generalitat, Catalonia’s government, a new phase of the process has begun. Not the final or definitive one, simply a new phase. A phase full of uncertainties and glitches that are impossible to foresee — not just how the legislature will act and for how long, but also what will happen next week. The legal prosecutions still under way (and those that will probably ensue) and the likely sentencing of the political prisoners to jail terms; the constant threat of a new 155 and the expected prohibition by the Constitutional Court of such proposals as the initiation of the Constituent Process or the recovery of suspended laws; the foreseeable tension between the CUP and the Government within the pro-independence bloc, given the evident ideological distance between the president and the CUPistas; the influence, or the interference, that the Council of the Republic or President Puigdemont may exercise over Torra and the Generalitat government… these are some of the obstacles that will have to be overcome if the new president is not to be derailed.

Some of the challenges we confront in this new phase are of special relevance to the lefts that we have looked to during the sovereigntist process as offering the possibility of radical transformation, emancipation and popular empowerment. The first of those challenges will no doubt be to provide ourselves with spaces in which to construct future strategies that allow us to make reality what now appears as simply a “mantra”: to make a Republic. Right now, thinking of challenges, I will identify five that are, in my opinion, central.

1. Tackle the exceptional nature of the repression

Without a doubt, one of the central issues is how we tackle the climate of repression and deprivation of rights and freedoms that the Spanish state has imposed. The strategy of threats and fears deployed by the Spanish government means it has to make those threats effective and — independently of what the Criminal Code says — keep the political prisoners in prison. We will have to develop strategies gauged to the needs of the prisoners, those in exile and those under siege from the Spanish judicial authorities for having defended the Republic in the streets. The message in the hundreds of thousands of letters and visits and other demonstrations of support must be loud and clear: We have not forgotten you.

Jesús Rodríguez said a few days ago in Crític that October 1 has meant a transformation in the values and mentality of many Catalans, in that the experience of recent months has already helped to build “a society that is more critical, more willing to take risks, more open to new forms of understanding the economy and social relations.” This increased predisposition to risk will encounter a foreseeable rise in the incessant repression deployed by the Spanish state and accordingly a growing number of reprisals. Being attentive to this means building spaces and collective strategies to confront that repression, but also spaces that will help us maintain the predisposition to risk, and not to become entangled in the web of fear. It is only through collective action that we can avert the Spanish state’s attempt to paralyze this process of social empowerment. Thus it will be essential to protect spaces like the CDRs that cultivate this collectivity.

And finally, to confront the repression not only through the necessary solidarity actions but also through the construction of strategies of social disapproval. In this respect, to find a way around the lack of demonstrations of solidarity and indignation by a part of the Spanish, European and international left. The left, traditionally internationalist, will have to redouble efforts to explain to the outside world what is happening in Catalonia.

2. Build an inclusive Republic

Half a year ago we met with a group of left-wing activists from various political spaces and social movements with a proposal to promote the Republic from below and in a form that was not subordinate to the institutional agendas. We issued an appeal to meet, think about and organize ourselves around the theme “Contra la foscor, la llum: el millor del nou i el poder popular. Aixequem la República!” [“Against the darkness, light: the best of the new and the popular power. Stand up for the Republic!”] In this initial meeting, which took place on December 1, 2017, we stated: “The Republic we want is inclusive, democratic, egalitarian, feminist, antiracist and puts a dignified life for all at the center of any politics.”

The proposal of inclusive sovereigntism necessarily clashes frontally with identitarian nationalisms. Against the controversial tweets and articles of President Quim Torra, far from downplaying his words (which we view very seriously) we must reaffirm ourselves in the words that would have to accompany this construction of an inclusive Republic. Not to convince (being inclusive in order to broaden the bases of sovereignty), but because it is correct. Because, if it is not with everyone and for everyone — weaving, not unravelling — it is not our Republic.

An inclusive Republic is at the antipodes of a racist society that undervalues the 15% of the population composed of migrant individuals who, in today’s Catalonia (in the Spanish state and in the European Union) find their rights as citizens denied. An inclusive Republic cannot be built around an essentialist proposal of Catalan identity; instead, it must celebrate our diversity. Nor can it be a

“neoliberal Republic at the service of the new and old elites, or a new country with the old classes, injustices and privileges as usual. It cannot continue to be subordinate to the interests of capital, super-state structures and actors not chosen democratically and holding decisive powers over our lives. Nor can we allow ourselves to perpetuate a society in connivance with predatory exploitation of the territory, racism and male chauvinism,”

as we stated in the opening ceremony of Aixequem la República.

In this sense, as the independentist lefts, both within and without the Parliament, we have to develop a frontal opposition to the neoliberal policies that the new Catalan government may be tempted to implement, and to any attempt to impose an identitarian Catalanism. And we will have to build strategies that make no concession to the blackmail of those who will doubtless, faced with this opposition, put in question our commitment to the republican project.

3. The temptation of the municipal elections

No one can tell whether the new Government will still be intact by May of next year. But in any case the election date of May 2019, which applies to the municipal and European elections (and to the Balearic Islands, Valencia and other autonomous communities throughout the state), can become an important turning point.

The new municipalism that exploded with the May 2015 elections has highlighted the potential to build emancipatory realities and transformative processes from the local level. The experiences in the city councils led by new forces and left political coalitions in cities like Barcelona, Badalona or Sabadell, but also in smaller cities and towns, are showing us that at the local level it is possible to deploy quite strong strategies of social transformation. And even in some municipalities where the right governs, civil society and the leftist opposition find it easier to initiate transformative initiatives like municipal ownership of services, experiences of direct democracy, or policies of transparency (public hearings). These are processes of transformation and construction of spaces of popular sovereignty that follow rhythms and routes that differ from those in the country’s sovereigntist process. I think we have to maintain those different rhythms and routes.

For some time now we have seen how there is a desire among various pro-sovereignty political forces to put the independentist process at the center of the pre-campaigning for the next municipal elections. Proposals like those of Jordi Graupera to present an independentist candidacy for the Barcelona city council have and no doubt will continue to have their reflection in other municipalities. Personally, I think it is a strategic error to try to confine the transformative potential of municipalism within the independentist proposal.

The left must be conscious that the process of building a new country, an inclusive Republic, is a long process that involves a change in hegemonies, as well as transformations in the “macro” but also in the “micro.” Municipalism is a fertile terrain for those transformations, for the construction of sovereignties, that can be the basis for the construction of Sovereignty as a country. Food sovereignties, energy sovereignties, residential sovereignties, health sovereignties, cultural sovereignties, productive sovereignties, reproductive sovereignties, etc. that can develop in the municipal environment without awaiting the winning of full Sovereignty nationally. So I do not share the hypothesis of some that without an effective Catalan Republic there can be no advance in transformation at the level of municipal government. There is some latitude, and I think that making the exploitation of that latitude await the unlikely achievement of the Republic in the short term is a strategic error.

We have to promote the idea that municipal action is the basis on which to build a new model relationship with the territory and between the territories. And for that we must leave some room for this construction of sovereignties to break independently from the path, rhythm and road map taken by the national process. A strategy that is favourable to the view that sovereignties can emerge as well in municipal governments that are not pro-independence. It seems obvious to me that the coalition between the Commons, ERC and the CUP in cities like Barcelona can generate spaces of transformation that are much stronger than an independentist coalition with the PdeCat. Putting independentism at the center of the next municipal elections would radically break with this transformative potential.

4. Guarantee the Constituent Process

Quim Torra emphasized in his investiture speeches the proposal to move ahead with a Constituent Process that culminates in the drafting of a new Catalan constitution. In this respect, Carles Riera has warned that “a Constituent Process cannot be a workshop for bumper stickers.” How the Constituent Process develops and what it will end up being will have to be one of the lefts’ concerns, not only in the institutions (and this is not simply a concern of the CUP) but also in the social movements, including those that do not share the preference for independence. The potential for a change of hegemonies through a Constituent Process should not be disdained by anyone who is fighting for a transformation and for social, political and economic justice.

From the standpoint of the social movements and left political forces we cannot spoil the possibility of carrying out a Constituent Process that actually allows us to debate everything, to change everything. In this sense, the new republican, self-organized reality that has appeared since October 1 around the CDRs and other spaces with a local base, should form part of the matrix of the Constituent Process. A process that we want to be led from below by the people, distributed throughout the territory, in a non-exclusive way with the democratic guarantee of equality for everyone. This means that the “lobbies” represented by academic experts cannot take precedence over citizenship. And that no one can be excluded from citizenship. Immigrants (with or without papers) have to able to be part of the process, with voice and vote. Adults but also young people and children. No one can be excluded because of his or her origin, culture, religion, age, gender or political alignment. If we want to make a country for everyone, we have to look to everyone to make it.

The Constituent Process will no doubt also be the focus of the state’s repressive violence. Faced with this obvious risk, the self-organized people will be predisposed to defend the process, as we defended the ballot boxes on October 1. It is more than a defense of the institutional process as proposed by the Government or Parliament. We will have to be prepared to defend the underlying process, which enables us to advance in the construction of new material aspects, those that make the Republic possible. And we have to be conscious that for a process with these characteristics the worst partners are the over-hasty. We are looking to the future with broadmindedness and we are dealing with a Constituent Process with guarantees, which is another way of saying that we must take the necessary time.

5. Making the Republic without undue haste

For many of us, the Republic is not simply a legal form, the constitution of new borders. The Republic is not built law by law, but by making a reality of republican spaces and materialities. The Republic is not a state but a process of transformation that results in a new, and better, country. A long process that, once again, needs time in which to build the Republic carefully, for ourselves and for the territory. To form a WE that includes the convinced, but also those who are not, takes time. To deploy and reaffirm sovereignties takes time. To construct not only a new country but a better country in which full sovereignty is exercised, from below, takes a lot of time.

Let us give ourselves that time, with strategies that are far-sighted and with infinite patience, so that the process of building the Republic can effectively put life, care and social justice at the center. This is the biggest challenge we confront on the left if we do not want to deny the fact that making the Republic means generating a genuinely emancipative process and that the results will be a country of social justice. The overhasty may be able to ensure that the new country arrives earlier (although there is no guarantee of that), but it will not be the country that we want. Let us give ourselves not only enough space but also time to meet, think, organize and build — together — the Republic.

May 17, 2018

Spanish translation from Catalan: Àngels Varó Peral


[1] http://lifeonleft.blogspot.com/2018/05/racist-catalan-president-vows-to-build.html.

[2] http://links.org.au/spain-how-why-mariano-rajoy-fell.

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article44616.

[5] http://links.org.au/spain-how-why-mariano-rajoy-fell.

[6] See, for example, http://lifeonleft.blogspot.com/2017/12/quebec-solidaire-clarifies-its-support.html.

[7] http://www.vientosur.info/spip.php?article13848.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

‘Racist’ Catalan president vows to build republic as Spain vetoes ministers

I post below, with thanks, two articles by Barcelona-based correspondent Dick Nichols that were first published in Links, International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Nichols reports on recent developments in the Catalan struggle for national self-determination, and assesses the ideology of the newly installed prime minister Quim Torra. Highly recommended reading for socialists in Quebec and Canada, in particular, seeking to understand the politics of a certain conservative nationalism that is prevalent in movements for independence led by pro-capitalist political parties.

Richard Fidler

Quim Torra at Catalonia investiture

Quim Torra takes office as Catalan’s new president. The yellow ribbons on seats behind him represent jailed MPs prohibited by Spanish courts from attending to their parliamentary duties.

‘Racist’ Catalan president vows to build republic as Spain vetoes ministers

By Dick Nichols

May 24, 2018 —  On May 14, 199 days after the Catalan pro-independence bloc re-won a majority at the December 21 elections imposed by the Spanish government, the parliament of Catalonia finally voted in a new president. Quim Torra, MP for Together For Catalonia (JxCat) — headed by exiled outgoing president Carles Puigdemont — was invested as head of government by 66 votes to 65 with four abstentions. On the first round of the investiture, held on May 12, the same vote was inadequate because an absolute majority of 68 was required.

The votes in favour came from JxCat and its ally in government, the centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC). Seven of the votes were delegated by jailed and exiled MPs. The votes against were those of the new right, militantly Spanish-patriotic Citizens, the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), Catalonia Together-Podemos (CatECP) and the Catalan branch of the People’s Party (PP), which rules in the Spanish state.

The four abstentions came from the anti-capitalist pro-independence People’s Unity List (CUP), which in this way guaranteed the relative majority needed for Torra to be invested on the second round. At the same time, the CUP announced that it would be going into opposition against a government whose commitment to “disobedience” and “unfolding the Republic” it doubts.

The day before, the CUP’s National Political Council (CPN), meeting at the request of three of the anti-capitalist force’s 13 territorial assemblies, voted 40 to 24 to facilitate Torra’s accession. A second vote on how to do this — via support or abstention — was 59 for abstention and three for support. This decision reaffirmed the CUP’s position of abstaining on the investiture of any JxCat candidate other than Puigdemont.

Two other potential obstacles to the investiture had previously been overcome. First, the Spanish PP government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had decided not to appeal against the decision of the Catalan parliament’s speakership panel to allow the delegation of the votes of Puigdemont and exiled health minister Toni Comín. Citizens and the Catalan PP appealed this decision to the Constitutional Court, but it ruled against provisional suspension of this right while their appeals were being heard.

As the court usually suspends the application of laws and regulations when the Spanish government is the appellant, the Rajoy government’s decision not to appeal was attacked by Citizens’ leader Albert Rivera as showing “latitude towards the coup-mongers” because it allowed the pro-independence forces to keep their majority in the Catalan parliament.

Secondly, the membership of the small pro-independence party Democrats, descended from the now defunct and once-ruling Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC) and part of the ERC caucus, had voted 88% in favour of backing the investiture of Torra.

A win for ‘the law’?

On the surface, the investiture of Quim Torra could be interpreted as a win for the Spanish government. It successfully prevented the investiture of “people facing criminal charges”, Puigdemont and then JxCat’s two replacement candidates — first jailed former Catalan National Congress president Pedro Sánchez and then minister of state and government spokesperson Jordi Turull.

However, after the last two hundred days of vain judicial and political efforts to tame the Catalan movement the political balance is tilting increasingly against Madrid and the political cost of such “wins” keeps growing. At the same time, Spain’s main pro-unionist (“constitutionalist”) parties are engaged in a three-way war to prove who is the toughest and most reliable defender of Spanish unity against the “secessionist threat”.

Winning so far is Citizens, which began life as a “social democratic” party opposed to having Catalan as the language of instruction in the local school system. Since then, it has developed neo-liberal positions on nearly all other issues and attacks the Rajoy government for being too complacent, conciliationist and slow in its reactions to the Catalan rebellion.

The latest Metroscopia poll, published in El País on May 13, gives Citizens 29.1% support, followed by Unidos Podemos and the progressive coalitions forces aligned to it (19.8%), the collapsing PP (19.5%) and the PSOE (19%). If this tendency continues it could well mark the decline and fall of the parties of the 1975-82 transition from the Franco dictatorship, and set up the next Spanish election as a battle between the Spanish chauvinism of Citizens and Unidos Podemos’s plurinational conception of the Spanish state.

An important battle lost for the Rajoy government was the April 5 ruling of the Higher Regional court of the German state Schleswig-Holstein not to implement the European arrest warrant for “rebellion” issued against Puigdemont by Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena. This decision not only put the legal argumentation of Llarena in the spotlight: it also exposed before a broader European audience the Rajoy government’s basic method for dealing with the Catalan crisis — to treat it as a police matter to be processed by a compliant Spanish legal system.

The tactics of JxCat are aimed at increasing that exposure. By proposing first Sánchez and then Turull as substitute presidential candidates for Puigdemont, the lead pro-independence force compelled judge Llarena to produce two bizarre rulings. The first prevented Sánchez from being allowed to leave jail to appear before the parliament (despite a clear precedent to the contrary in the Basque parliament); the second returned Turull to jail to prevent his election.

When the Catalan parliament next passed an amendment to the investiture law that would have allowed Puigdemont to be invested in absentia, the Rajoy government appealed to the Constitutional Court, which provisionally suspended it. Editor, journalist and business lawyer Quim Torra, chosen by Puigdemont, then became JxCat’s fourth candidate, with the goal of his investiture being held before May 22, the day on which new elections would have had to be called.

Torra: ‘xenophobic, racist and supremacist’?

Who, then, is Quim Torra, Catalonia’s 131st president (and tenth of the modern era)? Inés Arrimades, leader of the opposition and head of Citizens in the Catalan parliament, gave her opinion on May 14: “We have before us at the head of the Catalan government a person whose ideology is perfectly clear from his articles: an ideology that defends xenophobia, that defends an exclusionary identity, defends populism.” Arrimades quoted from a 2012 piece from Torra called “The Language and the Beasts”, in which he said:

“You look at your country now and you see the beasts talking, but they are of another kind, scavengers, vipers, hyenas, beasts in human shape that drool hatred … against everything that the language, the Catalan language, represents … [T]hey recoil from everything that is not Spanish and in Castilian.”

Arrimades quoted another line from Torra: “Our nation is threatened by the avalanche of immigration with being dissolved like a sugar cube in a glass of milk.”

Barcelona mayor Ada Colau had previously commented on Facebook:

“For me and millions of people it is important to know if someone who is standing as a candidate for the presidency thinks that there are first and second class Catalans according to where they were born or what language they speak.”

In the first investiture session (May 12) Xavier Domènech, leader of Catalonia Together-Podemos (CatECP), asked Torra: “In Catalonia today around 70% of the population feels Spanish with greater or lesser intensity. What do you think today about ‘the Spanish’? “Torra apologised if his comments had caused offence, but did not answer Domènech’s question.

On May 14, Torra repeated his apology and this time added a further comment:

“What I want [the Catalan Republic] is what I want for everyone, the freedom I want for my own people I want for all peoples. And for the Spanish people and for the Catalan people, freedom has the name of republic, Catalan Republic and Spanish Republic.”

That will not be enough, however. When taken out of context and conveniently edited, Torra’s effusions from before he was elected on the Together for Catalonia (JxCat) ticket provide good ammunition for the parties of the Spanish establishment, intent on denying the Catalan right to self-determination and to keeping the incoming Catalan government on the shortest possible leash.

On May 15, after meeting with prime minister Rajoy to agree a joint approach to the ongoing Catalan rebellion (including maintaining control of Catalan government finances), Pedro Sánchez, leader of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), announced this last point in a joint PP-PSOE five-point plan to confront the ongoing Catalan challenge:

“To make known abroad, especially in European institutions and society, that the xenophobic and supremacist writings of President Torra in no way represent the values and principles of Catalan society and are contrary to the European values defended by all European Union member states.”

By May 18, speaking in Extremadura, Sánchez, described Torra as “the Le Pen of Spanish politics”.

“The tweets, the declarations and the reflections of Mr Torra have scandalised European public opinion. It is profoundly disturbed on learning that xenophobia has taken charge of and established control of the independence movement in Catalonia…

“What we are seeing in Europe is the rise of reactionary, populist and xenophobic movements. And in Spain this has taken the form of this reactionary movement in Catalonia…

“As a result Mr Torra should understand that the left of government [i.e. us in the PSOE, not Unidos Podemos] will stand up to his thinking and his policies. The left defends equality of rights and freedoms, and the PSOE is going to defend the rights and freedoms of Catalan society.”

On May 21, Sánchez went even further down this road, calling Torra a “racist”, demanding that the new Spanish law on equality of treatment that the PSOE is involved in elaborating be able to be used to sanction the “xenophobic”, “racist” and “supremacist” actions of the Catalan president.

He also flagged that the PSOE could give support to an extended application of the Spanish government’s article 155 takeover of the Catalan government, a not-so-veiled threat to bring Catalan public media and education under central government control.

Spanish unionism’s manipulation of anti-racist sentiment against the Torra government has been so blatant that SOSRacism Catalonia felt compelled to issue a statement about it on May 18. This declaration clarified a previous May 15 statement which could have been read as implicitly supporting unionist charges of racism against Torra and which “has led to some confusion and manipulation”. The May 18 statement said:

“First of all, we wanted to stop the manipulation of the anti-racist struggle. Using the concept of racism to refer to this type of action banalises racism and trivialises the suffering of its actual victims. We believe that in various circles the concept of racism has been misused in the controversy around the current President in the same way that other circles misuse it to refer to attacks against Catalan citizens. And this misuse of the concept, wherever it comes from, weakens and undermines the anti-racist struggle that we social movements, collectives and associations have been carrying out every day for many years.”

The declaration added:

“The controversial messages of Mr Quim Torra...we consider are not racist, but we consider that this is a dangerous, irresponsible and unacceptable narrative, which other politicians also use. Talking about ‘the Spaniards’ as well as talking about ‘the Catalans’ as homogenous and counterposed groups represents an excessive simplification of a much more complex, diverse and rich reality.”

Ongoing collision

Of course, the problem for the Rajoy government and the “155 bloc” is not Torra’s intellectual positions, rather typical of conservative Catalan nationalism, but his program for government and his refusal — continuing the approach of his predecessor Puigdemont — to accept the legitimacy of any impositions from the Spanish government that flout the December 21 election result. In the May 12 parliamentary session he outlined three essential points:

“First, our president is Carles Puigdemont. Second, we will be loyal to the mandate of the referendum of self-determination of October 1: to build an independent state in the form of a republic. Third, our program of government is the economic prosperity and social cohesion of Catalonia.”

This project will be unfolded in three different political arenas: in the “free space of Europe”, where the Council of the Republic will promote the Catalan case internationally; within Catalonia’s institutions (the parliament, local councils and a new body of elected representatives); and via citizen involvement in the process of developing a constitution for the Catalan Republic.

Torra also committed to reintroducing into the Catalan parliament sixteen laws adopted in the previous legislature — covering such areas as climate change and guaranteed minimum income — that have been held up by Spanish government appeals to the Constitutional Court. He also stated that all public servants who had been fired during the Spanish government takeover of Catalan administration would be reappointed.

A new round of conflict between the Catalan movement and government and the Spanish state is now inevitable, with clashes certain over the planned constituent process, the creation of the Council of the Republic (an illegal “parallel body” according to Madrid) and the ongoing central state monitoring of Catalan government finances.

On May 19, Torra named his cabinet and included in it two existing ministers presently in jail (Jordi Turull and Josep Rull) and two ministers presently in exile (Lluís Puig and Toni Comín), demanding that they be allowed to attend the swearing-in session. The Rajoy government immediately denounced this as a “provocation”, and responded with a declaration that article 155 could be extended and broadened if the new Catalan administration didn’t see sense.

The Spanish establishment’s problems with recalcitrant European courts also continues. On May 16, two days after Torra’s investiture, it suffered a further serious setback when the Belgian courts, after consideration of the European warrant for the extradition of Toni Comín and former ministers Meritxell Serret (agriculture) and Lluís Puig (culture), declined to send them back to Spain because that warrant was not backed by an equivalent, underpinning, Spanish warrant.

The Belgian prosecutors had informed Llarena of the need for a Spanish arrest warrant on which the European warrant could be based but he declined — out of ignorance, arrogance or laziness — to correct the defective procedure, leading to the exceptional scene in the Brussels court of the Belgianprosecutors demanding that the European arrest warrant be declined. The substantive issues — whether Comín, Serret and Puig had a case to answer for as regards “rebellion” and “misuse of public moneys” — didn’t even get discussed.

Next, on May 22, the Higher Regional court of Schleswig-Holstein refused to change its April 5 decision to free Puigdemont provisionally, rejecting a Spanish Supreme Court request that he be held in custody on the grounds of “risk of flight.”

All these conflicts will finally make it impossible for the European Commission to continue pretending that Catalonia is an internal Spanish issue, as effectively conceded on by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker after being exposed to a heated debate on Catalan rights in the Flemish parliament on May 9.

Any number of scenarios is possible, but one stands out as more probable than the rest: that, in the face of repeated blocking of Catalan government initiatives, the Torra administration goes to an early election with a view to making the Spanish state’s creeping crisis even deeper.

* * *

Quim Torra

The conservative Catalan nationalism of Quim Torra

By Dick Nichols

May 24, 2018 — Is new Catalan president Quim Torra just another right-wing xenophobe, as claimed by Pedro Sánchez, 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 or Galician) specificity simply represents a menace. This is the reason the history of these three national collectives has been one of fighting to maintain their 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, 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,[1] 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 is 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 conservative 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.

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.


[1] Although the metaphor (the sugar cube in the glass of milk) is the same as in the quotation cited by the Citizens leader in the previous article, Nichols informs me that these quotations are taken from different articles by Quim Torra. – RF