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Luke Stobart is currently writing a book for Verso on recent challenges to the status quo in the Spanish state.


Luke Stobart is currently writing a book for Verso on recent challenges to the status quo in the Spanish state.

The state vs people power in Catalonia

Spain mobilized the whole of its criminal justice system to stop the Catalan referendum on 1 October, but the vote still went ahead.

Crucial to this outcome were the neighbourhood residents that occupied polling stations across the territory and prevented thousands of police from closing the buildings. The occupations had been organized in people’s assemblies, which initially were called ‘Committees for the Defence of the Referendum’ (CDRs) but were renamed – after a declaration of independence was made later that month – to replace ‘Referendum’ with ‘Republic’. Ever since, the committees have led the resistance to the state crackdown in Catalonia.

In October the Catalan government institutions were taken over by Madrid, and pro-independence leaders were imprisoned or went into exile – as was repeated this spring.

The liberal political leaders of the movement were overtaken by events when impromptu general strikes were held and large firms moved their headquarters outside Catalonia

The liberal political leaders of the movement have admitted not expecting such an authoritarian response – or that the EU would allow it. They were overtaken by events when impromptu general strikes were held and large firms moved their headquarters outside Catalonia. Since then, the two big pro-independence parties, Together for Catalonia and the Catalan Republican Left have backtracked from implementing the declared republic – for instance halting the creation of laws to form state structures such as a treasury. This is the case despite Puigdemont having continued arm-wrestling the courts over their veto of him continuing as president.

The retreats by the two parties have had a knock-on effect on the willingness to fight of the two main pro-independence civil organizations: the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), and Òmnium Cultural.

Meanwhile the CDRs led a second ‘general strike’ – on 8th November – in which they, peacefully, paralysed road and public-transport systems. This active disobedience contrasted with the more defensive rallies – outside town halls – held by the ‘official’ national movement that day. The grassroots committees also perform decentralized actions – including raising the toll barriers on Catalonia’s private motorways to make them free of charge. These are protests for social rights – access to the roads for poorer drivers – as well as for national rights: the Spanish government has for years under-invested in local transport infrastructure.

CDR assemblies and their communications via the secure Telegram messaging app regularly inform supporters of a range of social-movement activities. All of these interventions put into practice the committees’ goal of moving towards ‘a democratic Republic that is socially just and built from the bottom’. In other words the CDRs are about people power rather than nation. And despite the committees being politically broad, including supporters of the centre-right former president Puigdemont, they have a strong left-wing dynamic.

The broadness of the local defence committees is shown by the variety of their logos
The broadness of the local defence committees is shown by the variety of their logos. Image: CDR Catalunya

Direct action by the CDRs has outraged media and economic elites – including the Catalan employers’ association that unsuccessfully challenged the legality of the November strike.

This spring, after they stopped the Easter traffic to demand the freeing of Catalan prisoners, the state unleashed a counter-offensive. The Civil Guard, a paramilitary police force, produced a list of twenty CDR ‘ring-leaders’ requiring investigation.

Those named included members of almost the whole range of pro-Catalan parties and movements – allowing the state to attack the whole movement through its persecution of the committees. Leading members of the three largest Spanish parties began demonizing the CDRs, describing them as ‘violent commandos and the worst of what we experienced in Basque politics’, in an attempt to link the CDRs to the ETA terror campaign.

After several arrests, Tamara Carrasco, a left-wing CDR activist from Viladecans, was taken to court accused of ‘terrorism’ and ‘rebellion’ – the same charge made against the imprisoned Catalan leaders. There is a twisted logic to this campaign: the state is linking both pro-Catalan moderates and radicals to violence – to prove its claim that the Catalan movement tried to hold an anti-democratic ‘coup’ in October.

Graffiti in Barcelona: ‘Terrorists are those who condemn us to a life of misery, not those who rebel against it! Free Tamara!’
Graffiti in Barcelona: ‘Terrorists are those who condemn us to a life of misery, not those who rebel against it! Free Tamara!’ Photo: Luke Stobart

Such an idea can then be used to justify – internationally and domestically – further repression. The goal is warning off future attempts at secession, or even justifying the permanent loss of Catalan self-government – the obsession of the hard Spanish right.

The fatal flaw in the whole argument is that the Catalan movement – including the CDRs – has only ever practiced peaceful disobedience. This was noted by the German court that recently refused to extradite Puigdement for ‘rebellion’ – a decision that has weakened the Spanish legal strategy.

By arresting mainstream leaders the state managed to – in the words of the Deputy Prime Minister – ‘decapitate’ the moderate movement. Yet replicating this process with the CDRs is made harder by the committees having no formal leaders or spokespeople, and operating through collective working groups.

The CDRs also have other strengths that are worth describing. They are a decentralized network of around 350 local and sectoral committees. They genuinely feel like ‘people’s’ committees – as they include people of mixed age and occupation. Although the committees tend to be mainly Catalan-speaking they have a strong presence in Spanish-speaking working-class areas where local people have been socially marginalized by the pro-Catalan right in government. Lastly, probably because of the coercive conditions the CDRs have always operated under, CDR participants display admirable seriousness, self-discipline and courage. All in all, an impressive movement.

After the CDRs stopped the Easter traffic to demand the freeing of Catalan prisoners, the state unleashed a counter-offensive, producing a list of twenty CDR ‘ring-leaders’ requiring investigation

The CDRs have their weaknesses too. Participation has fallen since October. The radical movement has yet to develop a clear alternative roadmap to the stalled official independence ‘process’. Moreover the legal persecution and fears of substantial police infiltration are encouraging a more secretive way of operating – including wearing hoods at protests and distrusting new participants. Such a response is very understandable but could lead to the movement to become more exclusive and inward-looking.

The Spanish state also may hope that attacks on the CDRs help turn moderates against radicals. When the Supreme Court prevented jailed ANC leader Jordi Sànchez from becoming an alternative president to Puigdemont, the court argued he could not be released into an environment in which CDRs carry out ‘violent altercations’. The new strategic priority of many pro-Catalan moderates is to free their leaders from prison and regain Catalan autonomy and the Spanish judges and government may be trying to turn that desire against the continuation of civil disobedience.

The movement has so far refused to be divided, with Puigdemont and ANC leaders explicitly opposing the siege against the CDRs. And many leftists – including those uninterested in independence – sympathize with the movement that defended the referendum on 1 October. Equally important, the CDRs have not been intimidated: after the arrests of members, attendance at meetings grew and the active disobedience has continued.

But the counter-offensive against them will continue. Hard-line Spanish judges have been playing a central role in running Spanish politics ever since Rajoy decided to ‘judicialize’ the conflict – and they are cheered on by the Spanish-nationalist Ciudadanos party, that is growing in popularity. The Committees for the Defence of the Republic deserve our full solidarity.


Reclaiming the city

‘Do you want water management to be public and involving citizen participation?’ This is one of the questions that Barcelona Town Hall (the city government) intends to ask residents in a citywide ‘multi-referendum’ this month.

Although the referendum is non-binding, the inclusion of this question is being challenged in high court appeals. Resistance is driven by business groups – including the poorly performing subsidiary of the Suez water multinational – which rightly understand that residents will likely choose full public management. Opposition parties and the media have sided with employers in what is predicted to become a ‘water war’.

The dispute shines a light on the processes currently taking place in many localities in Greater Barcelona, the rest of Catalonia and Spain. Large cities in the area have taken back public ownership and control of water (Terrassa) or have started this process (Badalona and Sabadell).

And municipalization – putting services under local control – has taken place of car-towing and parking services in Sabadell, sports facilities in Badalona, and offices for women suffering gender-based violence in Barcelona. More municipalization has been announced, including of funeral services in Barcelona with a view to making them more affordable.

The aim is to place the provision of a service under some degree of democratic control through the participation of city residents. It is an approach led by social movements, such as the ‘Water is Life’ campaign in Barcelona; but also by the municipal platforms and coalitions that took over many Town Halls in 2015 and which themselves emerged from social movements: in particular, the Indignados (15M) square occupations and a housing movement (PAH) that resists evictions by forming human chains around properties threatened by repossession.

Town Halls of Change

To understand the advance of municipalization – and its unevenness – one needs to examine the politics and evolution of these ‘Town Halls of Change’. Here I look at two city experiences: Barcelona (run by the political platform Barcelona en Comú, or Barcelona in Common in English) and adjoining Badalona – Catalonia’s third city (governed by a coalition led by Guanyem Badalona en Comú, GBeC). Both have activist mayors – ex-PAH spokesperson Ada Colau in Barcelona and Dolors Sabater in Badalona – and centre on activist groups, including the pro-independence CUP in Badalona, allied with other leftwing parties, like Podemos.

The 15M occupations of 2011 were organized through mass meetings – their distrust of mainstream politics summed up by their slogan ‘no-one represents us’. Their goal of real democracy (including people’s control of economic decision-making) was seen as achievable at the municipal scale.

Much energy was put into developing ‘ethical codes’ for representatives, which later led to the lowering of salaries for mayors and councillors. Candidates and political priorities were chosen in ‘primaries’ and assemblies – meetings in which participation was not limited to organization members, although Barcelona en Comú (BeC) also held closed meetings of organization representatives.

Arguably, the municipal platforms’ greatest accomplishment has been to actively involve thousands of residents. Large meetings in different neighbourhoods helped BeC produce a remarkably detailed electoral programme, drawing on the normally ignored knowledge and technical expertise of ‘ordinary people’. This democratic approach was one reason for the platform’s historic victory in the 2015 municipal elections – just months after its creation!

In neighbouring Badalona, the new Town Hall arranged a participatory process in which 7,800 people voted on how to spend half of the municipal budget after proposals were made online and discussed in 20 neighbourhood assemblies. Top among their choices were improving educational facilities, sewage systems and street lighting. Each were allocated half a million euros.

Badalona Town Hall arranged a participatory process in which 7,800 people voted on how to spend half of the municipal budget

The Town Halls have taken significant stands against racism. After a historically large protest in Barcelona in February last year demanding solidarity with refugees, the Colau administration led other cities to jointly denounce the low numbers of refugees being accepted by the Spanish state.

Obstacles and disobedience

However, there are also limits to their achievements. Undocumented African migrants forced to survive by street-selling counterfeit goods – suffering police repression as a consequence – believe the Town Hall is failing to fight for them and have set up their own union. In general the city’s social movements welcome the social and political transformations that have taken place but see them as limited.

For sociologist and writer Emmanuel Rodríguez, a ‘politics of gestures’ – such as the call to take in more refugees – has become ‘on too many occasions a substitute for transforming the institutions, which required committing to harder battles’.

The new municipal governments have faced more obstacles than their predecessors. As well as being minority governments and having to reach deals with other parties in order to pass policies, resistance to change has emerged from within the city apparatus. After Colau was elected mayor, municipal police chiefs resigned – sending a warning to the new administration that it should not make policing changes, which is how things have developed.

Badalona Mayor Sabater admits that the functioning of local government ‘straitjackets us… more than we previously imagined’. Her Deputy José Téllez informed me that sometimes council employees, including individuals hired through party connections by previous administrations, had to be prodded by protests in the town square to encourage them to do things differently.

The highest hurdle has been the ‘Montoro Laws’, named after the Treasury Minister who designed them, which oblige local administrations to use financial surpluses to pay off municipal debt, rather than spending them on social improvements. They also prevent councils rehiring privately hired workforces as public employees if a municipalization is implemented, encouraging workers to oppose such a change.

Téllez says Badalona ‘bent’ the law by borrowing new debt at the value of the surplus being paid off. Because this coincided with preparations for the Catalan independence referendum, which the central government tried to repress, Montoro chose not to punish the city and thereby avoided opening up a parallel conflict. Yet once Madrid took direct control of the Catalan institutions in November, it used this power to hold back five million euros owed to Badalona.

For GBeC the incident confirms that the struggle for municipal independence cannot be separated from fighting for a Catalan state. Despite Badalona having a large Spanish-migrant population that identifies little with the goal of an independent Catalan state, the platform has brought the municipal and independence projects together through ‘building the Catalan Republic neighbourhood by neighbourhood’ (in other words creating a new inclusive republic – whether independent or federated to Spain – around making local social and democratic improvements). The Town Hall has taken clear sides in favour of the referendum and against the imprisonment of Catalan ministers and activists, and has suffered legal threats and actions as a result.

Barcelona Town Hall, on the other hand, rejected the referendum’s legitimacy, even if it later called on people to participate. This disappointed many of its supporters who disobeyed Madrid and the police to make the vote happen. Because reclaiming democracy was a central plank in BeC’s platform, the organization has been weakened by its failure to defend the only vote on independence available.

Initiatives such as May’s multi-referendum on returning water to public hands and the momentum to municipalize more services could help BeC inspire the people once again. But both plans have powerful enemies and their success will probably require new acts of disobedience – both inside and outside the institutions. 

Luke Stobart is currently writing a book for Verso on recent challenges to the status quo in the Spanish state (which will be crowdfunded on verkami.com).


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