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Remembering Catalonia, Part II: The Business of Betrayal by Carlos Perona Calvete

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Remembering Catalonia
Part II: The Business of Betrayal

The Catalan flag flies over the city of Barcelona.

Photo: Mike McBey, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Having addressed the principal linchpins of separatism’s false memories (Jaume I, 1640, 1714, etc.), we may begin to address the issue of fading eminence, that is, the economic motivation for the regional bourgeoisie to begin toying with the idea of secession. For them, retaining Cuba was important because of Catalonia’s privileged position with regards to exploiting overseas resources, including the slave trade. Wealthy Catalans had enabled the anti-abolitionist movement to secure a stronghold in their region (Saint Antoni Maria Claret i Clarà once accused his fellow Catalans of being the worst slave-owners in Spanish America). 

Indeed, Catalan business had benefited immensely from Spanish imperial policy. The Royal Barcelona Trading Company, founded in 1755, was granted a monopoly on goods from certain overseas territories, where it was exempt from paying taxes (the Bacardi family, of Bacardi Rum, are a good example of the Cuban-Catalan connection). Similarly, the Bonaplata factory, which was the first to use steam powered machines, was also set up in Catalonia with the Spanish government’s financing.

Charles III of Spain extended these privileges further. As textiles were developing in Catalonia, he closed the Spanish market to foreign cotton in 1771. All of Spain, and much of Spanish America, became a captive market for Catalan cotton. Professor Gabriel Tortella and colleagues calculated that the excess cost incurred by the Spanish citizenry (including Catalans) during the 19th century alone on account of these policies amounted, on the lower end of their estimate, to €510,720 million in modern terms. Of course, Spain’s protectionism caused other countries to reciprocate, which resulted in the impoverishment of regions like Valencia that relied on exporting their agricultural products outside of Spain. 

Catalonia was not the only region to receive such help, but it was the principal beneficiary, along with Vizcaya in the Basque Country. This lasted throughout the 19th century. These policies were partly motivated by the fact that, bordering a large, developed, receptive market—France—and being compact enough to have urban centers close to that border, it was assumed that developing strong industry in Catalonia would make for easy exportation later on. Once a sufficiently wealthy base of regional business owners had been created, however, their lobbying served to perpetuate this state of affairs beyond the bounds of what might be regarded as a reasonable (if misguided) economic strategy. 

But with the 1898 independence of Cuba and the Philippines, the economic situation would necessarily change, and the prospect of Catalonia’s fading eminence began to rear its head. Following these losses, business representatives began turning towards regionalism and, eventually, separatism. Politicians like Guillermo Graell, who had been a fervent defender of Spain retaining competences and not implementing decentralizing measures for its overseas territories, suddenly became proponents of decentralization and of granting more fiscal competences for regional authorities. To put the issue succinctly: entrenched interests in Catalonia now stood to benefit from gaining control of the economic benefits accrued over the previous century and a half, rather than ensuring that the Spanish state remain strong enough to acquire those benefits in the first place (with the loss of the empire, that ship had now sailed).

During a parliamentary session, Mateo Sagasta, who served as Prime Minister of Spain eight times in the late 1800s, once remarked that those Catalan representatives complaining about the structure of the Spanish state belonged to the same class that had lobbied for, and benefitted from, that structure. He also pointed out that many of the dysfunctions of the state, including its asymmetries, had precisely resulted from its having catered to them excessively. Crucially, none of this is to discount Catalan industriousness, or failures on the part of Spain’s political class—but things must be understood in their historical context. 

1898 is therefore a pivotal year for understanding the “business case” for Catalan bourgeois support for separatism. It is important to note, however, that supporting separatism is not the same thing as supporting actual separation. Separatism serves as a bargaining chip to continue to gain concessions from the state, whereas real independence is fraught with uncertainty. 

The Spanish civil war is, like 1714, often characterized as a conflict between Spain and Catalonia, in stark disregard for the preponderance of historical evidence. Here again, it should be remembered that Catalan society was split, and that thousands of Catalans fought on the nationalist side. One particularly famous example is that of the Tercios de Montserrat, with whom we began Part I. The Carlistas were Catholic traditionalists, monarchists, and Spanish patriots. In addition, one of Franco’s principal funders would be a Catalan and, indeed, a ‘regionalist’: Francesc Cambó, who headed the “Lliga Regionalista.” Cambó’s support for the nationalists is emblematic of the loyalty shown to the new regime by much of Catalonia, and Franco’s government would include plenty of Catalans in positions of authority. 

It is often argued that the Catalan language was prohibited under the dictator. In reality, with the exception of a few years at the beginning of the forty-four-year-long regime, Catalan was not only not prohibited, but was actively cultivated, as were other regional languages. From music festivals to literature competitions, cultural output in Catalan was made prominent by state media. We may refer to the Catalan Se’n va anar by Salomé and Raimon, which won the 1963 Cancion Mediterranea contest, and the Gran Premi del Disc Català awards, founded in 1965, but examples abound, and are amply documented by Jesus Lainz in his Fraude (specifically, in the endnotes of its 7th chapter).

When democracy finally came to Spain in the 20th century, a referendum was held, which resulted in the current Spanish Constitution being approved by over 90% of Catalonia’s voters. Neither was there any great territorial disparity in this regard, with all four of the region’s provinces approving the constitution by rates in excess of 90%.

As has been suggested, separatism, whether earnest or not, strengthens the hand of local elites when negotiating with the national state. This was the case when, after Franco’s death, Catalonia was given a special statute thanks to which its regional government concentrates more competences than those of any other Spanish region except the Basque Country. 

These competences include defining its public-school curriculum. Given that the electoral map is gerrymandered in such a way as to increase the representation of separatist parties, they have, among other things, come to control what children learn in public schools, as well as public access television. Indeed, currently, the Spanish government, which governs with separatists, has earmarked a massive share of the European recovery fund for this region. 

The past few decades, therefore, have been characterized by the forward march of separatism. Present-day official Catalan culture (that is, what gets promoted by public institutions), is largely the result of recent separatist and quasi-separatist thinkers. Pompeu Fabra, the engineer and grammarian responsible for defining modern Catalan orthography in the 1890s, wrote of “identifying catillianisms” and “purifying the language” that would serve a future state, for “a language that imitates another cannot be as beautiful as that other. We must exaggerate differentiating elements.” The L’Avenc magazine, to which Fabra contributed, proposed using eastern Catalan dialects over western ones, and the 1913 orthographic rules published by the philology section of the Institut d’Estudis Catalans maintains that “orthographic norms” should be arrived at such that these “provide a nationally acceptable solution.” In the early part of the twentieth century, the Catalan language’s diversity was to be effaced in favor of phonetics and terminology that might most contrast with Castilian, a similar situation to that of modern Basque, which has largely replaced traditional Basque dialects. 

Similarly, in his work, the 20th century writer Joan Fuster pushed for using the term Paisos Catalans (“Catalan Countries”), his own neologism, in such a way as to gradually insinuate it into Valencia and the Balearic Islands, which have never been part of Catalonia, and have never been described as such before this wholesale innovation. Thus, cultural homogenization is to accompany territorial annexation.

The idea that Valencia is Catalonian, for example, is a completely modern, historically and socially indefensible pretension that reveals an utter lack of consistency in the separatist narrative, since whatever standards are used to justify a greater Catalonia cannot but also justify, with far more force, Catalonia’s belonging in Spain. And yet, if we simply accept the medieval prevalence of the concept of Spain, we will find that, under its auspices, Catalonia did indeed serve as a mother matrix, so to speak, for the repopulation of many territories taken from the Moors. Until the 16th century, Catalan was even spoken in parts of Murcia, to which effect Ramón Muntaner commented in his Chronicle that the most beautiful Catalan he had heard spoken belonged to that southern region (this kinship contrasts with the disdain with which separatists often viewed Murcian immigrants during the twentieth century).

In any case, the drive towards linguistic uniformity represents a gross violation of the rights of Castilian-speaking Catalans, as well as of Catalan history. This region, after all, has never been monolingual. Between the 8th and 11th centuries, Mozarab (the romance language of Christians who had lived under Islamic domination) was spoken in southern Catalonia, and Castilian has always been common in parts. Anecdotally—but also symbolically—it is interesting to refer to Jaume II’s 13th and 14th century correspondence: to his son he wrote in Catalan, to the Archbishop of Toledo in Latin, and to his daughters in Castilian.

Separatism’s character as a “class-project” is highlighted by the rampant corruption of its political leadership as well as the general disregard for how it affects the general population. In this regard, the clearest example is the so-called 3% case, involving an illegal commission of 3% on public works charged by Convergencia i Unio, a political party whose leader, Jordi Pujol, served as President of the Catalan regional government from 1980 to 2003. 

During the 2000s, prominent elements of the political class shifted from using separatism as a lobbying instrument to pursuing real independence, culminating in the so-called “procés,” a concerted push to establish an independent Catalan state, beginning in 2012, (albeit this initiative seems to have exhausted itself for now). This has sometimes been identified as Pujol’s revenge for his legal troubles (like an individual version of the historic shift towards separatism in response to a potential loss of economic clout). 

There are, however, less domestic causes at play, namely what we have called the force of mimesis and foreign money. Foreign money is self-explanatory. As for the force of mimesis, this refers to the effects of a foreign agent’s “soft-power” or cultural attraction, which can be deliberately deployed in order to destabilize a geopolitical rival. The idea is essentially that political and regional factions within a country can be encouraged to subvert its institutions if they come to identify with a foreign world order which they see as more prestigious or progressive. By degrading a country’s image in the eyes of its own citizens, especially when its power is waning, foreign powers can destabilize a rival and domestic revolutionaries advocating for a break from the past can gain adherents. René Girard’s model of mimetic desire will be helpful in this context. 

Both the force of mimesis and foreign money are relevant to the recent procés as well as to separatism in the wider European theater beyond Catalonia, and, in particular, serve to emphasize secessionism’s role in global power politics. We will discuss these factors in a forthcoming essay.

Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.


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