It’s fitting that George Orwell is the author we reach for first when discussing Catalonia; fitting, too, that a public square in Barcelona bears his name. Not only is Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia the most imperishable English-language account of the Spanish Civil War, the recent actions of the Spanish government to suppress the Catalan secession vote—sending in its police forces while issuing sinister down-the-memory-hole pronouncements: “There was no independence referendum in Catalonia today”—seem lifted from the pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Whatever hopes Spain had of containing secessionist sentiment were squashed last weekend when images emerged from Catalonia of police beating protesters, voters being hurled down flights of stairs, elderly women bleeding, amounting to an injury count of nearly 900 people. Enraged at the brutality, even Catalans who’d been cool to secession headed to the polls. The final result of the referendum, according to officials, was 90 percent in favor of independence but with a turnout rate of only 42 percent. That afforded both sides their talking points, but Catalan separatism emerged as the only real victory, infused with fresh passion, a David with a Goliath.
That’s certainly how it appeared on Tuesday, as a general strike shuttered Catalan public services and businesses, and newspapers brimmed with op-eds by integrationists saying they would oppose independence no longer. A tin-eared intervention by Spain’s King Felipe VI, in which the monarch denounced secessionists but offered little balm for political tensions, went over about as well as you’d expect. And then a cannonball in the water: Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president, announced that his region’s parliament will officially declare independence on Monday. Spain is already embroiled in its most harrowing political crisis since Franco died; there’s no telling how much worse it will get if Puigdemont follows through.
The main culprit here is Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy whose response to the secessionist movement has been both too late and too bloody. Rather than acknowledge the problem months ago, Rajoy behaved as though separatism was such an affront as to render itself illegitimate. But the sentiments behind the separatists proved inextirpable, they won control of the Catalan parliament in 2015, and last weekend’s referendum went ahead as planned. Rajoy reacted punitively only after the voters were out, guaranteeing a visible clash of the most chilling sort, that between armed deputies of the state and civilians trying to exercise their democratic rights.
The best American analogue for Catalan nationalism is the “Calexit” secessionist movement in California—both are breakaways revolting against right-wing governments, both represent breadbaskets of their respective nations. The difference, of course, is that the Catalan separatists are organized, well funded, a formidable political force. And while much has been made of their rapid ascent, too little has been said about the equal and opposite reaction they’ve engendered among Spaniards, who have grown furious over attempts to fracture their country and are increasingly animated by a nationalism of their own. Elected prime minister in 2011 and then again in 2016, Rajoy is in small part a product of this sentiment; he rigidly opposes further autonomy for Catalonia, claiming the Spanish Constitution allows no quarter to rebellious states.
But to get a real sense of the Spanish pushback, you have to shift your gaze outside the parliament, onto the plazas and streets. At a recent protest in Madrid, young demonstrators were spotted thrusting their arms in Hitler-inspired salutes and waving Francoist flags. They sang “Cara al Sol,” the official anthem of the fascist Falange Party. (Hemingway readers will remember that in For Whom the Bell Tolls, Maria, the lover of protagonist Robert Jordan, was raped by Falangists; they were among the most vicious of Franco’s backers during and after the civil war.) Earlier this week, the Scottish journalist George Kerevan documented another march of youths wearing crimson caps, the uniform of the Falange. And mere days after the Charlottesville violence back in August, a clash in Barcelona between Falangists and anti-fascists forced riot police to intervene.
The darkest nodes of the Spanish psyche have thus been activated once again. From the media accounts, at least, a picture of a new Spanish nationalism is starting to fill in: young Spaniards, radicalized by their country’s notoriously high youth unemployment rate, incensed by Catalan secessionism, inspired at their fringes by the virile statism of the Franco years, supportive of centralized power in Madrid over devolution to its localities. The divide inherent in that view—federalist nationalists versus libertarian localists—drills deeper into Spain’s political sediment than do facile notions of conservatism and liberalism. As Antony Beevor writes in his book The Battle for Spain, the Spanish Civil War didn’t so much pit left versus right as “state centralism against regional independence and authoritarianism against the freedom of the individual.” Squint and you’ll catch that axis today, running between Madrid and Barcelona.
That divide doesn’t always align with the political chasms breaking through the rest of the West. Still, there’s no question we are in the midst of a lusty revolt against bigness—big governments, big multinationals, big superstates, big media. With Donald Trump, American voters sought a big weapon of their own to wield against their lumbering institutions. With Brexit, the British removed themselves from the big European Union. Now it’s the Catalans’ turn to exert their identity against a large and remote entity they perceive as empowering itself at their expense, diverging from their values, suppressing their language. Combine those political tides with Spain’s historical emphasis on regional autonomy and this was a crisis that everyone should have seen coming.
Rajoy’s government might have acknowledged the threat and prepared accordingly. It might have found succor in early opinion polls showing pluralities of Catalans in support of remaining in Spain. It might have allowed the referendum to go forward, listened to the Catalan people, and persuaded them to stay, the same strategy that kept Scotland in the United Kingdom and narrowly averted Quebec’s independence from Canada in 1995. It might have smiled knowing that a failed referendum could close the issue for decades. Instead, it validated the secessionists’ claims that Madrid was an authoritarian oppressor. It allowed government policy to seem an extension of those menacing fascists stomping through the streets. It never even tried to answer the question posed by the separatists: Why should Catalonia not be free?
Spain is not “on the brink of CIVIL WAR,” as a couple of Britain’s less phlegmatic newspapers have declared, but it’s certainly hurtling down a very dark trajectory with historical omens on all sides. When two nationalisms inflame each other, the results are rarely good. Let us hope this weekend in Catalonia will be better than the last.
Matt Purple is the managing editor of The American Conservative.