Diverging Separatisms

By Benito Arruñada and Albert Satorra. Adapted translation of “Separatismos divergentes,” El País, May 17, 2018, p. 14.


The outcome of the pro-independence procès has reopened the historical fracture in the separatist movement. The disagreements among its leaders are nothing compared to the increasing gap between its voters.

According to the barometer of the CEO, the public-opinion agency run by the Catalan government, between July 2017 and April 2018, a change was seen in the preferences for independence of those who intended to vote for self-proclaimed ‘separatist’ parties.

On the one hand, support for independence among ERC (Catalan Republican Left) voters dropped from 95.2% to 86.1%. Simultaneously, support for independence among voters for the right-wing party rose from 83.5% who intended in July 2017 to vote for the PDeCat (formerly, “Convergència”), to 95.9% who now favor JuntsxCat (“Together for Catalonia”), the platform led by Mr. Puigdemont, the ousted regional prime minister now fleeing justice.

If we add the drop in support for independence in ERC (9.1%) to the rise in the former Convergència (12.4%), we see a change of 21.5 points in the matter that the separatist movement has determined is key in Catalonian politics.

This figure ties in with the debate going on within the independence movement and, more importantly, with the behavior of its leaders.

So, what caused the change? The most reasonable hypothesis is that the interests of the members of both groups were, and are, different. Also, the outcome of the procès has indicated to many of them where their real interests lie.

The leftish ERC voters started to realize that they had more to lose and less to win. On the one hand, they are poorer and therefore are more affected by the vicissitudes of the market. For example, among them there are more pensioners, self-employed workers and workers with temporary contracts. It seems only reasonable for the rich districts of Barcelona to vote much more for JuntsxCat than for the ERC, the opposite of the poorer districts: for each ERC vote, there are 3.5 votes for JuntsxCat in the well-off neighborhood of Pedralbes and just half a vote in the working-class district of Ciudad Meridiana.

This means that the ERC voters are more sensitive to increased risk. If they are tied to the local environment because of poor education and especially if they find it difficult to reach the end of the month, they may well turn to a more conservative party. At least they are more likely to do so than the cosmopolitan who chooses where to work and has never found it difficult to put bread on the table.

But the ERC voters also have much less to gain. Behind the claims of unity lies the 21st-century version of the eternal struggle in rural Catalonia between the poor left-wing workers from the cooperative and the well-off in the village social club many of whom fawned on Jordi Pujol, the Catalan-nationalist prime minister of the Catalan government from 1980 to 2003, in the same spirit as they formerly served as mayors under Franco.

To update this old Catalonian sociological picture, all we need to do is swap the former social club for the luxury residential estates that on 21-D voted en masse for Mr. Puigdemont. We can also swap the cooperative for the wage-earning employment of the average ERC voter and add to it, above all, the schooling they received, which drastically limited their professional opportunities because they were not taught the Spanish language. (In Catalonia, over recent decades, public schools have been controlled by the regional government and teach in Spanish for only two hours a week, even for young children who speak Spanish at home, a policy known as “linguistic immersion”). This shortcoming condemns them to work in the local market, often at the service of the new moneyed class who, ironically, were educated in multilingual classrooms where linguistic immersion was never adopted and Spanish was taught regularly.

Updating this old Catalonian sociological scenario also requires understanding what has happened with self-government and the procès.

We surmise that since the 1980s, the ERC voters have enjoyed little more than a psychological delusion of self-government. The linguistic immersion and sectarianism of the extensive media outfits directly controlled by the Catalan regional government (including TV3, which operates five TV channels, and many radio stations), plus the media that are indirectly controlled through subsidies (practically all important Catalan newspapers, radios and TV stations) perhaps allowed them to feel superior to the ‘new’ Catalans, most of them descendants of Spaniards who had migrated to Catalonia during the 20th century. But, if we consider the material benefits of self-government, they were gained to a lesser degree by the ERC people.

No comparison with the benefits of those who, under the wing of the Catalan regional government, were able to fashion in their own interests pseudo-entrepreneurial and pseudo-public networks, gaining— and still retaining—control of them.

The procès was another maneuver by the post-modern well-to-do to retain power. Faced by the economic crisis and the resulting irritation among society with corruption, they took the lead in the separatist movement, giving it the brain and the style it lacked. And, for this purpose, they received the self-interested assistance of those intellectuals (many of them former Communists) who, as in Eastern European countries, were ready to adapt in order to rationalize a new fantasy.

The maneuver did not fail. Since they were in charge of the budget cutbacks, they focused them on public health and education, services that the elite does not use and whose deterioration converted many users into the foot soldiers of the procès. Meanwhile, there were hardly any cutbacks in the rent-seeking apparatus or in the privileges for the top-ranking nationalist ‘clerisy’. After ten years of crisis plus the brief enforcement of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution suspending home rule, no less, the TV3 group continues to employ about 3,000 people at wages that are often double those of its competition. And, even at the peak of the crisis, the Catalan regional governments wasted fortunes on two colossal follies, trying to build a Catalan airline (Spanair) and cheating on a huge and probably corruption-driven water-service contract (ATLL).

It is therefore good to see the ERC leaders moderating their methods and their aims. The political debate at their forthcoming conference starting on 30 June proposes rejection of the unilateral path and affirms that the independence movement “is not powerful enough” to build the Catalan republic. They are beginning to understand that, on the path towards a republic, it is the grass roots that have made, are making and would make the greatest sacrifices. Meanwhile, with power or without it, it is always others who benefit.

For this same reason, the well-to-do and the intelligentsia who today support the right-wing JuntsxCat are still making the same claims or even upping the ante. Not only do they have a safety net. The fact is, they do not really want independence, which they (unlike many ERC voters) know would be impossible and ruinous. What they are sure about is that their services will be required to govern and watch over any “third tracks” that will allow them, with the acquiescence of their Spanish counterparts, to continue exploiting local workers, including pro-independence workers.

Benito Arruñada and Albert Satorra, respectively, are Professors of Business Organization and Statistics at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

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