This is the first post in an ongoing series of reports and reflections from abroad by Jeremy Carl. –Eds.
As I type these words, protesters are facing off with police right in front of our apartment. I hear the resounding chants and the wail of sirens. In the distance, from our view on a high floor that shows the full expanse of the city, I observe billows of smoke, mostly from dumpster fires set by protesters to block roads. I am not in an impoverished developing-world dictatorship but in Barcelona, one of the most affluent and touristed cities in the world, a global city one of the E.U.’s major countries.
The events of the past couple of weeks serve as a reminder that even if you think you are running away from politics, in the end, politics always has a way of finding you. When my family arrived in Barcelona two weeks ago, my first feeling was relief. I was finally in a place where I could speak the language reasonably well, having stumbled through our last few destinations with my rudimentary French and Chinese and non-existent German.
Yet speaking Spanish in Barcelona right now feels vaguely imperialist. Barcelona is not just Spain’s second most important city but also the capital of the Catalonia region. Here, just days after we arrived, harsh prison sentences were announced for Catalan Nationalist leaders who held a 2017 independence referendum declared illegal by the Spanish government. Last week, the Spanish courts ordered up to 13 years in prison for each of them. Others have gone into exile.
In Catalonia, public opinion seems fairly evenly split between those who desire independence and those who wish to remain part of Spain, though many of the latter group (up to 80% in some polling) consider the treatment of the Catalan independence leaders to be excessively harsh.
As anyone who has read their Orwell knows, Catalonia has a long tradition of protest and especially left-wing activism. It was one of the last parts of Spain to fall to Francoist forces during the Spanish Civil War. After his victory, Franco did much to tamp down any unique Catalan identity, executing and imprisoning Catalan independence leaders and repressing Catalan culture and language while driving up economic growth. Even in the decades and centuries preceding Franco, Catalan as an identity and nationality distinct from that of Spain would often rear its head.
Pseudo-Events and Real Ennui
I have neither the space nor expertise to dissect all of the ins and outs of the historical relationship between Catalonia and the rest of Spain, of which it has been a part with varying degrees of autonomy and independence since the country’s 15th-century unification. I have no position per se either for or against Catalan independence, nor do I see America’s national interest as particularly implicated in either side of the question. But while I cannot comment authoritatively on the underlying political dispute, there are certain metapolitical elements of the current conflict worth noting.
First, it is hard to square the increasing vociferousness of the Catalan uprisings with the current treatment of Catalonia by the government in Madrid. Since Spain’s 1970’s transition to democracy, Catalan language has received an extensive revival with state support, security forces are largely under local control, and the region has substantial autonomy in areas ranging from tax policy to education. The economy is very strong in comparison to the rest of Spain: arguably, the protestors’ most substantive grievance is that they are economically subsidizing the poorer parts of the country. It seems particularly odd that much of the Catalan independence movement seems eager to embrace the heavy hand of the E.U. while trying to throw off the lighter yoke of Spain. It is also impossible to divorce the resurgent nationalism and secessionism we are seeing in Catalonia from similar efforts in other parts of Europe.
But what is more fascinating is that the Catalan independence movement as a political and media phenomenon has all of the hallmarks of what the American scholar Daniel J. Boorstin referred to as a pseudo-event, one designed and choreographed for the express purpose of attaining publicity that will thus turn it into a “real” event. Few of the many protests that I have observed here seem organic—most of them seem to consist of rallies that are highly scripted for the media, whether attended by young university students or sweet-looking grandmothers from the suburbs who arrive in pre-printed pro-independence T-Shirts. This doesn’t make their cause illegitimate, but it does call into question who the protests are really speaking to.
The events in Barcelona also bring to mind two insights from the gifted writer and polemicist Douglas Murray, whose book The Madness of Crowds I recently reviewed. In both that book and its outstanding predecessor, The Strange Death of Europe, Murray provides the first key insight into what we are seeing in Barcelona—Europeans racing to fill the void left by Christianity with a new “religion” of woke social justice and perpetual protest.
In his recent writings about the London disruptions organized by Extinction Rebellion, or XR, as they style themselves, Murray observes that “the great chasm which the modern democratic world sees scant need to address but which groups like XR provide” is “the ever-present gap of meaning and purpose.”
In societies such as modern Britain, we have means and comforts that our forebears could never have dreamed of. But having achieved them, we don’t know what to do with them, and some people are bored. Bored with their jobs, bored with the lack of struggle, bored with the lack of heroism and purpose that security brings.
Caught between the Scylla of religious and family collapse and the Charybdis of state-mandated political correctness, youth, in particular, are lashing out on more peripheral areas that do not address the real and fundamental issues in their societies.
In Catalonia, the birth rate for Spanish-born women is a catastrophically-low 1.19 children per woman, and even lower for those of Catalan ethnic origin. Immigrants make up 14% of Catalonia’s population, a slightly higher percentage than in the US. While the US has historically and ideologically been accepting of immigrants, Spain has not had a similarly large immigrant population until recently. Almost 60,000 illegal immigrants—a record number—crossed the Mediterranean last year, and more than 7,000 adolescent illegal immigrants from North Africa alone have arrived in Catalonia in a four year period. Police estimate that 18% of these arrivals have been involved in criminal activity. Adjusted to the US population basis, it would be the equivalent of more than 300,000 unaccompanied adolescents showing up at the US border in that same time period.
Because of “hate speech” laws in Spain, it can be dangerous to discuss these issues honestly in public. And, as in the US, discussion of these issues has been declared off-limits by major parties and political elites, thus leading to the rise of right-wing parties such as the populist Vox, expected to become the third largest parliamentary party when elections are held on November 10th. Vox, for those unfamiliar with the party, speaks bluntly about the problems that uncontrolled immigration and the rise of Islam are bringing to Spain.
The direct political import of much of what we are seeing in Barcelona, and London, and various other venues in Europe where the theater of social protest seems to be very much active, is likely, when the circus subsides, to be minor. Whether Catalonia at some point attains independence from Spain, the event is unlikely to dramatically transform the lives of Catalans. Absent serious discussion of the real and fundamental problems brought by radical demographic, religious, and social transformations in Catalan society, the independence debate seems most likely to serve as a political distraction, full of sound and fury, but signifying very little.
Without such an epiphany, the political leaders in Catalonia, whether pro or anti-independence, will continue to fiddle while Barcelona burns.