Eighty years ago, the Ramblas in Barcelona echoed with gunfire. Much of what happened on the streets of Barcelona during those days was described by the famous English journalist, essayist and writer George Orwell in his book Homage to Catalonia. After his tragic experience of the Spanish Civil War in the Catalan city, Orwell wrote, “Curiously enough, the whole experience has left me with not less but more belief in the decency of human beings.”
Though Orwell puts aside the broader picture of the Spanish Civil War (which involved Franco, Hitler and Mussolini) in order to emphasise the political differences between the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (under Communist control and affiliated to the Third International) and the Anarchists, and the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), an anti-Stalinist communist party, he gives a good description of Catalonia and transmits a strange feeling to his reader that even then Catalonians wanted to be independent from Spain. Like André Malraux and Arthur Koestler, he was an intellectual with a utopia, that of fighting for freedom and equality. In Barcelona, he felt, independence and freedom were important, and there was hope for a better society in the air. “There was much in it that I did not understand,” he affirmed; “in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognised it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”
George Orwell lived his Catalonian experience as “curious” but also as “authentic”. Today, those who are close to the Catalonian heartbeat, not as tourists, but as engaged observers, have a whole new experience of this region of Spain, where democracy, once again, has its fate related to the human condition.
Democracy has often been limited or destroyed in recent history in the name of law and constitution. But let us remember what Martin Luther King Jr. said in the early days of his civil disobedience movement in the US:
“Democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth.”
But what is thick action if not a perspective on action of citizens in the public space as essential to their fulfilled democratic existence? How can we talk about the democratisation of democracies if there is no “publicness” of action and speech of citizens?
The “political” which Catalonians seek to revive is a space of democratic coexistence which transcends the “thin paper” of the Spanish constitution. Its core is autonomy, not simply as independence from outside forces, but an autonomy enabled by the Spanish conatus for democracy, also by the Catalonian capacity to make beginnings in politics and to express autonomy and freedom in action. It is the citizen’s capacity to act, to speak, and to create shared spaces through interaction with others, as it is defined by post-Franco Spain. This interaction requires that a plurality of Spaniards and Catalonians communicate with each other about the terms of their co-existence. It certainly cannot be solved by censorship, restraint and police violence.
If there is only one thing that the Catalonian experience shows us, it is that European democracies need a great deal of democratisation, since many of them seem to have forgotten that democratic governance is not a power over the society, but a power within it.
In other words, if democracy equals self-rule and self-control of the citizens, empowerment of the civil society and the collective ability to rule democratically are the essential constituents of democratic governance. Democracy and non-violence, therefore, are inseparable. Where democracy is practiced, the rules of the political game are defined by the absence of violence and a set of institutional guarantees against the domineering logic of the state. Yet, the more we think about it, the more this definition seems unsatisfactory and incomplete. The violent intervention of the Spanish police to stop or postpone the referendum in Catalonia is certainly not a democratic action, but a Hobbesian move of a modern state to show its authority against the “thick action” of harmless citizens.
If democracy were no more than a set of institutional guarantees, how could citizens be capable of thinking politics today and struggle for the emergence of new perspectives of democratic action? And how are we to reconcile the twin convictions that there can be no democracy unless state-centred power is limited and that there can be no democracy without the pursuit of non-violence? Mankind cannot escape politics without abdicating its humanity as a political animal. But politics is not only the conquest and the preservation of power, it is mainly, as the ancient Greek philosophers thought, the embodiment of the ethical in a historical community. So not all politics is corrupt per se, and not all political powers are evil. But once established, the politics which is conceived in violence necessitates violent action to sustain its own existence. That is to say, there is a paradox between the constitution of the political as an art of governing and the reality of violence.
So what does the Catalonian referendum show us? That the attempt at containment of the vital public space of citizens of a city, a region or a country as the exemplification of a shared community marks the decline of a democracy, which can no longer think in terms of freedom as “thick action”. As a result, if Catalonians are disobedient to the Spanish constitution, it is not only to practice self-development and self-transformation of Catalonia as their preferences, but also to tackle the shortcomings of the Spanish democracy. This is the point where critical thinking and dissenting action are blended in order to explore new vistas of change and exchange for Spanish, European and the larger humanity’s common life in a time when populism and mass immaturity are holding each other in sway. This is where a look back at George Orwell’s “decency of human beings” becomes a call to political wisdom and the process of democratising democracies around the world.
Ramin Jahanbegloo is the director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace at Jindal Global University.