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  Number 435 | Octubre 2017
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Reflections on the referendum in Catalonia

The sovereigntist referendum held in Catalonia on October 1, which the government of Spain had already declared illegal, forces all progressive people of our globalized world to reflect. The following reflections were written before the referendum, but they remain valid because they go to the heart of the issue, beyond what happened and whatever will happen in the future.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos

The Catalonian referendum on Sunday, October 1, will become part of Europe’s history, possibly for the worst of reasons. I don’t discuss here the substantive issues, which can be interpreted as addressing historical, territorial, internal colonialism or self-determination questions, although they are the most important ones, without which it is impossible to understand the current situation.

But my opinion on them is unassuming. Actually, many will consider it irrelevant for, being Portuguese, I tend to feel a particular solidarity with Catalonia. In 1640, the year Portugal got rid of the Phillipes, Catalonia failed in its attempts to do the same. Of course, Portugal was a very different case, being a country that had been independent for more than four centuries and ruling an empire spread through every continent. Nonetheless, the objectives had some affinity; Portugal’s success and Catalonia’s failure were more related than it may at first seem. Perhaps we should remember that the Spanish Crown only acknowledged Portugal’s “unilateral declaration of independence” 26 years later.

The relationship between the juridical and the political


The truth is, however, that even if these are indeed the most important questions, unfortunately they are not the most urgent ones at the moment. The most urgent questions have to do with legality and democracy. I engage with them here because they concern all democrats in Europe and the world.

As decreed, the referendum is illegal in the light of the Constitution of the Spanish State. As such, it can have no juridical effect in a democracy. In and of itself, it cannot have the effect that is its direct objective, i.e. to decide whether the future of Catalonia is within or outside of Spain. The Podemos party is right in asserting that “a unilateral declaration of independence is not to be accepted.” But complexity emerges when the relation between the juridical and the political is reduced to the previous interpretation.

In the capitalist and asymmetrical societies in which we live there is always more than one reading of the relationship between the juridical and the political. What differs in such readings is precisely what distinguishes a Left from a Right position regarding a unilateral declaration of independence.

Civil disobedience is the Left’s inalienable patrimony


A leftist position on the relationship between the juridical and the political would be grounded in the following assumptions.

First, that the relationship between law and democracy is dialectical, not mechanical. Much of what we consider democratic legality in a given historical moment started as illegality, as an aspiration to a better and broader democracy. It is therefore imperative to evaluate political processes in terms of their overall historical dynamics. In no case can they be reduced to conformity with the laws of the day.

Second, that rightist governments, above all those led by the neoliberal Right, have no democratic legitimacy when they declare themselves strict defenders of legality, because their practices often consist of systematic violations of the law. I am not referring solely to endemic corruption. I’m referring, in the case of Spain, to the violations of the law of memory (referring to the crimes committed by the Franco dictatorship); the recurrent violation of the statutory regions’ autonomy concerning financial transfers, for instance, and the violation of constitutional guarantees such as the right to decent housing or the implementation of repressive measures of exception without the constitutional declaration of a state of exception. The Left must be careful enough to show no complicity with this opportunistic conception of legality.

Third, that civil and political disobedience is an inalienable patrimony of the Left. Without it, for example, the movement of the “Indignados” and the public turmoil it provoked a few years ago would not have been possible. From a Left perspective, civil and political disobedience must also be conceived in dialectical terms, not of what it means under today’s legal frameworks, but rather of what it means as an aspiration for a better future. This evaluation has to be made not only by those who disobey (and usually pay a dear price for it) but also by those who can benefit from such an act in the future. In other words, the question to be asked is the following: can it be hoped that the dynamics of disobedience will lead to an overall more inclusive and democratic political community in its totality?

Fourth, that the Catalonian referendum represents an act of civil and political disobedience and, as such, cannot directly produce the political results it intends, which is not to say that it can’t have other legitimate political results. It may well be the condition sine qua non to reach the intended objectives in the future after the necessary political and legal mediations have been put in place. The Indignados movement was unable to fulfill its objectives of “real democracy now!” but there’s no doubt that, thanks to it, Spain is today a more democratic country. The emergence of the leftist Podemos party and many other leftist autonomous parties in the regions, as well as the Mareas (citizens’ movements) are, among the proofs of this.

What a left position would be


Given the aforementioned assumptions, a left position on the Catalonia referendum could present itself as follows.

First, stating unequivocally that the referendum is illegal and cannot yield the effect it intends (such a statement was made). Second, stating that being illegal does not prevent the referendum from being a legitimate act of civil disobedience and that, even without juridical effects, Catalonians have every right to demonstrate freely in the referendum (such a statement was omitted). Moreover it is a democratic political action of great importance under the current circumstances.

The second statement would distinguish a left position from a right one with the following implications. The Left would denounce the government before the European institutions and sue it judicially in the European courts for violating the Constitution by applying measures of the state of exception without formally declaring it.

The Left knows that Brussels’ complicity with the central government is solely due to the fact that the Spanish government is ruled by the neoliberal Right. It also knows that to simply uphold the law is moralistic and useless, since, as I mentioned above, the neoliberal Right (such as the one currently in power in Spain) only respects the law (and democracy) when it serves its interests.

The social and political Left would organize to travel in masse from the different regions of Spain to Catalonia this Sunday, October 1, to support with their presence the Catalonians’ right to peacefully exert their referendum, as well as to be actual witnesses to possible repressive violence by the Spanish government. It would request the solidarity of all European leftist parties and organizations by inviting them to join them in Catalonia as informal observers of the referendum and of any repressive violence.

The Left would thus demonstrate peacefully and indignantly, I would emphasize, like true Indignados, for the right of Catalonians to a peaceful and democratic public gesture. It would document in detail all the illegalities of the repressive forces and sue them in court. If the referendum were to be violently prevented, it would be clear that it had happened with no complicity on the part of the Left.

The day after the referendum, with no juridical effect and whatever the result, the Left would be in a privileged position to play a unique role in the ensuing political discussion. Independence? More autonomy? A Plurinational Federal State? A Free Associated State different from the caricature that tragically represents Puerto Rico?

To democratize democracy


Every position would be on the table and Catalonians would know that they wouldn’t need the local forces of the Right, which historically have always colluded with the Spanish government against the popular classes of Catalonia, to enforce the position the majority deemed best. That is to say, Catalonians, Europeans and democrats worldwide would learn about a new possibility of being Left in a plurinational democratic society. It would be a contribution of the peoples and nations of Spain to the democratization of democracy in the whole world.


Boaventura De Sousa Santos is a Portuguese sociologist who teaches at both the University of Coimbra, Portugal, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and directs the European Project ALICE (alice@ces.uc.pt.) This article was first published in English by Critical Legal Thinking, on September 28, 2017, and was edited by envío.

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