An event in Sants, and it’s news: the Left, who have spent six years not talking, finally get down to it.
A picture of a round table discussion on cities and sovereignty, on 17 October in Barcelona, during Open City, biennial of thought.
Photo: THOMAS VILHELM
Text: GUILLEM MARTÍNEZ
SANTS. Hi. Well, here I am, rushing like mad to get to Plaça de Bonet i Muixí, Sants. Sants is the limit. Sants and Hostafrancs – tacked on to Sants – is one of the neighbourhoods with the strongest Roma tradition. They speak an old-style Catalan, with more vowels and with bits of their own vocabulary, very effective. Recently a philologist discovered pockets of Catalan-speaking Roma people in France. There are lots of them, maybe 100,000, all over the place. Speaking Catalan, a language not understood in France, gives them some privacy. Apart from that, Sants is a neighbourhood with a tradition of trouble-making. Throughout the 19th century the local men – or rather, women, so their sons and husbands wouldn’t be recognised and later arrested – prevented army reserves being called up, often very quickly. Without a doubt, the main bone of contention between the [Spanish] State and perhaps Barcelona more than Catalonia, was military service. It was never understood, as the State was never understood. And I would say, in general, that the State is not even understood by those who defend it. The neighbourhood also has a strong cooperative tradition. In the past, it lagged behind. These days it has been shaped by the generation after mine which, from nothing, has created cooperatives that are stronger and last longer. In fact, they are now attempting to set up housing cooperatives, which is easier said than done. Blimey, I’ve already reached Plaça Bonet i Muixí.
Iván Miró, a sociologist and libertarian who is involved in the Sants cooperative movement and moderated the previous debate – Between State and Market, Country: Barcelona – tells me that the square was a creation of urban development in 1936. It was the result of a fire, started by the boys and girls of the CNT, in the part where the Sants property owners used to live. The Civil War shaped a lot of urban development in BCN, a city with squares created in seconds by the Italian air force. Say that quick and it sounds okay. Right. Sants, Plaça Bonet and all that. A talk that goes by the title Cities and Sovereignty. Barcelona, a city that knows little about the State, knows loads about sovereignty. Perhaps it is one of the things it has pondered most.
BARCELONA AND SOVEREIGNTY. In Barcelona, the Catalan Republic has been declared on three occasions, if we count the one in the 17th century and the two in the 20th. On three occasions and a few split seconds, if we add the two last October. And on dozens of occasions – or, at least, lots – if we count all those in the 19th century. Whenever there was a revolt, the State was proclaimed. It was a poetic vision of the State, based on federalism. In other words, a defence against the State. Federalism, understood as a formula for fitting nations on a map and which no longer exists, in the 19th century was the calling card of one of the most advanced democratic cultures in Europe, formulated by Pi i Margall, by chance a few months before Proudhon. Federalism thought about sovereignty. That is, about democracy and the State. And the result was an attempt to prevent strong State sovereignty over its citizens, by dividing the State into States and those, in turn into other bodies down to the municipality. They all used to share sovereignty. Including the municipalities. So in each federalist revolt, the municipal council would take action, speaking out against the call-up, lowering rents and increasing wages, as happened in La Bisbal, in the Empordà area, which was the longest-lasting Catalan attempt to achieve sovereignty – a few days. There was an echo of all that in BCN’s last revolution, in 1936, when Catalonia achieved the height of its sovereignty, sustained in part by the municipality, which was greater than in the 18th century and which no one remembers. In fact, no one remembers that federal, sovereign interlude, or that there was a Catalan Republic, in the 1870s, which even had a president, who lacks a place in the list of street names. It doesn’t fit with the current idea of sovereignty, a clamour for identity that does not raise the brutality of the State and seems to belong more to the traditions of the Right than the Left. This is exactly what makes this round table interesting. Various wings of the Barcelona Left, who have always spoken and argued about sovereignty, will discuss a topic they have not broached in public in the last six years, during the [independence] process, that debate without a decisive presence of the Left. I’ll introduce them to you. Here goes.
SOVEREIGNTISTS. OR NOT. We are talking about David Fernández, activist, journalist and the promoter of “En Peu de Pau”, an initiative in favour of peaceful disobedience, in other times an MP for the CUP; Marina Subirats, sociologist, a municipal director who held other municipal posts when the Socialists were in power and one of those people who retains an orderly idea of BCN and its area in her head; Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca, director of the Instituto Carlos III-Juan March, who you will may remember from other films, such as his book La desfachatez intelectual. Both he and his work, which includes journalism, are a stand-in for the new Madrid intellectual, who looks at things like Catalonia and sharing sovereignty in a new way, something that was impossible for decades. Besides that, he is a CTXT boy, which gives him that cool and sexy air which right now the whole square is talking about. The other speaker is Laia Bonet, a lecturer in administrative law at the UPF and former PSC MP in the Catalan parliament. Moderating the discussion is Xavier Antich, Professor of Aesthetic Ideas at Girona University and president of the Tàpies Foundation. It’s starting now by the way.
SOVEREIGNTISM AND US, WHO WANTED IT SO MUCH. Antich defines sovereignty – “it refers to a power that admits no other” – and gives a brief history – synopsis: nothing, nothing, nothing, God, 18th century. David Fernández expands the idea of sovereignty to something more informal but effective. Capitalism possesses absolute sovereignty, which admits no other. He explains how that undermines institutions / how during the socialist era at the City Council, La Caixa went as far as to write the civic behaviour statutes at their head office. He sees sovereignty as a battle, market vs. citizens, in which the latter do not appear to be winning: “when the Men in Black come, that’s not sovereignty, nor is it when they club you on October 1 for wanting to vote, that is, to exercise sovereignty”. He ends with “when we talk of sovereignty, the thing that most contradicts the rule of law is capitalism”. Marina Subirats: “I don’t like the word sovereignty. It expresses a wish and, as Machado said, we sing about what we've lost”. She agrees with Fernández in describing this stage of capitalism as “toxic” and proposes replacing the word ‘sovereignty’ with ‘democracy’, that is, taking decisions together. The current debate is “between life and capitalism” which, she points out, means life would have to move “towards a world of sovereignties that are not absolute, an interdependence with rules but not absolute power for anyone”. The concept of ‘the people’, so often bandied about during the independence process, is stripped down: “it doesn’t exist, it’s not homogeneous”. Sánchez-Cuenca alludes to a world whose alternative rights and lefts call for more sovereignty. “That’s not just nostalgia but a reflection on the incompetence of democracy, increasingly technocratic, where governments delegate to experts”, a pack in which he includes regulatory bodies and the Constitutional Court. He describes sovereignty as something nebulous, that possibly does not exist, except occasionally. “Perhaps the constituent moment is sovereignty at 100%”, although there have been no constituent moments in Europe since World War Two. Subirats replaces sovereignty with democracy and Sánchez-Cuenca does likewise with the word ‘self-government’: “But self-government, understood as government against the oligarchy, is a mess in the EU”. Which brings him to the municipal sphere as the only “outlet for sovereignty”. Bonet: “Today we can’t use the concept of sovereignty. Why is it used by the people who keep using it? What problem are they alluding to? The role of citizens in decision-making, the role of participation”. She says the best stage for increasing that democratic participation, which always comes through representation, “is the city”.
SOVEREIGNTY, AN EXAMPLE. Following a brief discussion and comments from the audience, Antich winds up. With these words: “Wouldn’t sovereignty be the thing we don’t have?” Subirats has time to add something on globalisation: “We have to avoid having a global political authority. That would be a disaster”. And Fernández talks about the EU, that place with continental authority: “There is no democratic alternative in Europe”. The discussion was followed by a square packed with young men, young women, and ladies and gentlemen, with the typical silence of events like these. BCN, in short, speaks quietly and, if possible, not at all. A couple of children were playing round there and David Fernández encouraged them to climb up onto the stage. With pleasure, one of them said. Why do kids like monkeying around on stage so much? No idea. But when they do, their face reveals an unknown joy. Maybe it’s the freedom. The exercise of personal sovereignty. Okay, more tomorrow.