On the Catalan separatism and the political comprehension: democracy is (must be) more than voting…

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 by Alessandra Silveira, Editor 

On October 1st, we watched stupefied and live the events around the unilateral declaration of the independence of Catalonia. The European Commission has resisted the persevering attempt of the Catalan separatists of converting the Catalan question into a European question.  President Juncker considers that is an internal issue of Spain and the decisions of the Spanish courts and of the Spanish Parliament should be respected. Unpleased, the separatists spread on social medias messages claiming the application of article 7, Treaty on the European Union, i. e., calling on the suspension of the rights of a Member State due to the use of military force against its population.

We shall then make a brief exercise to test the conformity of such argument and try to understand why the EU has resisted taking parting in this imbroglio. What were the Spanish police doing in the voting pools? They were assuring the execution of judicial decisions – of the Spanish Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Catalonia itself – aimed at preventing the realization of an unconstitutional and illegal referendum, organised in clear violation of the rule of law. Or, more concretely, the policemen were apprehending documents and instruments destined to facilitate the voting, especially ballot boxes, computer equipment, ballot papers and propaganda papers – and reacted against the ones who were trying to hinder their action.


In face of the judicial decisions that imposed the maintenance of the constitutional order, could the government of Madrid (as well as the State’s Attorney and the police forces) have refused executing them? Certainly not. However, the police intervention was maybe unnecessary since the Spanish government had already blocked the computer system of the Catalan separatists. Moreover, no-one would recognise the legitimacy of an illegal referendum in which it was possible to vote anywhere, including on the streets, and apparently as many times as desired.  In any case, if the police reaction was (perhaps) disproportional, it is up to the Spanish courts to verify and act in accordance. In a democratic State under the rule of law, the courts must act in order to ensure the constitutionally agreed order and to safeguard the citizens’ fundamental rights. Thus, their decisions must be respected, whether we like them or not.

What is important to highlight now is that all the legal-constitutional construction of the post-war in Europe is based on the idea that democracy, in the absent of the rule of law, becomes the tyranny of majority. Without the rule of law we do have anything, only the nationalist populism and its disastrous consequences. The European integration has been facing a populist pressure which is frequently allied to a nationalist pulse. They are movements that gain force and are getting close to power, precisely through the tools of formal democracy – that is, voting and majorities that voting is capable of creating. These are phenomena potentially threatening, generated in democracy, based upon the exercise of the fundamental rights which define and sustain it – such as freedom of expression, of demonstration and association.

Last week I had the pleasure of assessing a PhD thesis in philosophy, at the University of Barcelona, with the title “Compreensão política e acontecimento – uma contribuição aos estudos políticos contemporâneos” (“Political comprehension and events – a contribution to contemporary political studies”, free translation) presented by Yanko Moyano. The thesis seeks to find out how the models of representation of reality are formed in the daily thought. Responding such concern, the thesis suggests a radical renovation of the instruments from which we analyse the voters’ behaviour. It is about designing a new model of political reflection that helps to understand the mechanisms of thought that make possible the support to populism. A model that overcomes the enlightened perspective, based on the force of the best argument and the clarification of the population, according to which it would be the “resented voters who do not know what they do” who support populism. Such superficial analysis (or the polarisation between enlightened and ignorant voters) leads necessarily to the dissolution of the pacific coexistence and the hypothesis of universal access to politics.

In any case, in the global and digital era, it is each time more difficult to persuade the citizens that they are not right. In this context, the cognitivist model could give some hints on how to start the necessary remodelling of studies about contemporary politics – or how to reframe the rationality of politics. The cognitivist proposal expands the political analysis to beyond the scope of rational or conscientious thought, as it opens it to the influence of cultural structures (stories of life, narrative archetypes, contemporary myths) which limit the thought of citizens, mostly in electoral moments (i. e., unreflective or affective limits).

Hence, the value of the thesis: bringing to the study of the problems of political comprehension the relation between the objective-rational knowledge and the knowledge of the spaces of daily life. In the context of a “political cyber activism”, the success of political speech depends on subjective circumstances that explain the selection of contents in the internet. The intimate speech, exposed online as a political shared fact, does not need to live up to the truth to succeed, it is enough that it is accepted as close, possible and feasible – i.e., something that could happen to me or to my neighbour. What works in the internet is the shared space, the projection of intimate, close perception. And here it is not so important what is said, but what people really listen…

That changes (almost) everything we knew about the exercise of democracy so far…

Out of everything I saw in Barcelona in these last days, what touched me the most was the fratricide fight among friends of a lifetime. Friends against friends. Fearful scholars hesitating in expressing their disagreement with the separatism. As Hannah Arendt explained in her interpretation of Aristotle, the community is what the friendship materializes. It is the friendship – and not the justice, as Plato argued – that emerges as the link that forms communities. To Aristotle, friendship is above justice because it is no longer needed between friends. The political element of friendship consists in the fact that in the true dialogue each of the friends is capable of understanding the truth inside the other’s opinion. Democracy feeds itself of the healthy divergence of opinions. And it is the understanding among friends that make domination unnecessary.

Picture credits: Catalonia is not Spain by SBA73.

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