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‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia

Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

October 4, 2017
5 min read

David WhyteDavid Whyte is professor of socio-legal studies at the University of Liverpool and a writer for OpenDemocracy and Bella Caledonia

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In the past few days the people of Catalonia have witnessed Spain’s coup against the Catalonian government, a brutal police occupation and a major popular uprising against the police. The latest episode in this story is the hugely supported general strike, the first general strike against political repression in Europe for perhaps 30 years.

It is also Catalonia’s biggest strike since 1988, involving anything between 2 million and 3 million people. It is difficult to assess the full scale of this strike, but its support has been remarkable almost every section of the population. Every single town in Catalonia came out yesterday, and held demonstrations involving between 10 per cent and 50 per cent of the population. Most neighborhoods were effectively closed down as people took to the streets.

The general strike was called last week by a broad coalition of social movements and the left wing socialist, syndicalist and alternative trade unions. The large centrist unions, the UGT and CCOO, subsequently agreed to a stoppage after the events of Sunday’s referendum, though in the end did not join the biggest demonstrations in the Passeig de Gracia which numbered at least 300,000. The feeling in the trade unions here is that the left increasingly holds the balance of power in the movement.

The ‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’, the structures organising people against the police on Sunday, have been key to organising the general strike and could be found active in communities across Catalonia.

Social strike

One aim of the committees has been to make sure the strike – and the resistance more generally – is as inclusive as possible. This is not an exclusively trade union/workers’ strike, but involves the community, with a high participation from students, LGBT organisations, feminist social centres and migrant solidarity groups.

In many ways, the referendum, the remarkable turnout and result may quickly become secondary to something much more significant: the Catalonian rebellion. The constitutional crisis is set to last for some time. The role of the left independence movement, and particularly the CUP (the ‘Popular Unity Candidacy’ party) cannot be underestimated.

It is CUP, with its roots in the neighbourhoods, that initiated the coordinated defense of polling stations against the police. It is CUP that was central to supporting the left trade unions and the community and social movement demands for the general strike today.

This is a movement that knows it needs to sustain people power. As Mireia Vehí, one of the CUP members of parliament told us, ‘This is all we have: the radical left only has the people. We don’t have power anywhere else. We don’t have a lot of money and we don’t have the networks in political structures or the legal system or the police. Our power comes directly from our own people.

‘We are not just interested in changing the flag or changing the name of the country. We are anti-capitalist, feminist and socialist’

‘We have a small number of municipal governments and we have 10 MPs. It is not exactly the classic model of parliamentary and political power. The only thing we’ve got is popular power. If we are able to maintain this in the coming months, we are going to win. If not, then we are going to lose.’

And there is a lot to lose in this conflict. Right now, the threat is that the Spanish government, buoyed by the lack of international condemnation might well intensify the repression. If so, it will be left activists that will certainly face the fiercest intimidation and even go to prison. The Guardia Civil has not left Catalonia, and indeed the extension of the permit for the Tweety-Pie boats in Barcelona harbor yesterday is one indication that there could be an attempt to continue the occupation.

Building a republic

The rebellion is showing no signs of weakening, though. As we write, the city is alive with a huge number of assemblies and demonstrations – major protests at places where the Guardia Civil are holed up, and parties and carnival events in the neighbourhoods.

The Spanish National Police HQ in Barcelona’s Via Laietana is a place that symbolises Spain’s fascist history. This is where trade unionists and left activists were tortured by Franco’s regime. Last night, a demonstration led by the left and alternative union along the Via Laietana was 40,000 strong. In amazing scenes they shouted ‘occupation forces out!’ and the famous chant of the Indignados ‘they call this democracy!’ This was only one of many demonstrations linked to the general strike. When the crowd blocked the same street earlier in the day they chanted: ‘This building will be a library!’

This is only partly meant as a joke. Such calls for a replacement of the paramilitary state by public services sums up exactly the municipal socialism the left independence movement is seeking to achieve. Mireia Vehí is aware that this task has only begun: ‘We have a much bigger job to do now. We need to maintain the popular power that we saw on the street. We are not just interested in changing the flag or changing the name of the country. We are anti-capitalist, feminist and socialist, so we are going to try to build a republic in this sense.’

The left in the UK, slow to develop an analysis of the situation in Catalonia, needs to show its solidarity with the radical left and the community resistance here before it is too late.

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David WhyteDavid Whyte is professor of socio-legal studies at the University of Liverpool and a writer for OpenDemocracy and Bella Caledonia

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