- Interview by
- Samuel Velasco
Today’s Spanish general election is widely predicted to bring gains for right-wing parties, as the conservative Partido Popular touts a coalition with the hard-line nationalist Vox. Since 2018, social democratic leader Pedro Sánchez’s government has relied on the support of left-wingers and regionalist parties, and today Spanish nationalists are mobilizing their base by fearmongering about pro-independence forces and communists.
Yet with no sign of the country’s national divisions healing, the picture looks rather different on Catalan territory. In recent years the left-wing Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP) has built a strong institutional base, from villages to the major cities. Already a force at the Catalan level, in 2019 it entered the Spanish Congress of Deputies for the first time, and in May’s municipal elections, a coalition led by the CUP won the mayoralty in Girona, one of Catalonia’s main capitals.
Among the candidates for the CUP — a force bearing comparison to other rising socialist projects in Europe, like the Belgian Workers’ Party — Laure Vega stands out. Of working-class origin and herself a worker in the hotel and catering sector, Vega is second on its list of congressional candidates.
Samuel Velasco spoke to Vega about the CUP’s approach to organizing, the future of the Catalan independence movement, and the role she hopes to play in parliament.
What are the origins of the CUP, and how does it organize?
The CUP has its origins in the first elections after Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, where many independent candidates began to group together with councilors and activists from the Socialist Party of National Liberation (PSAN). Over the following years, more independent candidacies were organized and others joined together, such as UM9 in the small town of Ribes, which also had councilors from the socialist parties in Catalonia.
One of the CUP’s defining features is that its organization is based on various levels of assemblies, which it still relies on today when making important decisions. It is a very horizontal organization, in which there is no centralist logic and no single leadership. Rather, it works for a constant renewal of leadership posts, both in public positions such as deputies, mayors, and councilors, as well as internal structures, such as the CUP’s Political Council.
So, its focus is on the local level?
The CUP does base its activity in municipalities, but this does not mean that it is localist. It has also run for, and won election to, the Catalan Parliament, where it currently has nine deputies, and also for the Spanish Congress, as in the case of these elections on July 23. So, what we can call its “municipal” approach is bound to the idea that popular organization should be built as close to the people as possible. The idea is to organize a densely textured web of organization, beyond the party form and as an alternative to any institutional logic.
The CUP has always understood, perhaps intuitively, that power is not only found in the state. It is also found in all those civil society organizations that operate outside the state and draw their legitimacy from other sources. Building popular power is a fundamental pillar of our movement, precisely to counteract state power and the bosses’ violence. So, it is also necessary to wage a battle of ideas, an organizational battle and an eminently political battle beyond the purely institutional space.
How would you read the current electoral context in relation to the political developments of recent years, and how do movements such as 15-M or Occupy Wall Street fit into this panorama? How did these conflicts play out in Catalan territory?
To grasp the specific political moment, we have to look back a bit. In the case of the Spanish state, there was a turning point with 15-M, a cry of protest against the powers holding sway over politics and democracy, such as the banking system and corruption. For Catalonia, this sentiment also manifested itself in what we today call the independence process. Catalonia had tried to present a Statute of Autonomy, but it was challenged and cut down by the Constitutional Court. This generated frustration and demands to the central government that found no response, leading to a movement of stronger opposition and, subsequently, to demands for self-determination. In other words, the democratic challenge to state and capital in Catalonia took the form of a demand for greater sovereignty, similar to that in Greece, even though it also expressed a demand for national liberation that had been latent for decades.
The climax of this process came on October 1, 2017, when a referendum was held in Catalonia that was not agreed with the Spanish state and faced heavy police repression. Subsequently, a score of Catalan political leaders such as Carles Puigdemont and Anna Gabriel were forced into exile or prison. This level of repression reflected a time of great political turmoil and discontent.
Today, we instead face a moment of political apathy and disillusionment. The initial promises to challenge the system and criticize the two-party order have not produced concrete solutions to real problems, like on housing. Instead we have seen a strengthening of the old two-party order and a shift of the political spectrum toward more right-wing positions, to the great advantage of the far right.
Added to that, the political landscape in Catalonia after [the height of the push for independence and then its repression] in 2017–18 has been marked by a profound disorientation. The intense repression has not only affected political representatives, but also civil society, with over four thousand people charged with offenses liable for jail sentences. This latter in fact played a key role in all demonstrations, such as the response to the sentences of civil society leaders, like the presidents of Catalan cultural organization Òmnium and the Catalan National Assembly (ANC). These organizations had defended Catalonia’s right to decide its future and to exercise its self-determination.
What is your attitude toward Catalan’s autonomous government?
The Generalitat, the autonomous government of Catalonia, has been run on and off by the two majority pro-independence parties, Esquerra Republicana and Junts per Catalunya. However, their policies have been in close compliance with capitalist and state interests. It is disappointing to see that the same parties that promised an alternative to the status quo reproduce previous policies similar to those of [the Spanish center-left] PSOE or the former Convergència [a center-right Catalan party].
How do you see the position of Pedro Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) within the spectrum of the Spanish left?
I think that a distinction has to be made between the political space of Unidas Podemos/Sumar, and then the PSOE, which is still what we consider a party of the ’78 regime [the constitutional monarchy formed after Francisco Franco’s death]. I say that in the sense that the PSOE connived with this pseudo-transition from the Francoite dictatorship to a state that claimed to be democratic.
We make a point of this because, for instance, the executions of militants of the Basque left took place under a PSOE government. We insist on this because the change of the Constitution in 2011 to prioritize the payment of public debt over social welfare happened with the support of the PSOE. What we want to say is that the PSOE cannot be considered a left-wing party, inasmuch as it does not defend the interests of the working classes, but has been a decisive force in shielding the interests of capital, of the bosses, and of the IBEX 35 stock exchange.
So, a negative judgement on the PSOE — but how does Podemos fit into this picture?
Looking at how Podemos first developed, I think we can honestly recognize the strength that it showed in rallying the disenchantment and the opposition that existed toward the policies being carried out in the Spanish state and at the European level. Podemos proved able to capture this anger and convert it into something directly political. This explains how it made its breakthrough onto the electoral arena. It was a success, the way it communicated by going out of the classic frameworks and casting a wide net so that many people identified with the call that it made.
But after these initial successes, not everything was done so well. The refusal to develop a base of militants and solid internal structures meant that Podemos remained heavily influenced by the media. At first, these media gave it space, but then began vitriolic attacks against it, often based on fake news. If Podemos had created structures like those that exist in Catalonia or the Basque Country, it would not have been so dependent on the media. This decision also led, from what we can observe from the outside, to the internal reproduction of a certain mentality of being ever on the defensive against criticism. There were obvious strategic shortcomings, and the recent union of the Left for these elections took place in a tense atmosphere.
Podemos had great successes in reading the political moment and channeling it electorally. However, it did not manage to articulate this as a battle that went beyond the institutions, that could carry forward the common sense that emerged after 15-M. We see how the current political spectrum is shifting to the right, driven both by the far right and by the Spanish state itself. Moreover, the discredit suffered by its representatives and its organization has impacted the reunification of the Spanish left.
Feminism was a key issue in the last Spanish Congress. What place does it have in your way of thinking?
I should mention the very important work that has been done by feminist grassroots organizations, but also women who have taken a step further and have been theorizing, such as Carme Bernat in the País Valencià, and indeed the CUP’s existing representative in the Spanish Congress, Mireia Vehí, who has taken courageous positions against bills such as the “only yes means yes” law.
“Only yes means yes” was a law promoted by Minister of Equality Irene Montero (from Podemos). It gives great importance to consent in sexual relations — but not so much to other aspects of the feminist struggle. It’s essential not to fall into simplifications, on this point. I think it is important to recognize the progress in women’s rights, which of course includes LGBTQ rights. Surely it was not easy to criticize a law that was presented as a feminist win — and this, in a political context where the Right denies the reality of patriarchy and gendered violence.
But for us, this bill didn’t really work in the direction of a universal feminism, of feminism understood as a political proposal for the majority. Attempting to overcome a structure like patriarchy by means of the penal code has proven ineffective. On the one hand, it fails to understand patriarchy as a structure that affects not just women but society as a whole. It is ineffective in explaining the psychological violence suffered and exercised by (especially heterosexual) men toward themselves by constructing masculinity as a negation of the values associated with femininity.
On the other hand, it sets feminism in punitive terms that gives up on solutions built on self-education and pedagogy. And ultimately, it doesn’t pose women as autonomous subjects, who need the necessary material and social conditions to say “no means no,” but instead casts them as permanent victims.
We believe that feminism means going much further. For example, a universal basic income, that is, a policy of redistribution of wealth, is a feminist policy. We believe that “housing as a right” is a feminist policy, and that socialism — putting the means of production in the hands of society as a whole — is obviously a feminist policy. In addition, we are very critical of the fact that essentialist feminism, which confers subjectivity on cis women only, has opened the door to utterly reactionary positions that join hands with the far right on positions against trans women.
Understanding women not simply as victims of patriarchy, we have to see their own role in reproducing this patriarchal system. To conceptualize woman as a weak subject, always a victim who always speaks the truth — and who thus doesn’t have agency of her own, doesn’t have the capacity to make demands for herself — is not a good thing.
What can you tell us about your work on Barbara and John Ehrenreich and their perspective on the perception and reality of the middle class in Catalonia and Spain?
I had the honor of writing the preface for Ni arriba ni abajo, a new Spanish-language edition of the writings of Barbara and John Ehrenreich on the professional-managerial class. The main problem is that if we look at the surveys carried out both in Catalonia and in Spain on class self-identification, specifically when they ask, “What social class do you belong to?” only 6 to 9 percent answer “clase trabajador” — the blue-collar working class. So, the proportion has fallen by more than half in the last decades.
Obviously, this does not correspond to the reality of the production structure. Most people’s activity does indeed revolve around waged labor. This, whether it is legally recognized, such as the classic wage earner with an employment contract, or isn’t recognized, as is the case for workers on digital platforms such as Uber or food delivery app Glovo.
But there is a lack of class identification. Karl Marx suggested that although a class may exist in terms of relation to the means of production, if there is no collective consciousness of belonging to that class, it is not constituted as such. Precisely, the problem we face is an old dilemma that Marx already spoke of in his Eighteenth Brumaire. As long as there is a certain relationship with the means of production, there is a class. But if there is no union or recognition of antagonistic interests, and if the subject does not see herself as part of a class, there is no “class for itself.”
How does this logic manifest itself in the context of the pro-independence movement in Catalonia?
One of the criticisms that needs to be made of the independence process is that there was no real working-class leadership through autonomous structures. But it is also decisive to recognize that those with higher incomes did not defend their class interests either. The popular idea of nation prevailed over economic interests. Moreover, bourgeois class structures, such as the Círculo Ecuestre or the employers’ unions, have not been favorable to independence — far from it. So, in nations without a state there is this potential for popular union, what Antonio Gramsci would have called a historic bloc.
In the current context, what do you consider to be the role of the Catalan pro-independence left?
We believe that in this specific historical moment, the work of Catalan socialists has to be focused on two core issues.
The first emphasis has to do with the right to self-determination, as a tool to challenge the state and its Francoite roots. We emphasize that the current Spanish state is not desirable for any of the peoples that make it up. This state still retains, in part, the structures of the Franco era and a conception of the Spanish nation entrenched in the era of Falangism. This vision contrasts with other countries that have a more enlightened or republican conception of their nation. So, we believe that one of the main objectives should be to question the state and open the possibility for different nations to decide whether or not to join a common project.
Our second main objective is to be a clear socialist voice in a congress that we anticipate will be hostile. We know that it will not be the main place to develop progressive policies. Still, it is a terrain for the battle of ideas: something that the Left has often underestimated, but the far right and the Right have understood perfectly. For this reason, after July 23 we want to be in the Congress of Deputies, defending workers and oppressed peoples.