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  • People hold Catalan separatist flags known as "Esteladas" during a gathering to mark the Calatalonia day "Diada" in central Barcelona, Spain.

    People hold Catalan separatist flags known as "Esteladas" during a gathering to mark the Calatalonia day "Diada" in central Barcelona, Spain. | Photo: Reuters

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Arrufat is the joint national spokesperson for the People’s Unity List, or CUP.

Dick Nichols and Denis Rogatyuk interviewed Quim Arrufat from the People's Unity List, or CUP, about the political developments within the struggle for Catalan independence, as well as the origins and the roles played by the pro-independence, anti-capitalist movements like the CUP.

Arrufat was previously a member of Catalan parliament, and was elected as a member of the CUP’s national secretariat in August 2016 and as its joint spokesperson with Nuria Gibert in the following month.

What features of Catalan society gave rise to the CUP?

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It has a lot to do with the political history of Catalonia, with its strong movements of anarchist and cooperativist tendencies, grassroots social movements that have always defended a program of emancipation for Catalan society. The CUP comes from this tradition. Over many years this tradition was not represented in official politics, but it has always existed in Catalan society. It always considered that being outside the parliament was much more effective than being inside elected institutions. That stance allowed the traditional political parties to operate within the institutions while keeping the street and various networks as the space for the social movements to organize their demands—and in a very effective way. These movements have included the anti-war movement, the movement against evictions and the movement for Catalan language and culture, which has been very active inside the country. 

However, with the beginning of the crisis in 2008 the whole political system started to break down. The legitimacy of the political parties came into question, such that many people and movements saw that there was a need to bring their message and their way of doing politics from the street into parliament. 

The CUP was one of the political instruments that had been operating on a local basis, making it possible to combine the struggle on the street with the struggle in the institutions. A third axis, where we in the CUP were also working, was that of building institutions of counter-power. These included cultural centres, social centres, cooperatives, local alternative media etc. 

Within the CUP, the practical experience of combining these three struggles and the circumstances of the crisis convinced a majority of the people in the social movements of the need to break into the institutional scene. That is why the CUP is now in the Catalan parliament.

The Catalan pro-independence left has historically been divided among many different currents. How did unity among them in the framework of the CUP come about? How important were the need to have single tickets in municipal elections and decision-making by mass meeting in creating that unity?

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The mass-meeting (or assembly) system was not crucial to overcoming these differences simply because it reproduces differences in a more democratic way. Overcoming differences depends not on the assembly system but on the political method with which you approach issues.

The key was our local orientation. The current period of the CUP can be traced back to about 15 years ago, with the emergence of a new generation of militants who undertook to revive the municipality project of CUP, which had existing previously but was very weak. We consistently rejected the notion of building a national organisation until we’d accumulated some political power in the municipalities. 

We sought to work together on practical matters in order to see how to manage power, how to manage social movements, how to organize people on a local basis, and only then build a national organisation. All previous practice was conducted in the opposite direction: one built a national theory opposed to the national theory of others, one built a national executive divided into two or three fractions and then one started debating--without a social basis, with not many activists, and without any local experience of working in real power situations, real society and on real everyday questions.

Our method has allowed us to confront testing issues without creating serious splits and with less risk of division than in other organisations. Take, as examples, the discussions we have had inside the CUP with regard to allowing the formation of the Puigdemont government, and more recently with regard to approving the Catalan budget.

Meanwhile, at the local level, everyone is united, the project is working and growing, and this doesn't depend on the leadership of the national organisation, even if there is some connection. If the national project of the CUP were one day destroyed because we became divided or lost elections, the local projects would be 100% secure and could survive without the national project. 

Over the past seven years, the CUP’s number of council representatives has increased with every local election (up to 382 councilors at the present time). What sort of people have been coming to the CUP?

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The generation of CUP activists that formed about 15 years ago was educated politically during the government of (People’s Party prime minister Jose Maria) Aznar, during the so-called street war in Catalonia between the squatters’ movement and the state authorities. That was very violent. 

During the 2000s, during the eight years of struggle, eight thousand people were jailed and there were very violent demonstrations every week, with some 300 squats in Barcelona city alone. Together with Amsterdam and Berlin, Barcelona was the capital city of the squatters’ movement. 
It was not just a punk movement, despite having a somewhat punk aesthetic. Instead, it actually reflected one of the traditions of the Catalan popular social movement--opening social centres, providing space for different groups, organising in the neighbourhoods, even while the repression was very harsh. It culminated in the huge 2003-4 demonstrations against the war in Iraq, which saw the end of Aznar’s government. 

The generation of those times created the basis of the CUP. We decided to bring the squats to our towns and cities and to transform them into legal social centres. Around the social centres, we started building the idea of municipalism: a social centre is not just a place for you and your friends to go but a home for the social movements and a social laboratory, a social toolkit. You organise from there, create the idea of organising your community. 

You hold open assemblies in your town, in which everyone can take part regardless of whether they are CUP members or not. The elected councilors donate any money received for attending council meetings to the social movements. You make everything transparent. This is something that attracts not just voters, but also left-wing individuals: they may not be seen as activists but nevertheless support independence for Catalonia — with varying degrees of intensity — and are attracted by the CUP’s way of organizing. They say: “The way you go to the neighborhoods, the way you get people to participate — that’s what I like.”

There is a big crisis of faith in the representative institutions of the Spanish state, particularly since the beginning of the political and economic crisis. The feeling of: “I do not believe in those methods but rather in the people’s way of organizing themselves.” There are no other political parties that conduct themselves in this way. 

What scenario would a successful Yes vote in the independence referendum create? Does a break from Madrid really open up the road for the break with capitalism in a new Catalan state?

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There is a step before that. There are two ways to break out of the prison of the Spanish constitution, which was built with the agreement of Francoism. One is that political forces inside Spain win a majority in the Spanish parliament, allowing the building of a constitutional process in Spain that would be won by the popular classes and the left. That is a very, very distant prospect, and has been so for a long time. After the waves of the economic crisis and mobilisations of the indignado movement, it seemed for some while that it could be possible for Podemos to win or at the very least surge past the PSOE. 

However, changing the Spanish constitution requires the support of two-thirds of the parliament, so it is almost impossible. So, as long as you operate inside the system, you will be ruled by laws agreed with the Francoists. Also, in Spain — maybe not in other countries — the state is a party in and of itself, with its own program that does not depend on the political party that is in government. The Spanish state has always been the tool of the wealthy families, the banks and the big companies that have ruled Spain forever with their own political project, regardless of who is “governing”. And the main institutions and the constitution are under their control, not that of the party that is governing, be it the PP or the PSOE.

After the June 2016 elections, that possibility of change is even more distant, because Unidos Podemos and the various confluences in which it takes partiv achieved only 21.1% of the vote, while the Spanish state remained intact with the support of the PP, PSOE and the Citizens.

So where is the democratic option for change? 

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The opportunity to build something different lies in Catalonia, where a majority exists based on the mix of people’s movements, nationalist movements and many other forces: this majority delegitimizes the rule of Spanish state institutions. We see here the opening of an historical opportunity, a chance for a decisive battle. That could be won or lost — it depends on whether we are active enough, able to build our own specific agenda within the independence process and able to create enough majorities for change. If not, we will end up with a neo-liberal Catalonia, independent or not. 

However, we know from our own history and traditions and from the present state of affairs that the social leaderships here in Catalonia have enough strength to at least allow us to see this battle through to the end. There are important points on our agenda that a majority of the population agrees with: they would never be allowed in the Spanish state but would be allowed in a Catalan Republic, agreed to by other parties and the majority of the population. 

Other examples include the cooperative system. Catalonia has 150,000 workers in cooperatives, with over 10,000 cooperatives based here, active and successful in many fields. For example, SomEnergia, which provides renewable energy across all of Spain, is based in Catalonia. Hence, the idea of building a mixed economic system based on a very strong public sector is possible in Catalonia. Energy, for example, would be in public hands, there would be a free market for companies working on technology in advanced fields — not substituting for what the state can do but making the things that the state cannot--and a social economy based on the cooperative system. 

This economy would be capitalist in form, but it would be very distant from other economic systems in Europe. This is a struggle we can win in Catalonia. 

Is there a synergy between the Catalan and Basque national struggles?

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Well, there is a synergy among all struggles for national self-determination in Europe. For example, it is good for us that (Scottish premier) Nicola Sturgeon has announced that there will be a second referendum on Scottish independence. If Scottish nationalism had had success in the last referendum, we would already be independent. It would have been a mirror for Spain and the whole of Europe: a people without a state can have a referendum, win independence and start creating its new state.
The situation with the Basque country is different to that of Catalonia. Despite historical differences in strategy there has always been a strong relation between the Catalan and Basque movements because both have  for many years suffered — but to different degrees — from the Spanish state and its strategies. 

However, the biggest problem that the Basque movement faces is the bourgeoisie of the Basque country.  Of course, both Basques and Catalans have nationalist bourgeoisies, with their economy, their national consciousness and their language and culture that they defend. But the Basque Country has a special status within Spain while Catalonia does not: constitutionally Catalonia is the same as, say,  (the autonomous community of) Murcia. 

Over the last 20 years the Spanish state has not seen any need to support the Catalan bourgeois and has let it decline. All savings and credit unions, which once formed a very strong regional financial network for the Catalan bourgeoisie, have disappeared from Catalonia. For example, all investment by the state goes to Madrid or to the south — we have the same railway lines as 100 years ago. Many things that workers wouldn't normally care about, but the bourgeoisie does, have been disregarded by the decision-making centres of the Spanish state.

Now, seeing their social and political support bases and activists demonstrating for independence, this bourgeoisie has no other alternative but to say: “Let’s take this decision to be independent, otherwise in 20 years we will be the same as the bourgeoisie of Murcia”, namely with an economy fueled by speculation and with no real productive capacity. The Catalan bourgeoisie has seen an end to their cooperation with the Spanish state, provoked by the actions of that state. 

Spanish nationalism, because it is based on the repression of other national rights, cannot function without creating an external or internal enemy. For fifty years ETA was the internal enemy, but it no longer presents any threat. They looked for the foreign enemy, as was the case with Aznar and the war in Iraq, but had no success. So the new enemy must be the Catalans. They know they are becoming a minority here. Neither Citizens nor the PP control a single Catalan municipality out of 947. They know they are losing politically in Catalonia, yet still feel they are economically strong enough to keep Catalonia inside the Spanish state and are not afraid of the Catalan bourgeoisie.

The CUP is opposed to the European Union. How does it envisage the creation of a replacement?

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We are for strong European solidarity and an agreed common political architecture, but not for the European Union (EU) that currently exists. We do not believe it can be reformed as it is. So, we are for building up a new federal or confederal democratic system based on the sovereignty of people and not that of the markets. 

However, although the debate exists this is not a very popular question in Catalonia. We are the only party that defends saying “No” to the EU, but we use this stance to advance the critical debate in Catalonia about it. 

We know this debate is hard to win because of our history. Catalonia is situated in the corner of Spain, bordering Europe, always having dictatorships and military coups and looking towards Europe as an horizon of freedom. This concept is deeply rooted in our people’s outlook. They confuse European culture and politics with the EU. The forty years of the Franco dictatorship were 40 years of isolation from Europe — culturally, economically, politically, democratically. So the feeling of being European even more than Spanish is deep inside people’s consciousness. That’s why it is very hard to win on this issue. 

The problem is that the battle to destroy the actually existing EU is being won by extreme right, which is interpreting the feelings of the working class on this question better than the left. “Better” in a very populist way, but they are putting this radical debate on the table and leftists are proving unable to do that in Europe. 

We are doing this here right now, but we have no extreme right in Catalonia. Nonetheless, the debate is difficult because you always have to explain that your opposition to the EU is not on the same basis as the far right’s. So orientation to the EU isn’t — and can’t be — our lead banner.

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Quim Arrufat

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