Aurélie Vialette | Disobedience and the Dangers of Nationalism: A Perspective from the Pro-Independence Left in Catalonia

By Aurélie Vialette

“A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority.” These are Henry David Thoreau’s words, from his famous 1849 essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.[i] Thoreau, who asks the question “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? … I think we should be men first, and subjects afterwards” (6-7), could not be more pertinent in 2018 when contemplating pro-independence Catalans’ confrontation with the Spanish state. Thoreau in his text speaks for individual conscience, not collective, cultural conscience but it is nevertheless an excellent point of departure to think how citizens can feel the need to ask a government to change a legal structure, in the Catalan context, to reconsider some specific articles of the Spanish Constitution. Disobedience has been on the Spanish government’s representatives’ lips lately when they refer to the Catalan government, its pro-independence elected members and its pro-independence citizens in general. The frame allowing them to use such a word, disobedience, is the Spanish Constitution of 1978. The disobedience, for them, consists in the organization of referendums (which the Constitution does not allow without previous agreement from the Constitutional Court) or the proclamation of the Catalan Republic on October 27, 2017.

But the problem is also that, as Deva Woodly reminded us in a previous seminar (“#BLACKLIVESMATTER and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements”), people usually think of social movements as an interruption of the political status quo.[ii] But, she said, social movements are a part of the functioning of democratic institutions. In this framework, the pro-independence movement in Catalonia, which has grown exponentially in the last few years, would enable democracy to correct itself through a “re-politicization of the public sphere” (Young in Woodly). In this context, the features of civil disobedience[iii] are central to Catalonian’s movement towards secession: first conscientiousness, as the movement is arguing the lack of respect and principle of justice from Spanish policymakers; second, communication and publicity, as the movement seeks to draw public national and international attention to get support for the condemnation of the Spanish State’s treatment of Catalans and their Institutions (and indeed, the dissemination of this condemnation and of Catalan national life in general is done through many channels: online videos, social media in general, live streaming of political life, protests, interviews, to name a few); third, non-violence, which has been underscored by pro-independence movement supporters, in contrast with their denunciation of the Spanish State’s violent response to the referendum of October 1, 2017. In all these features, the political and strategic use of a public space, its re-appropiation, has been instrumental.

The pro-independence Catalan movement calls into question our obligation to abide by a Constitution for the sole reason that it had once been legally instituted and has been ruling a country for years. For Thoreau, citizens have two options: if they consider the law unjust, they can try to change it by legal means (for example voting) and meanwhile follow the law; or they have the right to break the civil pact. Thoreau’s text set out important questions about citizens’ right to disobey the State: “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right” (7). Here, however, one should ask how to think about civil disobedience when it comes to a group of people: how can citizens claim the right to disobey the State not individually but collectively, as it is the case in the Catalan pro-independence movement?

The question of citizens’ rights when confronted with what they deem an unjust law is precisely the heart of the matter in Catalonia’s political confrontation with the Spanish government. The Constitutional Court refused to give permission for a Catalan independence referendum to be organized: to have done so would have been permission to amend the 1978 Constitution and would have impacted its Preliminary Title giving national sovereignty to the Spanish people that states the “indisoluble unidad de la Nación española, patria común e indivisible de todos los españoles.”[iv] The indivisibility of the nation is indeed what is at stake. The Catalan Parliament could have waited until a motion to reform the Constitution was accepted and that the self-determination of the Spanish Autonomous Community recognized. But it disobeyed.

The first disobedience, in fact, was in the legal realm: on January 23, 2013, the Catalan Parliament approved the “Resolució 5/X del Parlament de Catalunya, per la qual s’aprova la Declaració de sobirania i del dret a decidir del poble de Catalunya,” a text that attributed sovereignty to the Catalan people and declared their right to decide.[v] In its Preamble, the Catalonian Resolution insists that the Spanish state rejected both Catalonian attempts to dialogue and the democratic will of the Catalan people. Self-government, collective will, Catalan people, “we are a nation,” the vocabulary and concepts used in this resolution explicitly refers and opposes themselves to the language used in the Preamble of the Spanish Constitution of 1978, which guarantees sovereignty to the Spanish people, democratic coexistence and the existence of the Spanish nation. From the moment of the publication of the Resolution on, the opposition to Spain of the Catalan pro-independence movement has been presented as a democratic necessity, as a defense of citizens’ power of decision about their future. It is certain, however, that the pro-independence movement is a disruption of the status quo that has governed Spain since the transition. This status quo was guaranteed by the adherence of all to the Spanish Constitution, which was overwhelmingly approved by Catalans. However, since politics has evolved since 1978, while, of course, governments always work with the laws that govern and constitute a country, diverse concepts of legality and illegality have been circulating in discourse about Catalans’ perceived rebellion both nationally and internationally.

In fact, the perception that foreign governments and media have on the issue is revealing, as shown by the first sentence of Le Monde’s editorial “En Catalogne, la politique du pire” of October 23, 2017: “L’Espagne vit un tragédie.”[vi] This editorial, written before the declaration of the Catalan Republic of October 27, develops a critique of how the independent movement is organizing itself in Catalonia, as anyone could expect coming from a main newspaper of a centralist country such as France (“Les indépendantistes vendent de l’illusion”). But more than anything, the French newspaper, as many others, adopts the predictable attitude of watching the events through a legal lens: if the Constitution does not allow Catalans to decide their own future, then their attempt to do so is an act of rebellion to which the State has the right to respond. Interestingly enough, the article affirms “On ne peut pas ne pas relever que M. Puigdemont a bien peu de respect pour la démocratie” without even alluding once to the Spanish State’s violence on October 1, 2017, which was indeed an attack on the demos.

But maybe Le Monde’s editorial was not just responding to the fear of disobedience but also to another fear, one that is particularly haunting Europe these days: the dangers of nationalism. In my presentation during this seminar, I will elaborate both on the notion of civil disobedience in contemporary Catalonia and on why leftist Catalan citizens in favor of a disobedience to get an independent Catalonia take ideological distance from nationalism –this, although contradictory as I will explain, should nevertheless not come as a surprise given the impact of nationalist discourses around the globe, especially recently. Given the history of Catalan intention to secede, how can we conceptually understand the Catalan pro-independence left’s disobedience as ideologically opposed to nationalism?

It is now urgent, more than ever, to ask what it means to disobey a State in order to defend a nation in the twenty-first century —it is, indeed, different than thinking the nineteenth-century nation-state. It is even more important to assert that current governments’ status quo in the western democratic world leave little legal room for social and political experimentation and that this has a very strong impact on how citizens believe in the democratic project. New social movements are oftentimes looked at with skeptical eyes. But they have always laid down important foundations for our democratic experiment. From the Paris Commune in France to the anarcho-syndicalists in Spain or the 15M and Occupy movement more recently, all social movements, even if perceived as a threat to social order from a part of our society, always ask us to rethink how our democracy functions and how it can be re-experimented, re-negotiated, re-invented.



[i] Thoreau, Henry David. On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. The Project Gutenberg EBook, 1849.

[ii] Woodly, Deva. “#BLACKLIVESMATTER and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements.” Accessed Nov 16, 2017.


[iv] Constitución Española. «BOE» N. 311. 29 Dec 1978.

[v] “Resolución 5/X del Parlamento de Cataluña, por la que se aprueba la Declaración de soberanía y del derecho a decidir del pueblo de Cataluña. 23, January, 2013. PDF. Accessed nov 7, 2017.

[vi] Le Monde. “En Catalogne, la politique du pire.” Editorial. 23 October, 2017. Accessed 25 Oct, 2017.