Catalonia – modern propaganda works
Catalonia is an autonomous region of Spain, having far reaching rights of self-government. In the regional parliament of Catalonia the separatist coalition has won a tiny majority of seats. The separatist parties got less than a majority of votes, but could form a government, because the electoral system gives more weight to rural constituencies where the separatists have strongholds.
The regional government, first under President Mas, now President Puigdemont, wants Catalonia to be an independent country. However separation is not allowed by the Spanish constitution. The Constituional Court has therefore declared all measures like a referendum on independence illegal and unconstitutional. The regional government in Barcelona defied the constitutional authorities and set the 1st of October for a referendum on independence.
The separatists do not accept to be part of Spain, so they do not obey the constitutional court. They want a revolution. Revolutions are by definition illegal, because they break the existing legal limits. If you are a revolutionary, if you want to overthrow a constitution, you want the revolution to prevail – preferably with peaceful means, but risking civil war, willing to provoque the existing constitutional powers like the democratically elected central government and the independent justice of Spain.
Revolutions have at all times fascinated people, especially intellectuals. There is a strong narrative of change in the name of THE PEOPLE. Even most atrocious crimes against people who do not share the revolutionary elan are often justified in the name of history. The people were always right, they were US and had to fight THEM, the counter-revolutionaries, the Kulaks, the capitalists, the Jews. Many western intellectuals believed this narrative and defended the purges, the GULAG and the totalitarianism of Stalin. Even after Chrushtshew had made the crimes public, many continued to support Stalinism.
The Nazis had a sophisticated system of propaganda in place to suggest to the German people that they speak for them, drawing a line of separation inside the German population between US (the Arians) and THEM (the Jews). We, the German nation had been humiliated in Versailles, WE were the victims and must fight THEM. Victimism is a strong narrative followed by nationalists all over the world. Lamentably as Mitterand once put it to the point: „Nationalism kills“.
I will not discuss here if any revolution is good or bad on its merits. I just believe that a revolution against a democratic constituion is very dangerous and has no justification, while a democratic revolution against authoritarian or totalitarian regimes may be the only way out.
All revolutions, communist or nationalist, live from the fascination of propaganda. The bolsheviks were a tiny minority, but their propaganda narrative was, that the PEOPLE had staged the October Revolution. During the cold war, the communist dictatorships called themselves PEOPLES DEMOCRACIES, their ELECTIONS were so successful, that the government regularly got 99% of the votes. If you doubt that narrative, you could think about that in prison, in labour camps, or in psychiatric institutions (because to be an enemy of the PEOPLE could only be explained by mental disorders).
Propaganda became more and more sophisticated especially during the cold war. The new generation no longer remembers how strong feelings were manipulated by propaganda. Now many people believe this is an effect of the new media. But the basics of propaganda have not changed.
The main instrument is to divulge a narrative that gives people an alternative view of the facts opposed to that of „the enemy“, who cannot be credible just because it is „the enemy of the people“. The narrative is made immune against criticism because the critics are bad people (Popper described this in „the Open Society and its Enemies“ just after World War II). The best propaganda is indirect, winning over naive opinion leaders of the other side to take over the language of OUR propaganda, because they want to be seen as „sinding with the good“.
However, propaganda has reached a new stage with Putin and Trump, Erdogan and Brexiteers deeply engaged in fake-news-wars using old and new media. What I want to highlight is the methods of propaganda war applied by the Catalan revolutionaries, and the naivete of foreign observers to fall into the propaganda trap.
The narrative of a subdued nation being victim of others is part of all kind of nationalism. The Catalan separatists refer to the time of the dictator Franco when their nationality was not recognized, their language foirbidden, and – like all Spanish people – they lacked political freedom. But after Franco’s death more than 40 years ago Spain embarked on a very successful democratic path, the autonomy of the regions became very strong, the central government tried to balance huge differences in economic wealth by establishing transfers from richer to poorer regions (as is the case in many federal states like Germany, as is the case in the EU with regional funds).
If there was a victim in Catalonia it was the Spanish language, which was years ago actively suppressed by democratic Catalan governments, although a huge minority in Catalonia speaks Spanish as their first language. In schools less hours were decreed for Spanish language than for the English language.
Some years ago there were negotiations with the central government leading to even more financial autonomy of Catalonia. The Constitutional Court (invoked by the Partido Popular) ruled, that this went to far, breaking the necessary solidarity with the poorer regions of Spain. The separatists made of this a narrative, that the court was part of THEM against US, not a decision within the ruling constitution. That was a first revolutionary narrative.
The regional government then embarked on the method of referenda. It is a strong narrative because many people believe that referenda are a higher stage of democracy than the representative, election based democracy. The narrative pretends that referenda can even break the constitution and legitimize revolution (Latin American Caudillos like the Bolivarians in Venezuela made this their method).
This view is shared by a lot of intellectuals and media people especially in Western Europe who believe that radical change is necessary and parliamentary democracy is not able to produce that change. In Catalonia they rever thew wrong people. Without looking into the nitty-gritty details in Catalonia many of them just believe that every referendum is pure democracy and had to be accepted like a dogma.
To get an even stronger narrative you need pictures in the media, especially over the new media. Western media love infotainment. Part of it is that the narrative of many people in a mass demonstration give better pictures than any abstract counting of opinion pollsters. The Arab Spring was an example how much the visible demonstrations can deceive, because the invisible may be the silent majority. The media want to be concrete: so they often interview „people in the street“ – but that is an even greater deception, because the people who stayed at home are discarded, and the sound bites from the street especially in a politically heated atmosphere have no representativity at all and are open to outright manipulation.
For political romantics parliamentary debates are boring and not good for propaganda purposes. Propaganda needs a black-and-white narrative. Violence always draws attention. Islamist terrorists live from media attention, so why should revolutionaries not do the same.
Provoking violence in a democracy is rather easy. The right to demonstrate has often been abused to produce pictures of violence. At the G20-meeting in Hamburg the media covered more about flames in the street than about the topics discussed at the summit. The media love to show burning tyres, barricades, and stones throwed against martially looking heavily armed police squadrons who have to keep order.
Many seem to believe that (like the speaker in the British Parliament) the police should just say „Order, order…“, but never use force to get that order guaranteed. So the next strong narrative to be used by propaganda is „Police Violence“ against (always „peaceful“) demonstrators. When the world press was waiting for „BREAKING NEWS“, very timely the windows broke in the polling station where Puigdemont voted.
The propaganda war is also a language war: the regional government spoke of the „Spanish Police“ stopping Catalan „voters“. OUR side always exerts „RIGHTS“ (of self-determination, of voting, of demonstrating), it is insinuated that THEY break that right – whatever the legal situatuion really is. This narrative puts the right of the street against the right of the courts – the mob against democracy.
However, most western press followed that language of „THEM against US“ instead of of criticizing this nationalist narrative. They reorted as if a civil war was taking place and not an operation of the competent police on order of the competent constitutional bodies – by the way backed by three of the four big parties in the Spanish Parliament.
Even in case one would accept its legitimacy, the Catalan referendum had some very strong flaws: there was no quorum to safeguard that the vote of a small minority would count even if a huge number boycotts the illegal vote. Counting was not independent because those who were against the referendum did not participate in counting, so numbers are not at all reliable.
Puigdemont now declares 90% voted in favour of independence. This is as true as the old communist election results of 99% for the governing party. What makes me very sad is that serious papers outside Spain then put the headline: „90% voting for independence“. This is not only fake news but it is helping those who risk civil war.
The propaganda war will go on. The excellent newspaper „El Pais“ more than once reported about tens of thousands of interventions from Russian hackers into the Catalan campaign. This is on a scale comparable to the Ruissian intervention into the US elections. This gives the whole affair an international flavour that makes the future of this conflict even more dangerous. Europe must intervene, but not as a so-called „neutral“, but forcefully in favour against nationalism, against fake-news, against a non-democratic revolutionary project, for democracy in all of Spain, and not least against Russian interference targeted against the integrity of Europe.