He speaks English, Spanish, Portuguese and, also, Catalan. In fact, Catalan is the language in which his new book has appeared first. Thomas Harrington, professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, has just published Una democràcia cívica en temps autoritaris - "A civic democracy in authoritarian times" (Gregal, 2018), a collection of the articles on the Catalan independence process which the US academic has published over the last few years. Indeed, from his North American vantage point, he warns of the "insignificance" of a New York Times editorial mentioning Catalonia, in a country with a huge capacity to forget the world beyond its frontiers. On the Catalan referendum trial, which he sees as a "farce", he asserts that it is a "great opportunity" for civil disobedience. But right now he doesn't see the independence movement as having clear ideas on this.
How do you see the current situation in Catalonia from outside?
On the one hand, it is a time of great optimism. The exiled politicians, through their court processes, have demonstrated the lack of integrity of the Spanish judicial system. But, as always, there is the problem of the lack of media amplification of the Catalan cause. It doesn't have the means necessary to counterbalance the lies --to put it delicately-- which are told about the movement. The Spanish state has been exposed, but only a minority have seen that, in the face of the media machinery.
So the Spanish narrative still prevails?
(Laughs) The foreign minister Borrell is giving a lot of help to the independence cause. But it is a question of scale. Spain is part of the club of states. And the club of states has the tendency to protect its members. This is a basic structural factor.
Do people talk more about Catalonia than they did in 2012?
Quite a lot more. Perhaps not that much in the United States, which lives in its own galaxy in terms of international information. There is no interest in anything that isn't related to the American empire. But I have the impression that Europe is beginning to realise that that isn't something that's destined to disappear, and that the Spanish state is not ideal. The strategy of the exiles has contributed to this.
But is this strategy sufficient?
No. In the end, a national movement has to create its own momentum. The movement itself has to drive the operation. The independence movement has to take the plunge, if it wants to reach the goals it has declared. To wait for signals from others is a way of reaffirming its own impotence. Power has to arise from the movement itself.
How is this achieved?
It's a long process. The method is always to be very direct: look at who your enemy is, and know what their tactics are. And then respond in a clear and convincing way when they start to use them. In this case, their tactics are absurd.
For example, saying absurd things like that there is implicit supremacism in Catalan nationalism, or there's a coup mentality, and making these ideas hang in the air and then become a reality for people who don't read the news carefully. These ideas must be attacked. Who really are the descendants of the coup plotters here? The Partido Popular. If we want to be honest, they are the ones with links to supremacism and a coup mentality.
Is the counterargument to the Spanish narrative missing?
Yes. Up till now, it has not been made. This is also related to the lack of powerful media amplification, but there is a certain tendency of always wanting to be very polite. To be peaceful is one thing. But to be polite when you are facing people who are very rude is another. It's a very fine line. But you have to counterbalance their rhetoric.
Does civil disobedience also come in here?
I believe so. If I can make one criticism of the independence movement, it is that I don't believe that it has talked with the necessary clarity about civil disobedience, the consequences of it and how far people are willing go to assume those consequences. It's putting your body in front of the machine. It's a very drastic step, but sometimes it's necessary.
So does the independence movement have to assume that the consequences, in terms of repression, will be worse than those at present if it wants to see this through to the end?
Yes. If you examine many independence movements, there is always a moment in which somebody has to stand in the eye of the storm and wait to see what will happen. I am studying the Portuguese revolution. It was a peaceful revolution, but it was a peaceful revolution due to the courage of a group of captains who were willing to sacrifice themselves.
You must assume that the repression will be greater if the independence movement wants to see it through to the end
Back in 2012 you warned that the United States would not recognize a Catalan independence. Has the independence movement been too naïve for all these years?
Yes, it would be naïve to think that the United States would recognize an independent Catalonia immediately. The United States has military bases in Spain, it is a great imperial nation, and its interest is based on stability. Any change in Spain is unpleasant. They would wait until the last moment.
It was said from the United States, but also from Europe, that they "wouldn't be able to sit by passively and watch".
A taboo subject when we talk about Europe is the co-dependence that it has with the structures of NATO. And when we talk about NATO we talk about the United States. There is always a power in the shadows: the US. We cannot expect the Europeans to be especially fast to help the independence movement. Unlike in the countries of Eastern Europe, which were recognized quickly because it was in the geopolitical interests of the United States to do so.
Is international recognition as important as some people say?
I don't think so. It's a secondary element in planning a movement, in a certain revolutionary sense. First you have to think of the solidity of your movement before wasting energy thinking about the reactions of the others. This doesn't mean that the reactions of the others aren't important. But thinking about this, before thinking about the coherence and the strength of the movement, is to take energy away from the central focus.
Is the Catalan government doing a good job with its diplomacy?
The truth is it could be improved. There are a series of huge structural problems, when the Spanish government is crippling the capacity of the Catalan government. But there are methods that could be exploited that have not been exploited, such as in the area of citizen diplomacy. Diplomacy through social media. Catalonia is a country with great presence in the internet, but I don't know the extent to which it has exploited that potential. Another thing is that often we think that the most important cultural products are those that are most important for us.
Books, poetry, novels... I like Catalan literature very much, but I don't know the extent to which, and with a limited budget, the Catalan classics must be the central axis of a propaganda effort in the world. Catalan culture is hugely visual. Many people know Catalan culture without being conscious of it through their trips to Barcelona.
So a Netflix documentary, like Two Catalonias, has more weight than Josep Pla's El quadern gris?
Unfortunately, yes. I would like Josep Pla to be the most powerful cultural vehicle of the moment, but I don't believe that he is.
You believe that Catalonia has to exploit an epic narrative.
One of the fantastic characteristics that people have is their ability to adapt to the world around them. But this same malleability has created a certain allergy to the idea of an epic discourse about the nation. And unfortunately, because we'd like to live in a world where the epic is not necessary, the nation and the state are products of epic discourses. And that continues to be the reality today. People use the nation and the state as elements of great transcendence in their lives. I don't like this religious attitude, but it is a huge factor in national and social cohesion.
The independence movement hasn't spoken clearly enough about civil disobedience and its consequences
At several points in the book you refer to Israel. Is it a reference point for Catalonia?
What Israel is, and its way of articulating its national spirit, has many repugnant elements. But this does not mean that we can't admire its capacity to use cultural production to create a very cohesive idea, for itself and for the world, of national unity which has made possible the creation of an important state. It is a fascinating case of cultural planning. It shows us graphically what can be done.
Did you imagine that the images of the 1st October referendum would end up going round the world?
In an interview three or four years ago, I spoke about the revenge that would come out of the Spanish state. I wasn't sure which form this revenge would take, but knowing the history of Spain, you had to expect it. I didn't think that it would be so personal, directed so much at the citizens themselves. This surprised me. I thought they would have been a little more intelligent. This clearly shows the lack of imagination that is found in almost in all the structures of the regime of '78 [year of the current Spanish constitution]. The 1st October was the recycling of old forms of repression.
I imagine that you are not surprised by the role that was and is being played by the European Union.
It didn't surprise me. I could have imagined it. It is a European Union in crisis, incapable of reacting quickly.
What do you think was the main error of the independence movement last autumn?
I don't want to blame anybody. I have tried many times to put myself in the shoes of the protagonists. A little while ago I was able to talk to [exiled Catalan minister] Clara Ponsatí. And I asked her: "When you are a minister, do you have time to think"?. And she said no. The time for reflection is minimal. I have only compassion for the situation of the protagonists. However, if we want to be a little critical, the idea that a Spanish state led by the PP, the descendants of the Franco regime in many senses, would allow a declaration of independence without revenge, was a little naïve. And there should have been some thought before the 3rd October on how to react to the repression of the state. If, that day, there had been a call to mobilization, maybe things would have been different.
Do you understand the current deceleration of the Catalan government, waiting for a negotiation with the state?
I don't believe there is any possibility to do any more with Pedro Sánchez than with Rajoy. Thinking that Sánchez is any more interested in a Catalonia with full liberties within the Spanish state is very naïve. For me it is like Obama: it was just Bush with a facelift. Pedro Sánchez accepts the rules of the game of the Spanish state, its judiciary and the vision of Spain as a state that has to be unitary but allowing a little diversity. I don't expect anything from him.
If on 3rd October, there had been a call to mobilization, maybe things would have been different.
On more than one occasion, from unionism, the situation of Catalonia has been compared with that of Veneto, in Italy. Is it comparable?
No, that's absurd. But they know very well what they are doing. The Veneto movement has a strong component that is racist or at least tribalist. That is not the case in the history of Catalan nationalism. This extremist rhetoric is intended to provoke strong reactions in people who don't read the newspapers carefully. And the idea starts to float in the air. Not everybody has the tools to refute it.
On the other hand, Spain is compared with Turkey...
At first glance, that seems very harsh, and very probably the experience of the last 40 years has been a more democratic experience than that of Turkey. But what there is, is a deep state, designed to steer democracy towards predestined ends envisaged by those same people. And so comparisons can be made. In the judiciary there was a transplant of the Francoist system into the new democratic state.
What role have the Spanish media played in the Catalan conflict?
A very important role. Perhaps the most depressing part of all this has been the inability of the most intelligent voices of the state to understand the reality of Catalan society. Public opinion has been pushed towards more and more conservative extremes. At the moment Casado, Rivera and Vox are doing it. The left-wing media, instead of maintaining their rigour, have shifted to the right.
The independence movement congratulate itself every time that it appears in an editorial in the New York Times. But what is the real impact of that?
It's very difficult to explain to Catalans how insignificant everything is when you are in the United States. We have a huge capacity to forget about the world. There's a calculated bombardment of the public with trivial matters, leaving their interest in the outside world reduced to a minimum. In the United States nobody talks regularly about things that happen outside the United States. Even in the most educated sectors of society.
Right now there is a lot of debate about the legacy of the Franco regime. Is this legacy real?
Yes. If you had asked me fifteen years ago, I would have answered you then, that Spain was a democracy that had gone beyond the problems of the Franco regime. Today I can't respond in the same way. We have to speak clearly about the influence of José María Aznar in the evolution of Spanish politics. I regret to say it, but he is possibly the most important politician that Spain has had in the last 40 years.
What do you mean?
I don't say this out of admiration, but he has been the person that has most influenced the shape of Spanish political life. He arrived at the prime minister's office with a very clear idea: to change the tone and contents of public discourse about many things, among them the rights of the historical nations [Catalans, Basques, and Galicians]. And he was very successful in his efforts. To the point that El País, which used to be a major centre-left newspaper, is today an echo chamber for Aznar's talking points of 10 to 15 years ago.
So, Spain's Transition, was not so ideal.
Unfortunately, no. Everything can be seen more clearly now. For many years, the era of prosperity and the entry into the European Union hid many things. Among them, the failure to recognize the crimes of the Franco regime. A democracy can't be built on amnesia.
It's very naïve to think that there are any more possibilities with Sánchez than with Rajoy
How do you see the trial of the referendum case?
In the first place, as a farce from a legal point of view. Legal experts and courts of law in other countries are dumbfounded by the accusations that have been made. On the other hand, it is a great opportunity for the independence movement if it makes the world look hard at the reality. But there is no clear strategy in Catalan independence on how to confront sentences that will not be designed to serve justice, but rather to punish.
How do you believe that people should respond?
We return to the area of civil disobedience. If it is decided to carry out actions of civil disobedience, well planned, that could have a major impact. But I don't hear people talking about that. Letting the trial verdicts go by, without a clear and strong reaction, would be a very grave error.
What type of civil disobedience actions?
I am not a strategist. But I have heard people talking about putting up resistance to the transfer of the prisoners to Madrid [where the trial is to be held]. That would be saying: "We consider these trials to be illegitimate". This is civil disobedience. That is only one example.
There is debate about the use of terms like "political prisoner" or "exile". Do you have any reservations?
No, none at all. That is what they are. The most flagrant example is the case of the Jordis. If they are not political prisoners, I don't know who is. They are two men who didn't do anything violent, they were not even politicians, they did not even disobey any Spanish law, and they didn't vote for anything in the Parliament, or anything at all. They simply organized peaceful demonstrations of civil resistance in front of a ministry.
You say that you were a federalist. Today do you see any possibility of that, in Spain?
The truth is that I don't. I believed very much in that, in the possibility of a multiple and plural Spain. And for a long time I defended it. But this depends on an attitude of real dialogue on all sides, which we have probably never seen anywhere.
Do you see any way out of the conflict in the short or medium term?
No. Regrettably it will be a long fight and the government of Spain is counting on Catalans to lose interest in the movement over time, frustrating them with all kinds of governmental devices. Whether this strategy works or not will depend on the reaction of the Catalans. Are they prepared to keep on fighting and saying no?