By Jason Michael

Nothing is more shocking, more scandalous, and more painful to the free than the sight of a uniformed thug tearing ballot boxes from the hands of slaves. But what this has revealed is a call to arms. The fight for democracy is on.

On Sunday the world watched on in shock as the Guardia Civil, Spain’s military police force, brutally cracked down on unarmed civilians in Catalunya as they went to the polls in an independence referendum. With all due respect to the experiences and feelings of the Catalans themselves, we too – those who witnessed the unfolding of the violent repression online and on the news – are traumatised. Such things have been seen before. In fact the archives of news rooms everywhere are filled with pictures and footage of state sponsored violence against civilians, but what made Sunday different was that it happened in Europe.

Western liberal and democratic societies have been lulled into the belief that democracy guarantees them – “the people” – rights, and gives them power over the state and the exercise of power. It is understood that, in the preservation of the rule of law, the state is invested by the people with the monopoly of legitimate violence. There is nothing scandalous or outrageous when the police use “proportionate” violence against rioters or rampaging football hooligans for example. Society tolerates law enforcement officers expending a certain level of force in the apprehension of criminals. In this regard violence in and of itself is not, in the main, a serious social concern.

In Europe – or in the European Union to be more specific – we do not expect the deployment of the instruments of the state entrusted with the use of violence, be that the police or the armed forces, against the general population. Our natural reaction to this is horror and revulsion. It is intolerable. Yet when the object of this violence is to interrupt and stop a vote; an election or a referendum – the most sacred symbol of democracy and the power of the people – we are traumatised. It is certainly difficult to remember an event like this happening in Europe before Catalunya.

Our problem with such violent political policing is not the violence per se. We are used to violence. Western civilisation was built on violence, and is perhaps the greatest purveyor and consumer of warfare and state sponsored violence in the history of the human race. Rather, our problem with this sacrilege is that it shatters our illusions pertaining to the nature and power of democracy. It reminds us that democracy is a pacifier; a ritual that sedates people with the tranquiliser of the mere impression of control while the state qua the ruling establishment is free to get on with the business of power.

Modern democratic states thus have more in common with student councils in schools than they do with self-governing communes. Voters are perfectly free to debate and vote on the colour of the walls in the classrooms and on the school’s recycling policy, but questions of staffing and teachers’ salaries are never on the agenda. Real power remains untouched and hidden from the students in the principal’s office, with the members of the school board, and with the Department of Education. Likewise in our democracies, we are free to elect the state’s temporary employees – elected heads of state and members of legislative parliamentary assemblies – but we, nor the representatives we elect, have any say over the powerful bureaucratic establishment behind the state. All our democracies are to a greater or lesser extent corporatist oligarchies obfuscated by a veneer of popular sovereignty.

This truth is not a comforting thought, so – it being true nonetheless – we, as a society, impose upon ourselves a scotoma; a wilful ignorance of the truth so long as that truth is kept out of sight. But when the people, who are the fundamental economic assets of the state, challenge the power of the hidden state – and thereby affect a real conflict of power – democracy it cast aside in an instant. It is at this moment, in what is a classic “state of exception,” that the instruments of state violence – the highest priority of which is always the protection of the state – are deployed against the people.

In Catalunya on Sunday this is exactly what happened. This too is what would have happened in 2014 had the British state come any closer to losing Scotland. Nothing else explains the level of media manipulation, the threats, and the lies, and why when the polls predicted independence the month before the referendum all the wheels of the Westminster state were set into motion to guarantee Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. As modern democracies need to preserve this illusion of “true democracy,” violence is always the last option. On Sunday it became apparent to the Spanish state that it was out of options in Catalunya.

It is not by accident I have spoken of democracy here as a ritual and the attempt to suspend it with the application of state violence as a sacrilege. This is because the liberal democracy is a political religion, and like any religion it has its clergy and laity – its orders of kleros and laos. Just as the priest is made ontologically different from the layman at ordination, those behind the state are transformed by power into powerholders. All other ranks of humanity – the laos and the demos respectively – are pacified with fleeting participatory rituals. In church this is bread and wine. In the democracy this is polling cards and the ballot boxes. This was why watching police officers smash up polling stations and violently confiscating ballot boxes was so reminiscent of the assassination of Oscar Romero. It was the murder of the priest on the altar. It was sacrilege.

Still, however, it was more than this. In the murder of the holy man and in the seizure of ballot boxes there was an unveiling, a denouement. We saw that the saint dies like any other man and that power is not in fact in the vote. Thus it becomes a scandal, and it becomes such because we have learned the truth – and, to continue this religious analogy, the truth has set us free. Today it is democracy and not religion that is the opium of the people.

In these atrocious events in Catalunya something awful has been exposed, a problem we cannot allow to go unresolved. Catalunya is the Kristallnacht of our time, and we know there are forces encroaching on us from the political margins that promise a solution. We cannot, we must not give in to those forces. Our problem is that we cannot simply replace this “democracy” with a new totalitarianism, but neither can we keep democracy as it is; not now that we have seen it as a hidden totalitarianism. Catalunya is a crisis, not only for the question of Catalan independence, but for the future of democracy and freedom in Europe. Once again Catalunya is the locus of the showdown – a new Battle of the Ebro – between freedom and fascism.

This crisis presents us with a choice, and we have no option but to take sides. Everything depends on the outcome. After Sunday we must be determined to give the masters of this faux globalised democracy no cause to boast “Hemos pasado.” Now is the time to call out with our sisters and brothers in Catalunya – ¡No pasarán!


“Bob Hilliard was a Church of Ireland pastor.”

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