As tension increases in Catalonia, there have been calls for widespread civil disobedience against the Spanish government. Even the recent referendum itself, along with its 2014 precursor, have been described as acts of civil disobedience.
This popularity of gathering en masse in disobedience to the central government has been inspired in large part by the anti-austerity efforts of one group: the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca or Platform for the Mortgage-Affected (PAH). The outgoing disobedient Catalan government is a peculiar mix of anti-austerity parties, which have supported the PAH’s fight for people’s housing rights, and the Catalan establishment party that has generally opposed it.
The PAH was founded in Barcelona in 2009 in the aftermath of the financial crisis, which burst the Spanish housing bubble. It now has around 200 groups across Spain. Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau was the movement’s spokesperson before moving into institutional politics. The PAH is famous for its innovative protests, which it calls acts of civil disobedience. This includes physically stopping evictions, organising sit-ins in banks and squats in empty buildings that belong to banks.
The movement arose as a response to hundreds of thousands of Spanish households facing mortgage defaults, evictions, homelessness and lifelong debt. Unlike many other countries, Spain lacks personal bankruptcy legislation. This leaves people in negative equity with large debts even after having their homes repossessed and becoming homeless. In contrast to all the evictions and homelessness, Spain has more than 3m empty homes, mainly in the hands of banks, vulture funds and other financial institutions.
Through the PAH, people collectively put pressure on both the banks and the state to cancel people’s debts and provide social housing. The movement campaigns for legal changes to eradicate mortgage debt for repossessed families and increase social housing by using the empty housing stock. Alongside this, the PAH practices civil disobedience, both to support the campaign and to solve the homelessness and indebtedness of individual households.
The PAH stops evictions everyday across Spain by gathering dozens of people at short notice to block the doorway of families due to be evicted. In most cases, bailiffs and police refrain from forcing their way in and the eviction is suspended or postponed. Through sit-ins, the PAH puts pressure on the bank to negotiate and to pardon mortgage debt and provide social housing. In many cases, usually after years of struggle, families achieve these aims in full or in part.
The PAH also runs a social housing project called Obra Social by taking control of empty properties that are owned by banks. Here, the PAH occupies entire empty apartment blocks and carries out a needs-based assessment of which families should be allowed to move in.
The aim is to turn the buildings into official social housing where the households pay an affordable rent based on their income. Most households in Obra Social buildings remain, some have been granted permission to stay, and only in very few cases have people been evicted from them.
These seemingly radical methods of political activism have gained widespread legitimacy. Most Spanish people now think that housing and mortgage legislation illegitimately favours the banks and that adequate housing should be a right, as article 47 of the Spanish constitution states.
Legitimacy vs the law
Civil disobedience is a liberal concept, which (unlike anarchism) does not mean a general disregard for the law. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. claimed to have “the very highest respect for the law”, while disobeying illegitimate discriminatory segregation laws. For the practitioners of civil disobedience, legitimacy comes from a higher sense of morality or justice than the law that they protest.
This separation between the legal and the legitimate lies at the heart of civil disobedience. And over the last eight years, the PAH has made civil disobedience acceptable to a large part of the Catalan population.
Nobody disputes that the Spanish law and constitution leave no room for secession. For the Spanish government, the buck stops with the constitution (though not when it comes to housing apparently).
For the majority of Catalans, who want a proper referendum, this position lacks legitimacy because they see their right to decide their future as a higher form of morality and justice than the constitution. For many observers outside of Spain, a legal and orderly referendum also seems like a reasonable solution.
So the situation is ripe for widespread civil disobedience against the Spanish government in Catalonia. Unilateral declarations of independence, without a proper referendum, are unlikely to gain legitimacy for the Catalan government internationally. But, equally, more repression from the central government will likely reduce its legitimacy.
Catalan institutions may now become laboratories for how to disobey state policies. For many Catalans, it will mean a form of resisting occupation. And if this disobedience remains civil and non-violent, it could well win the battle for international legitimacy, too.