From based to cringe: Tabarnia and badly waged memetic guerrilla

The Spanish War of Succession was a pan-European conflict ignited by the death of Charles II in 1700. Charles II was the last of the Spanish Habsburgs, a product of several generations of endogamic marriage, and is thus popularly seen as the archetype of decadent inbred monarchy. He was called “the Bewitched”, and suffered of many physical illnesses, probably related to some hormone deficiency. The genetic causes of his ailments can only be speculated about, and if his mental capabilities were preserved or not is an object of discussion. What is definitely clear is that he was practically incapable to rule and that died childless, with Philip V of House Bourbon as his heir. Having claims to both the throne of France and the totality of Spanish possessions all over the world, the concentration of power on Philip’s hands was problematic to the European balance of power. The subsequent war, which lasted until 1714, involved almost all European powers and their respective colonial possessions, and changed the political landscape of the continent forever. The war also served as proof of concept for the Westphalian system established in 1648. The collective security of the different nation-states it had engendered was raised as the main concern and immediate cause of the conflict.

The victorious Philip V finally accepted the Spanish throne in exchange for renouncing the throne of France. The main beneficiary of the war, however, was the British Empire, which gained the Mediterranean ports of Gibraltar and Menorca and commercial access to the Spanish Americas, including its lucrative slave trade. During their rule from 1500 onwards, the Spanish Habsburgs had generally been reluctant to unite all of their possessions into a single, monolithic political entity. All of their estates preserved their structure, institutions, language and legal codes. They held all of their many titles separately: King of Castile, King of Aragon and Sicily, King of Naples, King of the Romans, Duke of Burgundy, Duke of Brabant, Count of Barcelona, and so on. The practical government of every region often fell on the shoulders of specially appointed Viceroys. For instance: Columbus’ voyage to America was funded by the Crown of Castile, so all of the rewards derived from it were tied to said title in exclusivity. This means Habsburg subjects from Aragon or Naples, for example, could not settle the American territories; a fact which explains the special influence in the Americas of Castilian culture.

The Bourbons, however, imported the concept of centralization which had turned their native France into one of the main power players of Europe. Philip V of Bourbon issued the Nueva Planta Decrees from 1714 to 1716, ending the heterogeneous structure of his kingdoms. He established Castilian Spanish as the official language and eliminated local privileges, constitutions and laws. One side effect of these legal measures was the ascension of a new Bourgeois class, the general characteristics of which we have discussed before. Aragonese subjects, which had been precluded from trading with Americas, suddenly were able to seize the lucrative opportunities offered by trans-Atlantic trade. Bourbon centralization was a key condition for the Golden Age of cities in the Mediterranean coast, such as Barcelona, Valencia and Cartagena; all of them cities which had sided with the Habsburgs during the war. Textiles, rum, sugar and slaves flowed to and from the Caribbean. Industrialists got rich, while traditional aristocracy saw the privileges local law had granted them greatly diminished.

Ironically, and somewhat incongruously, 1714, the year the Catalan capital of Barcelona fell to the Bourbon army, is nowadays deplored in Catalan Separatist circles as the beginning of Castilian oppression and colonization of Catalonia. It signals the end of the privileges and laws established there in the Middle Ages, so it’s melodramatically described by Catalan Nationalists as a sort of ethnocide. In spite of this myth, Catalonia was never conceived as a colony by the Spanish throne. If something, Bourbon rule signaled the beginning of the special economic protection it received from then on by the successive regimes at the Kingdom’s capital, Madrid. Since the bourgeois revolutions of the 19th century, Catalan Nationalist movements of various shapes and colors have come and go, trying to find a fit within the wider political narratives of the moment: Traditionalism, Spring of Nations-Liberalism, Fascism, 1930s Anarcho-Communism, Social Democracy…

The last iteration of the Catalonia as Oppressed People meme reached its peak in the mid 2010s. The Bourgeois-conservative social base of Catalan Separatism had been brokering deals with the Spanish government for decades, helping them achieve majorities in exchange for relinquishing some of the State’s powers in the region. With the threat of pushing for independence always at hand, Catalan regional governments had wrestled many concessions from Madrid, and had control of the education, judiciary and health systems. After the 2008 economic crisis, however, they overplayed their hand by rallying the people for secession too seriously. Protests and initiatives coming from the Catalan institutions (still formally dependent on Madrid) were openly and routinely calling for revolt against the government. Every year, the crowds in Separatist rallies grew larger and larger.

The non-separatist fraction of the Catalan population, more than half of the population, had been playing dumb for a while. Terribly apathetic, they pretended the disappearance of the Spanish state from their region was not happening. Being too vocal about one’s Spanish loyalties was definitely uncool in polite society: Catalans were democratic, sophisticated, modern, “European”. The rest of Spain was considered authoritarian, primitive, backwards, “African”. There was a similar dynamic to the one established by the Italian Lega Nord regions and the South of that country. The obvious racist connotations in this were mostly not addressed in public discourse, for complicated reasons of Spanish politics which may be addressed in future posts.

The main meme the weak anti-separatist factions were brandishing was that of the oppressed, silent majority: people are afraid to speak up against Catalanist establishment for fear of social reprisals. Catalan Nationalists were portrayed as racist snobs, while those loyal to Spain where normal people having to put up with their prejudice. Unsurprisingly, playing the victim card didn’t work, and continuous appeals for the Spanish State to protect this silent majority did not advance in any way the loyalist cause.

Our top-notch memetic forensics lab analysis, here at the Outpost, has found out the silent majority meme suffered an interesting mutation sometime around 2013. The new meme was codified as the existence of a region within Catalonia: Tabarnia. This region, which roughly comprised the provinces of Tarragona and Barcelona, happened to concentrate most wealth and, at the same time, most of anti-Separatist sentiment. Tabarnian counties were urban, multicultural, cosmopolitan and with deep ties to the rest of Spain and Europe. The separatist counties, in contrast, were rural, identity-obsessed, xenophobic and narrow-minded. So the narrative was not anymore about a fearful, silent majority oppressed by Catalan supremacists. It was about a vibrant society trying to leave behind identitarian regionalism. The idea was played as a kind of satirization of Catalan Secessionism: if Catalonia separates from Spain, then Tabarnia will separate from Catalonia, leaving it impoverished and isolated.

The meme was highly successful. It was based to be Spanish. Calling oneself a Tabarninar even carried a certain element of rebellion. The most important adaptation of the idea, though, was its inoculation route. It seemed to be organic, spontaneous, rhizomic. Lacking any institutional support from the Catalanist establishment, the concept had started appearing semi-ironically in message boards, blogs and social networks. It was not a political initiative, tied to any particular party, but a cultural phenomenon. It was impervious to the Catalanist propaganda machine, which had been using schools and the media to promote its message for years. The Tabarnia meme swarmed Separatist talking points. The real life fiascos of late 2017, in which the Separatist leaders declared independence and then inmediately backed down, only reinforced the idea of Catalanism being the product of weak and retrograde minds.

This success did not last long. The Spanish State, which had lacked a coherent PR strategy during the whole affair, tried to latch into Tabarnia’s success. Anti-separatist institutions started organizing meetings and protests, naming journalist Jaume Vives as official spokesman to the media. Vives gave frequent interviews to the media, defining the concept of Tabarnia further. Spanish playwright and actor Albert Boadella was named president of Tabarnia, even giving a satirical inaugural speech; many famous personalities also joined the mock Tabarnian government. It was narrowed down, made explicit, solid. Tabarnia now had a structure, a face, defined activities, a certain corporeality. When you told people about it, they knew exactly what you were talking about. By giving it a platform in media, even if said media were favorable to it, the whole memetic operation was blown. Tabarnia had been a shadow, a cultural guerrilla; now, it was very easy to identify and counter. Having turned into a tree, it was easily plucked; the meme lost fuel and disappeared as a talking point. It is somewhat cringe to unironically invoke the concept now. When a joke has been explained, it suddenly becomes not funny.

Luckily (?) for the Kingdom of Spain, the fleeing or imprisonment of Separatist leaders, the metastatization of political malaise all over the country and the Coronavirus pandemic have all contributed to putting Catalan Separatism decidedly on the background. The beast, however is neither dead nor alone. And, elsewhere in the world, in different places, a feeling of changing winds and uncertainty has risen. Storms are brewing. Aspiring provocateurs, activists and statesmen would do well to learn a little about how to appropriately wage a meme war.