Flags made in China
Original title: ‘Banderes Made in China’
By Marina Garcés
Translation by Daniel Beizsley
-The Chinese will do a lot of business out of this.
-Out of what?
-Out of the flags.
I get into Madrid on the 28th October 2017 in the morning, a day after the Catalan Republic was declared on the steps of Parliament. El Paseo del Prado is a river of Spanish flags that stretches all the way to the demonstration convened at Colon. On the balconies there are even more Spanish flags than there are esteladesin the towns and village across Catalonia. At home we’ve been used to their presence for some time. The flags on the balconies and the ones held up on demonstrations form part of a new emerging landscape that is connected with stories and events from the not too distant past. My friends from Madrid are surprised, anxious even — “it’s full of flags” — they say, referring to the pre-constitutional and constitutional versions of the Spanish flag on display. They’re used to seeing the flag during official events or being used by the national football team but its use as part of a protest movement is new to them.
At home when I was a child we would hang the Catalan flag on the balcony every year on the 11th of September.After, my mother would cut it into pieces so my sister and I could wear it as a cape on demonstrations. We used to buy the silk flags from the market and not long after they’d become discoloured. Some years later the independentista stickers appeared and with the gang from school we’d go out in the afternoon to hang out on the streets of Eixample. It was the 80s and we were 12 or 13. Back then you were indepe, fascist, hippie or posh. We didn’t know any other identities. Sometimes we would head up to the flat that belonged to Estat Catalàthat was on the corner of Carrer Bruc and Diputació to search for souvenirs to put on our school folders. Never did anyone, neither at home nor at school, ask us where we had acquired the material or explain to us the history of Estat Català. Nobody spoke about it. These days as a mother and as a professor this attitude surprises me. At that time the legacy of the transition to democracy was still strained and the slogans and symbols we received were decontextualized and we weren’t aware of the histories of the organisations that formed the background to our juvenile posturing. We continued to be radicalised by what our families had defended and maintained during the war and then throughout Francoism. The flag, be it Catalan or the estelada, more than speaking of the future, spoke of a past that still left a bitter taste and one that stifled the “normality” and modernisation that the new Spanish democracy, including the Pujol Generalitat,wanted to represent. Even today there are still intellectuals that deny the prohibition of Catalan insisting that it was merely ‘under protection.’ Our parents couldn’t help us with our Catalan homework because they didn’t know how to write the language they spoke. For our generation, we studied as our grandparents did. Especially my group. Grandparents now find themselves in the same situation with respect to our children. The mutilation of the language was lived through even if in the last years of the Franco dictatorship a few literary prizes and books in Catalan were permitted.
Language, culture and education are not just public matters — they are the trauma of the social, personal and intimate facets of lives that endured such violence for decades that now result in the daily and commonplace being radicalised.
Bit by bit, a semblance of ‘normality’ appeared through various pacts and concessions. To study in Catalan ceased to be a victory, even though at times it still felt like one. Across Catalonia the new autonomous institutions began to consolidate power and establish themselves which naturally diminished the flag’s aura of resistance. I’ve not worn one since. Not even in the last 10 years in which its combative reappearance has taken on a new feeling of which we haven’t seen the full consequences. The independence movement continued to grow from its student base, neighbourhood groups and the larger political organisaitons culminating in the mobilisation against the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. Many Catalan anti-capitalist groups participated in the social stuggles, neighbourhood fights and global movements of the next decades. But the majority of these struggles, from the end of the 90s until 15M, didn’t use national flags and only on occasion an estelada.
On the 26th of Febraury 1997 a group of activists succeeded in hanging the squatter’s flag (black with a circle traversed by an arrow) among the official flags outside Barcelona’s town hall. The flag isn’t a flag in the traditional sense, rather it is used to identify newly liberated spaces. Symbolically, Barcelona’s City Council was liberated if only for a few minutes. In the same way, during the 15M movement Greek, Icelandic and Egyptian flags were used to express solidarity with popular revolts that were taking place against their respective governments and the Troika.
The periodical and revindicative use of symbols was what dominated in those years. And more so than just flags — what triumphed were what could be called ‘logos,’ although this came in the same time as the success of Naomi Klein’s No Logo. One only has to think, for example, of a logo against government cuts. They are images that have accompanied the struggles of our times and are more associated with the ‘A’ of the Anarchist logo and the Squatter arrow than the imagery of a national flag. In our case, we also had success with a logo — that of Diner Gratis. In addition to logos the use of colours has become important in social struggles. Together with green, violet and the red of more classic social stuggles, Les Mareasthat were summoned during 15M also displayed a mobilization centred on colours: white for health, yellow for education, dark red for young migrants etc. More recently, the political battle is also played out on jacket pockets that now contain expressions of solidarity (red with AIDS, pink with breast cancer etc) and now in Barcelona feature yellow ribbons to protest the imprisonment of Catalan politicians Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart-an act of transgression and disobedience that can result in the bearer being fined.
In 2012 the flags began to return. The streets, balconies, demonstrations, entrances to villages and even mountain huts were suddenly full of flags. Since then the discussion ensues: what do the flags mean? What do they hide? What kind of messages are we receiving? How do we make sense of it? I, like many of my colleagues, feel that we should no longer carry flags as they are a fallen symbol, a hacked code or an imaginary ally. I remain faithful to the verse of the song by the band La Troba Kung-Fu “Instead of the homeland I want friends / and instead of flags I want stretched out clothes / that will say “here is where I live.” There is something that doesn’t satisfy me in the discourse of certain liberal and left-wing positions which deny all flags in the same way, or despise them as a manifestation of alienated and manipulated people. The force with which flags have taken hold in places such as Catalonia, Spain and France makes us query their use and effectiveness. We used to believe that in the global world flags were a sign of the past, an inert symbol of a previous configuration of the world made up of states and nations based on nostalgia, or used as decorative elements for international summits and sporting events. In these times of global crises, transnational precariousness, out of control planetary consumption and environmental danger, flags have returned to Europe. Elsewhere, such as in the United States or in the colonized countries, they never left. Why?
Among the many possible explanations for the return of flags three hypotheses have emerged: reaction, manipulation and involution. The first proposes a reactive dynamic that is underpinned by a belief that the return of Catalan independentism is a reaction to the recession and to the incompetence of Spain’s political system and its centralised power structures. In this vein, Spanish flags are also a reaction to this question of sovereignty as is the disputed French Tricolour which has flooded France on both sides of the political divide from the Front Nationalt o La France Insoumiseof Jean-Luc Mélenchon whose use of the flag is based on a reaction to the stars of the European Union flag. Consistent with this reading, the war of flags would be a reactive dynamic in times marked by the lack of creative and political proposals for new spaces of coexistence.
The second hypothesis, manipulation, draws attention to the interests of the ruling classes, their political parties and their strategies to redirect and control the masses and their votes. From this perspective, flags are an easy, emotional and unifying resource that support certain political parties in their aims of subduing the criticism of their actions that came with 15M. Flags, in this sense, provide a cover for their corruption under the presentation of an illusory common horizon. The advocates of this hypothesis are those who speak of the political system and how its bourgeoisie wriggled out of their problems by using the flag to disguise their crimes under the guise of national unity.
Finally, the third hypothesis is one that analyses the revindicative re-emergence of flags as an involution against liberal and culturally diverse democracies. This type of politics is one that negates the rights of individual citizens in favour of a strong state, the rule of law, nationalism, populism, patriotism and ultimately xenophobia. This point is argued in a book to which I contributedthat sees the re-emergence of flags as a return to the political environments of the 1930s rather than the global twist of the early 21st century. The flags on the street would thus remind us of the dangerous past of fascism and wars between nations against which the European Union had intended to build an institutional and historical dam. ‘Nationalism is war’ said the French politician of Catalan origin Manuel Valls when speaking of the Catalan elections in December 2017. Are we at the end of the European experiment? Is Brexit, the rise of the French far left and far right representative of the rise of an exclusive nationalism?
The three hypotheses are all partial truths. In contemporary European politics there is a visceral reaction fed by fear and crisis, strategies of manipulation implemented through the use of national symbols and elements complicated by the use of symbols from other political geographies in previous eras based on transnational solidarity and popular resistance. Even so, the problem that the three hypotheses share is that they negate the problem of the nation state itself. Indeed, the national dimension that is crossed by many collective struggles and resistances cannot be reduced to pure nationalism. This denial can be seen in liberalism, neoliberalism or even by those on the internationalist left both on its cosmopolitan or global wings. From all of these perspectives, the national question can only be the result of a deception, cultural enlightenment or an emotional substratum that does not retain the truth of social and political relations. For some, society can only be a set of individuals whose relationships are defined by exchange on the more or less state-regulated markets. For others, society is a set of contrasting social classes defined by their inequalities and their antagonisms. By the abstraction of citizenship or by the mere reduction to class these perspectives have little to offer on their own. Therefore we should ask ourselves if all flags are the same. Do they all say the same thing, in every place and at all times?
“Don’t let flags distract us from our struggles” said Owen Jones as a guest during the electoral campaign of Barcelona En Comu in December 2017 during the elections that were imposed by the Spanish government through its application of Article 155 of the Constitution. It was the same campaign in which Manuel Valls intervened. Both started from politically and ideologically opposing positions, and despite the explicit defence of the referendum made by Owen Jones, the two guests shared the position that flags should be discarded. Jones’ position is born out of a commitment to socialist anti-nationalism while Valls’ from a liberal anti-nationalism. Both positions critique nationalism and point to its potential dangers, but neither question the current map of states and their fundamental political condition. Their positions, both from the political right and left, are those of a nationalism ignorant of itself or even as a ‘banal nationalism’ as baptized by theoretician Michael Billig. Banal, not because it is innocuous, but because it is confused with a naturalness that removes the necessity to take any side. One is French because he was born French. British because he was born British. Spanish because he was born Spanish. This situation is from the viewpoint of supposed non-nationalist or banal nationalists. In this sense they question the flags of others but not the privileges that their own nationalism confers on them. They disrespect the identity of others for fear of losing their own.
In February 2014 I participated in a conference for a few days at the Reina Sofía Museum of Art entitled “Europe’s new rapture” in which activists and thinkers were invited from all over the continent to discuss the practical and new theoretical geographies that had appeared through the anti-globalisation movement and responses to the crisis of 2008. The filmmaker Pere Portabella included this encounter in his film General Information II. During the conference Ranabir Samaddar, director of the Calcutta Research Group, uttered a phrase which hit me like no other “You will never understand Europe if you do not understand that its history is that of nationalism.” Europe has not only invented the concept of nations but it has imposed it on others in the form states, and it is from this base in nationalism that it still draws its power. There are no non-nationalist nation states insofar as they have all had to invent a community and the conditions needed (territorial, legal, cultural etc) to exist as a nation. When someone denounces nationalism, which I often do, the person must be prepared to assume the ultimate consequences of his criticism and to accept that they will also have to question the conditions of existence that assure the unity of the person’s own state.
The current order of states is a historical invention, a contingent reality that is the result of pacts, wars, interests and invasions that are upheld through a triple illusion: territorial unity, shared identities and the unity of destiny. Flags are historical inventions that symbolize, represent and reproduce this construction. Seen from afar flags are puerile inventions that remind us of roll-play games or battles between gangs played in the school yard rather than as a component of authentic politics. If we examine them further and undertake a historical reading flags do not express the eternal identity of a nation, but the power relations on which the current nation state has been built and consolidated. These relationships of power are class relations but they are also based on language, culture, institutions and gender. Written on flags are relationships of domination and therefore the unresolved stories of such domination. Viewed from this somewhat controversial historicity, not all flags are the same and not all say the same thing because they all point toward different positions taken within open conflicts. In order to sustain the argument that all flags are the same, one has to erase such power relations between groups and their own concrete histories. There are no good or bad flags in themselves, because the flags in themselves are nothing. At best they mark conflicting positions that remind us that no state is neutral, and in determining contexts of conflict between groups, they express the violence that conceals the national identities of the winners.
While these conflicts will continue to produce violence, the Chinese will continue trade off the back of our flag wars. I strive for a Barcelona where it isn’t forbidden to hang clothes off the balconies and where it isn’t mandatory to hang flags outside official buildings — a city where colours have no homeland and where identities aren’t reduced to nations. In order to make this city we don’t have to ask for a state of our own, but to unmask all states as improper insofar as they are based on the expropriation of what is common to us all
The Estelada or “starred flag” is an unofficial flag typically flown by Catalan independence supporters to express their support for the establishment of an independent Catalan republic. The use of this flag has been a protest symbol within the Catalan independence movement and has gained prominence since the 1970s’ Spanish transition to democracy.
The date on which Catalans celebrate their national day. It commemorates the fall of Barcelona during the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714 and the subsequent loss of Catalan institutions and laws.
Estat Català or “Catalan State” is a pro-independence nationalist political party of Catalonia founded in 1922 by Francesc Macià.
Jordi Pujol was President of the Catalan Generalitat (autonomous council) from 1980 until 2003.
An action-group collective based in Barcelona that the author participated in which straddled performance art and culture jamming.
Waves of protests organised as part of the 15M movement
The Great Regression (Empuries, 2017).