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Adolf Tobeña: «The independent Catalonia would be an extended and catholic Andorra»

«Spain has erred in the diagnosis of the Catalan crisis by neglect and contempt» / «The Spanish intelligentsia has been absent» / «Those who are now ERC and CUP were former Carlists and Franquists».

Cristian Campos, El Español, 15 Octubre, 2017.

A year ago, MEP Teresa Giménez Barbat, a well-known anti-nationalist, organized a conference in the European Parliament called «An alienated society? A psychobiological dissection of Catalan secessionism. One of the invited speakers, the Dutch psychologist Carsten de Dreu, spoke of the neurobiological foundations of parochialism. Mark Van Vugt analysed the psychobiology of intergroup conflicts. The other lecturer was the professor of psychiatry at the U.A.B, Adolf Tobeña (Graus, Huesca, 1950).

Two parties called for the suspension of the conference. They were ERC and PDeCAT, which considered it «a manifestation of discriminatory and undemocratic arguments, typical of totalitarian regimes, which seeks to dehumanize political opponents as a step prior to their liquidation, treating them as mentally alienated.» But the analysis of mass psychology and the consolidation of the independence movement among Catalan citizens has nothing discriminatory or antidemocratic. It’s just a topic for research.

Adolf Tobeña, whose book The Secessionist Passion analyses precisely the rise and consolidation of independence from the point of view of psychobiology and social neuroscience, receives me in his office at the School of Medicine of the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB). It is difficult to distinguish Tobeña’s scientific analysis of the independence movement – similar to a  biologist fascination by the elegant dexterity with which the shark’s jaws tears apart its victims-, from his personal opinions. But when I ask him some clarification about that, his answer is immediate: «Do not get me wrong, independence does not interest me personally at all.” It is clear.

Alberto Gamazo © El Español

I must ask you what happened yesterday [the interview was conducted the day after the declaration of independence in the Parliament of Catalonia].

It is one more episode of the operetta. It was quite predictable, because we have already witnessed a few comical episodes. The interesting aspect is the way the situation evolved. It passed from being on the verge of a civil conflict to a farcical and comic representation.

That book I see on your table, The Myth of Martyrdom (Adam Lankford), is it applicable to Catalan independence and its victimhood?

[Laughs] No, no. It has nothing to do with it. My book “Deadly Martyrs” is dedicated to suicide bombers, which is an issue that has not yet been resolved. This book, The Myth of Martyrdom was written by an American coroner who holds the thesis that suicide bombers are mad. Various academics, including me, have always said that there is no mental alienation in suicidal attacks, with the exception of some very rare cases. The commandos who carried out the 9/11 attacks, for example, were computer scientists, upper class, with higher education, had been practicing flight training for long. And that is a set of criteria that removes them from mental alienation. Because insanity, by definition, reduce intelligence and the ability to adjust to the cognitive requirements of ordinary life.

And Lankford denies it.

Lankford has mixed suicide terrorists with “lone wolves” and rampage shooters, like the latter from past October, at Las Vegas. And he says «no, those who maintain that behind these attacks are warlike tactics, taken to the extreme for political or religious reasons, are wrong, because in reality these people are mentally disturbed.» But he is wrong. Among “lone wolves” and rampage shooters without ideological motives, there is a high frequency of disordered minds, but in suicide attackers, members of organizations, acting within doctrinal and ideological fighting cells, mental disorders are mostly absent.

It is obvious that the cultural factor is key there. All suicide bombers profess the same religion.

No, no. Not all of them have the same religion. The Tamils of Sri Lanka practiced this tactic of suicide attacks repeatedly without being Islamists. It is not necessarily connected with religion.

Returning to Spain, and more specifically to Catalonia. Do you feel comfortable living here?

No. For seven years, it’s been difficult to live in the closed atmosphere created by the secessionists They have mounted a movement that has very interesting characteristics, they wanted to make it hegemonic but they have only persuaded half of the population. The rest of the citizens have been besieged, marginalized, despised and silenced. And creating this kind of environment makes life unpleasant. Uncomfortable.

Have you personally suffered?

I have suffered, like many others, campaigns of denunciation, accusations of betrayal. Luckily they have been fleeting. But yes, I have endured that personally.

Walking on the campus I’ve seen writings on the walls «Trapero, kill them» (the Chief of the Catalan Police). The UAB is known as a strongly nationalist and a left-wing-biased University.

The Medical School is an island within the UAB. You have to get out of it and walk through the campus, like you did, to see those things. But once you get into Medicine premises, all that disappears. Between teachers, researchers and students the coexistence is good. The treatment is cordial and there is no tension like in the faculties of law, economics, political science, sociology, humanities or journalism. Not here. Life here is comfortable and amiable.

You said that the independence movement has interesting characteristics. What do you mean?

I was speaking about an unexpected mass movement that specialists will study for decades. They have been able to mount a movement that has convinced and activated two million citizens. They have given these citizens a well-constructed narrative, with specific objectives and pathways to get them. Then, they organised gigantic and very controlled demonstrations in the streets. These demonstrations were at the same time civic, festive and aesthetically sensational. Behind them there were great specialists in advertising, in marketing, in chromatic combinations and in mass mobilization. All of these are aesthetic and civic qualities.

But that’s not the whole story.

What was not seen was the silencing of the other half of the population. They attempted to establish an absolute domination and to conceal the other half of the citizenry. But if you pass over that, they have done it well. So well that they have captured the main international media, the main TV and broadcasting channels. These media have seen a peaceful movement and a motivated rebellion characterised by a transversal participation of families and all social classes. The movement has had also chromatic and aesthetic quality, with flags, with t-shirts and performances that changed every year, with different types of songs, with castles, with an organization that simulated the coordinated beauty of the «colles sardanístiques«. And that’s why it caught media attention, and also the attention of the world intelligentsia.

But have they truly persuaded the intelligentsia?

Nowadays, there are more specialists in mass movements, historians, economists, jurists and political scientists at the best universities across the world (Oxford, Yale, Cambridge, UCLA, Max Planck, the Sorbonne) in favour of Catalan secessionist movement than the other half of Catalan citizens, which are against secession or in favour of Spain´s rule. They must have been very good, very efficient to get that. They have had a great deal of ability to disseminate a doctrine and convince the best scholars that they are right. That they have the right to exercise self-determination.

Is aesthetics so powerful as to hide what lies behind independence?

Aesthetics is very powerful. In today’s world, if you have the best advertisers, the best designers, the best architects, and the best storytellers, you have an unprecedented ability for political penetration. It is the world of advertising. If you dominate the adverts and propaganda paths, you will have an enormous capacity to influence. And if the rule is to go fast, to catch those of your guild, the journalists, the disseminators of messages, then the task is very easy.

International journalism has been an easy victim.

But it is much more difficult to convince the intelligentsia, those who take time to think and analyse. Because beautiful photos, beautiful flags, beautiful demonstrations and nice crowded streets are not enough because you need consistency. Convincing historians, economists, political scientists and law scholars is not easy. I just saw a letter signed by several hundred professors from the best British universities in favour of the Catalan referendum for self-determination. To do this you need intellectual insight. It needs an army of secessionist intellectuals who have spread through the best universities across the world, from Catalan universities, which are among the best in Spain.

The best?

The first is Catalan, the second is Catalan, the third is Catalan, the fourth is Catalan, and the fifth is Valencian. The first “Spanish” University appears only in sixth or seventh place in most serious rankings. And they have taken advantage especially of the young generations. Mostly economists, but also from other fields, and who are publishing papers, giving conferences and seminars. Meanwhile, the Spanish intelligentsia, from the organized branches at the Cervantes Institute or the diplomacy, as well as the spontaneous and non-official one, has not responded.

That’s true. Why do you think that happened?

For neglect and contempt. They have erred in the diagnosis. The Spanish response has been weak, insufficient and wrong, and if you get a diagnoses wrong, you’ll have a wrong remediation.

What exactly has this neglect been?

Neglect is that famous quick and reassuring diagnosis: «This movement is a transient wave that will deflate.» The famous “soufflé”. A slightly more elaborate version is: «They will end up fighting each other». The theory is that as they have gathered such disparate interests, those of the business elites and those of the anti-system, they will end up sticking between them. But after seven years that has not happened, which disqualifies the diagnosis.

And the contempt?

The second part of the misdiagnosis is «they are crazy». That is the epithet most used by the Spanish intelligentsia to characterize the Catalan secessionism. Irrationality, delusion, perturbation, alienation, hypnotization, abduction. They wanted to characterize a movement that has behind it an enormous and sharp intelligence and capacity of incidence as a delirium. And of course, that is not so at all. There is no delirium. Zero. When the wiser voices of the Spanish intelligentsia characterize this movement in that way, the rest of the world’s intellectuals say: «But what are these? This movement has put to the edge of the abyss a democratic State and they continue saying that it is a “delirium «. I insist: if you miss the diagnosis, it is sure that you will err in the remedy.

If there is so much intellectual excellence in a Catalonia within Spain, what do they complain about?

The story is the opposite. «We have achieved this despite Spain. Imagine where we would be without Spain”. That’s the reasoning line. The story they repeat is: “despite the weight, the hindrance, the inconveniences, the corrupt, mischievous and cheating characteristics of the Spanish State, which is slow, heavy, distant, prone to repeat counterproductive legal frameworks, in a competitive environment such as in science, for instance, we have achieved this”. Without Spain, they say, we would be the best: “We would be California or Massachusetts”. This is the storytelling and many wise men across the world believe it.

Utopias always win in comparison with reality.

And then they place the second element in the narrative: Barcelona. There is no need to talk about universities. Is there any Spanish city or within Spanish culture able to compete with Barcelona?

Well… In what aspect in particular?

In all of them. Who has created and accomplished Barcelona? The Catalans. Barcelona is one of the ten most attractive cities in the world. No doubt. You can administer an objective survey and it will always be Barcelona. Not Madrid, nor Buenos Aires, nor Seville, nor Caracas, nor Lima, nor Santiago de Chile, no Mexico, no Bilbao. It will be Barcelona. You cannot be a citizen of the world if you do not visit Barcelona often. Because at Barcelona there are many actors at the cutting edge of architecture, design, fashion, arts, chemistry, biology, high-tech. And without the hindrance of Spain, Barcelona would be a leading city of the world. That is the story they tell and everybody believes it. Because it is true.

Is it actually true?

Of course it is. Or at least in a way. Can anyone argue that Barcelona is the most attractive Spanish city? That does not mean that Madrid is not attractive, cosmopolite, diverse, fun, amusing and splendid.  During the last decades, the presence and relevance of Barcelona in the world has been much higher than Madrid’s. And that cannot be argued, regardless of the indicators used. F.C. Barcelona has also been an infinite better soccer team than the rest of Spanish and South American teams.

Some people would argue that.

F.C. Barcelona has imposed itself as the dominant team, the most attractive, with most fans, the team who has generated more top players in a continuous way and also many of the football experts most appreciated around the world. Who are secessionists, by the way. Who did that? The Catalans. This is the story they tell, and as it is very consistent, it spreads all over the world. Spain reacted late, and with a wrong diagnosis and a weak and badly built narrative. Spain is perplexed, surprised, doubtful, not understanding the issue and creating messages that nobody is listening to. Catalonia made great editorials in the New York Times, Le Monde, Financial Times, The Guardian, CNN, BBC… “They will not achieve repercussion anywhere”, repeat the Spanish media. Please! They have achieved repercussion everywhere.

Remember that the Catalans are the first people, the first region within the European Union, to start a segregation process through mostly peaceful but impressive and growing demands, with the prospect of succeeding.

With the due respect, maybe you are overrating a simple editorial by a German newspaper in comparison with what Angela Merkel is saying, who is more relevant and influential that all their press means. Or maybe you are mixing up Barcelona touristic attractiveness with its real importance in the international panorama.

Not only a tourist attraction, huh? Zuckerberg comes to Barcelona, every year. It is the only place of the world where he goes.

The only place in the world?

The only place outside California. He does not go anywhere than Barcelona.

Are you sure of that?

And so does Woody Allen. It is not just a tourist attraction.

I am not completely sure about that.

I am trying to explain the success that they have had all over the world. A different matter is that such success has been gained at the expense of the other half of the population. Silencing and harassing half of Catalan citizens. The secessionist plans which are  imposed and therefore totalitarian, could sink Barcelona and its creative, innovative and business capacity. It can sink also the network of smaller Catalan cities. Because Catalonia is not only Barcelona. Now we have had signs indicating that everything could be wrecked. If you create an insufficient movement and in order to win you subjugate half of the population, you place yourself close to disaster and in the edge of a civil conflict. But the reason why they have achieved such a massive success around the world, is not obvious at all.

Something will have contributed the contempt of the opposite.

They have achieved all that in the open, not within a closed, totalitarian framework. So, the opponents could have reacted. Secessionists have not hidden their intentions and goals. From the beginning they have said what their purpose was. The other half of the subjugated citizens had the time to organize themselves. It costs a lot, that’s true. The first signal of resistance and power was last Sunday, with the Barcelona “unionist” demonstration. This was the first in seven years.

But all that has occurred within the framework of the European Union. The Catalans are the first in the Western European Union to embark on a process of segregation with prospects of success. People from Padania, Bavaria, Sicily, Tirol or Brittany, who have as many identity and historical reasons as the Catalans, and who have suffered the same economic crisis, have not succeeded.

And why the Catalans succeeded and People from Padania did not? Has it to do with genetics?

Because of Spain.



This is where Spain enters into the equation. None of these European regions have an administration with as much power and political resources as Spanish regions. Spain democracy is an extremely decentralized and tolerant country. Democratic Spain is probably the most open, porous and cosmopolitan country on the planet. Remember that I have a little tendency to exaggerate (the adjectives, I mean).

I see.

Spain has transferred a high degree of effective power to regional governments. The «Comunidades Autonomas» are more powerful than US federal states, or than German lander in terms of incidence in civic life. The regional government decides in which school your children will go, the language in which they will study, how can you transfer your family wealth, which police will impose fines on you … Spain has set up a system that, without being federal, and without being called as such, works as if it were.

There is no country in Europe that has such a powerful regional administration and has so much capacity to create sports centres, local police stations, large and small hospitals, roads, natural parks with special protection. But this is not only valid for the Generalitat of Catalonia. It is valid for the Basque Government, for the Galician, for Extremadura, for Andalucía. The presence of the regional administration in Spain is stunning, it is sensational.

And then from where comes the difference in income per capita between Extremadura and Catalonia?

This question is hard and has many components. I was talking about the impact of regional governments on daily life and in terms of resources to act. My foreign friends explained it to me when they came to Europe. I have groups of friends and we go walking through the Picos de Europa, or through the Sierra de Madrid, or through the Sierra Nevada, or through the Pyrenees. They have been hallucinating for more than twenty years. «How can you have the monuments so well restored?». How can you have these police stations in small-towns, or the AVE network, or the roads, or the freeways? They had been continually surprised by the level of services in Spain.

When we go to Aragon they see the precious and colourful villages and the well maintained monuments. They are indicated in the maps, there are guides with notebooks, and they do not charge a euro for it. It is not as in Italy, where you pay to visit also the smallest church of a little town. I mean this. I mean that the Generalitat has become the administration of the ordinary life of all Catalans.

Suddenly in 2008, 2009, 2010, this Spanish frame that was so fun, so engaging, so porous, went bankrupt. Ouch dammit! And the secessionist reasoned: «Firstly, if we have such a powerful administration, which is also appreciated by all citizens, secondly, if we have the most attractive city in the world, and finally if we have the most attractive soccer club in Europe … why do we need Spain?”

Again with Barça

The young local elites and high professionals were responsible for that. The Laporta-Guardiola-Puigdemont generation. Because Laporta was the true first ideologist. He was the first to openly speak to the whole world saying that he aimed at secession. Guardiola is only a disciple. And they said, «And why should we sink with Spain? Let them sink alone. “And they framed a good story. That is what Andalusia, Galicia, Baleares, or the Basque Country does not have. They do not have Barcelona or Barça and they will never have it.


No, my forecast is that they will never have it. Well, in three hundred years who knows, but I dare to say that in the next two hundred years they will not. What they will not have either is a 20% of native population that will never feel Spanish. This is also genuine in Catalonia.

Well, what about the Basques?

The situation is somewhat similar, but the Basques are quiet now. They lost a war. And when you lose a war, you calm down.

What war are you talking about?

Of the last one, the fourth, the last Carlist war. The war of ETA. People called it terrorism, but they were very clear: ETA was an army of national liberation. They clearly know that their soldiers were making a war. People get confused by this. It was a guerrilla war, of low intensity, fought in the form of terrorism, yes, but all military specialists agree on this, that was a war.


The thing that doesn’t exist outside the Basque Country and Catalonia is a core of 15 or 20% of a population that neither feels nor will ever feel Spanish. And that core is, I think, more powerful in Catalonia than in the Basque Country. People usually place this nucleus, this base, in the pre-Pyrenean and Pyrenean valleys, but it is not only there. It is also in Tarragona, in the Priorat, in the Delta of the Ebro, in the inner regions and sometimes also in the coastal area near Barcelona. There are some middle classes that originally were farmers but in the XIX century they became manufacturers, industrialists and entrepreneurs. They are Catalans of origin with surnames maintained for hundreds of years and with little dealings with outsiders. They had a few, because all the groups let foreign blood enter. Nevertheless they kept the blood line. And that core does not feel Spanish and will never feel. If you have a base of this type, the jump to 40 or 50% is less striking than if it started from 3 or 4 or 5%.

The fact is that there is also a core of Catalan citizens who will never stop feeling Spanish.


Do not they reach 20%?

No. For the phenomena of assimilation. But let us return to that core that has preserved the language, customs and habits. In other wars this core had been traditionalist, later Carlist, later Franquist, and now of ERC and CUP. These people form a basis that the entrepreneurial, young, technologically highly-educated and highly cosmopolitan classes of the four capital cities of the region have used as a foundation for building the movement.

It sounds like the irreducible village of the Gauls.

Exactly. But look, they are not provincial. They have agricultural processing industries, winemakers, biotechnology companies. They have nothing to do with Gauls. They go to the Seychelles on holidays.

Independence yes or no?


But Catalonia is the best in the world.

No, no, do not misinterpret me. What I have is a fondness for understanding phenomena. I dedicate myself to understand the individual imagination, both the normative as the distressed. I am a psychiatrist. But I am also interested in collective phenomena, it is a tradition among the great minds of my profession. Freud has books devoted to the psychology of the masses, the same as Ortega-Gasset or Adam Smith. The Hispanic intelligentsia, and the French and Italian intellectuals of the last thirty years, have been afraid to think in terms of group psychology. The greatest thinkers have never had that fear. Keynes has a book explaining stock market panics, because it is a psychological phenomenon that ends up affecting the economy.

Perhaps you can be fascinated by the object of your study.

What is interesting to me is the description of the phenomenon. This is why I am talking about its attractiveness among people. The Catalans have been seduced by this movement. Its emergence has been very sudden and has come with an unprecedented speed. It went from 20% to 48-50% in less than a year. In 2014 it reached new highs, and then dropped a little, but it has been oscillating between 40 and 45%. They know, the secessionists, they are very close to a decisive victory and I explain the ingredients that have allowed for this event to unfold. But I am not personally interested in it. I don’t care about small, monotonous and enclosed countries. I don’t care about an independent Catalonia. I am not interested in an enlarged Andorra, sanctimonious, catholic, with some touches of glamour.

So, we stay in Spain.

The Spanish framework is infinitely more fun, open, cosmopolitan, multicultural and exciting than the Catalan, which would be impoverishing. I’m not interested in it at all.

I would like to point it out because throughout the interview I heard you praising the 50% of the Catalan population and the city of Barcelona, but the concept of attractiveness is very subjective.

These are not my descriptions, they have been made by my colleagues, by foreigners. I take the train every day and listen to travellers, tourists and students.

If I go to Tokyo I will also praise it as a tourist. That’s what everyone does. But it is narcissistic to think they appreciate your city more than others.

Well.., “mixed feelings”. People say good and bad things of other cities.

That’s not a cognitive bias on your part?

Look, I’m not from Barcelona. I don’t support Barça either. I like Lisbon much more than Barcelona. I like Valencia much more than Barcelona. Madrid is a thug and a wild city, but a lot of fun. If I had to choose a capital for the Iberian Peninsula, I would definitely choose Lisbon. And if one day Spain will be dismantled, I am interested in the Crown of Aragon. It would not be a bad idea to revive it. From Montpellier to Palermo and with Naples as capital or Valencia. But never Barcelona because Barcelona has this tendency to be sanctimonious, monotonous, catholic, devout and claustrophobic. It has an intolerable tendency towards orthodoxy. It is navel-gazing and it is typical of the Catalans.

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