Force can’t de­stroy the Cata­lan dream

Se­ces­sion from Spain may be un­wise. But in this age of change, the search for iden­tity can­not be dis­missed

Gulf News - - The Views -

t’s re­mark­able what you can learn in Slove­nia. At a con­fer­ence on pol­i­tics, se­cu­rity and de­vel­op­ment in Bled ear­lier this year, I was lucky enough to chat to the Cata­lan del­e­gates, proudly rep­re­sent­ing the in­ter­ests and wis­dom of their an­cient prin­ci­pal­ity. With con­sid­er­able poise and dig­nity, they seemed to me to be chan­nelling Per­i­cles on the Athe­ni­ans: we do not im­i­tate, but are a model to oth­ers.

So I am not sur­prised that Madrid is as fright­ened as it ev­i­dently is by Cat­alo­nia’s uni­lat­eral dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence. This is not a tin­pot prov­ince threat­en­ing to se­cede as a means of squeez­ing a bridge or two out of cen­tral gov­ern­ment. Recog­nised as a dis­tinct po­lit­i­cal en­tity since the 12th cen­tury, it has al­ways trea­sured its au­ton­omy — lost un­der Franco and re­cov­ered af­ter his death in 1975. Since Fri­day, its sep­a­ra­tion from Spain to be­come a fully func­tion­ing sov­er­eign state, though still im­prob­a­ble, is quite con­ceiv­able.

This alone rep­re­sents a ter­ri­ble de­feat for Mar­i­ano Ra­joy, the Span­ish prime min­is­ter, whose re­sponse was to or­der the sack­ing of the en­tire Cata­lan gov­ern­ment, the clo­sure of Barcelona’s min­istries, the dis­missal of Cat­alo­nia’s po­lice chief and the dis­so­lu­tion of its re­gional par­lia­ment. Though Madrid has gen­er­ously de­clared that Car­les Puigde­mont, the de­posed Cata­lan pres­i­dent, is wel­come to run in the snap elec­tion on De­cem­ber 21, he re­mains, con­fus­ingly, at risk of ar­rest for re­bel­lion.

There are all sorts of co­gent ar­gu­ments against se­ces­sion — the best of which is that Cat­alo­nia it­self is pro­foundly di­vided on the ques­tion. The re­gion has a low credit rat­ing, and debts that have more than tripled since 2009. It is not re­motely ready to man­age its own de­fence, cur­rency, util­i­ties, bor­der con­trols and in­fra­struc­ture. An ab­so­lute rup­ture from Spain would make Brexit seem a mere ba­gatelle.

Yet Madrid — aided by Brus­sels — ap­pears de­ter­mined to in­flame separatist emo­tions rather than seek a diplo­matic so­lu­tion to the cri­sis. The in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum held on Oc­to­ber 1 may have been tech­ni­cally il­le­gal, as Spain’s con­sti­tu­tional court as­serted, but the of­ten bru­tal man­ner in which the poll was ob­structed by the na­tional po­lice and Guardia Civil made such ap­peals to the rule of law seem like a pre­pos­ter­ous fig leaf for street-level au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism.

While the Span­ish gov­ern­ment pon­tif­i­cated, so­cial me­dia fizzed with shock­ing video of of­fi­cers in riot gear us­ing vi­o­lence to pre­vent Cata­lan ci­ti­zens from peace­fully cast­ing their votes. At that point, the ques­tion changed from “Is this ref­er­en­dum mean­ing­ful?” to “How are such scenes pos­si­ble on the streets of a mod­ern lib­eral democ­racy?” Be­cause of Spain’s sin­gu­lar his­tory, the in­tegrity of the na­tion has spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance. In a coun­try gov­erned by a mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor be­tween 1939 and 1975, the threat of dis­ag­gre­ga­tion and law­less­ness is es­pe­cially vivid.

Piti­ful ap­proach

But in an age of hec­tic change such as ours, his­tory must be granted a vote rather than a veto. Bad mem­o­ries may ex­plain present er­rors, but they do not ex­cuse them. And Ra­joy is prov­ing him­self un­equal to the mo­ment. Sim­ply as­sert­ing that the rules have been bro­ken and will be en­forced is a piti­ful ap­proach to a hugely com­plex cul­tural dilemma.

Take a step back: if the early 21st cen­tury has a uni­fy­ing theme, it is that the rules-based or­der that seemed tri­umphant in 1989 faces a series of fun­da­men­tal chal­lenges. Prime among them is a bur­geon­ing of the se­ces­sion­ist im­pulse, of trib­al­ism and pop­ulist re­sis­tance to dis­tant elites. In this era of dis­rup­tion, no­madism and tech­no­log­i­cal revo­lu­tion, the ap­peal of place and space has re­turned. A long­ing for what Hei­deg­ger called wohnen — “dwelling” — is sud­denly resur­gent. In some in­stances, as in Char­lottesville, this takes the form of a de­spi­ca­ble blood-and-soil na­tivism . But the in­stinct is not al­ways rep­re­hen­si­ble. For Cata­lans to crave their own na­tion is not in­trin­si­cally wrong, what­ever its im­prac­ti­cal­i­ties and in­con­ve­niences. The is­sue of iden­tity has as­sumed a fresh im­por­tance that we ig­nore at our peril.

It takes patho­log­i­cal form in the ugly “iden­ti­tar­ian” move­ments of the Euro­pean far right. But it also in­fuses the pol­i­tics of the main­stream — from Cata­lan sep­a­ratism to par­lia­ment’s scru­tiny of the EU with­drawal bill. The pri­mal need to be­long, to be more than a tiny cog in a global ma­chine, is as­sert­ing it­self with as­ton­ish­ing force. As Se­bas­tian Junger writes in his book Tribe : “Hu­mans don’t mind hard­ship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feel­ing nec­es­sary.”

I am deeply sus­pi­cious of the pop­ulism that of­fers easy so­lu­tions to com­plex prob­lems: se­ces­sion, like hos­til­ity to im­mi­gra­tion, can­not pos­si­bly be the panacea that its cham­pi­ons typ­i­cally claim. I still be­lieve in the lib­eral or­der, vi­able na­tion-states and the supra­na­tional agree­ments that make pos­si­ble global col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween them. But it is idle to pre­tend in 2017 that this or­der is in es­pe­cially good shape.

We are in the foothills of a for­mi­da­ble de­bate about its fu­ture, and how it should be adapted to ad­dress the in­equities of glob­al­i­sa­tion, the trans­for­ma­tive power of tech­nol­ogy, and the fears of com­mu­ni­ties great and small that they will be swept away by the hur­ri­cane of change. If the Cata­lan cri­sis has a les­son to date, it is that Madrid’s an­swer — re­pres­sive con­sti­tu­tion­al­ism, so to speak — is no an­swer at all. Say­ing the same, only louder, will not pre­serve the in­tegrity of Spain or of any­thing else. In the un­fold­ing of his­tory, the great­est mis­take is to be­lieve there is a script. Matthew d’An­cona is a Guardian colum­nist.

Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News

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