Thinking about Secession in Catalonia

I’m in Barcelona for a couple of weeks, teaching an accelerated seminar in the European MA program at Pompeu Fabra University. Yeah, I know, tough life.

Shortly before my arrival, requests for interviews with major Spanish newspapers started filling my inbox. Well, “filling” may be a bit too strong a word. I actually received three such requests, but they were from major outlets such as El Pais, a major national paper, and Aran, a newish paper started by Catalan separatists. They all wanted me to comment on recent events in Catalonia. (A referendum of sorts was held here on November 9th. The Spanish constitutional court deemed it illegal, and so it ended up being a bit of a non-event, with slightly under 40% of eligible voters turning up to vote in what had been downgraded to a “participatory consultation”. The “yes” option received a resounding majority of votes from those who showed up. It’s impossible to know how the remaining 60% would have voted – the thought is that they were substantially less favorable to the Catalan sovereignist project).

When I demurred that I was not an expert on the Catalan independence movement, all of the journalists cited a pair of papers that I had published in the ‘90s shortly after the 1995 Quebec referendum. They were published in dusty academic journals, so I was surprised that anyone outside my circle of academic friends knew of them, and astonished that they had been read by Spanish journalists.

But that astonishment was as nothing when all three of the journalists showed up to our interviews with heavily annotated print-outs of said papers. They were citing back to me arguments that I had long forgotten the exact shape of, asking me how I thought those arguments applied to the Catalan case.

I think my position left both the Spaniards and the Catalans dissatisfied. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they highlighted aspects of the papers that were favorable to their case, and downplayed bits of it that were not. When I finally reread the papers, I found that though they were a bit of a mess, I still largely agree with my 1997-or-so self. I could also see why all three of the journalists ended up dissatisfied with our interviews.

There are a number of ways in which one can look at the issue of the right to secession for national minorities, theoretically speaking. The first is foundational. It involves asking a question like this: were we organizing the world into population units from scratch, would we want to approximate a 1-1 match between states and national groups? In other words, would we want states to be vehicles for national self-determination?

At this foundational level, my answer is a resounding “no”. I don’t think nationalism is the worst doctrine that humans have ever invented. Its historical record is mixed. But at the end of the day it creates borders between peoples and emphasizes differences in ways that are ultimately not conducive to the realization of this-wordly justice. It also involves states engaging in a lot of “nation-building” policies, that is policies that aim to erase or at least to downplay the linguistic, religious, and cultural differences on the state’s territory in order to engineed a shared identity. European nation-states were created at the cost of prohibiting “regional” languages in schools and in official communication. It involves national myth-making aimed at making people feel good about their nation-state in ways that are often simply at odds with the historical record. For me, at the foundational level, there are mighty practical obstacles, but there are no philosophical objections, to the idea of a federated world-state., where the federated units are defined so as to maximize justice rather than nation/state correspondence.

Another way of looking at the issue of national self-determination, however, is, to use a currently fashionable term, “non-ideal”. Rather than imagining the world as it might be without nation-states, it asks what follows ethically from the fact that nation-states exist, and that the currency of national self-determination is a highly valued one. At this level, I have always thought the following. Most (all?) multi-nation states in the world today, far from being instantiations of abstract ideals of justice, provide some national groups with the wherewithal with which to express their national identity politically. Unsurprisingly, it is the majority national group within any state that will be most able to give primacy through the institutions of the state to its language, its national myths, even its religious traditions. Members of majorities tend not to see this: their culture is like oxygen to them – omnipresent but easy to ignore. They can fool themselves into thinking that the state that they dominate is “neutral”, and that chauvinistic non-neutrality resides in uppity minority nations attempting to achieve greater self-determination within the larger state, or suing for independence when that state is not amenable to their claims. At this non-ideal level, which just happens to correspond to the world in which we live, it seems unfair for majorities to deny minorities the “currency” of national self-determination that they so clearly enjoy. They should find ways to accommodate the demands that national minorities make for institutional space within which to exercise the right to self-determination. When multi-nation states refuse to move in a federal direction, it is they, rather than the secessionist movements of minority nations that seem to me to be at fault.

A third and final way in which to consider the question of secession is political. A popular theory in political philosophy is that minority national groups only have a remedial right to secede. That is, they should only be granted the right if they are the victims of oppression: if their peoples are subject to routine violence, or if their lands are taken away from them by oppressive regimes. This is the “just cause” theory. According to this theory, there is no primary right to secede. That is, when national groups find themselves within states that are well-functioning and do not engage in the kind of injustices just mentioned, they have no right to secede.

A purely political view of secession would observe that secessionist activity is going to occur whether we like it or not. That is, even groups that do not find themselves in the kinds of dire straits that would justify them in engaging in secessionist politics will often end up doing so anyway. States will not make this reality go away by waving books of political philosophy around. In such circumstances, it is probably both morally better and more prudent that agreed-upon rules exist to which all parties must subscribe in order to remove the uncertainty, and perhaps also to address some of the perverse consequences, that might ensue from secessionist politics. Think about it: had either the 1980 or the 1995 Quebec referenda yielded “yes” votes, there would have been radical uncertainty about what, legally and constitutionally speaking, had just happened (especially if the “yes” had prevailed by a small margin). Sovereignists would have been claiming victory, while federalists might very well have responded that as the Canadian constitution contained no explicit secession clause, the referendum provided them with information about political sentiment in Quebec, rather than representing a legally binding vote. It would have been a mess.

Constitutionalizing the right to secede – and laying out some of the ground rules that all parties would have to stick to – would remove some of the uncertainty. Some of these rules might also have the effect of offsetting some of the more undesirable consequences of secessionist politics. For example, as my friend Wayne Norman has argued in his magisterial book on the subject, one could imagine a constitutional clause prohibiting referenda from being held too frequently.

There would most likely also be political advantages from the point of view of the central state in laying out a clear path to secession in a state’s foundational documents. Consider: many people (in Quebec, in Catalonia, in Scotland) want to secede simply because they want to have “their own” country. But many people in these countries support independence movements because they want the decision to stay or go to be their own, and they resent the central state to which they belong denying them that choice. Constitutionalize the right to secede in the context of multination states, and you remove one of the grievances that fuels the secessionist cause, and that that tends to swell its ranks. Support for sovereignty in Quebec has been on a steady downward trajectory since the Supreme Court found a qualified right to secede implicit within the Canadian constitution’s animating principles.

You can see why my interviewers were dissatisfied with my answers. The Catalan sovereignists probably wanted to hear from me that I approved of their cause at a foundational level. Perhaps they also wanted to hear from me that I thought that Catalans were justified in taking the step toward independence that many of them seem to want to make in the present set of circumstances obtaining in Spain. I am agnostic about this – I simply don’t know enough about the Catalan situation to say. It is possible that all things considered Catalans would be well-advised not to take the step toward secession. Much of the economic argument for secession seems to replicate the pie-in-the-sky thinking that has recently been heard coming from Scotland.

Nonetheless, in a world in which national self-determination is a currency of choice, I see no reason why Catalans ought not to be allowed to trade in it. I also think that the Spanish state is being counter-productively pig-headed in denying the right, and in denying the timid steps toward quasi-federalism that had been taken under previous governents. It seems clear from polls that support for sovereignty would be nowhere near what it is today had Spain continued to move toward federalism, or had they at the very least not reversed the steps toward devolution already taken.

But my Spanish interlocutors were probably also disappointed in my refusing to condemn Catalan sovereignist politicians. Though I would rather live in a world in which national differences were not as important and politically salient as they presently are, I also can’t condone some groups denying self-determination to others while they enjoy its advantages themselves.

I will post links to the interviews when (if?) they are published.

Comments are closed.