The Catalan crisis: Is the contemporary nation-state in jeopardy?

Spain's clumsy government has made a difficult situation worse. That doesn't mean the nation should be dismembered

Published October 29, 2017 6:00AM (EDT)

Demonstrators shout as thousands protest the Catalan government's push for secession from the rest of Spain (AP/Emilio Morenatti)
Demonstrators shout as thousands protest the Catalan government's push for secession from the rest of Spain (AP/Emilio Morenatti)

We reach a grim moment in the crisis between Catalonia and the Spanish state. And it has come hard and fast since late last week. Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan leader, stepped back Thursday from a unilateral declaration of independence (or UDI) and declined to call snap elections as a political counter to Madrid’s assertion of sovereignty. On Friday, however, the regional legislature in Barcelona formerly endorsed a declaration of independence after searing arguments on the assembly floor. Within minutes, the Spanish Senate authorized Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to assume control of Catalonia’s governing institutions, the police, and all administrative functions. By Saturday, Rajoy had fired the Catalan government and assigned his deputy prime minister to replace Puigdemont. Madrid will now administer elections set for December.

That is state justice as swift as any meted out by Franco’s Falangists.

What comes next could prove messy. Puigdemont now calls for “democratic opposition.” A campaign of civil disobedience has already begun. There may be violence of the kind that erupted when Catalans voted on independence in a referendum Oct. 1. We will have to see. But this much is plain: Sovereign Spain has forced Catalans back. The supposedly autonomous region is further away from independence than it was when millions of people voted earlier this month, and has less autonomy than it did until three days ago. At the moment, it has none.

Mistakes pile atop mistake in Catalonia. I hold Madrid primarily responsible for this mess because it has high-handedly refused to negotiate Catalonia’s status in the face of Barcelona’s many requests to do so. But the declaration of independence announced on Friday must also be counted among the errors. There is nothing in it in the immediate term, because Spanish administrators and police are already on their way to Barcelona. And there would be nothing in UDI if it had succeeded, because it would never have served Catalans well.

It is time to think about what we have watched this past month. What do we think about when we think about Catalonia?

My answer is simply stated but monumentally complex when the thinking starts, for this is not solely about the northeastern corner of Spain and its aspiration to determine how it lives. It is about all of us, how we live and how we might govern ourselves in the future. It is about what we naturally assume to be eternal but turns out not to be. We need to think about the nation-state and its 21st-century fate. The questions are going to be many and the certainties few, contrary to all we have been conditioned to take for granted.

To think about Catalonia in a useful context, one must look far beyond it. There are the Scots, most immediately. There are right-wing populist movements elsewhere in Europe. Then there are the Kurds. There is the all-but-scattered Islamic State and its declared caliphate. One cannot leave out Israel. I will omit that place known as “the land of the free” from this very partial list, but it could just as well be on it. So could many other names: Lombardy in Italy, Chechnya and Dagestan in Russia, the Muslim-majority sections of Mindanao in the Philippines, and countless other people and places to which you have probably given little thought.

None of the above people, ethnicities, religious movements, regions or nations bears much resemblance to any other. None seems to share anything with the 7.5 million people residing in Catalonia (who are a mix of Catalans and non–Catalans). But the entities on my list have one thing in common: One way or another they all take issue with the nation-state as we now have it. The Scots are restless in Britain and the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State’s abiding ambition has been to erase national boundaries drawn by French and British diplomats a century ago. These challenges are easily enough read. As to the others: Far-right populists and Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel also counter the modern concept of the nation-state, a point I will return to shortly.

It is nothing new to assert alternatives to the nation-state as an expression of identity or as the political authority to which one owes allegiance. Examples extend back centuries. To stay close by, Albert Camus wrote in the 1930s of Mediterranean culture as a source of identity that transcended nationality. The roots of Catalan autonomy date to the 17th or 18th century, depending on which date one chooses; while Camus was writing of “Mediterranean man” in the 1930s, the Spanish Republic inscribed Catalonia’s autonomous status in its constitution.

What is new today are are direct political challenges to the nation-state — win-or-lose confrontations concerning law, which is to say the nation-state’s survival as now constituted. “If democracy’s foundations are at risk in Catalonia, they are at risk in Europe,” Puigdemont said when appealing to the European Union for support after the Oct. 1 referendum. I think we can say the same of nations, at least as we now know them. Catalonia tells us two things: The nation-state is not disappearing anytime soon, but it is in for serious challenges. At some point — who can say when? — it will have to evolve into something new.

*  *  *

Let me go back a little way. This brief excursion will shed useful light on the nationality and identity problems mentioned above. We can draw a conclusion as to the best way out of the crisis in Catalonia, and maybe some others.

Long ago, a French historian and critic named Ernest Renan delivered a lecture at the Sorbonne that is still read as a kind of founding document of the modern era. You can find “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?” (“What Is a Nation?”) here. The year was 1882, and Renan took on many things. He spoke of “the error most grave in confounding race and nation.” He asserted that a common language or religion or cultural heritage or history or even long-followed commercial practices — that none of that was relevant to what a modern nation was. Nations had to be clear of all that. Properly understood, Renan argued, a nation was simply “a moral consciousness,” meaning something people shared regardless of background. A nation, he said in a famous metaphor, was “a daily plebiscite” — a profession of belief and belonging citizens made by participating in everyday life.

You have to note what was going on in 1882 to understand Renan’s argument fully. He spoke just as the Third Republic was turning France into modern France, roughly as we know it. Along with many other nations, the French were “inventing traditions,” to borrow historian Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase. Flags, anthems, holidays, cameos on currency, renderings of the past -- all of this was put into place to give the modern nation and the people who populated it a clear, unifying identity. Among much else, France had to be thoroughly secular — a point plainly on Renan’s mind. One past had to be reinvented and another past erased. Charlemagne’s great battles: Fine. Regional distinctions, local histories, religious animosities, dialects and languages, separate identities: Not fine, to be forgotten. One was not Breton or Occitan anymore — one was French.

There is much of value in Renan’s lecture. For a long time I thought it altogether wise as a guide. Israel’s demand to be understood as a Jewish state is wrong, reading straight out of Renan’s text. So is the “two-state solution,” for my money. I am with the late Edward Said on this question: One state, secular and respectful of all. Right-wing Europeans want to determine nationality and keep others out according to skin color or religion or language or all three: Renan would quake if he heard this stuff from Marine Le Pen or Alternative für Deutschland. At this point, we have to note, even nations supposedly founded on Renan’s principles make this mistake: France insists one speak French to be French. Here and there, veils are officially banned. Wrong and wrong.

Now to Catalonia. If you accept Renan’s thesis, independence is a mistake because the argument in favor is fatally flawed. There are some economics to the Catalan case; the region is Spain’s richest, and Rajoy’s relentless austerity during the not-yet-over European financial crisis antagonized Catalans. But the case stands on items from Renan’s list: Catalan culture and history justify Catalan independence. Language, because Franco banned Catalan when he took power in 1939, is absolutely primary. “We are Catalan because we speak Catalan,” Enric Ucelay-Da Cal, a Catalan historian, said in an interview with NPR earlier this month.

Dead wrong by Renan’s reckoning, and Western nations have considered Renan’s reckoning a ruling principle since the time he articulated it. What is the difference between the Catalan position and that of Le Pen’s Front National — or Netanyahu's governing Likud, for that matter? There are differences — big ones, surely — but be careful: At the horizon they appear to meet.

*  *  *

Now that we have from Renan what is worth taking, we have to identify his error. It is big, and it is high among the mistakes of modern nations, I would argue. The modern nation, we need to note, is a technology made in the service of a specific political economy: It is the superstructure of industrialized societies and the capital driving them. To this end, too much is erased. The thinking is instrumental: It is “This is what works most efficiently,” not “This is how human beings live and identify themselves.” This, indeed, now proves an error most grave. Invented traditions went a long way in the 19th and 20th centuries, but in the 21st it is another matter.

Erasures of the kind Renan described for us with perfect clarity prove unacceptable here and there, if not everywhere now. Language, history, social memory — it all counts. This brings us to globalism’s paradoxes — at least globalism as we have so far had it. They are two. One concerns what is commonly called “cosmopolitanism.” The swift spread of an inauthentic, polychromatic global culture that blurs all identities — the very delight of those favoring neoliberal economic models and the corporatization of everything — turns out to induce a vigorous embrace of its opposite. Good. I have never trusted the cosmos and find their thinking spongy. Two, now that “the modern” has had its day we discover that what follows it entails a reconnection to what preceded it. In our futures we wish to find our pasts, in short.

To Catalonia again. Its crisis is the above two paradoxes made flesh. The pasts and identities people carry in their heads can never be obliterated or decommissioned by law. “I dream in Catalan,” a young independence advocate said the other day. It is precisely to the point. But how are these dreams in Catalan best served? This is the true question between Barcelona and Madrid. I have to add something some readers may not like: The complaints of right-wing European populists, however odious some of us may find these people, deserve the same consideration. They have as much right to stand for their ideas of community and belonging as Catalans. Same question: How is this best done? To put this point another way, cosmopolitanism is not and must not be made obligatory.

Certain among us outside observers, purporting to impeccable political credentials, propose turning Catalan independence into some kind of cause célèbre. They swiftly endorsed Friday’s unilateral declaration of independence. This is a tiresome variety of virtue-signaling, in my view, and has little merit either on principle or the facts. Barcelona’s UDI has instantly revealed itself as a self-inflicted wound. It is a forced error deserving only our regret on behalf of the Catalan leadership and those who support it.

The facts are these. No matter how one stretches the numbers, the Oct. 1 referendum cannot be taken as a persuasive vote in favor of independence. Roughly two-fifths of those eligible voted. Of those, 90 percent pulled the independence lever. Yes, the Spanish police disrupted the voting process, but this cannot be quantified and so cannot be invoked. The raw arithmetic as it is — 90 percent of 42 percent — left the Barcelona authorities with about 38 percent of Catalans on record as favoring secession. It is not enough, especially given that there is a considerable population of non–Catalan people residing in the region, not least working-class Andalusian migrants somewhat indifferent to the question.

“The consensus on the Catalan side is a strong one,” Thomas Harrington, an Iberian scholar who has been commenting on the Catalan crisis, said in a TV spot shortly after the vote. Oh? What consensus is that, Tom? There are certainly strong sentiments favoring independence, but they do not constitute consensus. Consensus means everyone is on board, and everyone is not. In short, the referendum, while of considerable importance as a fact of history, is weak in relation to the enormity of what it is supposed to justify.

There is also the question of Catalan aspiration. And the prevalent aspiration prior to a long series of provocations on Madrid’s part was for an enhanced degree of autonomy within the Spanish nation. This preference has a long history, but so do the provocations. After the Republic fell in 1939, Franco swiftly canceled Catalonia’s autonomy granted under the republican constitution. The post-Franco constitution declared law in 1978 restores it and refers to Catalan as a “nationality.” But the document is a hopeless blur on the latter point, and one has to assume purposely so: Catalan is a nationality, but Catalonia cannot be a nation.

As others have noted, the root of the current crisis lies in the incomplete process of de-Francoization since the generalissimo’s death in 1975. The chin-out statist streak in Spanish political culture remains exceedingly strong. The conservative Aznar government, in power from 2000 to 2004, was obnoxiously nationalist. The year after it was voted out, the regional parliament in Barcelona passed a new autonomy statute. The politicians and courts in Madrid mauled it — a further antagonism to Catalans. But note: It took seven more years of this kind of treatment for the independence movement to take root; it has ever since been ambivalent and never unified. Even after the referendum, Puigdemont continued to ask the Rajoy government to open new talks. The leadership’s foot-shuffling at the door to independence over the past month also bears interpretation. Independence, in my reading, was not the Catalan people's first choice and is not now.

Nor should it be. Based on all I have reviewed, autonomy within the frame of the nation-state is the correct course. Madrid has put itself in an indefensible position: It now wields the state, the technology of governance, to subjugate those whom the technology is supposed to serve. The means is made the end, the servant the master and vice versa. This has always been one of the nation-state’s dangers. Now it has pushed Catalans to an extreme, quite understandably, but it is not a place where they ought to take up occupancy. Does it sound as if I am writing in defense of the nation-state? Good. I am. By way of form, I must be talking about one or another kind of federalism.

The nation-state is highly problematic, beginning with its fundamental purpose. But we cannot allow its many objectionable features to obscure what advantages there are to be found within it. Power is the primary question. The nation remains a mechanism within which access to power is still possible, at least in theory. It is a site wherein ordinary people have opportunities to represent themselves and exert influence on governing institutions. I draw here on a scholar named Timothy Brennan, who does exceptional work on these questions. He describes nations as “terrains on which new constituencies can work along varied axes of power.” He adds: “They are, in fact, the only effective structures for doing so.”

What access to power would Catalans have were they to achieve independence? How would they represent themselves — not least beyond their new borders? I can think of very little in response to these questions, whether one turns them to economics or politics. Puigdemont’s appeal to the EU was met with stony silence — an immediate case in point. An independent Catalonia — another paradox here — would be a perfect match for the rubbery cosmopolitans and their implicitly neoliberal agenda. Brennan calls for “a re-theorization of the nation-state,” and elsewhere for “a new internationalism.” I would urge Catalans to consider the thought carefully. Nations are “imagined communities,” Brennan writes in a nod to Benedict Anderson’s famous thesis. “They are also, and no less fundamentally, manageable communities” (italics his).

This is my lens. When I think about Catalonia, this is what I think about.



By Patrick Lawrence

Patrick Lawrence is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is an essayist, critic, editor and contributing writer at The Nation. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century”. Follow him on Twitter. Support him at His web site is

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