Catalonia at an impasse
Devon Chenelle | Tuesday, November 28, 2017
For all their ideological intricacies, Marxists are remarkably pragmatic. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in Lenin’s Oct. 17, 1921, address to the All-Russian Congress, when he stated, “The whole question is — who will overtake whom?” He thus reduced the entirety of class conflict, at its core, to a question of which side will achieve domination, making all incidences of debate, compromise and agreement between opposing sides in the great class struggle ultimately nothing more than disguised attempts to gain mastery. This ultimately reduced all political debates to confrontations of power, not arguments on right or wrong. Could this framework be applied to similar debates over popular sovereignty?
This question is more relevant than ever, for a fever has swept the Earth — a fever of secession. Demands for autonomy or independence, long simmering in a myriad of locales from Quebec to Kosovo, have exploded in recent years. Perhaps the recent wave might be most accurately traced back to the 2011 secession of South Sudan from the government in Khartoum. Three years later, separatists in eastern Ukraine began fighting — with the aid of “little green men” from the Russian government, the government in Kiev — for autonomy. That year, Scots voted on their own independence, over 300 years gone. Recently, the Kurds have set up their own state structure, independent in all but name, in the parts of lawless Syria and Iraq they reside in. And of course, Catalonia has just held an independence referendum in which a vast majority of votes favored independence from Spain. Across the planet, everyone seems at the ready to condemn, or continue condemning, the Spanish government in Madrid if they evince the slightest hint of oppression in their interactions with the Catalonian separatists. However, few seem to be asking the most important question of all: On what grounds do the Catalans demand independence, and are they justified in so doing?
Nothing is more central to the Catalans’ — and other separatists’ — claims for independence than a successful plebiscite. On Oct. 1, 2017, the Catalonian government — defying Spanish courts’ denunciations of the election — went ahead with a referendum asking, “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state?” Defying police barricades, 43.03 percent of eligible voters participated, and over 90 percent answered “Yes.” On Oct. 10, the regional president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, declared independence for his region despite repeated warnings not to do so from Spanish authorities. This resulted in the arrests of the speaker of the Catalan National Assembly and the leader of a pro-independence group. On Oct. 27, the Catalan Parliament voted in favor of independence, and shortly thereafter, the Spanish government dissolved Catalonia’s regional government and charged Puigdemont and 13 others with “rebellion, sedition and misuse of funds,” but only after they had fled from Spain. Another wave of nine arrests took place on Nov. 2, and there has been little resistance to the Spanish takeover of Catalonian government and services.
Of course, there were serious issues with this particular referendum — including low turnout and suppression from the Spanish government. But let us ask whether or not, if those issues were not so salient, this referendum mechanism provides sufficient moral force for independence via popular sovereignty? I think not. All arguments for popular sovereignty eventually succumb to reductio ad absurdum because they incite unanswerable questions. Why can’t my town vote to secede? Why can’t my family? Why can’t I? What is the quorum for being a self-determining people? Can any group that reaches this number automatically and successfully apply for independence and sovereignty upon realization of a 50.1 percent majority? It just isn’t a workable concept, if truly and fully applied, in the real world.
It is highly relevant that it appears, regardless of popular support, Catalonia has lost its battle for independence because it never fought an actual battle. The case of the Russian minorities in Ukraine is instructive, as is the example of the Kurds — asserting a claim to independence without being able to defend it isn’t really asserting a claim to independence at all.
Independence-minded Scots and Puerto Ricans should feel thankful that their secession bids failed and the Catalans themselves may soon be thanking their lucky stars they refused to take up arms to uphold their nationhood. For a sampling of independence’s fruits, observe the dismal state of South Sudan or Kurdistan’s approaching doom. These practical concerns ought decide the issue. However, the ideological case for regional independence is also hollow. Independence movements live or die on questions of power and nothing else. As the Catalans aren’t willing to fight for their independence, they won’t have it. Don’t weep for them; they have no more of a right to secede than you or I, which is to say, none until they make one.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.