It is certainly disturbing to see images of voters being roughly handled by Spanish federal police (see, for example, today’s BBC reporting or this CBS discussion of riot police destroying polling stations.) We are often easily swayed by images of state violence in the form of police in militarized riot gear set against what we see as the spirit of freedom and civic responsibility in voting. In this case, it is clear that the Spanish government’s reaction has been an overreaction that has created unnecessary fear and suffering for Catalonia-region voters and has turned into a PR nightmare.
However, it is worth moving beyond knee-jerk emotional reactions and dwelling on the complexity of what is at stake in Catalonia’s independence movement (for a good summary of the issues involved, see Minder’s recent NYT piece ). As I have written about here, here, and here, the Catalonian separatist movement can be seen as just one of many flash-points of ethnonational fragmentation that is being produced by populist reactions against globalist economics. While ethnic difference is at the heart of this movement (in the same way that, say, some Scots or Kurds galvanize in the face of others to try to carve out smaller states that concentrate ethnic identity and seal it off from others), it is equally true that economic self-interest is a significant part of the independence movement: inhabiting perhaps the wealthiest region of Spain, many Catalonians regularly argue that too much of their wealth is sent to other portions of Spain, and not enough is kept in this location.
In this fascinating BBC video exploring multiple perspectives on Catalonian independence, the most striking impression for me is that the most strident voice for independence cites both ethnic difference and self-interest, arguing that it is wrong that the Spanish state does not “prioritize” his region. Other voices interviewed here range from skeptical of independence as inviting disaster to a sense that clinging to ethnic difference need not be expressed in separatist action. All of these subtleties, of course, melt away when we see riot police and imagine narratives of idealistic would-be voters set up against oppressive states. Again, the Spanish government’s actions are surely unduly harsh—but I wonder how readily your average American, say, would accept a referendum for, say, Texas to leave the US based on a single yes-no vote. There are examples of such votes happening peacefully (the Scottish Independence votes, about which I have written frequently on this blog, such as here and here, are a positive example of orderly democratic voting on possible separation, while the Crimean vote of independence from Ukraine can hardly be seen as a shining example of democratic transition, as I have written about here.) (By the way, since Russia come sup here, it is worth noting that many analysts see Russia as in support of Catalonian independence. This is not a surprise: Russia gains from Western fragmentation– just witness their vigorous support of Brexit, which is causing the EU to become smaller and weaker, or their very active support of the divisive populist Trump. Elections are run in large part by money and spin– and I suspect that Russia will be very strategically supporting populist spearatist movements eveyrwhere except for in its own political sphere.)
As I have written about on numerous occasions here, I believe we inhabit a period of extraordinary ethnic and national fragmentation—and that this buzz of activity is directly tied to reactions against globalism. I don’t think there is any simplistic good-or-bad response to any of this. Ethnic identity can have positive elements—helping preserve languages and traditions, building a feeling of solidarity. But, of course, the dark side to such identity is just as obvious—for it foments divisions, encourages self-interest over building larger communities, and is at the heart of xenophobia. In the same way, globalism can be a force of good—connecting more people and cultures, aiding in crises such as providing care for refugees or mobilizing disaster relief, and offering more variety in a larger economy. Again, the dark side of globalism is just as apparent—increasing income inequality due to exploitation of global institutions by the powerful, devaluation of labor value through race-to-the-bottom competition for lower costs, and the escalation of conflicts into larger stages.
We live in interesting times, as they say—and I think we need more thoughtfulness about how to talk about crucial events. Many people only tuned into the Catalonia question today—and so they will make judgments largely based on quick analysis and images of riot-police and voters. As I signal in the text and links above, I think the situation is far more complex.
As I’ve indicated elsewhere, the spirit of fragmentation is alive everywhere—and I wonder if such movements as Calexit (based on the fact that Californians, who overwhelmingly voted for a Hillary Clinton who, after gaining 3 million more votes than Trump, lost the Presidential election in 2016, could reasonably argue that they have been disenfranchised) or Texas’s perennial efforts to secede from the US might gain steam (this is, of course, not to include any of the hundreds of Native American separatist movements that could easily be imagined). As I’ve argued on this blog, the US has remained curiously united due to its highly fragmented, unevenly distributed democracy: the safeguards for keeping lightly populated territories powerful within the US they agreed to join makes the USA a very idiosyncratic “democracy,” indeed. Sometimes the irrationality or unfairness of such systems actually speaks to a deeper force—the force of compromise, which is very rarely tidy and often dissatisfies everyone, even as it does the magic of keeping them from fragmenting into ever smaller and more self-absorbed units.