National borders seem acutely uneasy these days, at least in and around Europe. Following the very intense September 18, 2014 Independence Vote that nearly ended 307-year old union of the Scottish and English states (about which I have written quite a bit here), will on November 9 be an independence vote on the status of Catalonian desires to separate from Spain (for an excellent analysis of the current situation of the Catalonian independence moment, support for which has ballooned due to a very popular Spanish government, see Nick Rider’s BBC essay; see also the BBC’s excellent profile on Catalonia [more properly, Cataluña).
Whereas the Scottish Independence vote was an actual vote with the highest stakes for any state (actual separation), the November 9 vote has essentially been reduced to an opinion poll. As Rider reports, Artur Mas, the President of the Generalitat of Catalonia (Generalidad de Cataluña), had in 2012 moved for a referendum vote on independence for Catalonia and was met with resistance from Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy, whose government argued any such referendum was unconstitutional according to Spain’s 1978 Constitution, which preserved much regional autonomy but (Rajoy’s government held) prevented any one region from voting for separation (see the constitution in official English translation here, and see also this excellent Wikipedia article). Mas, galvanized both by independent movements and by the Rajoy government’s unpopularity, moved for a non-binding “consultation” on November 9, 2014.
While the November 9 “consultation” clearly has no constitutional weight, it is striking to see an independence movement within Western Europe that, like Scotland, is predicated upon a region’s self-perception as ethnically and historically separate from a central government. As I have written of elsewhere in terms of the vote held to move Crimea (like Catalonia a semi-autonomous region) out of the Ukranian state and into the Russian state (and in the context of related separatism in Eastern Ukraine), as well as in the context of the extraordinary political chaos unleashed by ISIS’s violent efforts to carve out a new Islamic state (indeed, a caliphate) in the Middle East, state borders seem to be acutely unstable these days. Catalonian and Scottish efforts to tie ethnonationalist separation to democratic processes is fascinating—but I wonder if notions of democracy itself will have to change radically if separatist movements start to become the norm rather than the exception.
As you can see in my earlier blog post on economic injustice and a redistribution of the meaning of democracy, I have been thinking a lot today about how currently unstable the very concept of democracy seems: I was here spurred by Rick Lymon and Alison Smale’s analysis of remarks by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban that indicate his desire to steer Hungary towards the “illiberal” democracies modeled after Russia, China, and Turkey, rather than the “liberal” democracies of the West that brought the 2008 financial crisis and thus seem ill-prepared for the economic future. The question may not be whether Scottish or Catalonian efforts are actually democratic, but rather what democracy will mean in an increasingly socially and economically divided West. In writing earlier of the odd fit within Spain of such a counter-democratic principle as inherited royal sovereignty in a modern nation-state, I mused that rule by a privileged elite is perhaps symbolically honest in a capitalist West of increasing—and increasingly entrenched, as Thomas Piketty argues in his analysis in Capital of the exponentially increasing privilege of inherited money—economic inequality. Whatever the outcome of the Catalonian “consultation,” and however the ongoing issue of Scottish independence unfolds, it seems that the ethnonationalist unraveling going on in so much of Europe may increasingly be cited as evidence, à la Orban, that the Western neoliberal state model is self-destructing.