On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future


Unsettling Ethnonationalism: Cataluña and a Fragmenting Europe (September 29, 2015)

Reading about the recent regional elections in Spain, in which a pair of political parties advocating the secession of Cataluña from the nation-state of Spain won some 48% of the vote, I had to wonder if Europe is going to soon come apart at the seams. (You can read about these elections in BBC’s coverage, here).  ; the BBC also provides an excellent summation of the Cataluña [aka Catalonia] issue here). Coming on the heels of last year’s referendum on Scottish Independence, the Catalonian independence movement seems to echo a larger sentiment of division within the European Union (a topic on which I have written before here).

As you might gather from my frequent posting on the subject (say, here, here, here, and here), I think the Scottish referendum of September 2014 was a crucial moment in the history of intra-European nationalism—and its co-optation by bald capitalism. While many may find the idea of smaller countries breaking free from greater nation-state along ethnic or regional lines stirring, I find it all quite troubling—especially when profit margins seem to be a crucial part of the picture.  However much proponents of separation may couch Scottish (or Catalonian) separatism in the rhetoric of freedom and independence, it is clear that financial motives are a major, if not the crucial, driving force: much as Scottish separatists speak of wanting to take control of North Sea oil revenues, so do many in the Catalonian separatist movements speak of their region as a financial center that is not able to control its massive revenues, which end up being distributed across Spain.

I suppose that one reason I find myself skeptical of the separatist movements in Scotland and Catalonia is my experience with efforts at secession in cities—particularly my own experience growing up in Los Angeles. At a number of points in my lifetime, citizens of the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles, where I grew up, sought to secede from Los Angeles. Such secessionists cited precisely the sorts of things Catalonian groups cite—the idea that tax revenue from their region was going out elsewhere, and that the region has an integrity as a place that should be broken off from the rest of a larger unity. Since by Los Angeles law any secession requires a vote of all Los Angeles citizens, San Fernando secession efforts have not succeeded—leaving only a sense of bitterness in those secessionists who feel that “their” taxes shouldn’t go over “there” (“over the hill,” as they say, into downtown Los Angeles, which is perceived as having much more poverty). (For a nice commentary on San Fernando Valley secessionism, see Ryan Reft’s KCET column, here.)

I always felt quite saddened by such secessionist movements, which seemed to me be selfish to the point of crassness. The pattern of fragmentation in many cities—whether it be through “white flight” patterns in which people, often citing the need for “better schools,” vacate “urban” areas for suburbs, or the creation of smaller towns that are separated from larger urban areas, often in the name of better services or schools—often leaves me with a feeling of sorrow about how readily self-interest can drive people to alienate themselves—literally—from their neighbors, to produce smaller and smaller areas, in which there is increasingly less socio-economic (and sometimes ethnic) diversity (it’s called “white flight” for a reason, after all, even if those who flee are often more diverse than the label implies). (See Alana Semuel’s recent Atlantic article for some alarming analysis about recent intensification of “white flight” patterns. For a counter-view of relevant trends, see William H. Frey’s Brookings Institution study that sees more diversity in suburbs).

Seeing what is happening in Scotland and Catalonia, I wonder if this is simply the same sort of profit-focused fragmentation on an ethnonational rather than urban scale. It is hard to imagine if there might ever be an end to the possible fragmentation of European states, if such categories as economic self-interest and ethnic or regional solidarity are all one needs to invoke—after all, is there any nation-state in which all regions are at all times equally profitable, and in which no area ever pays a single cent—or should I say euro—more than another, on average? Moreover, the EU itself is under intense pressure from nationalist reactions to a larger federalism, as I have written about both in terms of the rise of Syriza and in the rise of Euroskeptics. Division and self-interest are the clarion calls everywhere, in a Europe that is profoundly riven by nationalist and regionalist forces (indeed, it is not surprising that a coordinated response to the refugee crisis currently affecting Europe is sorely lacking).

As I determined in my own unstable responses to the Scottish independence referendum (as someone who studies Scottish literature and history with gusto, I am very susceptible to the view that Scotland is exceptional), I realize that, in the end, I find federalism far more viable as a disposition than what I see as its opposite—ehtnonationalism. Ethnonationalist energies shun the difficult task of consensus, speaking directly to self-interest. Mixed with neoliberal economic self-justification, ehtnonationalism can surely begin to do lots more work of division once it begins to operate, and the Catalonian vote suggests that such a fever is beginning to spread rapidly throughout Europe.