I’m naturally sceptical of separatist movements and naturally sympathetic towards them. The English speaking world’s perspective on such movements is shaped on the one hand by America’s Civil War legacy and a separatist South whose objective (the continuation of chattel slavery) was undeniably evil. On the other hand, it is also shaped by British history in terms of de-colonialism, Irish independence and the ongoing issue of Scottish independence. On the latter issue, the British left remains caught in a paradox of Scottish independence as a progressive cause and the electoral imbalance that would occur if Scotland was not part of the UK – without Scotland, the UK parliament would skew further right.
Europe has no shortage of potential divisions. The arbitrary and often perverse borders that European powers imposed on other parts of the world (e.g. Iraq) occur in the political map of Europe (e.g. Belgium) often with the intent of creating countries with systemic ethnic conflicts. These conflicts were to some extent subsumed by the horror of World War 2, the subsequent peace and then relative economic and political stability. However, they never went away and some continued as active conflicts (notably the Basque region and Northern Ireland). Northern Ireland itself demonstrated the fractal nature of such conflicts.
With the end of the Soviet Union, a new wave of separation occurred as national entities subsumed by the USSR asserted their independence. And here lies an added twist to the situation of Europe heading towards 2020. Russia is currently ruled by an ultra-nationalist with a grudge against the role the US and Western Europe played in what Putin still sees as Russia’s Pan-Slavic area of influence. The grudge encompasses the loss of the Baltic States and Ukraine but also the intervention in the Yugoslavian civil wars and the again fractal nature of independence movements.
Meanwhile, conservatism in the west has come under the increasing sway of its own brand of extreme nationalism. Now such nationalism has its own inbuilt contradictions when it comes to separatism – for example, English nationalism is pro-Brexit and anti-Scottish Independence (or at times takes a stance of ‘good riddance’ to Scotland). Specific nationalism comes with their own sense of what does and doesn’t constitute to the nation.
But on the further extremes, we have a kind of unholy alliance across mutually incompatible nationalism. That alliance, which may be substantially less than an active cooperation or conspiracy, is one that recognises that supra-national cooperation is inimical to the regressive policies of the right and far-right forms of nationalism. It is a belief that finds common cause between the anti-UN sentiment among the US right and the anti-NATO sentiment of Putin’s Russian nationalism and the anti-EU sentiment of the Britain’s UKIP/Daily Mail/Brexiteers. The capacity for that alliance (such that it is and I suspect it requires very little active coordination) to act directly is limited but its chief weapon is obvious: cause division and chaos in ways that undermine the legitimacy of democratic government.
For want of a better word, I’ll call it chaos-fascism – that aspect of fascism that attacks the state and civil society so as to legitimise the use of military force against citizens.
It is perfectly possible to want more national entities band together and for states that compromise multiple countries or quasi-national entities to stay together, *AND* recognise the legitimacy of such entities separating. I can both prefer that Scotland stay part of the UK (for many reasons) and support its capacity for independence. Indeed, making secession relatively easy for sub-parts of a state is something I feel is important for democracy because it creates lawful, procedural and accountable routes for something that otherwise can only be achieved by civil conflict. The civil conflicts that can arise tend not only to be immediately damaging but have generational consequences – they also rarely end in unity (with some obvious counter-examples).
Eight paragraphs in and I haven’t mentioned Catalonia.
I don’t know what Putin’s perspective is on Catalonia but I can guess by looking at more accessible proxy mouthpieces. Our least favourite science fiction publisher, Vox Day, is very much against the Spanish government’s actions and supportive of the Catalonian government. Likewise Julian Assange. The Alt-Right, in general, are treating events in Catalonia and the Spanish government’s heavy hand suppression of the voting as vague proof of something – it isn’t clear what they think it proves but their choosing of sides is clear: Madrid bad, Barcelona good. For once they aren’t on the side of militarised police beating the crap out of ordinary people. Why not? After all, in many ways, the current Spanish government is also nationalist and its application of force to quash dissent would, under other circumstances be cheered by the Alt-Right as strong government protecting national identity.
The answer is that there is always at least 50-50 chance which side of a cross-nationalist conflict they will pick but they will tend to pick the side that creates the biggest headache for trans-national cooperation. Putin wants Western Europe divided, both as payback and strategically and the alt-right follows suit. Everybody loses except chaos-fascism.
The Catalonian government clearly escalated the issue but the region’s aspiration for greater independence from Madrid aren’t new and have some merit on multiple dimensions of economics, language and culture. However, there are strong reasons to see the current referendum bid as a cynical and divisive move by a regional government that has its own issues. This Guardian article has some excellent background: https://amp.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/30/red-belt-catalonia-labour-movement-referendum
The Spanish government’s response has been to continue the brinkmanship until they forgot the objective of brinkmanship is to not actually go over the brink. Brutal, violent suppression targeted at VOTERS is appalling even if the referendum was not legal. It demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of legality in the state i.e. a notion that all that is not legal can be violently oppressed by the state – a division of citizens versus outlaws that can then sanction violence against ordinary people. The net effect a kind of fascist ratchet that permits further violence, undermines democracy and alienates people from government. The net effect can only be further conflict – unless action is taken to de-escalate. That in itself should be a clear indication of when a bad decision has been made – Spain will gain no unity from such a move. Prior to recent events, there was a good chance that Catalonians would vote against further independence.
In both Barcelona and Madrid, minority nationalist blocs have manipulated (and at times ignored when convenient) legal process to create a confrontation in which everybody manages to lose. (More background here https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/01/catalonia-and-spain-need-a-compromise-but-who-can-deliver-one ) Yet to declare a plague on both their houses helps no one. Should the EU intervene? Probably, although that has its own risks. The Putin/neo-nationalist objectives would see both non-intervention and intervention by the EU as a win either way – the first undermines the EU’s legitimacy and second embroils the EU in a conflict in which it would be wary to set a precedent that other large EU countries would find alarming.
But there is also a clear moral response here: police beating up ordinary people trying to vote (regardless of whether the referendum was legitimate or not) is bad and should be condemned. It is ludicrous to think that was the Spanish government’s only recourse or that is tactically or politically wise.