In recent years many people have come to believe that democracy means ‘the will of the people’ and the right to vote to express this will. If a people vote to be independent, they should be able to form a state and be free, the theory goes.
This is a dangerous and disastrous misconception that threatens not only Spain, but the whole of Europe, including those who reject the European Union (EU).
The Catalan independence movement, far from being an example of democracy, exemplifies everything that is wrong with today’s populism.
First of all let us ask ourselves: What is a democracy?
We believe that democracy is a set of institutions and checks and balances that guarantee popular representation, separation of powers, government by debate and basic individual rights. The main purpose of democracy is to prevent concentration of power in the hands of an individual or a group, while ensuring that freedom does not degenerate into anarchy. Democracy is not ‘the will of the people’ but a compromise between order and freedom. It is not a perfect political system, it is a system that is supposed to avoid extremes.
Democratic states are based on diversity. Diversity of opinion, belief, ethnicity, class etc. Democracy gives every citizen individual rights regardless of those differences.
Therefore, voting alone is not what makes up a democracy. Respect for the institutional framework (as long as institutions respect fundamental individual human rights) is just as important.
Imagine if the community of a city or area voted not to pay taxes; or if they voted to expel Muslims. Would that be ‘freedom’? Any community could vote for anything they please, but that wouldn’t make it democratic. Democracy means respecting a set of laws and institutions that guarantee a maximum degree of individual freedom within a framework of reasonable, debatable order.
The American civil war broke out because the states of the South wanted independence, but US president Abraham Lincoln denied their right to so-called ‘self-determination’. In his first inaugural address (March 4, 1861) Lincoln said:
“[T]he central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible.”
Lincoln’s argument is subtle and often not understood. He believed that government should be based on debate, not on political separation whenever a group disagrees with another. That’s why he said that secession would lead to anarchy. He also realized that aspiring to a unanimous ‘will of the people’ is a step towards despotism, towards a government that endorses one group of people with a common ideology against others.
What do Catalan independentists believe in? Do they believe in democracy and freedom? Or are they fighting for a nationalist ideal?
Nationalism is a belief based on the idea that the world is made up of national communities with a distinct territory, language and culture, and that every nation should have a state. Nationalism doesn’t promote individual rights, but the rights of ‘nations’.
Catalans enjoy the same rights and duties as other Spanish citizens. The same rights as Muslims, atheists, as people from Madrid or Cordoba. But they don’t want the same individual rights.
Catalan independentists think that people who are ‘different’ cannot live together. People with a different collective identity cannot live together. They believe that a Catalan individual is diminished by his or her being part of a community of citizens with equal rights and duties. There are also many Catalans who believe to be superior to the rest of Spain, mostly because of their strong economy. Instead of discussing about how to improve the economic conditions of Catalonia and the rest of Spain, they claim that they should keep their wealth for themselves.
However, not only does every country have uneven economic development, but it is also short-sighted to believe that richer areas should just ignore the needs of poorer areas. One lesson from post-war Europe is that we are all better off if our neighbours are better off. And we should try to discuss how to improve the economies of poorer areas instead of blaming them or isolating them. That is neither economically nor politically, let alone morally, sensible.
Catalan independence as a movement shows what is wrong with Europe today.
After World War II European democracy was created and guaranteed by the United States. Prior to that, European states used to fight and destroy each other on the basis of nationalist claims. Those claims themselves are never objective, because, as we know, the concept of nation has changed and keeps changing. While Italian nationalists fought to unite Italy, now separatists want to divide it again. The definition of what a nation is changes over time and is based on ‘feeling’ rather than reason and is therefore an extremely dangerous concept to base a political system on.
It seems that Europe is unable to stop this infighting without the intervention of an external power. European communities, putting petty, particularistic interests over the common good, are incapable of living as one community, pursuing a policy of economic development and of defence of equal human rights for every individual regardless of personal beliefs, religion, identity.
Europe is divided and risks to turn back the clock, returning to an era of hatred and chaos that only a second US military intervention had managed to overcome. Will Europe succumb to its self-destructive instincts? Or can reason, debate, individual freedom and order triumph?
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