21 Abril 2015 per Oriol Vidal-Aparicio
The following is a slightly modified version of the presentation I gave at Georgetown University (Washington, DC) on April 16, 2015, as part of a conference entitled “The Case of the Catalans, 300 Years On”, which sought to explain the ongoing independence process in Catalonia to an American audience. / Aquesta és una versió lleugerament modificada de la presentació que vaig fer a Georgetown University (Washington, DC) el 16 d’abril del 2015, part d’una jornada acadèmica que, sota el títol “The Case of the Catalans, 300 Years On”, es proposava explicar al públic nord-americà l’actual procés d’independència a Catalunya.
The United States declared independence by primarily invoking the political philosophy of John Locke, especially the idea that governments are legitimate only insofar as they fulfill the purpose for which they were established by the governed. Almost 240 years later, the process that is underway in Catalonia announces a new era where independence movements will go back to using Lockean political principles, after a 20th century when the general trend was instead to justify independence processes putting an emphasis on the classical principles of nationalism, primarily based on identity and cultural homogeneity.
To simplify, historically independence movements have availed themselves of two types of arguments:
- What we could call Lockean arguments: the notion that every political community is entitled to good government, and if a government fails to perform the functions for which it was set up in a specific territory, it ceases to be legitimate and the people there have a right to secede and set up a separate government. This was precisely the American approach in 1776. The big question to answer in this type of justification for independence is, “From a governance point of view, does independence make sense?” It’s no surprise that the most influential pro-independence pamphlet published during the American Revolution was entitled precisely Common Sense. It made sense to declare independence; it made sense for the 13 colonies to govern themselves.
- Another way to argue in favor of independence is the classic nationalist idea that all peoples, all nations, have a right to their own sovereign state, even regardless of governmental efficiency, regardless of whether independence would arguably bring better governance to the people pursuing it. The big question to answer in this type of justification for independence is, “Are we a separate people? Are we a nation?” This was the prevalent approach of many of the national revival movements that pervaded Europe in the 20th century, or the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and this was also the rationale behind many cases in the big wave of decolonization that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s after the creation of the United Nations.
Let me discuss in more detail the principles that inspired the United States Declaration of Independence, and this will also allow me to clarify what I mean by “Lockean revolution”.
The Lockean argument for independence
The independence of the United States represents the most influential case of an independence process argued almost purely on the question of good government and governmental efficiency. At the same time, the independence of the United States did not include ethnic components: the Founding Fathers were not claiming to be ethnically different than the British. It would have been different if it had been the native Americans who were declaring independence from Great Britain, but the American colonists were for the most part claiming that their rights as Englishmen were being violated. In fact, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, which I have mentioned before, even had the phrase “Written by an Englishman” added to its second edition.
In sum, the American Founding Fathers were not arguing “We should govern ourselves because we are a different nation”, but “We should govern ourselves because we are poorly governed.”
And this is where the ideas of English philosopher John Locke, considered by many the father of classical liberalism, were central. In his Second Treatise of Government (chapter XIX: “Of the Dissolution of Government”) Locke made an argument in favor of government by consent. This is how Locke’s four-part argument goes:
- Individuals are born with inalienable rights: Locke identifies three main rights; the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to private property (or “estate”).
- To protect these rights, people set up governments, and they consent to obey these governments because they understand that having a limited government is better than having no government at all.
- Governments are only legitimate insofar as they fulfill their function to protect people’s rights.
- When governments fail to protect people’s rights, or even worse, when governments misuse their authority to trample people’s rights, then the people have a right, even a duty, to abolish their government and set up a new one.
If you are familiar with the U.S. Declaration of Independence, you will recognize that it follows almost exactly this same reasoning. It’s in this sense that the American Revolution was a Lockean revolution: because it was seeking to rectify a situation in which the government was not doing what it was supposed to do; in other words, the government was violating the political contract with the people, and the people had a right to restore the original contract, even if it meant overthrowing the existing government and setting up a new one.
But let me clarify what Locke meant by revolution, and why I call what’s going on in Catalonia also a revolution in the Lockean sense. Locke took the meaning of the word revolution from its original meaning in Latin, “to go full circle”. For Locke a revolution was a legitimate attempt by the people to restore the social contract: when the government breaches the contract it signed with the people, then the people are entitled to revolution, that is, to do what’s necessary to go full circle and restore the original contract.
Many of the arguments used to justify Catalan independence are indeed of this type: “The Spanish government does not adequately protect our rights, the Spanish government is not fulfilling its proper function in Catalonia, and therefore we would be better off if we were to govern ourselves—because we would make sure that the new government we set up protects our rights adequately.” That’s the argument that is primarily being made today in Catalonia.
The nationalist argument for independence
I have explained the classical liberal arguments of John Locke as one of the bases commonly used to argue in favor of independence. Let me now explain the arguments of the second type, the arguments inspired in ethnic or cultural nationalism, where greater emphasis is placed on identity elements of the political community. This is what we could call the “One nation, one state” approach.
The creation of the United Nations in 1945 led to the establishment of the right of self-determination of peoples as an internationally accepted norm. Self-determination is in fact one of the foundational principles of the United Nations. Its charter states that the purpose of the organization is “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.” The way the right of self-determination has been largely understood is that each people—each nation—has a right to establish its own sovereign state.
The classical definition of nationalism by Ernest Gellner reinforces this connection between nation and sovereign state. In 1983 Gellner published his very influential book Nations and Nationalism, where he defined nationalism as a principle that holds that the political unit and the national unit should be congruent. In other words, each nation should govern itself by having its own sovereign state. In this second approach to making a case for independence, elements of common identity and cultural homogeneity become much more salient.
The main problem in the practical application of this right is how we define a people or a nation—who is recognized as one. While the government of the United Kingdom recognizes Scotland, Ireland and Wales as nations, the government of Spain has never officially recognized the Catalans, the Basques or any other of its peoples as a nation, namely as a political strategy to deny that the right to self-determination applies, for instance, to the Catalans or to the Basques.
In fact, denying that the Catalans constitute a nation has been a favorite line of defense of Spanish unionism against Catalan separatism. A relatively recent example: when Catalonia’s new autonomy charter was being drafted in 2005, and its first article was going to be simply “Catalonia is a nation”, former Spanish vice president Alfonso Guerra declared that “If now the Catalans want to call themselves a nation, there is no doubt that very soon they will argue that—since they are a nation—they need to have a separate state” (July of 2005).
The Lockean secession hypothesis
However, the argument that I am making here is that now that Catalonia has become serious about pursuing independence, mainstream pro-independence leaders are de-emphasizing arguments having to do with identity—having to do with who belongs to the Catalan nation.
To formulate this as a general hypothesis, or as a prediction if you will:
In an increasingly globalized world, where societies are more multicultural, where immigration fluxes are the norm, where traveling is arguably easier than ever before, where identities are constantly being negotiated and in fact individuals can have multiple or superseding identities, arguments for secession are going to be made increasingly on a purely Lockean basis, as opposed to ethnicity, identity, or nationalism. In other words, as the world becomes more globalized, it will be more and more difficult to claim independence based solely on ethnicity or nationalism. As the nationalistic idea of the nation-state—which pursues the coincidence of nation and state in one unit—becomes more and more difficult to be actually realized, secession processes will necessarily be returning to the classical liberal arguments of John Locke.
Of course, this is a general hypothesis that will need to be tested, but I will try to offer anecdotal evidence for it, using Catalonia as some sort of hypothesis-generating case.
Regarding arguments for independence, Catalonia is what I would call a hybrid case: Catalans have used the language of nationalism for most of its modern history to argue in favor of greater autonomy or independence (the phrase “Som una nació”—we are a nation—has been used and continues to be used to invoke the right to self-determination in Catalonia); at the same time, just like the American colonists, Catalans have sent petitions to the king to ask for redress of grievances, like they did in 1760 and in 1885, and they have often complained of not being properly represented—that is, they have also used Lockean arguments. Therefore, overall it is fair to classify Catalonia as a hybrid case, where arguments to ask for more self-government have been of the two types outlined above.
But if we analyze closely the political discourse the leaders of the independence movement are putting forth today—and here I’m referring to mainstream political discourse in the pro-independence camp—we can observe what would strike anyone as a conscious effort to de-emphasize identity components and emphasize what I have called Lockean arguments (arguments having to do with legitimacy and good, commonsensical governance).
Let me provide the anecdotal evidence I promised in order to illustrate this effort Catalan pro-independence leaders are making to stay away from more nationalistic arguments or from issues of identity.
It was a few years ago when one of the leaders of the independence movement, Josep Lluís Carod-Rovira, at that time president of ERC (the Republican Left of Catalonia), famously declared that while he was for independence, he was not a nationalist.
This is how Carod-Rovira rephrased this thought in a recent interview:
The debate in Catalonia is not about identity. We are not discussing identity, we are discussing sovereignty. We are not arguing about who each person is, but about who should rule, and those who work and live in Catalonia are the ones who should rule in Catalonia.
Being Catalan cannot be an inheritance nor an imposition. It’s a decision, but one that does not force you to renounce other identities you may have brought with you, if you happen to have come from somewhere else.
Let me now provide you with some quotes from the political programs CiU and ERC defended during the 2012 election. CiU and ERC are the governing party and the main opposition party in Catalonia, and both presented pro-independence proposals in the last Catalan election in 2012 (I argued here at length why Unió Democràtica, the smallest party in the federation of parties that CiU is, should be counted in the pro-independence camp for parliamentary purposes).
From the political program published by Convergència i Unió in the 2012 election:
In Catalonia, you are Catalan regardless of the language you speak.
Spanish is the language of a part of the population in Catalonia, and will continue to be so. Spanish will be an official language [in an independent Catalonia]. Spanish is an international, economic and cultural asset which we are not going to renounce.
He have built, and will continue to build, a Catalonia without discrimination on the basis of language, origin, culture, or belief.
Notice how being Catalan is never linked to one’s language or geographic origins.
And now from the political program published by ERC (the Republican Left of Catalonia) in the same 2012 election:
Today Catalan society is multilingual.
We will guarantee that no citizen loses rights in an independent Catalonia. The Catalan State will not take away the linguistic rights of anyone.
Finally, here is probably the perfect example of what I want to illustrate: Súmate, a very active pro-independence group, is an association of Spanish-speaking Catalans who defend independence not on the basis of their cultural identity, but on the basis of its utility. This is how they define themselves on their website:
Súmate is formed by Catalans of Castilian/Spanish language and culture, who, because of their family background and origins, have kept their cultural heritage, without abandoning their place in the Catalan national community.
In sum, I think it is fair to say that we are seeing an evolution in the way Catalans argue in favor of independence. Today, if you listen to pro-independence political leaders in Catalonia, you will hear much more about infrastructure, taxes, and defending people’s rights, than about identity issues, or who exactly is part of the Catalan nation. In other words, I think that today the Catalan independence process is relying much more on Lockean arguments and much less on classic nationalist principles. This probably has to do with broadening the base of pro-independence supporters, but I think it also has to do with the fact that defining political communities in terms of their national ascription is becoming muddier and riskier, as the process of globalization advances and political constituencies tend to become more culturally diverse. We can observe this phenomenon in Catalonia, and we will observe it in other pro-independence movements to come.