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A Hard and Violent Response to the Catalonia Crisis Will Have Disastrous Consequences

The Wire
By Professor  

Divorces between nations can be painful but if democratically handled, can lead to peaceful co-existence.

“If it were true that sovereignty and freedom are the same, then indeed no man could be free, because sovereignty, the ideal of uncompromising self-sufficiency and mastership, is contradictory to the very condition of plurality.” ( Hannah Arendt)

Catalonia’s parliament on Friday passed a motion to declare independence from Spain after a tense debate between the pros and cons of the move. But everybody inside and outside Spain knows that the battle over the question of independence is far from over. We are talking here of a divorce, which like all divorces is difficult and sometimes nasty and harmful for both sides. But also, as in the case of all divorces, partners have the legal right to walk out on their marriage, especially if there is an absence of love or passion for each other.

This is how a majority of Catalans, especially the younger generation, feel about Spain. The Spanish government can consider them as outlaws, arrest them, imprison them or even kill them, but this will not solve the problem of Catalonia. The Catalan problem is not about who wins and who loses in a struggle. It is about a broader dream which has been there since 1922 when Francesc Macià founded the political party Estat Català (Catalan State).

Let us not forget that during Franco’s dictatorship, the Catalan language was banned by Madrid, but the Franquist repression did not stop more than 75% of the population in Catalonia from using Catalan, a language that is different from the original Spanish.  So it is quite natural from the point of view of the Catalans to raise the slogan “Catalonia for the Catalans” and to declare independence. But history is not yet made and the response of the Spanish government and of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will be firm and most probably violent. What would come next could be catastrophic to Rajoy and his government, but also to Catalonia and finally to Europe.

One thing that many politicians in today’s world – including Rajoy, Erdogan and Putin – don’t understand is that you cannot force people to stay in a polity. Being part of a commonwealth is a contract and a choice. Even Spinoza knew this when he wrote: “No one transfers his natural right so absolutely that he has no further voice in affairs, he only hands it over to the majority of society, whereof he is a unit. Thus all men remain, as they were in a state of nature, equals.” Therefore, in a democratic polity, obedience to the laws of the state does not make individuals into slaves if the object of the action is the welfare of the whole people, the common interest.

Spinoza continues in this line of thought and helps us understand better the problem that Spain is facing today with the Catalan separatists. For him, the right of every subject extends as far as his power does under the rule of reason. In other words, “just as in the state of nature the man who is guided by reason is most powerful and most fully possessed of his own right.” Moreover, a state that relies on civic unity could not ask citizens to give up their cultural particularities in order to be full-fledged subjects of the law. In this set-up, democratic laws need to affirm the inviolable singularity of each citizen or each community within a polity according to rational principles. This is where the force of democratic argument cannot turn into the undemocratic argument of force.

Sadly, Rajoy’s government has already shown itself willing to practice the argument of force and the logic of unitary commonwealth rather than the plurality of thinking political bodies. Why? The answer is simple: The Spanish prime minister has to constantly reassure the king, the Spanish political parties and the people of Spain, plus the member states of the European Union, that he is able to safeguard the unitary commonwealth and maintain sovereignty by internal disciplinary measures.

However, practising the enforced integration of Catalonia into Spain is not exactly one of the virtues of European liberalism. Suppressing Catalonia’s independence drive by using Article 155 of the Spanish constitution as a package of extraordinary powers is not exactly what a Jewish liberal philosopher like Spinoza had in mind when he considered a rational state as one committed to fostering freedom, where the purpose would be “to enable men to exercise their mental and physical powers in safety, and to use their reason freely, and to prevent them from fighting and quarrelling through hatred, anger, bad faith, and mutual malice.”

So if we are talking about democracy here, then we are talking about the optima republica, because everyone retains an equal share of the rights. And the most important of these rights is that of holding off something or someone who trespasses on my domain or asserts its authority over me. This notion of negative liberty has clearly become today a rallying cry for the great masses of Catalans. One such cry, which is translated by the question: “What am I able to do or to be, without the interference of the Other?” cannot be answered with a wrong response which is: “We are the source of control and interference that can determine what you have to do, and what you should be, this rather than that.”

In fact, as we will see in a near future, as long as the European countries continue to keep silent on the growing fractured situation in Catalonia, they will not be able to get beyond the purely legal aspects of this matter and respond to the peaceful disobedience of Catalans with dialogical and democratic measures. It has been 25 years since Slovakia separated from the Czech Republic and as is the case with most divorces, the separation was difficult. But today, the two architects of this divorce enjoy a relationship that should be the envy of many European countries. It’s a legacy of the most democratically orchestrated divorce.

Maybe because, as Havel says, “The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless, all the more so because these worlds are never divided by a sharp line: everyone has a small part of himself in both.” This has never been more true than in the Catalan crisis.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is the director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace at Jindal Global University.