2014 Referendum, Barcelona, Capitalism, Carles Puigdemont, Catalan Independence, Catalan Independence Referendum 2017, Catalonia, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Democracy, Economic Growth, History, Jane Jacobs, Mariano Rajoy, Marxism, Nationalism, Opinion, Politics, Richard Florida, Scottish Independence, Scottish Nationalism, Spain, The City, The City State
Catalan independence is still, despite everything, inconceivable. It is still all but a political impossibility. For a start, there is the effrontery of railroading Catalonia into independence without anything that resembles a democratic mandate. The “referendum” last Sunday was in truth not a referendum but a petition. Petitions have a vital place in democratic politics – indeed, the UK’s People’s Charter was originally a petition – but they are little more than prefatory to any legally democratic decision.
In a bitter irony, Sunday’s referendum cannot be considered fair because armed goons had used terror and intimidation to prevent people from voting. This will have distorted the vote in all sorts of undesirable ways. I am implacably opposed to separatism but I think that I would have probably voted for it had I witnessed grandmothers being beaten up outside the polling station. And here is the thing: for any referendum to be valid, a context needs to be entrenched in which people can think calmly and seriously about the question on the ballot paper. There was no incentive for Sunday’s voters to take this question seriously because there was never any guarantee that their decision would be respected and implemented. This obviously undermined the sincerity of the result.
Only 42% of the eligible electorate managed to vote on Sunday, with 90% of them endorsing separation. If the Catalan leader and regional President Carles Puigdemont did therefore declare independence (and he has essentially painted himself into this corner) the new nation would lack the support of the majority of its citizens. Puigdemont’s nation is henceforth too puny to last and there is every possibility that it will be strangled in its cradle.
I don’t fancy Puigdemont’s chances against Spanish militarism. Egged on by a ghoulish media, he seems to want to provoke the sort of invasion that had crushed the 1989 protest in Tiananmen Square, in order to earn democratic legitimacy from bloodshed and injury. If a majority of Catalans are so far unconvinced about independence, Puigdemont’s logic implicitly goes, then they will be won over once enough heads have been broken. Ambulance-chasing is never edifying, least of all from a politician on the make.
The 2014 referendum on Scottish independence taught me that democracy is infinitely more valuable than nationalism. The SNP’s model of independence entailed walking out on a large-scale democracy, prioritising the anti-democratic restrictions of the European Union, and parading an open snobbery towards millions of British voters. The ideological twistifications needed to sustain Scottish nationalism wrought the bizarre fantasy that a person in Glasgow was somehow mystically different to one in Manchester or Cardiff, even though they spoke the same language, consumed the same culture, and shared the same common history. Those wishing to dwell within this fantasy soon found themselves grasping at air. The rise of Corbynism dispelled the pompous notion that Scotland was innately more left-wing or socially democratic than England. Next, it turned out that there would be no uniquely Scottish reaction to Brexit.
Ideally, for me, individuals should have a purely contractual relationship with any state, rather as one would have with a bank. I take the conventional Marxist view that nationalism is in itself worthless. Yet I linger over Catalonia because there is actually not the circumstantial likeness between this nation and Scotland that many Scottish nationalists are greedily scouring for. Instead, the nearest similarity appears to come from an altogether unlikelier region of the UK:
London is an international city, and we want to remain at the heart of Europe. Let’s face it – the rest of the country disagrees. So rather than passive aggressively vote against each other at every election, let’s make the divorce official and move in with our friends on the continent. This petition is calling on Mayor Sadiq Khan to declare London independent, and apply to join the EU – including membership of the Schengen Zone (Umm, we’ll talk about the Euro…). Mayor Sadiq, wouldn’t you prefer to be President Sadiq? Make it happen!
One pound in every five earned by Londoners is used to fund the rest of the UK. In a typical year, London contributes £10 to £20 billion to the rest of the UK and receives nothing in return. Even though the Houses of Parliament are situated in London, Londoners are only able to elect around 11% of MPs in the commons; Londoners have *no say* in how the vast majority of MPs are elected, yet they are still subject to their laws… Of course, by far the best argument for London independence is the economic one. As part of a post-exit United Kingdom, London faces economic instability and the cessation of trade deals with the EU. As an independent city-state and the newest EU member, London could reassert its status as one of the financial capitals of the world.
Gowers naturally lives in Bath. #Londependence can be explained away as a whine from losers in a referendum and no opinion poll has ever found more than 20% of responses favouring it. Nevertheless, if one scratches the daydream, there is iron machinery throbbing beneath it. Moreover, it is throbbing along with a process of evolution that appears to be steadily underway across many large Western economies. Nations are stretching, unravelling, and losing their cohesion, whilst city regions are growing ever more powerful and focused.
The economist Jane Jacobs’ treatise Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1985) argues that lasting economic growth can be only ever created in cities. Jacobs in essence redefines nations as empires that are forced to conduct “city-killing transactions of decline” in order to hold themselves together. As with all empires, nations cannot in the end afford their own costs. The nation becomes addicted to redistributing the wealth of its cities to the less productive economies in its portfolio. These are typically agricultural or industrial “supply regions,” or “inherently over-specialised and wildly unbalanced economies, hence unresiliant and fragile, helpless when they lose their fragments of distant markets.”
As the nation’s regions become inevitably poorer, more and more urban capital will be reallocated to them. Jacobs deplores the tariffs that are imposed to protect failing rural economies; she scoffs at rural redevelopment programmes that throw good money after bad. Since national democracies will always favour redistribution, one might conclude that the wisest course for any city is also the bravest and most difficult one: to secede.
In Who’s Your City (2008), Richard Florida built upon some of Jacobs’ ideas. Florida proved prescient in identifying a “challenge” that the USA is today failing with the rise and fall of Donald Trump:
In today’s spiky world, social cohesion is eroding within countries and across them. Little wonder we find ourselves living in an increasingly fractured global society, in which growing numbers are ready to vote – or tear – down what they perceive to be the economic elite of the world… Managing the disparities between peaks and valleys worldwide – raising the valleys without sacrificing the peaks – is surely the greatest political challenge of our time.
With Trump’s election, the Rust Belt is abandoning its normal passivity and demanding new investment from the USA’s urban centres. In the occasional speculation about the futures of London and Barcelona, it is the other way around: it is the aspirational urban classes who would do well to break away from lacklustre nations. Catalonia does have its own national language, culture, cuisine, and history of antagonism with Spain, but the most persuasive appeals for its independence ultimately take the form of raw economic profiles of Barcelona. Indeed, one glossy promotional video made by the Catalan Public Diplomacy Council casts the bulk of Catalonia as a place where visitors to Barcelona can go horse riding and skiing.
Although Catalonia is an autonomous region, Madrid keeps a jealous control over its ports, transport networks, and energy sector. Madrid has recently stripped Catalonia of its fiscal autonomy, chiefly in order to menace anybody on the public payroll who is thinking about voting for independence. It is easy to understand why an ambitious city would want a free hand over its own economic levers. And as with London’s champions, proponents of Catalan independence repeatedly highlight the scant returns that Barcelona usually gets from its investment in Spain. Indeed, this businesslike evaluation of shortfalls often looks like the most valuable card in the Catalan suit.
Yet any case for city statehood that is founded upon limiting redistribution is bound to be uncomfortable for the Left. In an interview with Jacobin Magazine, the pro-independence left-wing politician Lluc Salellas was put on the spot over this very question. Here he is answering for whether Catalan independence is “based in part on separatism for one of the country’s wealthiest regions”:
The last fifteen laws we have passed in the Catalan parliament have been banned by the Spanish state. But these are not independentist laws — many of them are social laws: for example, a law about sanctuary for those fleeing persecution, a law banning energy companies from turning off people’s electricity, and a law for a higher minimum wage. We want to use our autonomy to improve people’s lives and we are forbidden. People see this and respond. They want to decide the future of Catalonia and that is not possible in the current arrangement.
But specifically on this question of remittances, the CUP has said for a number of years that an independent Catalonia should pay money to poorer parts of Spain in the transition. It doesn’t have to be a short time, it could be twenty or thirty years. We don’t want these regions to suddenly lose money. We are internationalists and we are in solidarity with workers and the poor in Spain.
Salellas explicitly rejects the notion that independence is simply a tool for streamlining urban capitalism. Unfortunately, though, he is left with a tawdry logic that will be all too familiar to observers of Scottish politics. The Spanish Left does not, in Salellas’ view, possess the ambition or the willpower to conquer the central state, and so it can only retreat into localism. Far from rejoicing in national freedom, this is merely a regional consolation.
A perusal of Catalonia’s demographic data makes for a mixed picture and interesting reading. At first it appears that younger voters provide a solid bedrock for Catalan independence, which you might assume renders it an urban, aspirational phenomenon. But Barcelona’s metropolitan area had registered a conspicuously lower Yes vote than the rest of Catalonia on Sunday. Likewise, the most densely populated areas of Catalonia gave the least support to pro-independence parties in the 2015 regional election. Significantly, Puigdemont and Salellas, the two Catalan leaders mentioned in this article, both hail from Girona (which has a population of under 100k), whilst the current mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, cast a blank ballot in the referendum.
The most urban Catalans are thus stirred the least by calls for the nation’s autonomy. An obvious reason for this is that there are lots of people living in Barcelona, from Spain and elsewhere, who were not born in Catalonia and who do not speak Catalan. Here is where the exciting and potentially progressive case for city statehood is being weakened by nativism.
Catalan independence has struggled to get over itself ethnically, to progress from being a tumorous blockage of identity pride and grievance into a self-sufficient organism. In a city as multicultural as Barcelona, Catalan nationalism will never be at home. If Catalan independence was predicated upon a clear-sighted, open-minded assessment of what Barcelona’s economy needs then it might go a great deal further. Paradoxically, Catalonia’s independence is being held back by its nationalism.