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Catalonia has opened a flood-gate. Whether or not they succeed, the rushing waters cannot be held back.
From Rhyd Wildermuth
He’d sent his favorite painting to his friend in Paris, a friend who’d managed to hide his anti-fascist politics long enough to keep his position in an archive as Nazi bootsteps echoed through the streets of France. He bid auf wiedersehen to his hosts in Marseilles, especially his close friend Hannah Arendt, stuffed the loose leaves of his final manuscript into a valise, and traveled to the small town of Cerbère, at the tip of the southwesternmost part of mainland France.
The Gestapo had direct orders to apprehend him. So, too, did the Stalinists. There was no where else for him to run but here.
He’d gotten a visa, arranged by an American poet friend. But the Nazis would not let a Jew leave France through any port, and his only hope was to flee by boat from Portugal. To get there, though, he would have to travel through Fascist Spain, and to get into Spain he had only one hope: Catalonia.
Only a year before, Catalonia had been free, the last bastion of anarchist and leftist resistance in Europe as fascism swept through the continent. Many Catalonians still remembered, still resisted, including the former mayor of the town of Portbou, just on the other side of the Pyrenees from Cerbère. The mayor had helped resistance fighters to the fascist Franco regime flee in France, and now he would help the Jewish Marxist philosopher, Walter Benjamin, flee the fascists in France towards safety.
I wish this story ended well.
I wish I could tell you a happy tale of how Benjamin, exhausted and harried, arrived finally at a port in Lisbon and from there sailed from European fascism forever. But he arrived in Portbou one day too late; Franco had just issued a decree that any Jews in Spain without Spanish citizenship should be immediately deported to France, and he was put under house arrest by the Guardia Civil.
Even the still-burning heart of resistance in Catalonia could not save him against the full weight of the Spanish government. But rather than face the gas chambers of Germany, he injected himself with a lethal dose of morphine, the last entry in his journal quoting Kafka:
“There is plenty of hope. But not for us.”
Last year I, along with my best friend who’d been haunted for months with dreams of the dead philosopher, followed the rocky and steep trail Walter Benjamin took across the Pyrenees from Cerbère to Portbou. The path leads ever upward, winding its way through outposts of cork oak and vast oceans of wildflowers, with the blue-green of the Mediterranean always at your back until you reach the dizzying top. But as you descend the Catalonian side, the entire land seems to change around you, massive cactus and scrubby bushes your primary companion. By the time you reach Portbou, you are in a different world completely though barely a few miles as a crow might fly from where you started.
Neither of us ever really quite understood why we made that trek. It was her first mountain climb, my first in years. The whole trip had been one of anxiety–uncertainty why we were there in the first place, confusion about the path, panic about our insufficient plans and the mere handful of coins we’d had between us during the journey. We’d run out of water before we got to the top, arrived exhausted and hurried in Portbou, realizing we had just enough money to take a train out but barely enough time to catch it, and neither of us speak Spanish or Catalan.
Why did we make that trip? Why cross a mountain just to spend brief minutes in the small town where our favorite philosopher died? And why did we feel so much dread that day and the days afterward, fearing something was coming we were supposed to prepare for?
Watching what is happening in Catalonia and the rest of the world now, I suspect I know a bit more of those answers.
“Catalonia is Not Spain”
By now you’ve probably heard about it all. Earlier this month, a vote was held in the semi-autonomous region for independence. The Spanish government declared it illegal and sent out the Guardia Civil (whose insignia is still a fasces) to seize ballot boxes and beat up old women who’d cast their vote. And then, on the 27th of October, at 3:35 pm local time, the Catalonian leaders followed the direction of the voters and declared independence.
In just 24 hours, the conservative Spanish government had moved to depose the independence leaders, had seized control over local police and emergency services, threatened parliamentarians with treason, taken over the public broadcasting services in Catalonia and installed their own leaders over the region.
And as of the writing of this essay, Spain has jailed 9 of the elected leaders of the Catalonian government who partook in the independence move. They are charged with treason and sedition, eight of them without possibility of bail, and must together pay 6.7 million Euros to cover the Spanish government’s ‘court costs’ or have all their possessions seized.
Worse from the government is promised.
But while the Spanish government attempts to punish Catalunya for its desire to be independent of the nation-state of Spain, it is not the only one showing disapproval. Large corporations are threatening to leave Barcelona or have already done so, the same process of “Capital flight” which has brought many a populist and leftist government in the global south to its knees.
And the leaders of the ‘free world’ have made clear which side they are on, and it’s not the people of Catalonia:
- The United States under Donald Trump issued a statement through the State Department vowing to support “the Spanish government’s constitutional measures to keep Spain strong and united.”
- Theresa May, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, was even harsher, stating Britain “does not and will not” recognise Catalonia as an independent entity.
- Emmanuel Macron, the pro-capitalist leader of France, stated: “There is a rule of law in Spain with constitutional rules. Mariano Rajoy wants these rules to be respected and he has my full support.”
- From Angela Merkel’s government spokesman: “The German government does not recognise such a declaration of independence.”
- From Turkey, whose leader Erdogan has violently put down Kurdish attempts at independence (including ordering the beating of American supporters of the Kurds): “Turkey will continue to support Spain’s territorial integrity, constitution and political integrity.”
- And from the president of the European Union, Donald Tusk: “For EU nothing changes. Spain remains our only interlocutor.”
As of the writing of this essay, the only European government to be somewhat supportive of Catalonia has been the Scottish Parliament, who were blocked from efforts to join the European Union independent of Britain after Brexit by the Spanish leader Mariano Rajoy himself. Belgium, currently ruled by a coalition which includes separatists, made a less supportive statement but has tweeted out instructions to Catalonians on how to seek asylum within Belgium in the likely event of Spanish political repression. The deposed president of Catalonia fled there already with 8 other Catalonian independence ministers.
And what about Russia? In multiple statements since the initial referendum, Vladimir Putin has made clear Catalonia “is Spain’s internal business and must be resolved within Spanish law and on the basis of democratic traditions,” though certainly seems eager to capitalize on the European Union’s double-standards regarding support for independence movements.
That so much condemnation has quickly come from the leaders of the “free world” should give anyone dismissive of Catalonia’s independence bid pause. When Donald Trump, Theresa May, Vladimir Putin, and Recep Erdoğan all agree Catalonia must remain part of Spain, something else is probably going on here.
That ‘something else’ is much bigger than Catalonia itself. If anything, Catalunya’s desire for self-governance threatens the entire capitalist world order.
The Identity Politics of the Nation
To understand the threat Catalunya presents not just to Spain but to capitalism itself, we need to look at the concept of the nation-state and its relationship to capitalism. But before that, we need to unravel precisely what a Nation is and how it is used to control people.
First, we must remember: most of the modern nation-states in existence are relatively new. For instance, what we know of as Italy was birthed in 1871; Germany came fully into existence that same year. France as a nation-state was born in 1792, a little after the United States (1776). But even still it is not quite correct to look at any of these nations as being quite so old: the United States has only existed in its current territorial form since 1959 and didn’t fully control the land which is now the 48 contiguous states until 1912. Germany in its current form has only been around 1990 (after re-unification); France is in its 5th incarnation as a Republic (1958), and several European nation-states in existence 30 years ago no longer exist, including Yugoslavia (died 1990) and Czechoslovakia (died 1993), birthing new nations from their ashes.
So the nation-state is hardly an eternal form. They come, they go, they form and re-form, but before the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, they cannot be said to have existed at all. What came before were less organized systems of governments (usually kingdoms) attempting to exert control over land and very diverse people through direct force.
The nation-state significantly changed the world, and not just because it created borders and all the modern methods of state violence (police, bureaucracy, etc.). More than anything, it changed the way people saw themselves, slowly replacing their local identifications with National identity. For instance, before the birth of the French republic in 1792, there was no real sense of what it meant to be French (and anyway at that point, no more than half of “the French” actually spoke “French”). Only through long decades of war and government repression of differences did the idea of being French actually take hold in France, and even still some (including Bretons and Corsicans) refuse to call themselves “French.”
The Nation-State, then, is not just a new political construct, but a new way of arranging people and defining their meaning and identity. This identity creates what Benedict Anderson called “imagined communities,” constructed connections between people who will never meet each other but see themselves as part of the same Nation.
In the United States, “American” may not mean the same thing to people on the far left or the far right, to a poor Black woman or an upper class white male, but it’s incredibly rare (except among First Nations peoples) to find anyone who actually refuses to allow themselves to be called an American. That shared national identity binds people who hate each other, binds oppressors and oppressed people together, around a shared sense of membership in the social construct called the Nation.
That definition in places like the United States appears fixed and unquestionable, but in the European nations from which the ancestors of white Americans came, national identity is not monolithic. France, for instance, has at least five other competing national identities within its European territory: Alsatian, Breton, Basque, Corsican, and Occitanie. Add to this the colonized outremer departments such as Martinique and Guyane and you have many, many more non-French identities.
These identities are not just regional; a Corsican who tells you they are Corsican is not just telling you they live in Corse, they are telling you they do not live in France. Here where I live in Bretagne, it is the same: friends and strangers often vehemently correct me when I say I live in “France.” For them, France is an occupying force, an identity pushed upon them and one they are fully justified in rejecting as they please.
The United Kingdom has a similar internal division: for some Welsh, Scottish, Cornish, and Northern Irish folk, “British” is not just an identity they refuse to be defined with, but it is an enclosure and erasure of their cultural and ethnic identity.
One Nation Under the God-State
For the rulers of Nation-States like France and the United Kingdom, national identity is the primary means by which they are able to get the people they govern to not just identify with each other, but identify with the rulers themselves. The French leader Emmanuel Macron, for example, is the President of the French people. If the people Macron tries to rule do not see themselves as French, the laws he and his government create and enforce cannot adequately control people without using overt violence.
Similarly, Theresa May is the British Prime Minister: if the people in Scotland see themselves no longer British, the only way her government can control what the Scottish do is by direct force. Governments lose their appearance of legitimacy (and much of their power) when the people they are supposed to represent no longer identify as part of the imagined community they were elected to lead.
If you are a reader who considers themselves American, imagine how different your relationship to the United States government (and especially Trump) might be if you did not see yourself as an American. Say, for instance, that your parents were Irish and you see yourself more Irish than you do American, and you were living in an area where most of the people you knew spoke Irish and also didn’t see themselves as American. Your perception of the legitimacy of the United States would radically change.
There are already examples of this alternate identification in the United States. Some First Nations people refuse the label of American and point out that the United States is an occupation on their land, a settler-colonist government which is fully illegitimate. Also, some Black and Pan-African thinkers likewise identify more with Blackness or Africanness than with “American,” though these movements do not (by no fault of their own) have the same ongoing ancestral connection to land that First Nations peoples do and thus often have to reconstruct cultural identity.
From here, it should be easy to understand that what is happening in Catalonia is not some aberration in the history of humanity. And also it should be easy to understand why powerful Nation-States attempt to inculcate a singular constructed identity. But another objection is often raised against regional independence movements, particularly by liberals and some anarchists.
That objection? That Catalonia’s desire for independence is “nationalist,” and nationalism is fascist.
Fascist Nationalism vs. Autonomous Movements
Currently sweeping through Europe and the United States are far-right identitarian movements invoking cultural, ethnic, and racial ‘purity’ to fuel their desire for political power and a future without immigrants, Muslims, and anyone else besides themselves. In the United States, for instance, the so-called “alt-right” has marched openly carrying torches and chanting anti-semitic and anti-Black slogans. In Europe, groups like Bloc Identitaire, PEGIDA, Golden Dawn, Alternativ fur Deutschland, Front National, and others associated with the New Right/Nouvelle Droit have staged rallies, attacked refugees and anarchists, and even gained many seats in parliaments.
Besides their anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish rhetoric, these groups have another thing in common: they argue for European states built around ethnic/racial/cultural identity. In this way, they may seem not much different from the movement in Catalonia (or Bretagne, or other places) but for one crucial difference: exclusion. For, while the European far-right tries to redefine the nation along identitarian lines, they also think those nations should only be composed of those identities.
That is, fascist nationalism is primarily exclusionary. On the other hand, the Catalonian independence movement has not said “Catalonia only for Catalonians.” In fact, part of the political platform of an independent Catalonia was the immediate granting of citizenship to immigrants of any ancestry who already had resident status.
More so, fascist nationalist groups have had a horrible time gaining support from independence and autonomous movements. The Front National headed by Marine Le Pen, for instance, did worse in Bretagne during the elections than in more culturally-assimilated (“French”) regions in France, while the far-left/communist candidate, Jean-Luc Melechon, did better in Bretagne than elsewhere.
While it may seem counter-intuitive to Americans unfamiliar with Spanish history, in Catalonia the far-right anti-immigrant/fascist groups are supporting Spanish national unity, not Catalonian independence. There are both historical and ideological reasons for the fascists to take Spain’s side: Spain was ruled by a fascist dictator from 1939 until 1975 (the longest fascist government in history). Spain wasn’t ‘liberated’ from fascism, either–Franco only left power because he died, and the successive ‘democratic’ governments since then never fully (or even partially) purged the fascist sympathisers from their ranks.
Ideologically, though, fascism has much more in common with (and much more to gain from) the Nation-State (and national identity) than it ever would from independence movements. Fascism is at its core both nationalist and statist: none of the far-right movements in Europe are calling for the abolishment of the State or the breaking up of States into distinct cultural regions. Instead, they demand stronger States which exclude, punish, and make war against people who are not like them.
Catalonia has no such plaform, nor does the other independence movement with which I am most familiar, the Breton nationalist movement (mostly made up of communists and anarchists anyway).
So we see here that Catalonia’s independence is both a threat to fascist identitiarian movements as well as the governments of liberal democratic states like the U.S., U.K, France, and Germany. And here’s where our discussion of nationalism finally leads us to the collusion of the Capital and the Nation-State, and why what Catalonia is doing threatens the entire order.
Capitalists and the Nation State: Symbiotic Parasites
There are two things which govern the mutual relationship between Capitalism and the Nation-State. The first is the Capitalist’s desire to gain wealth, avoid risk, and protect their investment. The second is the Nation-State’s need for political stability and wealth in the form of tax-income. These two imperatives function in tandem and make both the Nation-State and the Capitalist mutually parasitic on each other, and thus natural allies.
The first should seem self-evident: investors, corporations, and banks do not like losing money and do everything in their power not to do so.
Economic and long-term investment forecasts aren’t used by the rich the way that the average person uses a weather report. For us, whether it rains next week won’t change much of our lives–we may not plan that trip to the beach with friends or the outdoor barbecue, but unless we are farmers, we don’t significantly change our behavior. For the rich, however, the stability or volatility of a market determines whether or not they are going to keep investments or move them to another market.
Those decisions based on volatility or stability don’t just affect the wealth of the investors, of course. They also determine whether or not people keep their jobs, get to borrow money for houses, or even get to survive at all. So when an investor decides that a market is too risky and decides to move their money elsewhere, that economic chaos can cause political chaos too. Capitalists need to protect their investments (property, primarily) during such times, and also need to protect themselves from political actions from the poor they’ve harmed (riots, assassinations, worker-takeovers, etc.).
A Nation-State is the perfect entity to provide these things for the rich. Through its ability to control markets by laws, policing, and military actions, the Nation-State can guarantee to the capitalist a stable economic climate. Also through its police, judicial, and military powers, the Nation-State can punish people who react violently to decisions by Capitalists to move investments, cut wages, destroy neighborhoods (gentrification), or even outright steal from people.
On the other hand, the Nation-State needs taxes in order to function. Taxes on income and commerce are an easy and difficult-to-oppose means for the State to gain wealth, and thus the economic activity generated by capitalists directly benefits the Nation-State. The more economic activity, the more tax revenue–thus the hyper-consumerism that banks and corporations encourage becomes an addictive drug for the state.
Subsistence farmers or people who only work enough to survive and make most of their own goods cannot produce enough tax revenue for a government to fund massive military campaigns or even run a modern state. Likewise, if a citizenry becomes self-sufficient and self-governing, they rely on the state much less and even begin to oppose it. On the other hand, economically hyper-active citizenry often tend to associate their wealth with the leaders of nation-state itself and become more loyal to it (the way President Bill Clinton or Prime Minister Tony Blair were credited with their respective nation’s economic growth, for instance).
What happens when a Nation-State deviates from this mutual relationship, though?
One need only look at what happened to Argentina and other South American nations who elected leftist or left-leaning governments and platforms to find out. When Argentina in 2001 announced they would no longer pay back debt forced upon them by the International Monetary Fund, capitalists punished the people severely through a process called “Capital flight.” Basically, banks, corporations and large investors quickly pulled their money out of local economies all at once, leading to banks running out of money, millions of people suddenly losing jobs and access to credit, and entire cities suddenly going bankrupt.
So although the relationship between the Nation-State and the Capitalists is mutually-parasitic, the Capitalists are able to do much more damage to the other than the Nation-State can, unless the Nation-State itself seizes the wealth and property of the capitalists (which occurs only during communist take-overs of the State).
The Gates Are Open
Now, back to Catalonia. As I mentioned in the beginning of this essay, Capital flight occurred immediately when the Catalonians voted for independence. Hundreds of Spanish corporations left or moved their headquarters, because to stay meant too much risk. Also, the Catalonian independence movement was heavily influenced by far-left politics, further suggesting to the capitalists that they might not get nearly the same profits in the region as they currently do under the conservative and neo-liberal Spanish government.
So both the Capitalists and the Spanish government have punished Catalonia for their desire to determine their own future. And here’s where a floodgate just opened that threatens to drown the entire capitalist world: we all just saw them do that.
Liberal Democracy (the system that the US, United Kingdom, and almost every European nation uses) has been able to function so well and fight off leftist and independence movements for so long because it veils the Nation-State’s collusion with the Capitalists better than any other system. It promises freedom and democracy to its people, but in Spain it literally beat up old women who’d just voted for autonomy and imprisoned democratically-elected Catalonian leaders.
It also claims to be opposed to fascism, but in Catalonia the conservative Spanish government and the “socialist” minority party are doing exactly what the fascists want. Likewise, the widespread condemnation of Catalonia’s independence from the leaders of every other large Liberal Democratic nation have also revealed themselves to be against democracy and in agreement with the fascist movements in their own countries.
The entire world just watched this happen, especially every other independence movement. We have all watched what the Nation-State and the Capitalists will do together to stop anyone who tries to determine their own future. The Scots saw this, as did the Welsh. The Bretons saw this, as did the Basque and the Corsicans.
So, too, did everyone who was under the illusion that the Nation-State is inviolable and eternal, that governments can protect us from the capitalists and that capitalism was not invested in the authoritarianism of the Nation-State. They now know their governments and capitalist class are all ultimately on the same side as the fascists.
Catalonia has opened a flood-gate. Whether or not they succeed, the rushing waters cannot be held back.
What comes next in the world is uncertain. Which groups inspired by what Catalonia has done will try next? Which groups will succeed? And what beautiful alliances will begin to form between all these apparently disparate movements across the world? Will we see Bretons and Scots and the Basque meeting together with First Nations people, co-ordinating mutual aid and international solidarity between their movements?
Or will we see the fascists seize this moment, using the panic of the governments of the world to manifest their dreams of homogenous, exclusive, authoritarian Nation States?
I don’t know. When I think on Walter Benjamin’s last journal entry in Catalonia before he killed himself, that quote from Kafka, I imagine those who’ve put their hope in this first full attack on Spain seeing a glimpse of all the future movements that will arise.
If Catalonia fails, they too may find themselves penning those same words: “There is plenty of hope, but not for us.”
Rhyd Wildermuth is a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s a poet, writer, theorist, and nomad currently living in occupied Bretagne. Find his primary blog here, his Facebook here, or support him on Patreon here.
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