Of all forms of war, the ancient Greeks recognized that civil war was the worst and most destructive form of human conflict. This is because civil war shatters the bonds that hold societies together, tearing families, neighborhoods and communities apart, unleashing hatreds, divisions and conflicts that can only be resolved, not through negotiation, compromise or a peace treaty, but through the complete and utter destruction and defeat of one side by the other.
We have seen this again and again throughout history, most recently in the former Yugoslavia, Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. Spain knows this as much as any country in Europe;its politics have been haunted by the memory of the civil war even during the democratic transition.
As a result of its unilateral declaration of independence, the Catalan parliament has now ushered in a dangerous new phase in its ongoing confrontation with the Spanish state, in which civil conflict is a very real possibility. It isn’t only that the Catalan parliament doesn’t have a clear mandate to take such a drastic and far-reaching decision; the nationalist movement simply does not have the ability to transform this decision into political reality. It has taken a reckless political gamble and picked a fight that it cannot win, and which poses a direct threat to the lives and well-being of millions of people in Catalonia and in Spain.
This does not mean that the Spanish state is in the right. Rajoy and his awful government could hardly have acted worse than they have. The police repression of the October 1 referendum was an abomination that deserves only universal condemnation. It was also confirmation that Rajoy has a political tin ear to make even Theresa May look like a visionary stateswoman But state repression and the imposition of direct rule cannot in themselves justify the extraordinarily reckless decision taken by the Catalan parliament – a parliament from which 53 MPs who represent more than half the voting population of Catalonia were missing.
Such a decision not only disregards the persistent polls suggesting that half the population of Catalonia do not want independence: it also shows a startling and shocking indifference to the potentially catastrophic consequences that are already beginning to unfold. If there was ever a crisis that needed compromise, deescalation, dialogue and conflict-prevention it is this one, yet there is no sign of any of this from the Spanish government or their Catalan opponents, each of whom seem determined to make the situation worse.
And they aren’t the only ones. Beyond Catalonia, certain sections of the left and the European ‘alt-right’ are now falling over themselves to support the Catalan separatist movement, who seem equally indifferent to its consequences. Right wing politicians have condemned Spain’s repression of the Catalan movement. In the UK, Counterfire, Tariq Ali, Julian Assange and Lindsey German are calling for progressives to support the ‘Catalan Republic’. Lindsay German has praised the Catalans for ‘laying Franco’s ghost’ – when it would be more accurate to say that the Catalan movement is in danger of digging up Franco’s corpse and bringing it back to life. In a mindnumbingly irresponsible Facebook post, Tariq Ali has even called on the Catalans to form popular militias to defend their new republic.
Such breathtaking idiocy cannot be explained by a concern for Catalan human rights and civil liberties. You can very easily oppose Spanish cops who beat up elderly women for voting without cheerleading a process that is leading inexorably towards a far bloodier confrontation. But that does not mean that you have to uncritically accept everything that the Catalan nationalists say about themselves.
Personally I respect the principle of self-determination, in Catalonia and elsewhere. I recognize that there are legitimate historical and cultural reasons why millions of Catalans would seek to be an independent nation. I admire the passion, skill and commitment that the Catalans have brought to their cause.
At the same time I don’t accept the victim narratives that have been refloated again and again over the last few years. I do not believe that Catalans are any more ‘oppressed’ than millions of Spaniards who have also been victims of austerity. In the last forty years Catalonia has become one of the richest regions in Spain. It has wide powers of autonomy and self-government. Its capital city is one of the most popular in the the world.
All this has been achieved through negotiation and cooperation within the framework of the post-Francoist democratic state. Does this mean that Catalans do not have the right to seek independence? Of course not, because every coherent nation-in-waiting has the right to choose the form of government it wants. But the balance of forces within Spain is such that Catalonia cannot become an independent republic without a negotiated process that involves the consent of the Spanish population.
Anything else has the potential to unleash civil conflict and the reawakening of the most chauvinistic, reactionary and dangerous forms of Spanish nationalism that have caused such havoc in the past. And in a world that is saturated with violence, extremism and the potential for even worse conflicts, the principle of self-determination needs to be weighed not only in terms of the desirability of independence, but in terms its wider potential consequences, and that is the main reason why I think that last week’s unilateral declaration of independence is a catastrophic mistake
Yet as we saw during the Brexit referendum, there is a certain breed of leftist that cannot distinguish between the bad and the worse, and which actively seeks to turn a bad situation into a calamity – particularly if it has anything to do with the European Union. Thus Ali, like Paul Mason and many others, blamed the EU for Spain’s treatment of the Catalans, and attributed Rajoy’s authoritarianism to a sinister alliance between ‘Berlin’ and ‘Madrid’ that supposedly echoes the Hitler/Franco alliance during the Spanish Civil War – as though the Spanish government is acting under Angela Merkel’s tutelage.
It here, in is this absolute and unrelenting loathing of the European Union, that the right and left really find a kind of common ground in their newfound love affair with Catalanism. On the British left, the most enthusiastic supporters of Catalan independence tend to be the same individuals and organisations that supported ‘Lexit’. At the other end of the pro-independence spectrum we find politicians like Nigel Farage, a demagogue who lies as easily as he breathes, reveling in the fact that Catalonia represents a greater threat to the European Union than Brexit. For Mr Toad, Catalonia is ‘Juncker’s worst nightmare’ and promises to make ‘Brexit look like a Sunday afternoon picnic.’
Farage clearly can’t wait to see that happen. So when he talks about Catalan ‘human rights’ or criticizes the ‘monstrous’ way ‘the international community have ganged up and tried to crush’ the Catalans, we need to take such indignation with a very large handful of salt. No one heard much from Farage when the Spanish police were shooting indignados with rubber bullets in 2011, and no one would expect him to, because like his hero Steve Bannon, Farage is an ethno-nationalist who would strut around in a fascist uniform as soon as history gave him the opportunity, and only cares about human rights when they suit his ‘anti-globalist’ agenda.
For Farage, Gert Wilders et al, the crisis in Catalonia is another stick with which to beat the EU, regardless of the fact that Catalan nationalists want to join the European Union, and that is the beginning and end of their support. The Lexit pro-Catalan left has the same aspiration, albeit for different reasons. It sees the Catalan crisis as another crack in the European wall and another crisis that it can use to its own advantage and perhaps bring about the ‘decisive rupture’ that will bring down neo-liberalism, etc, etc.
The result is a grotesque spectacle, in which both sets of cheerleaders – supposedly at opposite ends of the political spectrum – are applauding the independence movement because they hope it will pave the way for their respective ethno-nationalist or ‘socialist’ utopias.
Neither side seems concerned if the ongoing confrontation results in civil conflict within Catalonia, the collapse of Spanish democracy, or even a new civil war. And such is their obsessive loathing of the EU that you can’t help sensing that there are many among them who really wouldn’t mind if it did.