Is There a “Catalonian Problem”?

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Is There a “Catalonian Problem”?
Spain needs to have a more audacious, motivating, and urgent plan for the future than other European countries in order to escape this crisis.
El País: ¿Existe el ‘problema catalán’?
March 18, 2012

Last year was the 90th anniversary of the publication of La España invertebrada (Spineless Spain), one of the books most hated by Ultramontane Spaniards. It’s worth rereading because it’s a fresh and topical nonagenarian (as Virgil said, iam senior, sed cruda deo viridisque senectus (“old now, but a god’s old age is fresh and green”).

In this article, I am going to argue that in order to leave the present crisis behind, Spain needs a more audacious, more motivating, and more urgent project for the future than other European countries. The reason is that its national cohesion is, comparatively, very low, and so to overcome the obstacles of the present, it needs a strong pull into the future. First of all, I will discuss the national experience of Spain with respect to Ortega’s idea of a nation. After that, I will analyze the important differences between Spain as a nation-state and its neighboring countries like France and Portugal. Finally, I will stress the anachronistic character of our national construct in this 21st century and defend my future project, which has to put emphasis on the construction of a society that maximizes the opportunities it offers to individuals.

Ortega defines a nation as a project for the future with a capacity for integration, directed by a people with the authority to rule. It is a very broad concept that includes, for example, the Roman Empire (the Latin nation directed by Rome). Spain had this kind of project, at least until the 17th century; its backbone was a Castile that knew how to rule and ruled that way. The history of a nation is a story of the process of integration, if there is a vigorous project for the future, or disintegration, if the project fails. A nation also can be seen as the equilibrium between centripetal forces which are always moving and the centripetal force that emanates from the integration project. When this last weakens, because the project is exhausted, the centrifugal forces manifest their full potential. In the 17th century, the Spanish project came to a halt because the ruling classes became immobilist and reactionary (in the first article of this series, Spain: Capital, Madrid, I gave a Braudelian explanation of this process based on geography: there are, of course, other explanations, be they complementary or alternative). This is the history of Spain since then: first Flanders left, then Naples, then America, then the Philippines and Cuba, then the African provinces; now Catalonia and the Basque Country are thinking about it as well…It’s striking that there were no accurate diagnoses of what was happening until 1921, and it’s significant that, once Spineless Spain was published, a thick layer of silence fell over it. So now we are talking about the Catalonian problem without finding its common denominators with the Philippine problem, the American problem, and the Flemish problem. The problem is not in the centrifugal forces, which have always moved this way and always will, but rather in the centripetal force, whose integrative attraction was lost centuries ago.

In 1939 (the end of the Civil War), Spain became “a union of destiny in the universal” in which proto-Catalonians of two milennia ago, Indibilis and Mandonius, would incarnate the patriotic essence of an eternal and immutable Spain. That all this was risible from any serious historian’s perspective was no object for this fantastical millennialism that consolidated itself as the paradigm in which a sector of the Spanish population – whose intellectual organ was the Catholic Church – conceived of the past, present, and future. In the spirit of brevity, I will henceforth refer to this group of Spaniards as “Indibilis and Mandonius”. Their concomitance with the social base of Castilian capitalism is very strong. Their strategic alliance with the left through the labor movement – I will call them “the unions” – to make structural reform fail is one of the keys to understanding the politics at the heart of contemporary Spain. The reactionary pincer (henceforth “the pincer”) formed by Indibilis and Mandonius and the unions to defend the status quo is the greatest obstacle that any coherent reform program has to overcome. But I will leave this for later, for the fourth and final article of this series, to concentrate now on another kind of obstacle this program has to confront: the weak cohesion resulting from the peculiarities of the construction of Spain as a nation-state.

In an article published in this newspaper in 2009, Spain and History, I defended the thesis that Spain, as a nation-state, was left in half-boil. The reason is the role that war has on the construction of nations. War, as terrible as it is, has been a very important motivator for innovation, for technology, for fundamental research, and for social and moral change. Perhaps the most striking statement in support of this last notion is this one Sartre made after Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “in opening up for the first time the possibility of collective suicide, the bomb has made us definitively free.” If it weren’t for war – though war is terrible, I repeat – we would still be monkeys. The national idea applied to the military permitted Napoleon to put anchors on the European population, and it mobilized armies of a size that had never been seen before. There were more deaths in each Napoleonic battle than there were in all the battles of the 18th century put together. Other European powers, in order to defend themselves on equal terms, had to resort to the same idea – one which they detested, of course, because it was revolutionary and French. Hence the capacity to mobilize the population became the master key to military strategy in the 19th century. In order to ratchet up the state’s military power, the nation had to be fortified, and for that reason national cohesion had to be increased. Compulsory education, pensions for the elderly, and other measures which we have today were referred to as “social conquests” when they were introduced in Bismarckian Prussia, where they were a key element to long-term military strategy. Other European states had no recourse but to join this military escalation, and that is how the welfare state as we know it today was born.

Modern nation-states were cooked in the fires of the European wars of the 19th and 20th centuries. To put it quick and dirty, France became French by killing Germans, and vice versa. Wars against external enemies are very cohesive, and as a result of these wars, some very cohesive nation-states were born; that is to say, nations with a strong sense of the state and the general interest, capable of undertaking national enterprises with the support of the large majority of the population.

While all this was happening in Europe, in Spain we dedicated ourselves to killing each other in a bloody succession of civil wars: the Carlist Wars of the 19th century and the Civil War of the 20th, which left a million dead. The civil wars were not cohesive; they were divisive. That’s why it isn’t strange that the level of cohesion in Spain is much lower than it is in, say, France or Germany. In Spain, the notion of the general or national interest is weak, and there are hardly even state policies: the legality of abortion is dependent on who governs; foreign and educational policies change from one administration to another; it hasn’t yet been possible to get the consensus needed for the most important structural reforms (for pensions and the labor market); instead, these issues are electoral weapons for the opposition party…Spain has not become a modern nation-state because it lacks the internal cohesion necessary to be one. A comparison with Portugal, a country which has very strong cohesion, despite not having been involved in any of the European wars of the last two centuries, suggests that Spain’s problem comes not only from a lack of ardor for wars abroad but also from the excess of this ardor for wars wthin.

Things being as they are, Spain is confronting a very profound crisis, within which two components can be distinguished. One is cyclical; all the countries in the world are being affected in unequal ways. Spain is one of the European countries that has been most affected because in times of plenty, it didn’t carry out the reforms it already knew were necessary for the labor market and pensions…and for justice, public administration, education, the banking system, energy, and housing…The mirage of the real estate bubble, the pincer’s ferocious resistance, and the incomprehension, if not cowardice, of our governments have brought us to a situation that is not only very bad but also very susceptible to get worse. The leadership of the PSOE stepped down without giving an explicit diagnosis of what was happening. I believe that, in its bewilderment, it never had one. The PP arrived, and it doesn’t seem to know what’s happening to us, either. They do – they say – what Brussels demands. They are reforming the labor market – more for good than for bad – and they are increasing taxes and cutting spending – more for bad than for good – but they do it without giving a credible diagnosis of the crisis besides faulting everything Zapatero did.

Even more important than that, they do not have a plan for the future that clarifies where they are directing us or illuminates the path that we must follow. The confusion of the public, from #nimileurista (Twixters) to the entrepreneurs, is total, and given the forseeable long duration of the crisis, it would be unusual of this disconcertedness did not transform into resistance. Portugal is going into a very difficult adjustment program dictated by and controlled by the European troika and the IMF. Although it also doesn’t know where it’s going, its population has demonstrated an iron discipline because its national cohesion is so great. It’s probable that the program will bring macroeconomic stabilization, which is its purpose. I don’t see Spain accomplishing something like that.

The Transition (of Spain to democracy) was a success because there were explicit ambitions which the public rallied around: democracy, Europe, and the welfare state. Confronting current challenges would require new ambitions, articulated in a program which, for reasons I’ve explained until now, should be more audacious and motivating than what other countries in our region would need. I will dedicate the next, and last, article of this series to that program.

The second level of this crisis, which is deeper than the first, has to do with the very important changes the world has gone through in economics, society, the military, and politics since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

In economics, there has been rapid globalization which, united to a monetary discipline imposed by the euro, has made it very difficult for Spain to compete on cost in the global economy. We have no option but to bet on something else.

In society, the establishment of the Internet and the web has exponentially increased interactions between people and, as a consequence, has inspired greater acceleration of innovation and progress in all its dimensions: scientific, technological, cultural, and moral.

In opposition to the natural tendency of military affairs, countries have professionalized, reduced, and even privatized their armies, whose bellicose activity no longer depends on the capacity to mobilize the population. This means that social cohesion and the welfare state now have less strategic military importance than they did in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In politics, the Modern Era’s national construction projects have become anachronistic: nation-states will not disappear, but they will lose their abilities, not only due to decentralization but also due to centralization of multinational organizations. This is already occurring in Europe, and it is something that our peninsula’s nationalist movements should take note of.

In this more global context, and with less personal, political, and social certainties, the program Spain needs should put an emphasis on maximizing the opportunities offered to individuals, to fomenting their initiative and creativity, in giving up making decisions for citizens about their lives and giving this responsibility back to them, and in maintaining a social protection network that, without disincentivizing personal effort, guarantees the basic equalities of citizens with respect to education, illness, and aging.

César Molinas, mathematician and economist, is Barcelonese by birth and Madrileño by adoption. He has been an academic, public administrator, and investment banker. He is now devoting himself to “risk capital” in biomedicine and to consulting.

Explore posts in the same categories: Politics, Spain, Translations

One Comment on “Is There a “Catalonian Problem”?”

  1. Jim smyth Says:

    The author’s sweeping generalizations seem to end with talking in circles. The problem is truly vexing- how to be true to socialist ideals and capitalist requirements in a global age. Perhaps the bigger problem is politicians who serve themselves by growing the state? And, as George Bush and even Ronald Reagan seemed to prove, perhaps the problem of government is that it never truly gets smaller and politicians never truly gore the ox, regardless of the public’s mandate.

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