New republics, old monsters: Catalonia and Europe hang in the balance 

By Pere Prlpz via Wikimedia Commons

Commentary by Christopher Silver

In an age when borders are supposed to be fading, most people remain stubbornly fond of the ideal of the nation. It offers comfort: a framework, a set of shared tools. The promise of globalisation: to transform all of this old-fashioned rootedness into a series of free networks and connections, is having a troubled journey, to put it mildly, towards fulfilment.

Christopher Silver

To understand the Catalan situation and the energy gathered behind other ‘new’ nationalisms, it’s first necessary to pause and consider this wider irony.

As a whole set of different nations were hoisting freshly embroidered flags near the end of the last century, the march of globalisation seemed to suggest that all of these new borders and passports and bureaucracies would, sooner or later, face a gentle, peaceful, obliteration as markets and transnational networks took hold.

2008 gave the lie to this apparently extraterritorial new order — after financial institutions across the west found themselves reliant once again on the nation-state (historically the nation-state was a necessary step in the creation of modern finance). The “too big to fail” banks, far from outgrowing their origins, suddenly found themselves in need of taxpayers, citizens, territories and public money and had to make their own territorial claim to sovereignty.

It was against this backdrop that the politics of national identity returned with a vengeance in the heart of the world’s most advanced economies. This was a by-product of the great dislocation between nationals and their central governments.


Once the places where welfare states were built, economic plans pushed forward and institutional pride instilled, the old centres in western countries have become hollowed out: their moral claim to embody the wider people exposed as a sham.

Far from protecting citizens from the rough winds of late-capitalism, they have become instruments for inflicting collective punishment, through austerity, for the catastrophic failure of now nationalised financial institutions. After greasing the mechanisms of the financial heights of the economy with the common wealth, their legitimacy is contested everywhere.

The predominant experience of global capitalism in the first decades of the twenty-first century, as Joseph Stiglitz memorably put it, has been the privatisation of gain and the socialisation of loss. But it has also been defined by the globalisation of profit and the localisation of loss.

Spanish prime minister Rajoy (El Confidencial)

Barcelona, both national capital and international hub, is a city built in the image of the global winners: the young, the wealthy, the transient. Like all of the world’s great global cities, the local rubs up awkwardly against the elites, while the authenticity of the local is subordinated to drawing money in. But in an age of austerity this creates a dilemma, framed by the question – who is the city, and the nation, for?

In re-asserting a claim to public life, by challenging the legitimacy of the old, powerful, but cumbersome states in Europe, insurgent nationalisms are able to draw on this general sense of disconnect.


By offering up the founding a new state, a new republic, a new kind of connection with political life seems possible. Their offer of the opportunity to start again, though lacking any guarantees or neat ideological solutions, seems to provide a basis for reclaiming a national public space for the people.

What these non-ethnic nationalisms also have in common, is the way in which old, and historical suppressed languages, cultures, institutions and customs provide a glue to suggest that a distinct outcome is possible.

The new republic has its own memories, traditions, inheritance, and baggage, hidden from view by historic incorporation with a larger neighbour. But it offers the confidence to be different.

While these national movements waited in the wings as a new Europe was being built in the 1990s, eyeing up the prospect of a place within a “Europe of regions,” it took 2008 to catapult them to the fore.

While the actions of the Spanish state over the past month do seem to herald a new age of extremes in Europe, the approach of Catalan politicians is, in a sense, even more remarkable.

Catalan political history has tended to define itself in opposition to the imperialistic authoritarianism that has so often emanated from Madrid. Its prized claim to distinct rights and freedoms, stretching back to the Middle Ages, are said to offer an emphasis on consensus, civil society, compromise.

Many Catalans yearn to express cultural affinity with the core countries of Northern Europe, seeing their country as a hybrid, or a cultural bridge between the Mediterranean and the north.

For years after the death of the dictator, Catalan nationalism did not mean support for independence. There was a project instead to Catalanise Spain, to push, in the context of a federal structure, for reform and greater autonomy.


Such gradualism belongs to a pre-crash age that was naive and oblivious to the violence of austerity. Today, many commentators marvel at the discipline, determination and unity of the Catalan movement. Few ask why one of the world’s most cautious national movements crossed its own Rubicon, just as the conservative Spanish state pushed headlong in the opposite direction.

Rajoy, understanding the lingering sore legacy of what unity means in Spain, has thrown salt in the wound for political expediency. The last time the policy of suspending autonomy in Spain was pursued, it was imposed by Madrid on Catalonia and the Basque Country with the horrors of aerial bombardment and fascist repression.

Still, despite being backed into a corner by force, there remains a steadfast refusal to contemplate its use on the Catalan side.

This one-sidedness has been met with a hollow response, from every voice that might matter. This is a bitter rejoinder – with consequences that stretch far beyond the Pyrenees. Europe, built by the elites of the continent, is deaf to the local complaint.

The EU is now engaged in an absurd dance to distract from its lack of credibility on the crisis. Rather than facilitating dialogue, it prefers instead to slight the the Europhile Catalans by placing them in the same bracket as the isolationist Brexiteers.

The extreme politics of the centre can never be at fault here. In fact, like all systems reliant on markets today, the EU finds it far easier to imagine total collapse than adapting to moderate reform.

Established power cannot contemplate the force it deploys and the structures it protects being dismantled by popular demand. The rules of the club are simple and, as has been restated by Donald Tusk and others “for the EU nothing changes.” Might is right.


Having proclaimed a Republic once before, the Catalans know that such struggles against the force of the Spanish state are dangerous, existential. Many feel the opportunity of a new republic is worth it anyway.

Lluís Companys, who proclaimed the last one, ended up in front of a firing squad. In Europe the use of force to settle political disputes was supposed to be a thing of the past, that assumption was always threadbare, it is now being openly questioned.

In one of the most economically developed corners of the continent, in the context one of the least confrontational, most freely “post-national” political cultures of any European people, popular frustration and an intransigent state has seen the basic tenets of democracy tested to breaking point.

Everything in Europe is changing. Nothing in Europe is changing.

But this moment, when the old centres are dying and the new republics are trying to be born, is a time of monsters in riot gear. The only option, in times like these, is to try and build something new. At least the Catalans, who know their own history, recognise this struggle for what it is, and that change is coming either way.


  1. “….the way in which old, and historical suppressed languages, cultures, institutions and customs provide a glue”

    My vivid recollection of indyref1 is that the vast majority of Yes voters I heard in interviews, meetings, marches, discussions etc tended to have a guid Scots accent whereas many on the No side did not. I presume it is a similar linguistic/cultural spit in Catalonia, with Yes/No sides largely differentiated by language and cultural background. Which suggests that language, as the basis of culture (i.e. the way people think, act, vote even), is far more important than many people might assume. Indeed, one might hypothesise that preventing a greater desire for Scottish independence is the main reason the Scots language has never been allowed to be taught in Scotland’s schools, and that even today there is still no degree course in Scots Language at any of our universities. In any other nation such an outcome would be considered cultural discrimination, representing an extreme colonial policy similar to ‘Russianization’. Aye Holyrood’s ‘Culture Secretary’ juist seems awfu blasé aboot it aw, lyke it daesnae maiter.

  2. The opposition to the Spanish Republic was formed of an alliance amongst the landowners, the Church and the Armed Forces, who had an unquestioned sense of entitlement – they WERE Spain and Spain WAS they.

    Those who were not of that group were lesser human beings and therefore to be eradicated in the same way as infectious diseases. The simile is deliberate because such groups often describe opponents in terms of disease: cancers. The massacre of the miners of the Asturias, the bombing of Gernika were merciless as was the herding of hundreds of thousands into what were virtually slave labour camps throughout Franco’s rule.

    Senor Rajoy and many of his party come from that establishment background and, in his dealings with Catalunya he is doing what his class do.

    The various areas of Spain have had their individual languages and cultures systematically suppressed on several occasions over the centuries. In the comment above, Alf Baird reminds us that this was also done in Scotland. My mother, born 1909, was a native Gaelic speaker and, in school, was subjected to corporal punishment for speaking Gaelic; a continuation of the post-Culloden suppression of Scottish culture and, indeed, the name, Scotland. When I was at school and spoke in my Glasgow accent this was mocked by most teachers and decried as subcultural. Many of us have similar experience. We have only in the past 20/30 years been able to get good access to the diversity of Scotland’s histories, of the breadth of its literature, art, music (mair than bagpipes and Scottish country dancing!). This continues with the denigration of Gaelic road signs and titles such as Poelias Alba appearing alongside Police Scotland, for example.

    There are significant differences between Scotland and Catalunya and relations with United Kingdom and Spain respectively, but, there are also significant similarities.

    I agree with Mr Silver’s final paragraph.

    • Aye Alasdair, one similarity being that the British state is also unlikely to let Scotland loose even after a Yes vote, that is assuming they would ever agree to another referendum. The SNP and independence movement should instead use the current elected majorities of MPs and MSPs in favour of independence to better effect. A more straightforward and certain strategy could be to bring forward a ‘Withdrawal from UK Union (Scotland) Bill’ at Holyrood followed by a national election to confirm. This seems reasonable given (a) a mandated second referendum has been refused (b) Scotland’s EU remain vote has been ignored and (c) the failure to deliver Smith/vow after indyref1. Scots cannot (and need not) depend on a referendum either being allowed or on any Yes result being accepted by Westminster – we shuirly ken bi noo oor poleetical maisters canna be trustit!

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