In English Voices From Spain

Constitutional Democracy and the secession referendum in Catalonia (III, IV)

Published originally in Spanish. Manuel Toscano. JotDown.

Constitutional Democracy and the secession referendum in Catalonia (II)


The above discussion refers roughly to what in the literature are known as ascriptive and plebiscitarian theories of secession. There is also a third way of justifying secession, according to which it could be morally justified as the only remedy for a situation of grave injustice. It is what is called «the theory of the just cause.» This line of justification is close to the strict conditions established by international law, as we have seen, to contemplate secession under the principle of self-determination of peoples, that is, in the case of colonial situations or of subjugation and oppression of a population by part of foreign powers. Such injustices would have to involve massive, very serious and widespread violations of the human rights of the population in question. As a second condition, secession should be considered the only way to put an end to these serious and systematic violations of the rights of the oppressed population.

In recent months, if not in the last few years, we have seen that the proponents of the self-determination referendum recur to all justifications at once, alternating or combining them: self-determination would be a democratic requirement, the right of the Catalan nation and, in addition, the way of remedying the exploitation and oppression that the Catalans suffer within the Spanish State. This last strategy of justification is getting more forceful or strident. For years we’ve been hearing things like «Spain robs us» to express the supposed mistreatment of Catalonia. Unsurprisingly, in recent weeks there has been an increase in the number of voices that denounce all kinds of grievances and injustices with impassioned drama, above all in the international media. The spokesmen of the independentismo know very well that neither the plebiscitary nor the nationalistic justification would arouse the sympathy or understanding of the international press or the public of other countries, reason why they have to resort to the justification of the just cause. If they want to advance the secession with the arguments of the just cause, they need to prove that the Catalans suffer serious injustices and violations of rights by the Spanish State. There is a major obstacle: Spain is a social and democratic state of law, whose constitutional provisions and legal system guarantee to all its citizens without discrimination a broad catalogue of rights, which has signed all the major international human rights treaties as well as the European Convention on Rights and Freedoms, as well as being a member of the European Union and the Council of Europe. For this reason the defenders of the secession have dedicated themselves to throwing all sorts of accusations, suspicions and disqualifications concerning the ‘authoritarianism’ of the ‘Spanish state’, the lack of freedoms or the continuity of the parliamentary monarchy with the Franco regime. We see almost every combination of social justice memes on social networks: analogies of the Catalans with the slaves of the South, pictures of Tiananmen square, and Arthur Mas has come to compare himself to Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King! The concern is that we come to hear even worse in the coming days.

Carles Boix, writing in Jot Down, introducing the theory of the ‘just cause’ adopts a more measured tone in his defense of the referendum of 1 October. The plot structure of his work is relatively simple. First, he asserts that the history of Spain as a national state has been a failure. As a consequence, this failure has left «a group of countries unhappy in the Iberian peninsula.» The constitutional pact of 1978 opened an opportunity for the hope of remedying such unhappiness, but also failed in 2010 with the Constitutional Court ruling on the Catalan statute. If federalist reforms were to be tried in the future, as some propose, they would also fail even if they were to follow the lines of an asymmetric federalism. The conclusion is obvious: the Catalans, a weak and oppressed minority in the Spanish State, have only one way out of this unjust situation – the exercise of the right to self-determination.

As you can see, Boix’s argument fits in with the conception of the just cause. Whether it is convincing or not is another matter since one has the impression that everything is forced to extract the desired conclusion. Complex and controversial issues are reduced to sharp, if not simplistic, statements in several cases without further justification. What is worse, the historical account acquires an undoubtedly Manichean air, like a history of good and bad, oppressors and oppressed. What is most disconcerting, however, is that his exposition rests on the protagonism of collective entities, which confers will, feelings, personality («Catalonia could not impose», «not feeling comfortably in Spain«) and even the possibility of being happy or unhappy. It could be argued that it is simply a way of speaking, a way of abbreviating; but this way of speaking does not lack consequences that should be pointed out. As I read the text, the nationalist social ontology that underlies the argument became clear. In the end, this version of the argument of the just cause seems to rest on nationalism.

I will not go into the detail of some of the historical notes that are blithely bandied about in the piece. Fortunately the author does not go back until 1714, as those who present a war of succession for the throne of Spain as if it had been a war of national liberation. But the way in which he presents the thesis of Spain’s failure is striking: «Spain has not succeeded in reaching the Hegelian end of history.» That said, those who are not Hegelians or believe in the end of history could well call into question such failure. The description of this supposed end («a seamless national community, articulated under a state accepted as legitimate by all its citizens») is not less dubious. The historical brushstrokes with which he supports this conclusion, moreover, are rather thick. He simplistically states, for example, that «Spain with a Castilian-Andalusian matrix failed to impose a French solution» and the explanation is that «the liberal revolution failed in Spain”. Such an assertion hardly accounts for the vicissitudes of nineteenth-century Spanish liberalism or the historical experience of the Restoration, for example. But what interests me most is his portrait in black and white. France succeeded as a centralized state because «Paris offered the Midi a treatment of equals»; so it suggests that Madrid never did with Catalonia, that the relationship was always domination. Or he adds: «the force of arms is never enough to forge a single people with a single national feeling», suggesting that the relationship with Catalonia was always mediated by force of arms and imposition. In this line, the rulers in Madrid are portrayed as «reactionary, anti-liberal» elites, without further distinctions. Let the reader judge if it is not a simplistic and distorted view of history.

What matters to me is the way he introduces the protagonists of his story. As a result of historical failure, «a group of unhappy countries», «incapable of maintaining a minimally fraternal relationship», «differentiated national personalities and divergent political projects» emerge. In short, a comfortable majority with the idea of unitary Spain and «a minority – Catalonia – struggling to survive as a cultural and political nation.” This relation is unhappy, of domination, between unequal ones, to the point where it applies the Hegelian dialectic of the master and the slave to analyze it. But this is a sketch «à la Modigliani» as is much of the nationalist narrative, with its human populations perfectly framed in internally compact nations and clearly separated from one another, each with its personality and differentiated identity. It is even worse if such peoples or nations, Catalonia or Spain, are presented as a sort of «metaphysical animals» endowed with their own personalities, interests or projects. For those who do not subscribe to national social ontology, the story thus constructed is simply incredible. Boix’s argument is based entirely on this account, because his problem is how to remedy, or end, that unhappy relationship between collective entities. But that is not the problem.

That way of posing things is not harmless. In analytical terms, methodological individualism has always seemed to me intellectually hygienic in order to avoid reification or substantiation of social aggregates as if they existed as real entities or presented anthropomorphically as supra-individual agents with separate interests. What I want to emphasize now is the way in which this way of dealing with the matter conceals or hides the ideological conflicts and divergent interests within those supposedly homogeneous communities. Boix speaks of the Catalans or of Catalonia as forming a monolithic block, all to one, with the same political project or identified with a cause. In this way, the crucial point of the current political crisis (and in the history of Catalonia) is hidden: the internal plurality of Catalan society. It is not a conflict between Catalonia and Spain, as the nationalists like to say, since the lines of fracture pass firstly through Catalan society itself, internally divided in relation to the secession project. The empty seats of the opposition parliamentarians when the referendum and transitional laws were voted are more than eloquent proof.

It has been said that synecdoche is the favorite rhetorical figure of the nationalists, for their tendency to speak on behalf of all Catalans, being only a part of them. Unfortunately, due to inadvertence or inertia, many others follow the flow. We saw it the other day in the control session in the Congress when a group of Catalan deputies left the chamber and later we could see in headlines and comments that «the Catalan deputies left», as if there were no Catalan deputies in the PP, in the socialist group or in Citizens, for example. Boix’s essay is a constant game with the synecdoche where the part is taken as a whole and the whole as a part, in the relations between Catalonia and Spain, but also in presenting the Catalans as a whole united around the claims and aspirations of a part of them.

If the reader does not accept Boix’s play with synecdoche, all his justification for the just cause falls apart. Without going back to the supposed history of oppression in Catalonia, let us see why it says that the 1978 Constitution failed: «because it does not guarantee the equality position of the peninsular nations». And that means equality between Spain and Catalonia as distinct nations. He further clarified the great lesson of the democratic period begun in 1978: that the constitutional structure of Spain does not guarantee the Catalans their sovereign space. In short, the current Constitution has failed because it does not grant sovereignty to Catalonia and establish relations of equal to equal between both nations. That is the fundamental injustice that the text makes: that the Catalans do not see their national sovereignty recognized. The inequality to which it refers several times is nothing more than that between nations. But then what seemed an argument based on the theory of the just cause is revealed as a nationalist approach, according to which Catalonia is a different people and as such has a right to self-determination. It should not surprise us, therefore, to conclude defending the legitimacy of the October 1 referendum. Everything was already on the premises.

To many, however, we do not care about the happiness of nations, or the dignity of peoples, if that means anything. Any agreement or constitutional arrangement is intended to ensure the coexistence in freedom and equality of all citizens under the law, not that of nations. And it has to recognize pluralism as a fundamental fact of a modern democratic society, whose citizens are divided by antagonistic moral, philosophical and religious conceptions, including their belief or lack of belief in the existence of nations. That is why, as Rawls said, a democratic society can not be seen as a community around a shared faith, whether religious or secular. The constitutional order must guarantee pluralism by protecting the rights and freedoms of all citizens. There lie the ultimate guarantees offered by the Constitution and no project or cause should endanger them.

That is why the justification of the just cause can not refer to grievances about against the nations, but must prove, in the absence of a situation of colonial domination or exploitation by a foreign power, the existence of serious and systematic violations of human rights. In the constitutional Spain of 2017, this is simply not the case. That the desire for independence of a part of the Catalan electorate is frustrated by the Constitution and the law does not represent the grave injustice they need to justify the referendum. This could surely explain the promiscuity of justifications (nationalist, plebiscitary or just cause) which is used in defense of secession and opportunistic use, changing from one to another as appropriate, which is made of them.


In a recent article, Miguel Aguilar said that when we talk about the «Catalan question» we should distinguish two different problems. One has to do with the territorial organization of the state of autonomy and how Catalonia fits in it. It is a problem that requires both time and complex negotiations, which could culminate in a reform of the Constitution. In fact, at the beginning of September a study commission for the reform of the territorial model was created in the Spanish congress. The Socialist Party, promoter of the initiative, proposes a federal reform and a better recognition of the plurinational character of the State, still to be specified. The technically complex financing system of the Autonomous Communities is open to discussion, as is the everlasting problem of reforming the Senate as a territorial chamber. There are also other interesting initiatives that emerge from civil society such as the draft of a law of official languages that have been defended by Juan Claudio de Ramón and Mercè Vilarrubias, for example. Many things can be discussed to improve the state of autonomy. But now the immediate problem is another. The Government of the Generalitat and the parties that support it want to force a unilateral secession with the calling of an illegal referendum, have divided the Catalan society with its project and intend to de facto suspend the Constitution and the Catalan Statute of Autonomy. What is urgently required is to restore legality and guarantee, with firmness and prudence, the maintenance of constitutional order. The rule of law and the rights of all are at stake.

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