In English Voices From Spain

Is the ‘right to decide’ democratic?

Published originally in Spanish. Juan Claudio de Ramón. El País.

One of the most striking aspects of the Spanish territorial crisis is the uncritical and almost automatic embracing by the left of the famous “right to decide”. The entire Catalan left, and a large part of the Spanish left too, have endorsed the use of the referendum to resolve the Catalan issue, as if this were the expression of a quintessentialized democracy that only the antediluvian lunatics could not feel and appreciate. The further to the left, the clearer it seems, and so we confirm that Podemos’ electoral program, in page 31, resolves the question in just one line: “Recognition of the right to decide for the different Europe’s peoples, to constitute themselves as such and to choose democratically their future”. That is, the right to decide as something self-evident, that does not require any explanation or foundation. The Earth revolves around the sun, the water is wet and peoples can decide. It is nonetheless surprising this readiness to embrace a principle that, if fully applied to the different peoples of Spain, could bring the Iberian Peninsula back to its politically fragmented condition of the thirteenth century, not to mention Europe, tangling again the skein of exclusive jurisdictions that had been winded with so many patience and upheavals by modernity.

I guess that the support for the right to decide derives from its rhetoric association to democracy, understood as the majority vote. If voting is good, so is the right to decide. That explains why some popular people with little or no inclination to nationalism feel compelled, faced with the question, to support the right to decide for the Catalan people, the Basque people and everyone and their mother’s people. No one likes to feel flushed and be reprimanded for lacking of democratic spirit, so there you go: Let me be democratic and let the world perish.

I suggest that for a moment we turn self-evidences into something questionable. Is the right to decide really democratic? To claim that there is no democracy without law, as it is repeatedly said these days, is fine, but it tells us nothing about the nature of that democratic ideal, nor if the right to decide is compatible with such ideal. To know it, we should correctly determine the essence of democracy, which is traceable through history. Thus, we remember that in the Ancient Greece the figure of citizen, who was permitted to engage in assemblies, was attached to ownership. That was because political rights involved war duties and only he who possessed rents could get armed at his expense.

However, when Athens opened up to the sea and built a fleet, required a large fighting workforce, which lead to the concession of citizen dignity for seamen. This event marked the inclusion of more beneficiaries of citizenship —and they were not few—, and the new system received the name “democracy”. Well then, that was what democracy was about two thousand years ago, and that is what it is still today: the expansion of citizenship to the non-owners. More generally we say: “democracy is the expansion of citizenship to any community member in a previous condition of political inferiority”. Over the years, the democratic platform has been this: abolishing subordination statuses —women, the poor and slaves—, expanding in this way the group of citizens invested with full political and civic rights. Abolition of slavery, universal suffrage for men and women and mechanisms to provide welfare are all landmarks of that platform. Democracy, I insist, means to declare: in our city there are no first class citizens and second class citizens; the language, gender, race or income level don’t justify any distinction in the rights catalogue. That this aspiration often fails to be fulfilled in practice has not toppled it as the ideal we have committed to.

That said, what no one has ever pretended is that democracy consists uniquely in the vote mechanism to make decisions, or that all decisions must be made by vote. On the first, Aristotle, one of the early scholars on democracy, affirms that also oligarchies hold votes; on the second, it is obvious that all democratic estates withdraw more than a few questions from the voting exercise. Sometimes it is in view of the technical complexity; sometimes —most interestingly— because the decision could violate the democratic aspiration itself. We don’t have to go back to the controversial example of dictatorships that were preceded by an election. We have other cases at hand about how sometimes decisions made by referendum which we hardly regard as democratic, as when California voted the ban on homosexual marriage. And I ask: Was that exercise of the right to decide —a kind of self-determination of heterosexuals in regard to homosexuals— an example of democracy?

Turning back to the present case, it is clear that the success of the pro-independence thesis would not imply an expansion of rights, but a narrowing of the beneficiary group of citizenship. The rest of Spaniards would lose the political rights currently shared with Catalans, becoming in foreigners. Such extreme step could be justified, nonetheless; if the ideal of shared citizenship in Spain were defaced by inequality. If Catalans or Basques were today second class citizens, undermined and consistently bypassed, the efforts for secession would be morally founded and merit the democratic label. Those of us who don’t concur with this theory are legitimated to suspect that what is happening has nothing to do with democracy, but with obscure ethnic impulses that dare not say their name (although sometimes they are crystalline, as in the case of the supreme leader Carme Forcadell).

It’s simply a cultural battle promoted by a significant group of Catalan citizens who refuse to be Spanish —not surprisingly, since for many Catalans, Spain is just this old ugly lady that robs them, who is mocked on TV3, the public Catalan television—  to the point of wishing to force upon those who are Spanish or feel as such into choosing or leaving. It is a wide minority that, having stubbornly declined to change the subject in three decades, might have convinced a simple majority about the rightness of an undertaking more supported by pretexts than by reasons.

They may win or lose, but, in my view —which I don’t pretend to be infallible—, they are neither defending the democratic ideal nor representing it.   

Back To Top