In English Voices From Spain

The Catalan ‘Volksgeist’

Originally published in Spanish. Enrique Krauze. El País

«There are no more people than the physical ones. It is always the first person in the singular who speaks as the first person in the plural. It’s always an I who says us »

Gabriel Zaid


Isaiah Berlin, one of the greatest liberals of 20th century, believed in individuals (only real people, not metaphorical or abstract). He believed in the non selfish self (or a self which is aware of and critical of its selfishness). He believed in the free, responsible, solidary self. At the same time, and without contradiction, he believed that the self could be enriched by an imaginary building of a “we” linked to a concrete language, customs and way of life, “a tradition that arises from a common historic experience”.

In his book Vico and Herder (1976), Berlin enriched liberalism with the quality of cultural plurality. As if he were a romantic from the 19th century, Berlin fell in love with the Herderian ideal, and he believed that cultures were not bound to forever fight against one another. In a 1992 interview with the great US publisher Nathan Gardels, the latter recalled that, in the 20th century, “the Volkgeist became the Third Reich”, to which Berlin replied: “I have lived in the worst century ever in Europe. In my life more dreadful things happened than in any other time in history. I am afraid worse even than in the times of the Huns”. Nevertheless, he had confidence that the problem of coexistence among cultures had been solved in the “satisfied” nations, as he called them: US, Europe, Australia, Japan. In the periphery of the old colonial world and underdeveloped countries, “we must expect that peoples get tired of fighting each other and the stream of blood stops or abates”, he added. This is the landscape he envisioned for 21st century: “I do not want to abandon the belief that the world can be a tidy tapestry of different colours, where each fragment develops its own original cultural identity and tolerance of others. This is not a utopian dream”.

According to John Gray, there was an inherent contradiction in Berlin’s thinking. On one hand, he believed in a pluralism of values and had an historicist conception of human nature; on the other hand, he believed in the universalist claims of classic liberalism. But if a pluralism of values truly exists, Gray says, is not liberty one value among many others?

Liberty is not one value among many others, believed Berlin (and along him, many in the philosophical and still religious Western tradition). Liberty is the natural and essential value of human beings. But Berlin was the first to acknowledge that the architecture of plurality depended on one necessary condition: the universal acceptance of a “minimum of values”. Only this agreement could maintain the world in order: “Otherwise, we would be bound to perish”. Berlin died in peace, hoping that such “minimum of values” —based on individual liberty— could achieve a “universal acceptance”.

The 21st century has (partially) denied this in foreseeable cases such as Islamic fundamentalism, whose identification with the universal Enlightenment values is virtually non-existent and perhaps impossible. The rebirth of European racism and US nativism are also cases —not less deplorable, though maybe reversible (on the mid term)— of refusal of this “minimum universal values”. But there is a recent case that Isaiah Berlin, I am sure, would have considered not just deplorable but incomprehensible: The Catalan Volkgeist.

No one in the entire world —and I am only slightly exaggerating— has any doubt about the Catalan cultural identity. It is in its language, its wonderful cities and villages, its architectonical style, its culinary tradition, its folk dances, its music and its landscape. It’s in the mettle of its people, its Roman cities, its Jewish reminiscences, its Middle Ages, Renaissance, Enlightenment and Modern Era histories. It is in its writers and thinkers. Barcelona was the homeland of so many writers in our language (under Carmen Balcells’ generous shadow) who there wrote their best works. This cultural identity is in the football team, in the ranks of which have played stars from different countries (from legendary Kubala to prodigious Messi), with its azulgrana colours worn with joy and pride by kids around the world. This is the Barcelona we all love and visit.

This Catalonia is on the brink and can be lost (for Spain, for Europe, for itself) not because of the oppression of an outside power, but the power of its own demons, its own ghosts. By renouncing to the “minimal universal values” of which Berlin spoke, by turning its back on the laws and liberties gained in 1975 (after a terrible civil war and an ominous dictatorship), the dream of a free and plural Catalonia gets a little more battered everyday.

The raised-fisted Catalans are reminiscent of the bigot German Volksgeit. To them, identity is not a cultural heritage to be preserved without excluding others (in dialogue with them), but a political weapon to use for the exclusion of others, of the other. Their “we” is not free, responsible and solidary. (The Spanish response to the ISIS terrorist attacks was solidary). Their “we” is imperious. It is not defined by what it affirms, but by what it denies. Their “we” is not cultural, but political. Their “we” is not patriotic, it is nationalist.

Another celebrated British author, a man who showed his love for liberty not only in books and essays, but also with weapon in hand, described the difference in his Notes on Nationalism: “Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism […] two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality”.

Orwell wrote those lines seven years after defending freedom in Catalonia, for Spain, Europe and the West. He would be ashamed to see the stream of blood that pulsates in the gestures of the Catalans who follow their little Führer. Let us hope Catalonia mulls things over and chooses to define itself as a plural identity: devoted to its own culture, but free, responsible and solidary with the nation it belongs.


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