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The failure of Catalan nationalism

Castilian, Basque and Catalan nationalism have successively tried to impose their identities and exclude dissidents. Their failure due to their own excesses, opens up the possibility of a plural, open Spain


Spaniards have suffered three kinds of nationalism. Two of them, Castilian and Basque nationalism, have already failed. The third – Catalan nationalism – is failing in plain sight of everyone. Even though supporters of each one consider their differences to be irreconcilable, the fact is that all three forms of nationalism have made very similar mistakes and excesses: building on artificial or deformed historical narratives, left in the hands of its most fanatical members, bereft of efficient checks in civil society, and through the manipulation of institutions to serve their own goals, they have created supremacist projects based on a presumed cultural and moral superiority. The result has been an intolerant attitude towards diversity, attacks against plurality, the exclusion of those who are different, and in varying degrees, coercion and violence against the dissidents.

The first of them, Castilian nationalism, is an old, familiar concept. National-Catholicism, as the official ideology of the Franco regime, attempted the cultural, linguistic and ideological assimilation of all Spaniards. To do so, it fell back on a historical-imperial narrative about the greatness of the Spanish nation; it defended a primordial identity, the Castilian identity, which became the Spanish identity, thereby excluding all other possible forms of identification with Spain; it created authoritarian and repressive political and cultural institutions, and it tried to impose one language, Castilian Spanish, as the sole language of the state. At its height, it suppressed the historical institutions of the Basques and the Catalans, banned and persecuted their languages, and considered people with non-Castilian identities to be inferior beings.

Fortunately, the bid to build Spain on the basis of Castilian nationalism failed. And even though its embers are occasionally revived, as when the far right and its sympathetic media deny that Spain is made up of a plurality of languages and identities, a majority of Castilian speakers seem to be immune to National-Catholicism: they have embraced the democratic, decentralized nation that was encoded in the 1978 Constitution, and either replaced or diluted Castilian ethnocentrism with a healthy dose of Europeanism – a project with which they also identify, both politically and culturally.

Basque nationalism is also in a state of healthy retreat. Even though its demands – recovering the rights, institutions, self-government and language that were eliminated by the Franco regime – were absolutely legitimate (historically, culturally and politically), Basque nationalism had been appropriated by two converging forces that twisted it into a clannish, chauvinistic ideology. On one hand, its legitimacy was eroded by the racist supremacy underlying the tenets developed by Sabino Arana [considered the father of Basque nationalism], who exuded contempt for other inhabitants of Spain and whose superiority complex differed but little from that displayed by Franco’s National-Catholicism.

The Franco regime attempted the cultural, linguistic and ideological assimilation of all Spaniards

On the other hand, and more grievously still, Basque nationalism was morally wounded by its justification of terrorism, itself derived from the way left-wing radicals (the abertzale) merged nationalist concepts with revolutionary Marxist-Leninist ideas. Shaped into an alleged movement of national liberation that employed terrorist violence and political assassination, this degraded form of nationalism – now happily overcome – achieved the cruel paradox of turning an extreme interpretation of Basque nationalism into a threat to democracy and to the lives and liberties of all Spaniards. Thus the retreat back to positions that, while not renouncing independence as a political goal, nevertheless reject violence as a means to achieve a Basque state and accept democratic methods as the only source that can legitimize political action.

Our third Spanish nationalism, Catalan nationalism, is no stranger to this rise-and-fall pattern. It is founded on a historical narrative that trumpets the achievements of a wise and noble people who are also honest and hard-working, and who allegedly have a long democratic tradition that goes all the way back to medieval times but was suppressed by fire and sword; a people who love freedom and self-government. Based on this story, Catalan nationalists were on the verge of constructing the perfect nationalism. And not just for sentimental reasons, but for reasons of efficiency as well: Catalonia’s economic success came on top of a generous, exemplary effort to ensure the cultural and linguistic integration of all the region’s numerous immigrants, who, far from diluting Catalan identity, helped to reinforce it. There are few regional identities that have been so open and all-inclusive, or so successful at building an integration model.

This unmitigated success has triggered a pernicious temptation: riding high on their own hubris, Catalan nationalists are gambling away their social cohesiveness and economic success in order to secure a state of their own in which to finally build a political nation. And that is where Catalan nationalism has cracked. Mirroring the sequence of events with the other two forms of nationalism, some individuals have concluded that their ultimate goal justifies the means to get there. And armed with the deep conviction about the moral superiority of their cause, they are destroying or ready to destroy all that was good and healthy about Catalan nationalism, undermining its exemplary social integration, sowing division among “good” and “bad” Catalans who are categorized as first-rate and second-rate citizens; manipulating the institutions; turning everyone’s language into a national language; subverting the plurality of public media outlets and incorporating a type of supremacist rhetoric based on ethnic stereotypes and racist ideas (“Spaniards, who are a lazy, backward and fascist bunch, are robbing and oppressing us”).

Catalan nationalism is founded on a narrative that hails the achievements of a wise and noble people

Judging by the sheer level of noise created by the secessionist challenge, one might deduct that their project is about to succeed. Yet the failure of Catalan nationalism is already evident. Just like their Castilian and Basque predecessors, they have placed themselves at a juncture in which the desire to achieve a state of their own has made them put independence ahead of democracy, and to think that a morally superior goal justifies the use of illegal, anti-democratic methods. Just like other forms of nationalism, it will not conquer and it will not convince. And once it realizes its own failure, it will retreat – let’s hope – to positions that are compatible with democracy and peaceful coexistence.

Let us end on an optimistic note, then, and say that this triple failure, caused by the excesses of each and every nationalism, is good news because it lets us gain insights into how to solve a historical problem: the battle between various national projects within the country, and the achievement, finally, of a political nation that is fully compatible with our diversity of identities. Perhaps we have not thought of the possibility that the triumph of a project to build a plural Spain with room for all our identities, languages and cultural traditions may in fact require the successive failure of all three forms of Spanish nationalism. A Spain that is the result of having domesticated three kinds of nationalism will surely be more livable than the one we have known historically, and may even more sincerely reflect the true identity of Spain as a plural country. Let us, then, welcome our friends to join the failed nationalist club. If the European community was built on the failure of its individual nationalisms, why not Spain as well?

English version by Susana Urra.


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