Contextualizing the Catalan Situation: Crass Neoliberal Commercialism Disguised as Pluralism or Legitimate Nationalism?

Catalan Secession

Wikipedia describes Catalonia as an autonomous community of Spain located on the northeastern extremity of the Iberian Peninsula and designated as a nationality by its Statute of Autonomy, something that perhaps Spanish authorities would now do differently; still, Spain is a unitary state in the same strange sense as the United Kingdom, a multinational unitary state.  It consists of four provinces: Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, and Tarragona and its capital and largest city is Barcelona, the second-most populated municipality in Spain and the core of the seventh most populous urban area in the European Union.  It became a part of the new then confederated Kingdom of Spain when Ferdinand, King of Aragorn (of which Catalonia was a principality) married Isabella, Queen of Castile in 1492, however, Catalonia revolted during the Franco-Spanish War (1635–1659) and for much of that period was aligned as an independent republic with the French, being divided between France and Spain at its conclusion.  Rebellion, apparently being a Catalan tradition, it again rebelled against Spain during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), but Phillip V’s victory resulted in Castilian domination of Spain and the suppression of regional nationalist and cultural symbols in order to minimize subsequent tendencies towards fragmentation.  Nonetheless, it was seriously affected during the Napoleonic wars and the subsequent internecine Carlist wars of succession, and thereafter, continued to varying degrees efforts to attain autonomy and restore use of Catalonian cultural traditions including the Catalan language.  Following the evolution of parliamentary democracy led by former Spanish King Juan Carlos after the transition from the fascist Franco regime, Catalonian autonomous rights were largely restored and Catalonia became an important industrial center, not only in Spain but within Europe.  Economic success led to demands for increased autonomy, especially following success in that regard in the Basque region, but political proposals in that regard were stymied by the conservative and centrist Spanish Supreme Court.  Disappointed in their failure to attain expected quasi-independent status, Catalans renewed their traditional struggles for actual independence and, after winning regional elections in 2015, the pro-independence movement called for a referendum on independence, scheduled for October 1, 2017, a referendum Spanish authorities have labeled illegal, unconstitutional and seditious. (Wikipedia, Catalonia)

Spanish and European leaders, perhaps recalling European Union and United States success in dismembering Yugoslavia, now fear the same might occur in Spain should the Catalans succeed in their quest and that such aspirations could well spread to minority communities in other European Union member states, a sociocultural pandemic of sorts.  Hence the quandary.

But perhaps nationalist tendencies alone are not the only cause.  Perhaps, as in so many other parts of the world, the clash of centripetal forces reacting against the centrifugal forces of neoliberalist globalism are turning cracks into schisms all over the world.  “Centripetal forces” in this context, are those heterogeneous socio-cultural reactions at the local level against neoliberal globalist homogeny, collectively labeled “localism”.  How Newtonian.

In many cases, as seems to be the case in Catalonia, separatism is the logical and justifiable consequence of forced fusion of incompatible nations into single states such as more recently occurred when European cartographer wannabes in political power created the modern world map following World War I, generating innumerable civil conflicts, all too many alive and well today.  But never accused of missing out on profit making opportunities, neoliberalists, disguised as pluralists and champions of self-determinism, quickly realized that localism could be subverted in a manner that permitted them to pick off a country’s best assets and they moved in creating a bit of profitable chaos. (See, e.g., Garie-2, 2017, contrasted with Garie-1, 2017).

Bolivia was an obvious example as of course was Yugoslavia and much of the former Soviet Union.  “In an effort to rollback social and political change in Bolivia, the U.S … funneled millions of dollars to opposition groups through USAID and The National Endowment for Democracy.  What’s more, USAID explicitly … [supported] demands of the right wing for greater regional autonomy in the [Bolivian] east (Kozloff, 2008).”  Interesting reading in the age of Russiagate hysteria in the United States.  Of course, the examples are myriad (see, e.g., Sanchez, 2013).

But what of Catalonia, today’s story (Bruton, 2017; Llana, 2017); or Scotland, yesterday and tomorrow’s?  And what of the Kurds or Kashmiris?  What of Donetsk and Lugansk, the self-proclaimed republics in eastern Ukraine?  And remember what was once the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia?  What made the Confederate States of America different than the foregoing, other than the timing; what about earlier separatist movements in New England (during the War of 1812) or later ones in California and Key West, even today?  And what of the Palestinians?

Is there any coherent theory of the right to national self-determination on which the League of Nations and United Nations were founded other than the cynical neoliberal-neoconservative refrain that separatism is right when we say it is and anathema otherwise (Garie, 2016)?  Are current “unapproved” separatist movements unintended aftershocks of earlier manipulations, the Law of Unintended Consequences’ calling cards, or like the others, feasts for would be vultures come calling?  Or perhaps, just syncretic afterthoughts.  How much of the separatists’ energy is home grown and how much involves “foreign investment”; a priming of local pumps for fun and profit (how apt, think oil), bedeviling idealists in beds big enough for very different motivations?

Like so much that is wrong today the seeds were planted long ago, hypocrisy being the thread that has long held most Anglo-American policies together (the first fusing into and merging with the second, how appropriate given this article’s context).  That’s been the case for centuries.  Perhaps those most deceived are our own people (Americans and Europeans), convinced of our own exceptionalism and virtue as we collectively bring the world closer and close to perdition.  The doctrine of the right of popular self-determination espoused by the victorious entente powers in World War I in an effort to redefine its real causes, perhaps most notably by President Woodrow Wilson, was of course belied by the reality of the secret Franco-Anglo Sykes–Picot Agreement (Christianson, 2015).  The duplicity with respect to the objectives of the “War to End all Wars” and to “Make the World Safe for Democracy” also bear a strong resemblance to the ex post facto justification for the United States Civil War as having been fought to liberate American slaves when, as Abraham Lincoln himself articulated in his first inaugural address, it was fought to deny the states that sought to secede from the Union the ability to do so (Calvo, 2017).

Today, perhaps the most obvious example of the chain of duplicity and hypocrisy associated with the doctrine of the right of popular self-determination would seem to involve the creation of the State of Israel by the United nations despite the strictures of its Charter and despite the desires of the affected population, mostly non-Jewish, and the subsequent fate of the displaced Palestinian population (Shlaim, 2015).  However, the most noise currently involves the triple secessions (one successful and two still in progress) from the (post-coup) Ukraine (seen as illegitimate by the United States, the European Union and their allies); the Kurdish referenda on independence from Turkey, Iraq and Syria (also opposed by most countries); the issue of Scottish independence, a quandary given its pro-United States and pro-European Union elements (especially in light of the United Kingdom’s Brexit decision); and, of course, the Catalan issue.

The Catalan issue is complicated by a number of factors.  Spain is already firmly in the neoliberal camp as well as a member of the European Union, a super-state of sorts in which, unlike other member states suffering serious economic problems (think Greece), Spain has been supportive of German dictates.  Spain is also in many senses a de facto federation which has granted a great deal of autonomy to its regions, especially the Basque region where violent separatist tendencies seemed the rule not that long ago (Llana, 2017).  Catalonia is probably the wealthiest region in Spain but given the reality of strong economic interdependence, separation on unfriendly terms would seem catastrophic to both parties, especially given current attempts at economic recovery.  Indeed, given Spanish regionalism, Spain’s leadership must be having nightmares with respect to how quickly and how violently Yugoslavia was torn asunder (ironically, with Spanish help).  The problem in Catalonia is, as it was in Yugoslavia, that with some justification Catalans consider themselves a separate nation with what they perceive to be a different language and different customs and traditions, and they’ve bought into the myth of popular self-determination from the wrong side of the ledger.

Consequently, their quest is an obvious embarrassment to the United States and the European Union as well as to Spain, calling into question whether or not democracy is more than a well-orchestrated charade, especially dangerous in an emerging age of populism.


Bruton, F. Brinley (2017), “Catalan Independence Referendum: What’s Behind Divisive Spanish Vote?”, Associated Press and Reuters, September 29, 2017.

Calvo Mahe, Guillermo (2017), “On Hypocrisy and Honor and Robert E. Lee”, Medium, August 21, 2017.

Catalonia (nd), In Wikipedia, retrieved on September 30, 2017 from

Christianson, Scott (2015), “The Origins of the World War I Agreement That Carved up the Middle East: How Great Britain and France secretly negotiated the Sykes-Picot Agreement”,, November 16, 2015.

Garie, Adam (2017), “Arab unity and Russian unity – the Donbass and Kurdistan case study”, The Duran, September 30, 2017.

Garie, Adam (2017), “Catalonia: Not Iraq nor Yugoslavia, but a uniquely EU problem”, The Duran, September 30, 2017.

Garie, Adam (2017), “Western hypocrisy and the right to self-determination”, The Duran, August 7, 2016.

Kozloff, Nikolas (2008), “U.S. is Promoting Secession in BoliviaCounterpunch, May 6, 2008

Llana, Sara Miller (Staff writer) and Catarina Fernandes Martins (Correspondent) (2017), “In Spain, Catalans try independence path that Basques feared to tread”, Christian Science Monitor, September 29, 2017.

Sanchez, W. Alejandro and Kimberly Bullard, “On Separatism in Latin America”, E International Relations, May 20, 2013.

Shlaim, Avi (2015), “The Balfour Declaration: A study in British duplicity”, Middle East Eye, Friday 25 August 2017.

© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2017; all rights reserved.  Please feel free to share with appropriate attribution.

Guillermo Calvo Mahé (a sometime poet) is a writer, political commentator and academic currently residing in the Republic of Colombia although he has primarily lived in the United States of America (of which he is a citizen).  Until recently he chaired the political science, government and international relations programs at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales.  He has academic degrees in political science (the Citadel), law (St. John’s University), international legal studies (New York University) and translation studies (the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies).  He can be contacted at or and much of his writing is available through his blog at

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