Getting It Right On Catalonia

There’s something very wrong with an ideological movement that calls for opposition to centralism, protests high taxation, and defends the right to cultural and political autonomy – and yet, when it comes down to actually supporting these ideals in real life, cannot bring itself to rise to the occasion.

While Ed Krayewski has been writing sympathetically in Reason magazine about the Catalonian independence movement – which is now under threat from the Spanish central government – as has John Stossel, the idea that any libertarian could possibly oppose secession in this case seems radically counterintuitive. After all, here is a relatively prosperous region of Spain that is being systematically milked of its wealth by the central authorities in Madrid. Catalonia is subsidizing the rest of the country to the tune of some $11.8 billion annually. And so secession is justified on economic grounds alone, but the case for independence doesn’t end there.

Catalonia is a unique national-ethnic-historical entity: it has its own language, a long and distinguished history as a nation, and a record of repression by the Spanish government that dates back to the Spanish civil war and the depredations of the Francoist corporate state. In short, the independence cause is a nearly perfect case of the libertarian principle of the devolution of power, away from a centralized authority and closer to where people actually live.

You would think any libertarian worth his or her salt would have absolutely no problem endorsing the Catalonian cause – and yet even as the Spanish authorities were moving in their police, beating people at the polls and threatening worse, one prominent representative of an ostensibly “libertarian” institution had this to say:

“With regard to the crackdown, a couple of things should be kept in mind. First, nobody died, which is a bit of a miracle, considering the red-hot passion on the Catalan side. From the film footage I saw, it seemed to me that the Spanish police were remarkably restrained and only responded with batons and rubber bullets when under physical threat from the pro-independence protesters. Second, given the Supreme Court ruling, the Spanish government was obliged to enforce the rule of law and should not be unduly blamed for the unpleasantness that followed.”

That’s Marian Tupy, of the Cato Institute’s Center for Globalist Liberty and Prosperity. Imagine if such had been written after the Ferguson incidents: the PC crowd would be out there with torches and pitchforks! Oh, those poor helpless Spanish cops – armed to the teeth and “under physical threat” from unarmed civilians who were trying to vote. No wonder they were beating the crap out of women, old people, and just anyone they could get their hands on! The Spanish government cannot be blamed – after all, they’re just holding an entire nation hostage. It’s not their fault!

Has there ever been a more obsequious apologia for State violence coming out of a “libertarian” mouth? I highly doubt it.

Coming from a different perspective, but with a weirdly similar result, is Sheldon Richman writing in Reason magazine opposing Catalonian independence on the grounds that a referendum violates the “rights” of Catalans who want to stay citizens of Spain. Yet there is no “right” to be ruled by Madrid, any more than a former citizen of the USSR has the “right” to live under Soviet rule: proponents of such a “right” have to tell us from where this “right” is derived.

Given Richman’s premise – that a democratic referendum is inherently illegitimate and a violation of rights – one has to assume that any and all attempts to achieve any form of autonomy, never mind independence, are to be considered impermissible so long as a single person within Catalonia opposes it. Which means that any change in government cannot be allowed – not now, not ever. Which means that any an all revolutions are inherently oppressive – yes, including the American Revolution, which should never have happened to begin with because it violated the “right” of Tories to live under a despotic monarchy.

Oh, but wait! Richman has a solution! Here it is:

“Does this mean we libertarians have no remedy for people who wish not to live under the central government of a large nation-state? Of course we have: anarchism, in which each individual is sovereign and free to contract with market firms for security and dispute resolution. I realize anarchism isn’t on the menu today, but there’s an idea that may be more acceptable to people: panarchism. Roderick Long explains:

“‘The concept of panarchy comes from an 1860 work of that title by the Belgian botanist and political economist Paul Émile de Puydt (1810-1891). The essence of his panarchist proposal is that people should be free to choose the political regime under which they will live without having to relocate to a different territory.’

“Under panarchism, individuals could in effect secede, but their next-door neighbors need not. Problem solved! This may not satisfy nationalists big and small, but it would protect individuals.”

So instead of joining with the people of Catalonia as they fight off rampaging cops, the abrogation of their autonomy, censorship of the media, and the threat of even worse violence, libertarians are supposed to peddle the cockamamie theories of an obscure nineteenth century Belgian botanist whose ideas have nothing whatsoever to do with anything that is happening in Catalonia, or, indeed, anywhere in the world. According to Richman, the people of Catalonia had best forget about the dream of freeing themselves from the tax and regulatory burden imposed by Madrid, and wait until the anarchist millennium is upon us – then and only then can they take any action to advance their interests against the Spanish state.

This is the classic sectarian stance: no transition demands, no “halfway measures,” are allowed. It’s anarchy or neo-Francoism.

While Richman says nothing that justifies the Spanish state’s crackdown, and even claims “that nation-states have no right to use force to stop any component from seceding,” it’s not clear – to me, at least – why, given all this, the use of force to protect the alleged “rights” of pro-Madrid Catalonians is supposed to be illegitimate.

However, perhaps I’m going about this the wrong way: Richman’s argument is so divorced from reality that any attempt to put it in a realistic context is simply unfair. Like most sectarian schemas, it isn’t meant to be applied to reality: it exists as a self-contained floating abstraction, meant to signal abstention from the real world. It is, in short, just a lot of words strung together in sentences, the intent of which is to tell us everything about the writer and nothing about his subject.

And while Richman and Tupy seem to have little if anything in common, you’ll note that neither has anything of any real consequence to say to libertarian Catalonians: they provide no guidance, either practical or theoretical, and certainly give no encouragement to the independence movement. Indeed, Tupy defends – or, at least, minimizes – the violence perpetrated by Madrid, and Richman seems almost comically unaware of the absurdity of telling Catalonians to wait for the advent of anarchism while they’re being invaded by the Spanish military.

The Catalonian revolution is a tax revolt against a predatory state, a cultural liberation movement overthrowing the last vestiges of Castillian supremacism, and a body blow aimed at the socialist super-state of the EU, which fears any and all nationalism but its own sterile bureaucratic substitute. As such, all libertarians must give it unconditional support – or else find themselves acting as apologists for the worst sort of statism.

So why this odd libertarian cognitive dissonance on the Catalonian question coming from two rather disparate sources? My guess is that this is part and parcel of an erroneous reaction to the rise of nationalism across the globe. The Beltway types (Tupy and his “Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity” are simply going along with the conventional Washington wisdom, which is decidedly anti-Catalonian, and which opposes any change in the status quo unless it has been mandated by Washington. The hostility of the European Union – a project often praised by Beltway libertarians – is another factor. And also in the mix is the hostility to Trumpian ideology that is now manifesting itself as hostility to any and all nationalism, which is evident in Richman’s screed against “Little Nationalism.” The whole idea of national sovereignty is disdained in the Imperial City, because, after all, Washington is the epicenter of an empire that claims the right to intervene anywhere, for any reason whatsoever.

To get Catalonia wrong is to completely misunderstand what is going on in the world at the present moment. It is a failure to see what the real role of nationalism is in the age of globalism; it is to blind oneself to emerging forces that are fighting against statism, mistake friends for enemies and vice-versa, and, tragically, it is to disarm the libertarian movement at the very moment when it needs to arm itself against error.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

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Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].