In Catalonia: A Spanish Tiananmen Square?

One of those crises that no one saw coming is about to rear its head in a very unlikely locale: Catalonia, Spain’s richest province, where the local government has scheduled an independence referendum on October 1.  Of course, some observers – e,g, Julian Assange – did see it coming, but the current trend to find “fascists” under every bed in America may have obscured our ability to detect them where they really live – in Madrid, where the federal authorities are threatening to arrest Catalonian politicians who advocate independence.

Madrid has mobilized 4,000 police to stop the referendum. They are seizing election materials, shutting down web sites, and invading the offices of newspapers: they have threatened 700 pro-independence mayors with arrest and prosecution.

The Spanish position – upheld by the country’s Constitutional Court – is that only the federal authorities can call a referendum, and that in any case all Spanish voters, not just those resident in Catalonia, must be allowed to vote on the question of Catalonian independence. So much for the right of self-determination.

Catalonia has long been a cash cow for the Madrid regime: the province is by far the richest in the country, and contributes much more to the national budget than it receives. With 16 percent of Spain’s population, the region produces 25 percent of the nation’s exports, hosts 23 percent of industry – and receives 11 percent of government expenditures. This essentially parasitic relationship perhaps accounts for the fierce resistance to the secession movement by the rather shaky regime of conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

Madrid’s hard-line stance is rather shortsighted when one looks at the matter in purely economic terms. Spain has been skirting insolvency for quite some time now, and the federal authorities have been counting on Catalonia’s contribution to the national GDP – which amounts to 19 percent — to pay the interest on the debt. With Spain having only partially recovered from the economic downturn of 2008, the loss of Catalonia would be a hard blow to Madrid – and yet the policy of confrontation pursued by the shortsighted central authorities promises to make the blow all the harder.

For all the secessionists of Barcelona have to do is to refuse to take on a disproportionate share of the national debt, as they have been doing all along. By refusing to negotiate with Barcelona, and instead resorting to threats of force, the Spanish nationalists are ensuring the worst possible outcome for their own cause.

As I’ve detailed in this space before, Catalonia has a long history as an entity separate and distinct from Spain: it has its own language, Catalan, which is spoken by over 9 million people and is not a dialect of Spanish but rather is descended from the ancient Latin of Roman settlers. The language was banned by the fascist dictatorship established by Gen. Francisco Franco after the Spanish civil war, but revived with the emergence of democracy – although, as we see, attempts to subjugate the Catalonian identity did not cease.

Catalonia’s bid for self-determination is an ideological litmus test, one that tells us everything we need to know about the main forces contending for power in the world. The reason is because the crisis is taking place on the terrain of Europe, in the very midst of the “free” West. Since forever and a day we have been told that the “democratic” West doesn’t commit acts of mass repression against their own people: that the right of “self-determination” is universal, and that that liberal democracy is not about to mimic the methods of, say, Slobodan Milosevic, and put down a popular uprising by force. These methods – they claim — are the exclusive province of “illiberal” regimes, like those in Russia, Belarus, and now Hungary, which has been moved into the “illiberal” camp by its refusal to allow an invasion by Middle Eastern migrants.

Except that the threats and repressive measures of “democratic” Spain have exposed this conceit as nonsense. As October 1 approaches, and Madrid prepares to crush the Catalonian revolution with brute force, the myth of the “democratic” West is being shaken to its foundations – with the growing prospect that violent repression will bring the whole dilapidated edifice down on the heads of the people, both Spaniards and Catalonians alike.

As one might expect, the US State Department is taking the position of taking no position, while not-so-subtly signaling support for Madrid. When Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) came out in support of the Catalonian struggle for freedom, US diplomats in Spain issued a statement in which Washington attempted to do what it does best: talk out of both sides of its mouth:

“We want to reiterate that, as we have said on previous occasions, the position of the United States government over Catalonia is that it is an internal matter of Spain. We are deeply committed to maintaining the relationship with a strong and united Spain.”

So it’s an “internal matter” but we want Spain to stay “united” – i.e., screw the Catalonians. The same position of not-so-neutral “neutrality” has been taken by the European Union, whose “president” says that Catalonia would have to reapply to the EU for membership, a move that the authorities in Madrid would surely block. Thus the threat of economic and physical isolation is being held over Barcelona’s head, as withdrawal from the EU free trade and free movement zones would inflict considerable damage.

With Western elites pushing hard for centralization on a global scale, and the creation of ever-bigger more “inclusive” international constructions – trading blocs like NAFTA and the TPP, and the shoring up of NATO as well as the EU super-state – insurgent trends in the other direction like the Brexit campaign and the Catalonian independence movement are being bitterly resisted by the powers that be. They couldn’t use force to subdue the Brexiteers, of course, but it looks like the centralizers of Madrid are being given the green light to do their worst when October 1 dawns.

This would be a huge mistake that would backfire immediately and explosively. For what the West is facing is the prospect of a Tiananmen Square incident taking place in its very midst – an act of violence that, far from ensuring the legitimacy of the authorities in Madrid, would quickly delegitimize them in the eyes not only of their own countrymen but of the entire world. Catalonia would become the collective embodiment of “Tank Man,” with the Madrid authorities taking the role of the despots of Beijing.

If ever there was a cause for libertarians the world over to rally around, it is the cause of Catalonian independence. Here all the issues that animate anti-statists come together in one neat little package: the right to secede, the right to not be economically exploited by the thieving central state, the right to determine one’s own national and cultural identity and destiny. Recognition of these rights is the very essence of the libertarian philosophy and political theory, just as they were in the case of the American revolution.

Which is no doubt why, when it comes to Catalonia, we haven’t heard a peep out of the cosmotarian contingent of Beltway quasi-libertarians — which tends to be soft on the EU and looks askance at all populist movements just on general principles – except as it impacts marijuana legalization.


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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.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was 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].