by Judah Grunstein
October 04, 2017

from WorldPoliticsReview Website

Recovered trough GoogleWebCache Services



Pro-independence demonstrators wave an “estelada,”

or Catalonian independence flag, in front of a Spanish police station,

Barcelona, Spain, Oct. 3, 2017

(AP photo by Francisco Seco).


Amid all the questions and uncertainty raised by Catalonia's independence referendum on Sunday, one point of consensus has emerged:

The government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy handled it lamentably, turning what almost certainly would have been a disappointment for Catalonian separatists into a catastrophe for Madrid.

The repressive run-up to the voting and heavy-handed police response on the day of the outlawed ballot have generated outrage in Catalonia and beyond, providing a major boost to what opinion polling indicated was a minority movement.


Brinksmanship on both sides in the months leading up to the vote proved impossible to walk back.


The local Catalan government's determination to follow through on its longstanding threat to hold an independence referendum has now freed the genie from the bottle, with the possibility of a cycle of escalation that could easily get out of control.


A general strike paralyzed the region yesterday.


The local government is threatening to declare independence within days. And Spanish King Felipe made an unprecedented venture into politics to condemn the separatists in a nationally televised speech.

The historical roots of Catalonia's independence movement are complex and diverse, with economic interests playing a major role. But at its heart, it involves a contest between national identity and a regional, cultural and linguistic identity.


Similar dynamics are at work in,

  • Scotland

  • Belgium

But this is just one category of contested identity currently on display in Europe.


Transnational terrorist groups like the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaida appeal to a religious identity that subordinates the national identities of their European recruits.


European nationalists and nativists use a mix of ethno-cultural grievance and class politics to contest the meaning of national and European identity.

These same fractures can be found in the U.S., where they present an even more complicated and transversal mix in American politics. The rise of President Donald Trump combined elements of ethno-nationalism with cultural and regional grievances, topped off by an urban-rural divide.


At the same time, the persistence of racial injustice, particularly with regard to police brutality faced by black Americans, and discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation have radicalized political discourse among some currents of the left without necessarily facilitating coalition-building and broad alliances.


The kaleidoscopic nature of the various groupings makes it harder for these contested identities to coalesce into coherent blocs that might lead to separatism in the event that social order begins to unravel.

Such an unraveling might seem far-fetched in a country with as established a state structure and governance as the United States.


But any number of the violent incidents the country has witnessed in the past few years, whether,

  • the ISIS-inspired lone wolf attacks

  • the spate of police killings of black Americans

  • the Dallas shooting of police officers, Dylann Roof's murder of black churchgoers

  • the partisan-driven shooting of a GOP congressional baseball team,

...might have led to escalation in a more clearly bifurcated landscape.


The intersectional nature of America's contested identities means that it is harder for any single incident to solidify the country's fractures into discretely divided camps that might seek to peel away the nation-state.

No European identity emerged

to subsume national identities,

leaving the EU less than

the sum of its parts.

Of course, contested identities are nothing new, nor are separatist movements.


But in the past they took place in a context where the nation-state enjoyed a clear advantage, both in power and legitimacy, over smaller-scale local entities.


What we are seeing today is a more mixed landscape, where in many cases the gravitational pull of alternative and local identities seems to exercise a greater attraction than that of national identities.

In part, this has to do with the changing historical context.


The emergence of the nation-state coincided with a period when both war and industrial development required economies of scale that only a national identity could hold together. There are areas of the world where this logic still holds firmly on one or both counts.


China's rise would be unimaginable without a strong national identity, as would revanchist Russia's resurgence under Vladimir Putin, even if both still face ethno-sectarian separatist movements, in Xinjiang and the North Caucasus, respectively.


In South America, too, national identity still has little competition outside of small and often marginalized indigenous communities. But in Europe, war on a mass-industrial scale has been delegitimized and the system of economic accumulation distributed transnationally.


As a result, the nation-state showed signs of receding as an anchor of identity in the 21st century.


The European Union signaled the advent of an order in which nations were the fundamental building blocks of a larger structure that, it once seemed, would eventually supersede them.

The prospect for such a post-national era has receded in the past few years.


No European identity emerged to subsume national identities, leaving the whole less than the sum of its parts. And the perception - rightly or wrongly - of existential threats like outsourced jobs and uncontrolled immigration has driven a resurgence of nationalism since the European debt crisis and the 2015 refugee crisis.

But because of the irreversible changes already wrought on many European countries, the resulting nationalism is no longer a unifying force, but rather yet another divisive one, pitting contested visions of national identity against each other as well as against the myriad competing identities in their midst.


It is where the competing identity is rooted in region, ethnicity and language as in,

  • Catalonia

  • Belgium

  • Scotland,

...that the risk of an internal cleavage rises.

The ex-Yugoslavia and now Syria are the cautionary tales of the worst that can happen when a diverse society suddenly fractures along the various lines of contested identity it contains.


The alchemy of how these fractures emerge is mysterious, and there is no magical formula for defusing them once they have been activated.


Most often, maximalist identity movements exist at the fringes of such societies without exercising broad appeal. At other times, it seems as if every possible response, from accommodation to repression, only fuels them.

Rajoy and the Spanish government chose repression and will be hard-pressed to manage the fallout.


It is likely the Spanish state will survive intact, but the fault lines that already undermined its cohesiveness will have been widened.


And the broader questions surrounding the future of the nation-state and national identity in Europe will almost certainly take on added prominence in the years to come.