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Separatism and Catalonia: What It Tells Us About “the End of History”

Is it reasonable to believe that history is linear or is it more plausible to argue that it is cyclical?

by Grace Russo Bullaro

A separatist rally for Catalonia held in July, 2010 (Flickr/Galceran)

A little background about the subject of separatism should explain why we all should care about what is happening in Catalonia. Clearly, separatism, the wish to break away from a hegemonic entity that a smaller group does not identify with, is a prominent feature of 21st century ideology.

The notion of the “end of history” that has been expounded for centuries by many philosophers and thinkers is a notoriously fluid concept. Though widely believed to have originated with the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, it was in fact an idea already expressed by Thomas More in Utopia in 1516. Others besides More and Hegel  have come along and proposed a system that would lead to the so-called “end of history”; Karl Marx most notably.  In 1992 philosopher and socio-political writer Francis Fukuyama proposed his own version of the  theory in his groundbreaking book, The End of History and the Last Man. In their own day More, Hegel and Marx had each offered an idea of what system would bring about the much-desired “end of history”; essentially they all believed in a linear trajectory of history. That is, that humanity would tend towards a fulfillment of its potential, and this would subsequently bring about universal harmony. For Marx for example, the system would be Communism. For Francis Fukuyama on the other hand, the advent of Western liberal democracy would signal the endpoint of humanity’s sociocultural evolution and would be the final form of human government. To be clear: the end of history does not mean that nothing more will happen, and it certainly does not mean that the world will come to an end; only that, in Fukuyama’s words, “ the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy [will be] the final form of human government”.

As a theory it is neat and elegant, but on a practical level, we can ask: is it reasonable to believe that history is linear or is it more plausible to argue that it is cyclical? These are the two camps in the philosophy of history. “The common thread among the linear historians is the notion of fate– that there is a pre-ordained conclusion to the movie and everything happening in the world is propelling us toward that end. The second camp proposes that history repeats itself in its fundamentals: things that have happened before will happen again though perhaps in a superficially different way. In short, governments and empires may rise and fall for different reasons, but they will rise and then fall.

Thus far the 21st century has been characterized by an increasing movement towards self-determination and autonomy for ethnically or culturally diverse populations that break free from a “mother country”. What is happening in Catalonia is a good example. Like the Basque “country” and some other parts of Spain, in the early part of the 20th century its degree of autonomy waxed and waned until the Second Spanish Republic confirmed the autonomies of Spain’s traditional autonomous regions. The history of Catalonia’s “autonomy” is complex and at times murky. Indeed, even today there seems to be little clarity about the Catalan’s desire to break away from Spain and declare itself an “independent nation”. Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau, stated that the unilateral declaration was not supported by the majority of Catalans, though many, like graphic designer Anna Faure, declare that they have never felt Spanish in their lives. This is not surprising when many “…believe Catalonia’s language, history and cultural traditions — even Catalans’ ironic sense of humour — set it apart from the rest of Spain.”  

A little background about the subject of separatism should explain why we all should care about what is happening in Catalonia. Separatism includes autonomism and secessionism.  Americans can readily relate to both. The Revolutionary War started with the Declaration of Independence that eventually founded the United States as it broke away from England, and the American Civil War of 1860-1864 is one of the most prominent examples of a separatist attempt. Had the states that wished to secede from the Union had their way, or had the South won the Civil War, the USA would most likely be two countries today, not one.

What is and is not considered an autonomist or secessionist movement is sometimes contentious. What sources agree on is that groups that can be included in the category of separatist movements are first, seeking greater autonomy or self-determination for a geographic region (as opposed to personal autonomy) and second, that they are the citizen/peoples of the conflict area and do not come from other countries.

We note that the list of such separatist groups active today is surprisingly long. They exist on all continents and in practically every country. To name just a few examples among the many that exist, in developed countries we find the Parti Québécois in Quebec, Canada, the New Flemish Alliance and Vlaams Belang in Flanders, Belgium, and the Scottish National Party  in Scotland. And let’s not forget the Northern League in Italy. In developing countries they include the Palestine Liberation Organization in Palestine and the Polisario Front in Western Sahara, Morocco. Furthermore, what most people may not realize is that there are at least a dozen separatist movements even in the United States. Some propose to establish new states, such as Cascadia in the Northwest, while others propose entire new republics, such as the Republic of Lakotah in North and South Dakota. Others, such as Texas and Hawaii, want to reclaim their former independence.

Clearly, separatism, the wish to break away from a hegemonic entity that a smaller group does not identify with, is a prominent feature of 21st century ideology. But let’s look at it from a diachronic perspective to determine if this is unusual.

Since the year 1990, 34 new countries have been created. The breakup of the Soviet Union led to the formation of 15. Former Yugoslavia gave rise to 7. In some cases a population had to break away not once but twice from their “mother country”. We think for example of East Timor, (Timor-Leste) which declared independence from Portugal in 1975 but did not become independent from Indonesia until 2002. In some cases, perhaps most, the process was long, bitter and bloody. Here we can name the war in Kosovo-Serbia-Herzegovina. Just as the 2oth century was the era of the collapse of imperialism and the colonial system, the 21st is proving to be the era of ethnic self-determination through secession.

We should recall that Medieval and Renaissance Europe was constituted by small, regional, autonomous states—most frequently designated as “city states”.  This fragmentation caused incessant disputes and wars and did not end until the 19th century, with the rise of Nationalism. In the 19th century Nationalism was a noble ideal whose aim was to consolidate small states into united nations, but like many ideas that start out as noble, nationalist zeal quickly degenerated into jingoism and lead to what we today condemn as the abuses and excesses of colonialism and  imperialism. We read that the Italian Nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini claimed that “country is not only a mere zone of territory. The true Country is the Idea to which it gives birth; it is the Thought of love, the sense of communion which unites in one all the sons of that territory”. This may be a beautiful ideal when there is a true communion among the people: they genuinely identify with the culture, values and goals. But what happens when a significant segment of the population, such as the Catalonians, either never did or have stopped identifying with the hegemonic culture?

If western liberal democracy is the endpoint of this linear progression of history, that is, the “end of history”—then we can safely say that history will not be ending anytime soon. Western liberal democracy is under siege in a good part of the globe: the Middle East, Africa and North Korea, to name a few examples. Western democracies feel the self-righteous urge to “build nations” by imposing a democratic system where none has existed before or where it has been either usurped or rejected. All well and good, but surely the fundamental feature of democracy is that it is the paradigm freely chosen by the majority of the population. 

With the proliferation of new states that are emerging, the variety of governments that they seem to be “choosing”, and the increasing socio-political fragmentation that is spreading, only a raving optimist would predict that western liberal democracy will be the dominant form of government on a global scale. Rather than seeing “the end of history” as a linear progression towards the fulfillment of freedom and democracy, we seem to be moving backwards toward the fragmentation of regional, parochial and sectarian identities as ever more ethnically diverse groups claim their independence and separate from the hegemonic culture in a bid to assert an identity that better expresses their self-image. Catalonia is only one of many groups and an illustration that history does indeed repeat itself.

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