In recent months, especially with the accession to the presidency of Donald Trump, there has been renewed talk, serious talk, ironic talk, about secession—particularly, from zealously Leftist anti-Trump militants in California and along the Pacific Rim areas of the United States. Advocates of what is called “Cal-exit” make their case that California, specifically, is not like other states and regions of the United States. Its population is increasingly non-Anglo and Hispanic—its politics, at least along the littoral areas, is dominated largely by far left-wingers—and its culture is more influenced by Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Mexico and various leftist totems. It voted by a heavy majority for Hillary.
Yet, far inland areas, mountainous regions of the state, populated by descendants of the rugged gold seekers, the Forty-Niners of 1848-1849, remain conservative. So, the question of secession of California from the Federal union might also need to be addressed on an intra-state level as well: should some strongly conservative districts be permitted to secede from California, itself, if the state should leave the union? What unity would they have with a new “Democratic Socialist Republic of California”?
It becomes complicated. If the question of secession—and not just secession of, as in the case of California, but of any entity—really be examined, then wide variations in culture, history, ethnicity, economics and politics should be considered, taken into consideration.
While secession can be a viable and satisfactory solution to insoluble national problems, it is not always in every case advisable. There may be good reasons for a region, or a state, or a province to depart from a larger entity. I would argue strongly that the painful decision by the Southern states of the United States to secede from the American union in 1860-1861 was largely justified on historical, cultural and economic reasons, not to mention the politics involved.
Actually, the departures of those eleven states (or, actually, thirteen if you count the illegally thwarted departures of Kentucky and Missouri) came in two waves: the first began with South Carolina and continued with the exit of several Deep South states. Lincoln’s call in April 1861 for troops to suppress South Carolina shocked the constitutional sensibilities of additional states in the Upper South, several of which had resisted the initial impulse to join the secession. And by early summer the Confederate States of America was a functioning nation, albeit a country facing invasion from its powerful former co-citizens.
But, I can think of instances when secession—that is, the break-up of larger nations or empires—is not only inadvisable, but positively injurious not only to the whole, but also to the respective seceding parts. The dissolution of the old Austria-Hungarian Empire in 1918, for instance, was not only a tragic mistake geopolitically, but made little sense economically, ethnically or historically. What was produced by the Treaties of Saint-Germain and Trianon was a succession of angrily dissatisfied, uber-nationalist states and displaced ethnic minorities imprisoned in new, arbitrary and irrational geographical expressions, waiting for the next powder keg to explode.
Interestingly, it was the heir to the wizened old Kaiser, Franz Josef, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who advocated additional decentralization of the old empire, with a third, Slavic kingdom, to join Austria and Hungary in a tripartite monarchy. That he and his wife, Sophie, were cruelly assassinated in Sarajevo in July 1914 by a Serbian nationalist, not only put into motion the coming of the First World War, but stymied what might have been a revitalized, regionalist future for the creaky old Habsburg Empire.
The castration of the ancient Russian homeland more recently is another case of good (American) intentions gone awry: the creation of new artificial states such as Byelorussia and Kazakhstan was not only historically and politically wrongheaded, but economically ill-advised. President Vladimir Putin’s statement—rightly understood—that the break-up of the Soviet Union was one of the greatest disasters of the 20th century was intended in this sense (and not, as some Russophobic Necons attempt to construe it, as a lament for Communism!).
Talking to a friend recently, I expressed some serious skepticism about the recent plebiscite in Catalonia on the question of secession from Spain. My friend, knowing of my longstanding defense of secession historically when it concerns the South, was surprised. I attempted in a very brief discussion to explain why I demurred in the Catalan case, but the conversation was cut short.
What I would suggest is that the simple slogan that secession is always good policy is not really defensible, historically, culturally, economically, ethnically, or politically.
In the case of Catalonia, my arguments against secession are multiple, and range from the very practical and statistical, to the historical and cultural.
Let’s start with the historical and cultural. Basically, the medieval County of Barcelona was united under the crown of Aragon in the mid-12th century. The de facto dynastic union of Aragon and Catalonia (ruled by the Counts of Barcelona) became a de jure one, a legal one, in 1258. Thus, for eight centuries the region has been united with Spain. While the Catalan language, which while distinct from Spanish, is also similar to it, remained the lingua franca of rural areas, Castilian Spanish began to be spoken in more urban areas. But like the other kingdoms and principalities that came together to create Spain, Catalonia retained many of its customs, and regional and historic rights, within the new Spanish monarchy.
Historically, Spain was a composite, a dynastic federation and union of the ancient kingdoms of Castile and Leon, Aragon, Valencia, and then, the Kingdom of Navarra and the Basque territories in the north of the country, plus the formerly Muslim Kingdom of Granada in the South. Indeed, even at the time of the great monarch, Philip II—supposedly, according to Anglophile and Protestant propagandists of the 16th century, that all-powerful authoritarian monarch of the early modern era—Spain was known as “las Espanas,” that is, “the Spains,” to indicate that King Philip was not actually the absolute king of a unitary, centralized royal state, but rather the monarch over a collection of fiercely regionalist states, each with its own traditions, history and parliaments (or “cortes”), but all together composing a country. Philip was dependent on them for financing his government. Each of those regions, those ancient components, of Spain had legal codes (“recopilaciones de leyes”) which guided jurisprudence; those historic and regional rights were called “fueros,” which we would render in English to mean “states’ rights.” Eventually portions of those statutes and legislated customs were cobbled together in a common law for the entire country. Nevertheless, the historic regions jealously guarded their respective traditions, languages, customs and fueros, and continued to do so throughout the remainder of Habsburg Spain into the early 19th century.
Not only because of the dynastic question, but precisely over those fueros much of Spain underwent a series of bloody civil wars in the 19th century. And what many foreigners find ironic and incomprehensible is that it was the so-called royalist “absolutistas,” the defenders of the ancient regime and the old monarchy, the traditionalists who took the name “Carlists” after the dispossessed rightful heir to the throne, Don Carlos V (“de jure” king of “las Espanas”) in 1833, who actually defended the historic regionalism and subsidiarity of the old regime. For them it was a powerful king who ruled from Madrid, but who was also limited in his powers by the historic, unbridgeable rights of the “kingdoms” that made up the country, which guaranteed more essential and more local liberties to the citizens. Like the martyred King Charles I of England, who declared at his illegal trial that he was more the defender of the “rights of the good people of England” than the rump parliamentarians, the traditional monarchs in Spain, with the legacy of the patchwork of historic states and their sacralized customs and legal “recopilaciones,”offered far more self-government, far more “liberties” than any centralizing liberal state could or ever would.
During those several civil wars in the 19th century, Catalonia stood, by and large, with the traditionalist defenders of the ancient regime, the Carlists. It was the Carlists who defended the fueros and who advocated the return of a strong king who actually had power, but whose powers were also circumscribed by the historic regions and traditions of the country. It was the Carlists—and some of their most perceptive political philosophers (e.g., Jaime Balmes, Francisco Navarro Villoslada, Juan Vazquez de Mella)—who understood that 19th century liberalism, despite it slogan of “liberty and equality,” would actually do away with and suppress those old regionalist statutes and protections, those intermediate institutions in society, that secured more liberties for the citizens.
Only 40% of the eligible voters in Catalonia participated in the recent plebiscite on possible independence; of those around 90% voted “Si.” But that means that approximately just 30% of the electorate truly favors independence. And those political groups that most zealously support such a move are on the Left politically. They see the region, which is the most economically successful area of Spain and the most “Europeanized,” as able to get a better deal economically within the European Union. They welcome globalism and a unitary European government with themselves also at the helm sharing power.
Of course, it is always good to hit the bloated central government in Madrid in the eye, but at what price?
The present-day proponents of independence do not represent the ancient and best traditions and historic legacy of Catalonia. Their advocacy of Catalan independence is not a comfortable fit with the long history of that region. The nationalism they advance owes far more to the liberal statism of the 19th century than to the Catalan heritage of local and regional self-rule. Catalonia is not a nation-waiting-to-be-born; its association as one of the integral and historic, largely autonomous regions within Spain is its tradition. Catalonia can best find its destiny in reasserting its role as a largely self-governing region—but within the historic federation of the Spanish kingdom.