Bruce Sterling on Catalonia



"On the subject of this Catalonian secession movement, I'm not intimate with the many details, but I do have some thoughts on the matter. 

I get it about the national aspirations of submerged minorities. Generally speaking, Americans have been in favor of nations breaking free from other people's Evil Empires. It's very Woodrow Wilson: let them speak their minds, let them have a vote, let a free people stand alone and chastely independent, etc... 

Of course, that's kind of easy for Americans to say, as by European standards the USA is scarcely a "nation" at all. The USA is more like some johnny-come-lately empire of multiethnic emigres who are unified by ideology, law and the dollar rather than by a European-style national identity. 

So I sympathize, and can understand why the Catalans would want to be more Catalan. It's a great area, beautiful, thriving (not now, but most of the time), super architecture, awesome furniture, the food's great and the women are good-looking, it's been a nation before, etc etc; they've got as much right and reason to be a nation as most anybody else. 

However, as somebody who's spent a lot of time in a region where such a devolution was actually carried out in real life, I need to warn Catalans about a few consequences of such a victory.


First, you're never going to unite all the ethnic Catalans on some definite patch of ground. You're sure to create new minorities who share your ethnicity outside whatever patch you successfully claim. These abandoned guys are going to be a lot of trouble for you. There's also going to plenty of woe from multi-ethnic families, families newly divided by new borders, and so on. Also, you'll have new non-Catalan national minorities inside your own area. Naturally you think you're going to be really nice to them, much nicer than they were to you when they were the majority, and ruling over you. That isn't true. In a national secession, the sweet-tempered, nice guys are not going to win. Otherwise they would have already been nice and sensible in the statehouse in Madrid. Your former fellow-citizens are suddenly going to become foreigners. Places that you used to visit casually, properties you own, will become alien territory. 

Towns and cities on the new national borders will be economically strangled. Long-established businesses will pull out or shrink in size. Expect property courts clogged for decades. Even though you're finally getting your own way politically, you're going to be a small country with a small ruling class. You're just not going to have the manpower to behave like a major power -- like Spain for instance -- and the long-term debilitating effects of this are wicked. 

Who will man your new embassies? What about your health system, transportation network, your military? What happens when you're trying to arrange a simple business deal with Norway or Nicaragua? Nobody answers the phone. Your political parties are going to be county-sized cliques of a few dozen ward-heelers. Your pundits will all know each other personally and all meet in the same cafe. As soon as you're a nation, you'll have a new "national language." You'll have to change all the names on the street-sign, the school textbooks, re-write and republish the ancient classics, harass guys who blog without the proper spelling, insist that the EU translate all previous documents into your lingo, and so forth. You will never complete this orthographic reform work. It's impossible. 
The more energy you waste on it, the more you're going to look like chintzy, niggling fanatics. 

Imagine your relationship with your fellow citizens in the brand-new Basque Republic, who are naturally going to follow your example as soon as they can. Are these guys gonna become your best pals? Will you respect them and tenderly look after their fraternal interests? Or are you going to consider them a bunch of insular weirdo hillbillies? Well, that's exactly how they're going to think about you. In fact, the whole world will think that about you. And them, too. 

You imagine that Brussels and the EU are going to look after your national interests. Have you ever talked to a small European EU state about how this works out in practice? Like Slovenia, for instance. You're about to become Slovenia. Do you take Slovenia really seriously? Do you think they matter a lot, do you ever ask their advice on big problems? Should they get lots more money? Are you keen to give them some? Let's imagine you have some military problem, like say, a bunch of Catalan tourists get kidnapped by Colombian drug gangs. Do you plan to send in your own SWAT team? Who do you plan to ask for help in these matters? It's not going to be Madrid or Brussels. You might need to ask the Americans. Do you know what the Yankees are going to say to you? Oh, they'll shoot them dead for you, all right, but before that and after that, they'll say: "What's in it for us?" They always say that. 

Barcelona is a cool tourist town. Have you ever seen what happened to Venice, which also used to be a cool tourist town? How many people in your tiny, newfangled government do rich guys have to bribe to just buy all of Barcelona? Mexicans, Venezuelans... there are some pretty rich oil guys in those countries, quite keen on their Spanish heritage, only you're not Spain, you're much smaller and prettier. Are you sure you've got enough clout and smarts to avoid just being picked up and put in their pocket? And, last of all, there's something morally repulsive about rich areas of a country wanting to secede from the poorer areas. You've got plenty of company in that regard: the Italian Northern League, for instance. Do you Barcelona lefties like the Lega Nord? You trust them as political allies, you think they're your kind of European movement? 

Your economic scheme is basically Mitt Romney talking. It's all about freeing yourself from that shiftless 47% of the lazy drifters and the ethnic dross. I'm sure we can all admire you for being rich, but are we supposed to admire you for that attitude? Do you love your new gated community that much? What is going to happen to you, when you blow a tire on your station wagon somewhere out in Cricket-Chirping Land? Are those strangers gonna be your friends out there, in that world you abandoned to beggary? Did you pack your prepper arsenal? 

I'm not saying you can't or shouldn't secede and form a new nation. It's not a new story or a new aspiration.

If the euro collapses and the EU comes apart, anything's possible. We'll be looking at a Depression Europe of the kind nobody's seen since the 1930s. So: do you remember those 1930s? The Spanish Civil War? Did the good guys win during that business, a hundred years ago? Were the aspirations of Catalonia crowned with victory in the 1930s? What exactly do you think has changed in your peninsula since then? 

Have you thought that all through?"