Friday, March 12, 2021

National Populism: the interesting Catalan case study

The economist Dani Rodrik mentioned in a recent interview the theoretical possibility that when the pivotal voters in elections are victims of a distributional shock in a crisis, the right wing parties are left farther away from the interests of these voters, and then these parties have stronger incentives to actívate identity dimensions. In Catalonia we have been seeing since the last global financial crisis that this possibility is probably more than a theoretical one. It is what others have called plutocratic populism. The association of the Catalan Independence movement to the family of eurosceptic national populist movements that have surged in the last ten years was made more credible this week by a tweet of pro-Brexit leader Nigel Farage, one of the closest political friends of Donald Trump, expressing his sympathy for Carles Puigdemont, the leader of the Catalan pro-independence movement. 

It is an interesting case, because it is a version of national-populism that tries to sell itself as progressive and sophisticated (and it has been more successful at this than Marine Le Pen), and it has at the same time the support of significant economic and intelectual élites (added to the resources of a powerful regional administration, which they control). When some fear that the next version of Trump may be smarter and more subtle, perhaps here you have a look into the future. It is relatively easy to mobilize a sizeable part of the electorate when the upper classes contribute resources to the movement, envolving into a false progressive narrative what is little else than the attempt to create a fiscal haven in the northeast of the Iberian Peninsula, as argued by Thomas Piketty in his last book (in a chapter aptly called “The Identity Trap”).

The Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper (who has studied well the Catalan society in the recent past, as he was doing research for his forthcoming book on FC Barcelona), has identified very well why the Catalan case is interesting. Kuper, however, is not misled by the apparent sophistication. On March 6th he wrote a column entitled "WHAT INDEPENDENCE MOVEMENTS TEACH US ABOUT BELONGING," where he says that “Anyone who has experienced Trumpism in the US or Brexit in Britain knows what a divided society feels like. Spending time in Barcelona last year, I recognised that atmosphere. Catalonia has been split down the middle by the region’s quest for independence from Spain. The resulting quarrels break up Sunday family lunches, or can end life-long friendships.”

He adds that “No new state has emerged in western Europe since Malta became independent from the UK in 1964 — but now there are three candidates. The May 6 Scottish Parliament elections are in effect a referendum on independence, with the secessionist Scottish National Party expected to win a majority. That same month, Northern Ireland marks its centenary amid a Brexit-inspired push towards Irish unification.”

The FT columnist draws some conclusions, with which I fully agree: 

-“None of these new states are likely to emerge anytime soon, if ever. Instead, these issues will probably stagnate into frozen conflicts, allowing polarisation to seep into everyday life.”

-“Identity issues are the most emotive in politics. Few people stalk out of Christmas dinner because they disagree about the nuances of the Green New Deal. But introduce binary choices like “Should we live in Catalonia or Spain?” or “Scotland or Britain?” and some will get overexcited. In Northern Ireland, of course, unionists and nationalists generally wouldn’t be having Christmas dinner together in the first place.”

-“The best way to keep a society united, argues philosopher Amartya Sen, is to encourage everyone to hold multiple identities. People can feel simultaneously Catalan and Spanish, Scottish and British, even Irish and British, as long as they are left in peace to muddy their identities. Some are happiest living outside all ethnic clubs. The numbers in Northern Ireland who identified as neither unionist nor nationalist rose in the years before Brexit, notes Katy Hayward of Queen’s University Belfast.

-“But independence movements push people to choose a single identity. From 2006 through 2019, the segment of Catalonia’s population identifying as “only Catalan” jumped 15 percentage points, according to José Oller of the University of Barcelona and colleagues. Worse, these national identities pile on top of other polarising identities. In Catalonia, most indepes, as they are called, are well-off, native-born people who grew up speaking Catalan. In some of their workplaces and social settings, speaking Spanish is now frowned upon. Dissidents risk being informally boycotted in their professional lives. Meanwhile, people in Catalonia of migrant origin — be it from Spain or abroad — mostly oppose independence. This social divide was pre-existing, but has recently become politically toxic.

-“Many Scots in recent years have found firm political identities online, with “rants emanating from all sides”, recounts Elizabeth Anne Bailey in her book Political Participation on Social Media. When a YouGov poll last year found that only 16 per cent of Scots believed Scotland was united, Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister and a vocal unionist, said Scotland looked like “two nations”. He warned: “These divisions could dominate our lives for many decades to come.” “Divisive referendum” may be a unionist mantra, but it’s an accurate one. But dividing people into identity groups and then letting the biggest group decide rarely works brilliantly. Better to let sleeping identities lie, and to argue instead about boring issues like carbon offsets and street lights.”

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