Sunday, August 1, 2021

National-Populism against pluralism

In my previous post, I mentioned political scientist Müller quoting the French economist Thomas Piketty: “Everything depends on equipping groups of different origins and identities with the institutional, social, and political tools they need to recognize that what unites them outweighs what divides them.”

I just found a similar message in the impressive memoir written by the economist Amartya Sen that I am currently reading, “Home in the World:” “I was not very old before I realized the pressing need to bring economic class into an understanding of the horrors of communal violence and carnage in India. Most of the people killed in the Hindu-Muslim riots of the 1940s shared a class identity (they came from families of workers and the dispossessed), even though they differed in their religious or comunal identity (in being a Muslim or a Hindu).” In Asia then and everywhere today pluralism and egalitarianism go hand in hand.

Dividing a society by community identities and then calling “the people” only one of the identitites is a typical trait of old and modern national-populism. Müller describes modern populism: Trump, Brexit and the others (Bolsonaro, Modi, Orban, Salvini, Le Pen…). Some have been (at least temporarily) defeated, others prove more resilient.

But the phenomenon is not new. Sen’s comment reflects what he started to think about community identities in the 1940s (and kept thinking when he wrote a book on the topic many decades later), when he saw a Muslim worker asking for help and later dying after being stabbed in a racist attack.

The people is as we define it, say old and modern populists. In richer societies, where the opportunity cost of physical violence is high, things are subtler than in the Indian Subcontinent last century, but we see groups trying to benefit from “us versus them” rhetoric all the time. In Catalonia, with the secessionist drive that started in 2012, it is very common to see racist insults directed at those with origins in other Spanish regions (unfortunately, the picture with “Visca Salvini” in Catalan that accompanies this article, I just took it next to my home in Barcelona). The rise of the mirror extreme-right in Spain just encourages more identity polarization.

Signs of the more or less subtle attack on pluralism from separatist leaders are that they appeal to a “dialogue with Spain” (although not even all secessionists agree with this), but tend to reject “dialogue within Catalonia;” or that they ask for a referendum where citizens can choose between the “Catalan proposal” against “the Spanish government’s proposal,” as if there was a clear homogeneous local proposal; or that when they try to show a moderate face, they speak of “expanding the base,” which means trying to recruit more secessionists, instead of working together with people who do not agree with the indendence proposal. In the last regional election, all pro-independence parties, divided on many fronts, signed an agreement to form a sanitary cordon against social-democrats (because these were not nationalist enough), which happened to obtain the largest vote plurality.

The Catalan public sector media, controlled by the regional pro-independence parties, runs programs showing insults including “Puta España” (“Whore Spain”). Partisan pro-independence symbols in public buildings are frequent. And these are only some examples, which anyone trying to express their opinion about what happens here should know about. Although the separatist leaders that were in prison have now been pardoned (legally by the Spanish government) and are now at home (and I wish that they have forever all the protections of the European rule of law), the signs of lack of internal pluralism continue in our community.

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