Twelve Observations On The Catalonia Independence Vote

On September 6, the government in Catalonia announced that it was going to hold a vote on October 1 to decide whether the region should secede from Spain and become a nation-state unto itself in the form of a republic. It also announced that should the people choose independence, the government would declare secession within 48 hours. Spain’s constitutional court declared the vote unconstitutional, and the central government in Madrid said that it would attempt to stop the vote. Neither side backed down. The Spanish government seized ballots and tried to shut down polling places, resulting in violence that left over 840 people injured. The vote still took place, with nearly 90 percent voting for independence. In response, pro-secession protests occurred throughout Spain and a general strike was called across Catalonia. Spain and the European Union have rejected Catalonia’s requests for mediation, and King Felipe VI has denounced the secession movement. Twelve observations on these events follow.

1. One cannot understand the present without knowing the past. The formation of the current Spanish state can be dated to 1469, when the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were united by the marriage of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. Under their leadership, the last Muslim rulers were expelled from Spain, Christopher Columbus was sent to the New World, and royal power was centralized at the expense of local nobility. Even so, Spain has always been a multi-ethnic state, composed of Basques, Catalans, Galicians, and others. In the 19th century, nationalist feelings among these groups grew. These aspirations took a back seat during the Cuban War of Independence, Phillipine Revolution, and Spanish-American War. Regions of Spain were granted greater autonomy in the Second Spanish Republic (1931-39), but this was brutally repressed during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship (1939-75), such that people were not even allowed to give their children Basque, Catalan, Galician names. After Franco’s death, Spain was turned into a semi-federal state with 17 autonomous communities, some of which have their own languages and cultures, as Catalonia does.

2. The Catalan independence movement cuts across ordinary political lines. Some people in Catalonia believe that independence would bring order to the region’s finances, or make taxes paid by Catalonians provide more benefit to Catalonians. Others are migrants who became involved with the Catalan movement and have no loyalty to the government in Madrid. Still others have particular political objectives that they believe to be easier to achieve on a smaller scale, such as an independent Catalonia rather than the entirety of Spain. In American terms, the parties which are in a temporary alliance to achieve independence run the gamut from the Constitution Party to the Green Party.

3. The harder one clenches one’s fist, the more sand slips through one’s fingers. For the Madrid government, responding with peaceful dismissal of the independence vote would have been more effective. Instead, they met peaceful efforts by Catalans with violence. In the words of a Spanish politician, “We have given them the pictures they want.” By forcefully opposing the self-determination of Catalans, the Spanish government is pushing swing voters toward the independence movement, as such actions raise the specter of Franco that is still remembered, particularly among older people. Furthermore, the creation of a new state is much easier if existing states recognize it, and images for foreign consumption of people trying to vote and being hit with truncheons and shot with rubber bullets for it will create pressure on other governments from their people to recognize Catalonian independence.

4. The voting results are questionable. The Catalan government rushed through the legislation for the referendum and passed it in a late-night session without the opposition being present. They vowed to secede even if turnout was low, and engaged in smear tactics against those who opposed independence. Turnout was only 42.3 percent, and the anti-independence side did not campaign because the government in Madrid declared the vote to be illegal.

5. This will provoke greater nationalist sentiment in the rest of Spain. Whenever separatist sentiment grows in one part of a nation, a unionist sentiment tends to grow elsewhere in reaction to it. In some cases, this occurs because the separatists threaten to remove an economically important area from the nation, such as a mine or a seaport. In others, such as the American Civil War, the separatists are engaged in activities that the unionists find morally reprehensible. Sometimes, a central government simply wishes to keep separatists subjugated so as to discourage other separatist movements elsewhere in the nation, such as in the Basque country. Whatever the case may be, nationalism in Madrid is likely to grow alongside secessionism in Catalonia. This will be bolstered by the fact that Catalonia is more leftist than the rest of Spain, as nationalism tends to be more common on the right.

6. Nationalism is not an ally of liberty; merely an enemy of some of liberty’s enemies. The nationalist sentiments of Catalans or anyone else in Spain will not lead to liberty in and of themselves. Only by coupling such sentiments with the principles of self-ownership, non-aggression, and respect for private property can a libertarian social order emerge. Nationalism is also hostile to any decentralizations of power below the national level. That being said, nationalism is certainly a lesser evil than globalism, and may serve as a temporary makeshift on the path to a better political arrangement.

7. The EU will be weakened regardless of the end result. If Catalonia becomes independent, it will be outside the EU, having to either apply to rejoin or have its move toward independence also serve as a Catexit, so to speak. Given Catalonia’s population of 7,522,596 and GDP of $255.204 billion, this would remove 1.47 percent of the population and 1.23 percent of the GDP from the EU. By contrast, Brexit will remove 12.83 percent of the population and 13.45 percent of the GDP from the EU. Even though Brexit is a much larger issue, the impact of a Catexit would still be noticeable. Catalonians are unlikely to want to exit the EU, but doing so may be unavoidable if they cannot gain admission once they are independent.

As per the previous point, it is also necessary to contemplate a Spexit, with or without Catalonia included. Growing nationalism in Spain as a reaction to growing separatism in Catalonia may lead to euroskepticism there. This, combined with longstanding economic issues in Spain such as high unemployment, may lead conservatives to contemplate the possibility of a brighter future outside of the European single market. A complete Spexit would remove 9.08 percent of the population and 5.94 percent of the GDP from the EU, while only Catalonia remaining in the EU would remove 7.61 percent of the population and 4.71 percent of the GDP from the EU. Though not as impactful as Brexit, a second member state leaving the EU could signal the beginning of the end.

Finally, regardless of whether any exits occur, the EU will almost certainly appear to be weak and ineffectual as a result of recent events. Calls for it to mediate the dispute have gone unanswered, and the EU seems intent on ignoring repression of a democratic vote. Given the EU commission’s threats of sanctions against Hungary and Poland for their anti-democratic policies, this seems rather hypocritical. One must also consider that the EU has no mechanism for dealing with such an issue. Article 3a of the Treaty of Lisbon calls for the EU to “respect their essential State functions, including ensuring the territorial integrity of the State, maintaining law and order, and safeguarding national security,” so it is unlikely to help the separatists. Nor is it in the rational self-interest of anyone who wields power in the EU to intervene, as doing so would encourage separatists in other EU nation-states.

8. Secessionist movements are fueled by economic hardship and government mismanagement. The role of the Catalan people in Spain is both privileged and marginalized. Even though Catalans have maintained a distinct identity, they contribute more to Spain than they receive in return, especially in terms of institutional influence, which remains dominated by Madrid. Since the 2008 financial crisis, this has exacerbated tensions, and the continued economic problems in Spain lead some Catalonians to believe that they could do better for themselves with more local governance.

9. The state is legitimized only by force. The simple truth is that any other basis for legitimacy is subject to reason and defeated thereby. A deity fails because no such being is proven to exist. A constitution fails because any person or group can write one, leaving the state’s legitimacy constantly imperiled. An appeal to tradition fails because all traditions and states must begin somewhere, leaving them unable to be formed in the first place. A supranational body fails because it begs the question of how it gets its legitimacy. A social contract fails because a valid contract must be entered into willfully by all parties. Democracy fails because it is a logical impossibility, which could not even appear to function without the state already in place, thus resulting in circular reasoning.

Mao Zedong spoke truly on the nature of state legitimacy; “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” A state continues to operate because it violently subjugates anyone who would attempt to end its operation, and it maintains territorial integrity by violently suppressing any efforts by its people to secede from the state. The only factor preventing individuals or sub-national groups from gaining sovereignty is the fact that they lack the force of arms and/or the willingness to use them for that purpose.

10. Self-determination must be taken and defended by force. Given the previous point, the path to true independence is clear. A separatist movement must first declare independence, but this will never be sufficient. The larger state will seek to retain any breakaway provinces by force, and if the separatists wish to form a new nation rather than be imprisoned or executed on charges of sedition or treason, they must respond with defensive force to the aggressions of the larger state. This has been the norm at least since the American Revolution, and the Catalonian situation is shaping up to be no different.

In a more general theoretical sense, self-determination must be taken and defended by force because the failure to do so will result in some group of aggressors infringing upon one’s self-determination. As Vegetius said, “He, therefore, who desires peace, should prepare for war.” Only by doing this can one present an effective deterrent against those who would return a free people to a state of bondage.

11. Repression by the Spanish government may provoke terrorism. Should the violence escalate, as appears likely, some Catalonians may end up following the Basque model. In the Basque Country, there is a moderate nationalist and separatist movement, much like the Catalonian independence movement. But there is also the ETA, a paramilitary group that has engaged in terrorist acts for decades. The group was founded in 1959 during Franco’s regime, but continued carrying out attacks for decades after the restoration of regional autonomy. Other examples of this throughout the world include the Irish Republican Army and the PKK in Kurdish regions of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Notably, the Kurds are also attempting to create a new state for themselves at the time of this writing.

12. The international community functions as a cartel. Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan are currently attempting to become independent nation-states, and both are being met with a mixture of indifference and contempt from existing nation-states. That such movements provoke hostility from the remainder of their current states is understandable and has been addressed above, as has the uneasiness of foreign governments to recognize the independence of separatist movements. But there is more at work here, which may be explained by considering the role of cartels in a marketplace and the effects that decentralization would have if taken to its logical conclusion.

The standard libertarian view is that cartels are inherently unstable, as the incentive of each member has a profit motive to betray the cartel. This incentive is frequently countered by state interference in the economy to protect a cartel from this effect. There is no more profitable venture in the current system than the management of a state, so this profit motive is amplified alongside the protectionist motive as an equal and opposite reaction. But libertarians tend to under-appreciate the role of aggressive violence in the marketplace, which is a service for sale like any other. This keeps them from fully understanding situations like these, in which established players seek not only to out-compete upstarts or hamstring them through regulatory capture, but to engage in direct violent suppression of competitors.

Finally, the rulers of nation-states must be aware at some level that the entry of new polities into the established order has the potential to remove that order from power. In the words of Murray Rothbard,

Once one concedes that a single world government is not necessary, then where does one logically stop at the permissibility of separate states? If Canada and the United States can be separate nations without being denounced as in a state of impermissible ‘anarchy,’ why may not the South secede from the United States? New York State from the Union? New York City from the state? Why may not Manhattan secede? Each neighbourhood? Each block? Each house? Each person? But, of course, if each person may secede from government, we have virtually arrived at the purely free society, where defense is supplied along with all other services by the free market and where the invasive State has ceased to exist.”[1]

Taken to its logical conclusion, political exit may be disintegrative, but stopping somewhat short of atomized individualism would both remove the Cathedral from power and create the opportunity to build a superior form of social order. The establishment has no interest in allowing this to happen and would rather nip it in the bud at the expense of looking oppressive and/or indifferent than risk losing their global hegemony.

Taken together, these explanations help one understand why the established nation-states, despite their contrary interests, can agree that no new members should be able to join their club.


1. Rothbard, Murray (2009). Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market. Ludwig von Mises Institute, Scholar’s Edition, 2nd ed. p. 1051.

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