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A Pardon to Catalonia
A Cynical Gamble May Return "Spain's Factory" to the Fold
“When profit is seen in matters put before the people, even though there may be a loss concealed beneath them, or when something seems courageous, even though the ruination of the republic may be concealed beneath it, it will always be easy to persuade the crowd to follow, and thus, it will always be difficult to persuade them to accept those decisions that appear to involve either cowardice or loss, even though salvation and profit may be concealed beneath them.” - Machiavelli [Discourses, I.53]
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The Kingdom of Spain has been experiencing enormous protests, which have now been going on for weeks. As of Saturday the 18th, they were said to have reached a size of 170,000 people. At issue is Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s agreement to grant amnesty to those involved in the Catalan independence movement, which culminated in the 2017 plebiscite and unilateral declaration of independence. During the summer, Spain had a general election where the conservative People’s Party [PP] came in first place with 33%, but was unable to reach the necessary majority to form a government. The right to attempt to form a government then devolved to the second place party, the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party [PSOE] of the sitting Prime Minister, Sanchez. Though he pledged to not do this exact thing, in a bid to keep power, Sanchez agreed to a highly unpopular pardon of separatists, where he would form a minority government with a far-left coalition and the support of several small regional parties which would not be in government [in Parliamentary systems this is known as a “Confidence and Supply Agreement.”] Further, he made fiscal concessions to the highly productive Catalonia state, which historically generates more revenue than it receives, giving it near complete financial autonomy and weakening Spain’s central government.
The conservatives of the world have gotten on board with Spain’s anti-socialism protesters, especially after Tucker Carlson interviewed the leader of the right-wing populist Vox Party Santiago Abascal and let him say a variety of hysterical and contradictory things with little push back [and, in his defense, some things that are obviously true.] The reality of the situation is that though Sanchez took part in extremely questionable political horsetrading to form a weak government he could lead, it is also hyperbolic to say that it is a coup or the end of democracy. Still, it does bring up real questions about the separation of powers, what future Spain has with his concessions, and how to move forward after doing something so unpopular. At the same time, the prosecution of those who peacefully held- or just supported- a vote on Catalonia’s independence was always divisive, and it is best to bring Catalonia back into the fold as a consenting constituent part of the Spanish state.
On Friday, Sanchez was sworn in as the Prime Minister by King Felipe VI after attaining 179 out of 350 votes in the Chamber of Deputies the day before. Sanchez’s new government is formed, but it is an open question if it can rule. My purpose here is not to tell the story of Sanchez forming the government, or of the protests, but instead to explain the nature of Spanish politics and the difficulty in repairing relations between Catalonia and the central government. Most of all though, it seems my purpose is to explain things to people who don’t know about Spain and might be taken for a ride by Tucker’s endorsement of Abascal as an honest-seeming person. I can tell you that as someone who knows about the politics of Spain and its former empire, my eyebrow nearly got stuck in place from skeptically cocking it while watching the interview.
Though Spain is a major country in Western Europe that should be well known to readers, the reality is that Latin politics are very foreign to Americans and rarely have a clear parallel in our own lives. In the Ibero-American world, which is to say Spain, Portugal, and the great majority of the continental Americas south of the Rio Grande, there is a much wider range of what could be called the “Overton Window.” If anything, the concept hardly even works there, as there is often an “unspeakable” center in between the two camps. It’s not uncommon in elections to choose between a fascist and a communist, or at least men close to those things with somewhat softer edges. One example would be Bolsanaro vs Lula de Silva in Brazil, but most Latin American elections are like this. Sometimes a centrist makes it to the runoff, but more commonly one candidate is an apologist for a recent military regime whereas the wants land reforms- itself a “poison pill” in Latin politics dating back to Republican Rome. What is funny is that rule going back and forth implies a not-insubstantial amount of Latin American swing voters who think something like, “communism didn’t work, why don’t we try military rule.” Generally, both the Democrats and Republicans in the United States would be to the center of the candidates in any Latin American Presidential election. However, since the Bourbons were restored to Spain, this is now softened by the lack of an elected executive and the need to form coalition governments in Parliament. That notwithstanding, the political currents which drive this phenomenon still exist in Spain as strongly as any Ibero-American country. There are clear historical reasons why the Spanish world is so split socially and politically: it isn’t an inexplicable peculiarity of their culture.
The impact that the discovery of the Americas had on the Iberian Peninsula is not well understood by Americans, despite being extensively discussed by major philosophers such as Montesquieu and Adam Smith. Montesquieu wrote in The Spirit of the Laws,
“She drew from the newly discovered world so prodigious a quantity of gold and silver, that all we had before could not be compared with it.
But (what one could never have expected) this great kingdom was everywhere baffled by its misfortunes. Philip II, who succeeded Charles V, was obliged to make the celebrated bankruptcy known to all the world. There never was a prince who suffered more from murmurs, the insolence, and the revolt of troops constantly ill paid,
From that time the monarchy of Spain has been incessantly declining. This has been owing to an interior and physical defect of the nature of those riches, which renders them vain—a defect which increases every day.” [XXI.22]
That was written in the mid-18th century, but is the key background for everything about Spain: the discovery of the New World proved a sort of curse that arrested social and economic development. The massive quantities of silver and gold caused horrible inflation, while having so much silver and gold discouraged economic development because the people with capital didn’t feel the need to turn it to other productive uses. The country, a key part of the Mediterranean since early antiquity, turned west to the Atlantic, where it was primarily a transfer point for goods and a source of precious metal. The nobility, church, and military became powerful and oppressive while the peasants lived in misery. With nothing else to do, younger sons of the nobility sought their fortunes in the Americas, arriving with a pickaxe, a cross, or a gun [or, I suppose, sometimes all three.] Abascal claims that the Spanish colonization of the Americas was one of the most benevolent events in history, and that a “black legend” has arisen around it, to which Tucker concurred that they ended empires based on human sacrifice. While the latter part is technically true, every empire, in one way or another, is based on sacrificing humans. Further, that was but one part of the Americas, and it that ritual wasn’t the “basis” of their empire. Still, the Aztecs were unusually brutal and no one should weep for their state. However, the implication that this is some sort of new woke revisionist take destroying Spanish heritage is nonsense. One can easily find references from the 1700s and before regarding the cruelty of Spanish imperialism, including by Montesquieu who says in the section cited above, “as they sported with the live of the Indians they forced them to labor without mercy.” He may be correct that Spain’s modern government downplays crimes of the left to focus on the crimes of Franco, but it is typically Spanish to want to go so far in the other direction as to praise the benevolence of the Spanish in the New World. [It needs to be noted that conservatives in Latin America generally consider themselves the descendants of the Spanish and not victims of Spanish imperialism.]
The growth of trade and industry initially passed over this Hispanophone world of old wealth, where the great majority were landless and scraping by on the vast, worn out estates of their social superiors or going to an early grave from noxious vapors after a lifetime spent in the mines. Spain entered a period of decline lasting hundreds of years, culminating in the Spanish Civil War, one of the most brutal and insane conflicts in human history. The conservative side in Spanish politics has no real parallel in America, and is made up of people who support the orderly society they feel comes from the traditional aristocracy. They believe a country’s military and Roman Catholic Church should be powerful within a state. Alternately, the left wants a secular society and land reforms that give power to the people and let the little guy became a stakeholder in society instead of a peasant or proletarian. Though in America we fight over the role of religion all the time, we have no equivalent to the clericalism and anti-clericalism of Spanish politics. Given the disparity of all these views, and the history of poverty and oppression, conflicts have consistently turned extremely violent. It is especially difficult as neither side’s views create a well-functioning society. A society thrives when there are both strong traditional institutions and an equitable distribution of land where the common man can prosper. In short, moderation is necessary, which is not common to the Latin temperament. Spain’s inclusion in the European Union has taken the edge off of all of this, but with the brutality of the Civil War and the memory of the Franco regime still alive and well, it remains potent. Without this context, Tucker’s interview with Vox leader Santiago Abascal is wildly misleading; we can assume that Abascal relied on an American audience not understanding the context, whereas Tucker knows the context but found it advantageous to not explain.
Spain has always been a regionally diverse country despite having a strong central government. It was unified by the famed marriage of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, but the crowns remained separate kingdoms in a personal union for two centuries afterwards [meaning that their heir inherited both crowns. This is how both the United Kingdom and Austria-Hungary were originally unified.] Despite the inland city of Madrid becoming the capital in the 16th century, they also created the “fleet system” whereby all goods had to go through the ancient city of Cadiz. This reduced trade between Spanish regions compared to international trade, encouraged a huge amount of smuggling, and contributed to general poverty; all of these things had the impact of preventing the cultural and economic integration of Spain. In short, it was more profitable for the people of Spain’s many coasts to make their living at sea than to deal with the restrictive laws of the kingdom.
The northeast regions of Spain, Catalonia and the Basque Country, are mostly cool, rainy, and mountainous, which is poor country for large feudal estates. At the same time, it is near Marseilles, the most important port in the Mediterranean, while Cadiz guards the Straits of Gibraltar making, smuggling from the Atlantic to the Catalan port of Barcelona difficult. In the early 19th century, Catalonia, a shepherding region, rapidly industrialized, starting with the wool industry, and becoming “Spain’s factory” by the end of the century. Industrialization had the usual effects on Catalonia. In a nation of drying up old fortunes, it created new ones, while it elevated the prosperity of a new class of workers, who lived in closer quarters and developed a more distinct identity. Catalan nationalism arose. However, Catalonia was Republican during the Spanish Civil War, and when their side lost [the conflict is much too complicated to get into,] Franco removed Catalan’s regional autonomy and brutally suppressed Catalan language and culture. The upshot of Catalonia’s industrialization has been the creation of a culture more like the industrial societies of northern Europe than the Spanish speaking parts of Spain.
When liberal democracy returned in Spain in the 1970s, Catalans were again allowed regional cultural expression. While the move towards Catalan independence was mostly peaceful, there was also the terrorist group the ETA in the neighboring Basque Country, which has many similarities to Catalonia, though the Basque are an indigenous people who speak a totally unrelated language [whereas Catalan is a Romance language.] This is relevant because though Sanchez is only offering pardons to the Catalan separatists who were primarily non-violent, he is also relied on Basque parties including the one which arose from the ETA to again become Prime Minister. This gives potence, though not accuracy to those who call the regional political parties “terrorists.” In general, regional pride has grown across northern Spain since it has again been allowed, which has brought with it a variety of conflicts within the Spanish state, especially as conservatives strongly believe in Castilian domination. If Americans, at least the ones without extremist political views, were to understand the situation, they would likely find it is the Catalans they relate to more than the Spanish right or left.
The biggest issue between Catalonia and Spain has been that as Catalonia is one of the wealthiest regions of Europe, it pays more taxes than it receives. Rightly or wrongly, there is a perception that Catalans work in the factory all day while Spaniards go to the beach. In 2017, following years of movement in that direction, Catalonia’s legislature, led by Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, held a referendum on independence, a vote which had already been declared illegal by Spain’s Supreme Court. 90% voted for Independence, but only 43% of voters participated, as unionists didn’t want to give legitimacy to a vote that had already been declared illegitimate by the government they supported. The voting process was quite violent as the national police tried to stop it from taking place. The Catalan Parliament unilaterally declared independence, which led to Madrid temporarily taking direct control of the province. Many independence leaders and supporters were arrested for a variety of charges, though Puigdemont himself escaped to Brussels hidden in the back of a car, where he has been successfully fighting extradition since. Now, with the new deal, it is expected that Puigdemont will return to Spain, while Catalonia will have regional debts forgiven, its leaders will receive amnesty for declaring independence as well as corruption and other charges, and the region will get the sort of fiscal autonomy that the Basque Country and Navarre already have. It needs to be noted that holding the referendum at all was considered a misuse of public funds, so “corruption” here doesn’t necessarily mean stealing for personal gain, it can also mean using the state’s resources in support of its own independence. However, support for independence in Catalonia has fallen to 10% below support for staying in Spain, presumably largely because they have already seen how Spain will react and no one wants to go to war over this. It is also the case that Catalonia would not be able to join the EU without Spain’s approval, and a small manufacturing region like Catalonia is heavily reliant on free trade.
This situation brings up a lot of interesting things from a political theory perspective. First of all, it is generally my stance that governments only force regions to stay if they know themselves to be exploiting them, though governments generally exploit everyone and have a tendency to want to be as large as they can get away with. Still, it’s not unheard of for a country to decide a region is more trouble than it’s worth. I am wholly of the belief that regions should have a right to self-determination if their legitimate legislature declares it or the public does through referendum. At the same time, it seems a plebiscite in that regard should get the support of more than around 40% of total eligible voters for such a drastic decision.
Conservatives say the small parties supporting the government will use their position to work against the unity of Spain, but their position gives them little leverage, and they can be better managed by caring about their concerns. The Spanish conservatives simply hold to a position that regional identities should fade so do not want them to have any power. It is undeniable that Sanchez has taken part in ethically questionable political horsetrading and is taking a big gamble, especially given that it is not clear what he can do to quell protests. He himself had already promised to not have such an amnesty before he decided it was necessary to form a government. People say it is against Spain’s Constitution- Sanchez previously said that- but they don’t seem to be basing this on anything, and it would not be like a Presidential pardon. However, it is unusual, as the power generally rests with the Head of State, in this instance the King, not the Head of Government, the Prime Minister. But blanket amnesty is a bigger decision, to be passed by law. Still, in the United States you would be allowed to run for President on the platform of pardoning someone, it is just considered untoward if it is a person with political power who would be supporting you.
Though these are regional parties unpopular with the ethnically Spanish, country needs a government where everyone is involved, not one where Madrid is ravaging the frontiers, Sudan style. I think as unpopular as this is now, the public may ultimately see the wisdom in pardoning separatists, even if it is seen as a blatant ploy to take power. However, Spanish conservatives are overwhelmingly hostile to the outer regions and nothing is likely to convince them to think otherwise. For one example, in the process of pulling votes together, Sanchez, who was running a caretaker government, allowed the use of regional languages in the Chamber of Deputies. The Vox party responded by leaving their translation earphones on their seats and walking out of the chamber, while many Peoples Party deputies refused to wear them. Meanwhile, their supporters have taken to yelling “terrorist” at Basque and Catalan lawmakers. This is especially absurd as the People’s Party leader Alberto Fiejoo speaks Galician while the King speaks Catalan. These are native languages of regions within Spain, that are as old as Spanish itself [in the case of Basque much older, it’s actually the only living “Paleo-European” language.]
What I find perhaps the most interesting is the overblown rhetoric about this is Europe is full of governments making ridiculous deals to take power. In fact, I suspect that the era of personalized news on social media has broken the Parliamentary system by leading to ever more splintered parties based on each person’s weird political preference. The fact is that Sanchez will have control of the government by a hair, and it’s not obvious that the parties would hold to their pledge to support him for four years. He essentially can’t pass anything without all of them and his whole government on board, though they are pledged to support his budgets. On top of that, the main governing partner Sumar, is a new, large coalition of left-wing parties, and as such one imagines discipline within the group is terrible, and they are probably all chasing absurd niche political goals. It’s also strange that the People’s Party was only 4 votes from being able to form a government, but couldn’t find a single regional party they could get on board, besides one small Basque unionist party with one member and the one member of the Canarian Coalition, which generally negotiates support for any Prime Minister to try and get funding to the islands. It is hard to see how the new Sanchez Government would possibly transform Spanish society, much less kill democracy, operating on these margins. This is especially true given that, as is common, the courts remain conservative bastion within the state. There is no evidence that Sanchez has the ability to change this. Our friend Santiago Abascal wants us to believe this minority government will mean Spain will fall to “narco-communists,” whatever that is supposed to mean. It’s presumably an overblown reference to Colombia’s defunct FARC rebel group [meanwhile, People’s Party leader Feijoo has been dogged for decades by his friendship with a major Galician narco, while as far as I know, Sanchez has no such problems.]
The anger of the protesters is understandable, given Sanchez’s reversing his position on amnesty to stay in power, and the fact that they simply don’t want more left-wing government. If that is how they feel they should be in the streets making their voices heard, as they are. However, they are also against reconciliation, which extends the problem they want to go away, and as there doesn’t seem to be the political will to just kill them, reconciliation is the only good option. Machiavelli wrote, “Men who begin to suspect they are about to suffer some evil protect themselves in every possible way from such dangers and become more daring and less cautious in attempting something new” [Discourses, 1.45.] This is fundamentally why the regional parties, including Catalonia’s Junts per Catalunya party which is historically right-wing have thrown in with the socialists. Bringing the parties in will make them less subversive, not more. The conservatives will find that, especially in our increasingly fractious era, it will be hard for them to ever take power, much less to make any changes to Spanish society, unless they can come to terms with the power of regionalism within Spain. It could easily enough be argued that respecting the traditional regional cultures of these areas is the more “conservative” thing. However, to the Spanish conservatism means supporting the powers of the Crown, nobility, military, and church; Spain certainly never was a nation of “yeomen farmers” who controlled things through local democracy.
The situation in Spain is complex and there is unlikely to be a satisfying resolution. However, knowing a little bit about Spain one can see through the ludicrous claims of the populist leader Abascal. I certainly don’t like socialism or the loony woke policies of Sanchez, but Spain’s conservatives are not presenting a model of resistance based on any value that Americans hold, as easy as it may be to praise anti-socialism protesters. The conservatives simply want to quash regional power to continue a society where one power center dominates the rest- exactly what American conservatives don’t want out of our capital city. Further, this is no different from the hysteria we go through every time a President we dislike is re-elected. Many bad things happened in Spain in the 1930s, but it is silly to imagine that the modern European left have the mettle for the mass slaughter of their countrymen, as Abascal and Tucker would have you to believe. Further, Spain is nowhere near civil war. Sanchez has made a big gamble cobbling together this coalition and pushing through an unpopular amnesty, and his career may well collapse over it. However, it is also damaging to the state to continue to persecute those who sought Catalan independence within the confines of the EU, and Spain can certainly do better than going back to the era of Franco. Sadly, as is the case in the entire “Iberian World,” there isn’t anyone who truly wants to end destructive regional and class conflicts and build a society that respects historic institutional power within society while also building a strong middle class. I suppose it wouldn’t be very Latin of them to do so.
Thank you for reading! The Wayward Rabbler is written by Brad Pearce. If you enjoyed this content please subscribe and share. My main articles will always be free but paid subscriptions help me a huge amount [payment in doubloons preferred.] I have a tip jar at Ko-Fi where generous patrons can donate in $5 increments. Join my Telegram channel The Wayward Rabbler. My Facebook page is The Wayward Rabbler. You can see my shitposting and serious commentary on Twitter @WaywardRabbler.