Two books to put Catalonia in context

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A voter in Tarragona

There is no doubt that the evolving crisis between Catalonia and the Spanish state is a political watershed that could cause ripples across Europe. While the local forces at play and the unique history of Spanish statehood are certainly crucial, it may be useful to put the current clash over the future of the country in a much broader perspective – in fact, in a truly global context. Some conceptual tools to do this can be found in a recent book by Ryan Avent, a journalist at The Economist, that tackles the uncertain future of work and sheds light on the difficult relationship between technology, economics and politics (“The Wealth of Humans. Work and its Absence in the Twenty-First Century”, Allen Lane, 2016).

An even wider perspective was offered ten years ago by economist Robert Reich (who also served as Secretary of Labor with Bill Clinton), particularly through his treatment of the dysfunctions of today’s democracies in facing the negative effects of 21st century capitalism (“Supercapitalism. The Trasformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life”,  Vintage Books, 2007). The two books provide, through compatible but not identical arguments, the global backdrop for many socio-political developments we are observing at the national level. For all the importance of “identity politics” and local traditions, a major factor driving separatist movements is the control over economic resources and wealth – as witnessed by the centrality of fiscal arrangements.

Avent starts his analysis from the assumption that the digital revolution has supercharged the forces of globalization, while also disrupting a number of industries and displacing production processes – along with workers, the more so as digital technologies spread. He therefore posits the dilemma faced by the advanced economies and the fundamental tension between economics and politics: “Either society will find ways to shore up work or develop substitutes for it, or workers will use the political system to undermine the forces disrupting their world.” This comes down to a thorny redistributive question: “As (…) the global economy has continued to grow, it has become clear that the hardest part in finding utopia is not the figuring out of how to produce more. We’ve managed that. The hard part is the redistribution.”

What we are witnessing is no less than “a long societal negotiation over just what the state and the economy ought to do, and for whom, in the digital era. If the industrial era is any guide, this negotiation will last for decades to come, and will occasionally result in dramatic, and possibly even violent, changes to the structure of global politics.” We may add that, in a European context, it is obvious that such tough bargaining processes will revolve around the balance of local/regional, national and EU prerogatives. In some cases, popular demands will focus on obtaining more protection by the higher levels, but in other cases they will resort to separatist programs – or they will do both, as Catalan separatists aspire to by going alone as a “mini-EU member”. Indeed, as pointed out by Avent, the Union offers a unique option in some crucial respects: “separatism is especially attractive: provided an enclave can maintain access to the EU market, separation enables greater local autonomy and greater within-group redistribution.”

Whether this makes sense economically or not is open to question and certainly depends on specific conditions, but Avent argues that in principle “hyperglobalization means that even very small economies can enjoy access to global markets, which reduces the advantage of being part of a much larger state.” And the significant risk may be justified by the promise of a great endgame: “What separatist quasi-nations seem to want is a world in which they enjoy the economic benefits of global integration, but in which critical political and economic decisions are made by units with a high degree of national or ethnic coherence.”

Reich’s even broader perspective points to the inadequacy of democratic solutions in the face of what he terms “supercapitalism”. Many of the negative consequences and undesired effects of global capitalism, such as growing inequalities or environmental damage, are not, according to him, failures of capitalism as such. “Capitalism’s role is to enlarge the economic pie. How the slices are divided and whether they are applied to private goods like personal computers or public goods like clean air is up to society to decide. This is the role we assign to democracy. (…) Democracy is supposed to enable us to make such tradeoffs, or help us achieve both growth and equity or any other goals we share in common. Yet democracy is struggling to perform these basic functions.” In other words, explains Reich, “Capitalism has become more responsive to what we want as individual purchasers of goods, but democracy has grown less responsive to what we want together as citizens.”

His thesis is basically that the responses provided by democracies are slow, insufficient or dysfunctional – or all of the above combined. We may take this reasoning one step further by stating that governance at the level of the nation-state has become increasingly inadequate, so much so that active citizens will tend to look elsewhere for better solutions, but these solutions will not necessarily be more adequate and certainly not painless. The push for the Catalan referendum corroborates the thesis in the sense that it threatens to tear apart a political unit (Spain) and create significant tensions (including a possible contagion/emulation effect) at the higher EU level. Much the same can be said of the Brexit referendum, which – whatever the final outcome of the negotiations – has left the UK itself in a condition of self-doubt and internal political confusion.

If the political challenges and ramifications of today’s global capitalism are indeed what Avent and Reich describe, then we should only expect the sort of social backlash and institutional crises that are currently running their course in Catalonia. In fact, we should anticipate more such episodes. We may ultimately discover that Brexit and the Catalan issue (or for that matter the early Northern League phase in Italy and the lingering Scottish question) are necessary stages on the way to more responsive democratic systems, a transition inevitably bringing significant instability. Let us hope, in any case, that the search for better solutions does not destroy the fabric of liberal market democracies: after all, this remains the “least bad” combination that has been invented so far.




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