What Catalonia and the Confederacy have in Common

The near-revolution in Catalonia, where violence broke out as Spanish authorities attempted to intervene in the region’s independence vote, and the regional legislature has now voted for secession and drawn a rebuke from the federal government, has something to tell us about Confederacy. That is, it speaks to a version of nationalism the South once embraced.

Catalonia is far more distinct from Spain culturally than the Confederacy was from the rest of the United States. Spain itself is a composite of several regions, some with their own unique languages, like Galicia and the Basque Country, united under the power of the southern regions that speak Castilian, what the world now thinks of as “Spanish.” But Catalonia (which also has its own language) also has prosperity (producing a fifth of Spain’s GDP), and with that prosperity has been making a bid for separation from Madrid. Proponents of independence speak of both the differences between the Catalan people and the Spanish people, and of the grievances the former have with the later.

The semi-autonomous region of Catalonia

In that way, they are following the same path as the Confederates and other small nationalists from the 19th Century. In their view of nationalism, what makes for an independent country isn’t a unified set of civic ideals or principles, but a unified culture, or people. Here’s how Paul Quigley put it in “Shifting Ground: Nationalism in the American South 1848-1865:”

At the risk of over-simplifying a complex process, nationalism at this time can be described as evolving from the liberal, inclusive “civic” model embodied in the French and American Revolutions toward the conservative, exclusive “ethnic” model that culminated in the fascism of the mid-twentieth century.

Like Catalonia, the Confederate States of America saw themselves as a culturally distinct region with grievances against their overbearing in-nation neighbors.

The secessionist movement on this side of the Atlantic was a conservative mirror image of the Europeans. At the time of the Civil War, small nations like Ireland were rebelling against oppression from larger nations like England, but the American South was looking to preserve slavery against liberal Northern intentions.

Nonetheless, defining a nation by borders between ethnicities or languages was as difficult to do in Poland as it was to draw a clear line around “Dixie.” As Quigley writes,  “If the American South did not possess a straightforward or ‘pure’ nationalism, neither does anywhere else.”

And in the end, the larger civic version of nationality prevailed over the tighter, ethnic version, both in America and Europe.

While many scholars debate whether the Confederacy ever achieved actual nationhood, the basic dynamics of social identity apply outside of political officialdom. For a time, the salience of being a Southerner overtook the salience of being an American. In the wreckage of the war, much of what Confederates thought made them different could have been outlawed by the North, a common tactic used to eliminate salient in-nation identities. Think of banning the use of the Irish language, or American laws banning Native tribal rituals, or, indeed, steps that the Franco regime took to quash regional differences in Spain. What occurred in the US instead, the Reconstruction, we will take up later.

What we will say today is, in Spain, the value of being Catalan appears on the brink of overtaking the value of identifying as Spanish. The federal and regional forces at play  in Iberia must resolve the issue in both legal and cultural terms.

Note: This post was previously updated and republished 10-27-2017

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