The Left-Wing Case Against Catalan Independence

by Benjamin Studebaker

Catalonia is holding an independence referendum on October 1st. The referendum is not sanctioned by the Spanish government. Many are inclined to support the Catalan cause, particularly on the left. After all, the left tends to sympathize with minority and regional groups that seem culturally marginalized, and the Spanish government–led by the austerity-promoting Mariano Rajoy–feels icky. When Catalans portray themselves as plucky upstarts taking on a corrupt and indifferent Madrid bureaucracy, it’s easy to see the appeal. But this isn’t really about Catalonia versus Madrid–it’s about Catalonia versus Andalusia.

We hear about Catalonia all the time, but let’s talk for a minute about a different Spanish region–Andalusia. Andalusia was the last territory in mainland Spain to be taken from the Muslims during the Reconquista. Today it has a population of 8.3 million people (more than Catalonia’s 7.5 million). It’s home to some medium-sized cities like Seville, Malaga, and Cordova. It’s a beautiful place.

The thing is, the Spanish government never really made an effort to industrialize Andalusia, and the region persistently lags behind the rest of Spain economically. Andalusia’s per capita GDP is about a fifth lower than the overall Spanish figure. Here they are in USD:

Andalusia is recognized by the Spanish constitution as a “historic nationality,” but the independence movement in Andalusia is pretty negligible. The pro-independence Andalusian Party has no seats in the regional, national, or European parliaments. In the last regional election, it won less than 2% of the vote. When Rajoy’s government imposes austerity on Spain, it’s people in poorer regions like Andalusia who are most vulnerable.

Unlike Andalusia, Catalonia is one of the richest regions in Spain. Andalusia has less than two-thirds the per capita income of Catalonia:

The income gap between Andalusia and Catalonia is nearly as big as the gap between African-Americans and white Americans. Catalonia doesn’t fit the profile of a put-upon region. By Spanish standards, it’s pretty affluent. Some Catalans will point out that Catalonia pays more in tax revenue than it consumes in public services and benefits. But this is normal for a rich region–in the United States, most of the richest states are net-payers and most of the poorest states are net-recipients of federal funding:

This is what national governments are supposed to do–take money from rich regions, like New York and Catalonia, and redistribute it to people in need in poor regions, like West Virginia and Andalusia. The people in New York don’t respond to this by demanding independence. The rich states recognize that a rising tide lifts all boats. If we take care of people in the poor states, those states do better, and that lifts up the whole economy and benefits the rich states too. And on top of that, many New Yorkers in rich states recognize that while West Virginians may not be as well off, they’re still Americans and we have duties of justice to them.

This is important–the ability to define people in the poor states as fellow Americans makes it easier for people in rich states to see that they really should care about people in poor states. If New Yorkers stopped identifying as American and started identifying primarily as New Yorkers, they might not be so willing to share the wealth. The construction of a unifying American identity makes it possible to enlist New Yorkers in the cause of helping poor and working people in other parts of the country.

Ever noticed that many libertarians hate collective identities? They want people to think of themselves as individuals and to prize a kind of individual sovereignty. In the hands of libertarians, self-determination becomes not a tool for emancipating oppressed peoples, but for emancipating rich individuals from any duty to help those who are struggling. The way we define our circles of concern matters. Often libertarians want us to define our circles very narrowly so that we won’t support policy that makes them help the people about whom they don’t care. They use individualist identity to punch down.

In a poor, oppressed region, cultivating a regional identity might be useful in helping people escape an imbalanced, unfair relationship. When India gained independence from Britain, it extracted itself from an exploitative relationship in which Britain–a wealthy region–extracted resources and wealth from India–a much poorer region–without giving much in return. The British government wanted the Indians to think of themselves as British, but they didn’t want to show the Indian people the same concern they show their own. Indian independence was important in large part because it extracted India from this exploitative relationship. The Indian identity was used to help poor and working people in India free themselves from exploitative economic relationships.

Whenever someone is making a case for independence or self-determination, we need to ask ourselves–is their situation more like the situation of the satyagrahi or the libertarian? Are they more of a Gandhi or an Ayn Rand? Independence movements are not always anti-imperialist. Sometimes they make oppression worse.

In the Catalan case, an independent Catalonia would mean that the Spanish government would have less tax revenue to redistribute to poor and working people in places like Andalusia. It would aid and abet right-wing Spanish governments in their quest to shrink the Spanish welfare state and erode the hard-won rights of Spanish workers. It would also deprive left-wing Spanish movements of much-needed votes. In the last Spanish election, Catalonia was one of just two regions in Spain to deny Rajoy’s People’s Party a plurality. Nationally the People’s Party won 33% of the vote, but in Catalonia they managed just 13%. The poor and working people of Spain need the solidarity of Catalonia if they are to rid themselves of Rajoy. They’ve been very close before–in 2015 Rajoy’s party managed only 28% and was forced to form a minority government.

And yet, at this pivotal moment, many in Catalonia want to bail. It’s not their fault. They’ve lost the group identity that helped them care. They’ve stopped thinking of themselves as Spanish. But why should Spaniards find that satisfying? Why should the poor and working people of Spain allow Catalonia to just walk out the door and abandon them? When rich libertarians claim that they don’t owe us any of their wealth because they’re sovereign individuals and taxation is theft, we don’t just accept their identity as a credible excuse for disavowing their material obligations. The rich have a duty of justice to the poor. It doesn’t matter what language they speak or how different they feel. Cultural differences are no excuse for ignoring material obligations to fellow citizens in need. When independence movements hurt the people in a country who need help the most, they are not left-wing. Andalusia matters. Poor and working Spaniards matter. We mustn’t forget about them.