Nations, Nationalism, and Non-Nation Political Movements

Many may wonder what all the fuss in Catalonia, Spain is about—a previous 2017 referendum vote for independence, and now, people rioting in the streets following the judicial conviction of Catalonian nationalist leaders for sedition, and violent altercations in Catalonian streets with the police. After all, Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, is a travel hotspot but when it comes to Catalonian nationalism and Catalonian politics, such political movements may remain a mystery to many American observers.

On Monday, October 14th, the Spanish Supreme Courtsentenced nine Catalan leaders to prison terms for sedition and attempting to separate from Spain in 2017. Of those convicted, were Oriol Junqueras, the former Catalan vice-president, who was sentenced to thirteen-years, the most of any of the convicted, as well as others like Carme Forcadell, former speaker of the Catalan parliament, and political activists such as Jordi Cuixart, and Jordi Sànchez. Additionally, a new extradition order for the arrest of former Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, was given. (He is currently self-exiled in Belgium.)

In fact, many Americans are often unaware of their own nationalist sentiments. Take, for example, the kneeling controversy of the American football player, Colin Kaepernickin the National Football League (NFL) in 2016, and whether or not taking a knee during the national anthem is an appropriate form of political protest. The act of kneeling during the national anthem provoked strong emotions in many Americans.

To those against—kneeling was viewed as sacrilegious by not respecting the sacral national anthem and the American flag. Whilst to those for—kneeling signified a form of protest against all of the police violence against African-Americans in recent years and for the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Moreover, President Donald Trumpweighed in on the issue and admonished NFL football players like Kaepernick who had the temerity of taking a knee during an American sacred symbolic ritual. These actions are so controversial because our national symbols are so emotive and because they have great meaning to us all.

Whether or not we are aware of our own “Americanness”, and what emotions such nationalism or patriotism evoke, is situation dependent. Indeed, the late anthropologist Benedict Anderson, proposed the notion of an “Imagined Community” whereby strangers believe in the same symbols, who read the same national newspapers and news websites and so on and imagine themselves to be fictionally related and part of a community of the political imagination. Thus, the relatedness of patriotism is an important national fiction because of its emotional inspirations, and aspirations as well.

In terms of the United States, we might think of the Catalan separatist movement and the Catalan independence movement as equivalent to Texas seceding from the union, or Alaska, or even Hawaii. What would the federal government of the United States do in such cases? In fact, the issues were decided a long time ago in the American Civil War (1861-1865), and a few years afterward with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Texas v. White(1869) by making unilateral secession illegal.

“Nationalisms” such as the Catalan case have been ongoing for some time. Its historical antecedents reach back to the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the Francoist oppression of regional movements within Spain such as Basque and Catalan cultures, identities, and languages.

The Catalan case is not even unique in the world today. We see similar non-nation political movements in the British Isles among the Scottish and the Welsh, for example, and the failed Scottish referendum in 2014. In Canada, there is the Québec sovereignty movement with a failed 1995 referendum for independence. Such political movements lost their respective referendums for independence by very small margins, similar to Catalonia in 2017.

In fact, many ethno-nationalist peoples throughout the world may be categorized along the lines of failed nationalist-movements. There are, for example, the British Cameroonians and their struggle for sovereignty within present day Cameroon as well described by Michael Fonkem. The “Oromo Liberation Front (OLF)” for recognition of the Oromo people in Ethiopia and analyzed by scholars such as Hamdesa Tuso. Elsewhere, we find the “Free Papua Movement” against Indonesia and for the independence and liberation of the people living in the Western half of Papua New Guinea.

In some cases, such ethnic-based movements have suffered defeat as happened in Sri Lanka among the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE, or simply, Tamil Tigers) in 2009. Or, in the case of Northern Ireland with the “Good Friday Agreement” (1998) there was a peace agreement between all interested political parties and combatants in the settlement of the Northern Irish conflict: namely, Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and their political supporters such as Sinn Féin, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and their political adherents, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Ulster Democratic Party, and related parties. Some think with the current status of BREXIT, the “Good Friday Agreement” may be in jeopardy with the return of “hard borders” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Of course, in the Middle East, there is the Palestinian movement in Israel, and among Palestinian refugee populations in Jordan and Lebanon, and the Kurdish movement in Syria, Turkey, and Iraq. And in Southeast Asia, there is the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in Myanmar.

Closer to home, there is the case of Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States with its own “Boricua” independence movement for territorial sovereignty. This has been excellently depicted in Jackie Font-Guzman’s book, Experiencing Puerto Rican Citizenship and Cultural Nationalism(2015).

Moreover, in the last thirty-years, indigenous peoples have become increasingly political and demanding more rights within countries like Brazil as I have previously described in “Brazilian Nationalism and Urban Amerindians: twenty-first century dilemmas for indigenous peoples living in the urban Amazon and beyond” (2015).

In truth, there are so many non-nation-state political movements today seeking sovereign status, it is difficult to keep track of them all.

In my own studies, I have examined how and why the Basques sought independence for so many years from Spain and why there is not one Basque nationalist movement but several competing factions. Most of these non-state political movements have splinter groups and varying opinions about how to achieve independence and national sovereignty. Nationalism in such cases are not one thing but many.

In returning to the NFL incident with Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem, both sides in the disagreement would still regard themselves as being American. This is so, even if one or other view might argue by allowing or by disallowing kneeling during the singing of the national anthem as equivalent to being un-American—exercising the right to protest or demeaning a national symbol. Who is more patriotic? Such conflicting views are similar among ethno-nationalist factions and struggles for independence.

In Spain, and since the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975) tried eradicating provincial identities as those in the Basque and Catalan regions, the country in transition to democracy and its federal constitution allowed for more autonomy among its regional peoples. Both the Basque Country (El País Vasco, or Euskal Herria) and Catalonia (Catalunya), have benefited enormously from considerable autonomy with their own powerful regional parliaments, regional judicial courts, regional police forces, regional taxation, and so on. Whereas the elimination of borders with the creation of the European Union (EU) has been mostly unsuccessful, and in many regards, has emboldened and exacerbated “nationalisms” within Europe as those among the Basques and Catalans.

Even so, Europe has long been aware of the dangers of nationalism. One only need to look historically back to World War I and World War II for reasons to be wary of nationalist ideals, when millions of lives were squandered because of nationalist claims, and the impositions of nationalist fanaticism.

The question of Catalonia is virtually the same one to be asked elsewhere and wherever such ethno-nationalist independence movements arise in the world. It is: what is a legitimate state?

There are those nation-states recognized by the United Nations and there are those political non-state ethno-nationalist movements which do “not” receive the same legitimacy. As Arnoldo Otegi, a prominent leader of EH Bildu(Euskal Herria Bildu, Basque Country Unite), the political separatist-party once favoring “Basque Homeland and Freedom” (ETA) terrorist violence, recently remarked: “The line was that there was not a political problem in Spain, just a criminal one.” And Spain, among other so-called legitimate nation-states, may have good reason for rejecting such ethno-nationalist movements if they use violence for upholding their irredentist values. The Basque ETA was responsible for at least 829 deaths prior to their complete dissolution in 2018. Moreover, the numerous victims of Basque terrorism are still dealing with the trauma and horrors from the Basque conflict. And like the Catalan convicted nine, Otegi among other Basque separatist leaders, was arrested and convicted and served six years in prison (2010-2016) for dissidence and supporting terrorism.

If Texas, or Hawaii, or Alaska, were to try to carve themselves off from the United States we might think like Spain. We might have the federal government take over the seceding state and impose military federal rule just as we had done so following the Civil War during Reconstruction (1865-1876).

Yet, regardless, these non-state political movements are unlikely to go away any time soon. Nationalism or patriotism arouse strong emotions in people. And, for many reasons, nationalism is secular religion, it provides a great sense of “communal awareness” or an “Imagined Community” by which to uphold one’s sense of identity and pride. The modern appeal of nationalism has been ongoing since at least the late nineteenth-century. Again, the questions to be asked are: what is a legitimate state? And who decides? As legitimate nation-states determine the current world order, ethno-nationalist movements will remain non-nation political movements, always yearning for something more.

J. P. Linstroth is a former Fulbright Scholar to Brazil. His recent book, Epochal Reckonings (2020), is the 2019 Winner of the Proverse Prize. He has a PhD (D.Phil.) from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Marching Against Gender Practice: Political Imaginings in the Basqueland (2015) and, most recently, author of Politics and Racism Beyond Nations: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Crises (2022).