Mind you, it’s hard to imagine a less helpful response than Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s chosen option, arrogantly removing popular regional leaders and imposing direct rule. This is just the sort of overreaction that’s sure to undermine Catalonian’s sense of Spanish nationalism.
But maybe this is bigger than we think. As we fully embrace the post-industrial economy, perhaps we’re entering a new political era as well. Could it be that we’re witnessing the end of the nation state with a radical restructuring of world politics along regional lines?
Although it’s a scary thought, there’s something to be said for smaller, more closely-knit political entities where regional differences can be positively celebrated.
Nation states are rather forced collections of peoples; most have bundled differing cultures, religions and language groups into unnatural union.
You don’t have to scratch very deep in Britain, for example, to find deep resentments among the Scots or even English northerners, whose regional interests are consistently sacrificed to Westminster’s London bias.
And the United States, often cited as the country with the strongest sense of pure nationalism, was forged in a violent Civil War. And that war still simmers beneath the surface, breeding deep resentment, particularly in the south.
In Spain, a strong case can be made that Catalonia is a more legitimate nation with a longer history than Spain itself. Catalonia predates modern Spain by many centuries, having been relatively autonomous since the days of the Roman Empire.
Nationalists would counter with legitimate concerns about the maintenance of order and global stability. Should national boundaries start to be redrawn, the world could easily be pulled into violence and war, as has happened so often in the past.
Successful micro states would clearly depend upon the simultaneous establishment of an overriding but highly decentralized federal structure – not unlike the European Union as it was originally conceived.
How would Scotland, for instance, fit into such a federal structure? Would an independent Scotland remain British? If so, what powers would the newly sovereign Scotland have at its disposal? It’s possible that, carried to its logical conclusion, parliament in London would simply fade into obscurity, a lost relic of a forgotten era.
Of course, loose decentralized federations don’t have a strong track record. The United States functioned as a loose federation of states for a few years after the Revolutionary War, but eventually succumbed to constitutional necessity.
Despite these reservations, there’s much to be said for devolving sovereignty onto identifiable sociological nations like Quebec, Catalan, Bavaria and other collectives. In North American, there are several natural groupings that fit the bill, including the Dixie south, New England, California and a surprisingly robust underground movement promoting Cascadia (which calls for an independent state to be formed from Oregon, Washington State, Montana, Idaho, British Columbia and Alberta).
The right to self-determination is important, so important it’s embedded in the founding charter of the United Nations. Many of today’s most troubling problems are associated with a loss of local autonomy. The desire to live in groupings that share core values is real, and often frustrated by the need at the national level to fit different cultures and values into one national constituency.
Of course, establishing smaller states is no panacea. It’s likely that border and trade conflicts would erupt immediately. And the free movement of people and goods requires close integration of government systems and degrees of co-operation that are sorely lacking in the modern world.
The nation state rose to prominence with economic industrialization, and as industrialism declines its relevance is clearly waning. Overwhelmingly powerful forces are driving regional politics. And there’s a deep and growing frustration with the nationalist status quo.
Smaller political entities might make sense, particularly if structured properly.
But society would have to commit strongly to the principle that political stability requires a new and more locally relevant form of cultural legitimacy.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.