Nationalism and individual sovereignty in the case of Catalonia

This post is archived. Opinions expressed herein may no longer represent my current views. Links, images and other media might not work as intended. Information may be out of date. For further questions contact me.

“Catalonia is not Spain”. Picture credit: Wikipedia

The heated discussions on the possible secession of Catalonia from the Spanish state (officially the Kingdom of Spain) provide an ideal opportunity to elaborate on some of the cardinal themes of political philosophy, jurisprudence and even economics[1]. From my own theoretical vantage ground Catalonian independence, or more fully the opposition of the individuals residing in Catalonia to the dictates of a central government in Madrid whose edicts are predicated on the chimeras and imaginary constructs of national sovereignty and identity, must certainly be considered a step in the right direction, in the realization of ever-greater liberty and autonomy (at least) for the individuals inhabiting the Catalan territory.

In propounding this view I shall not delve into the historical facts, as important as they undoubtedly are, for I consider them irrelevant to my thesis. Instead I shall discuss some issues central to the age of statolatry, in order to draw clear delineations between my stand for greater liberty and the varying right-to-left emanations of nationalism, with the latter term broadly understood as the belief in the precedence of the collective (nation) over the individual combined with a fervent support for the nation-state as the ultimate manifestation of this collective conscience, will, character and interest.

Instead of answering directly to the question whether Catalonia should be independent or not –if that is the appropriate question after all–, I shall mostly develop my own understanding of all closely related concepts so as to avoid any misunderstandings by those not carefully reading the article to its very end. For the impatient I may say that I strongly believe that Catalans are absolutely legitimized in seeking their independence but I have several caveats and classifications to make, so please keep reading if you are interested in a more systematic discourse of the concepts related to this debate and to the reasons why I, a libertarian, hold such a position which appears to overlap with nationalist demands.

The age of Statolatry

The modern era, roughly from the Enlightenment onwards, may be characterized as the epoch of statolatry given that the central principle or presumption upon which all modern politics are established is that of the existence of nations qua ontological entities which themselves hold rights to self-determination, sovereignty, national borders, the monopoly over the legal use of force and coercion (e.g. taxation, conscription, international treaties, fiat money etc.) and all other features typical of –or implicit in– the existence of a (nation-)state.

The age of statolatry can trace its roots back to the Peace Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 which introduced the conscience of state as sovereign in its own accord. By ‘sovereign’ it was understood that the state led by a monarch or occasionally by an oligarchy, whose power allegedly stemmed from a divine command, had the authority to hold supreme power and exercise absolute control over its subjects, within the territory it defined as its own (what later become ‘national borders’ with ‘us’ being the good guys and ‘them’ being the evil ones). Such doctrines were championed by several prominent philosophers, thinkers and states people throughout the history of thought, with one of them being Hegel, the guru and cheerleader of statolatry and the intellectual musketeer of the authoritarian, militarist Prussian state, who saw in the state qua state the incarnation of morality and divinity[2].

With the rise of modern representative democracy the scope and degree of such sovereignty, or more accurately the arbitrariness of the ruler(s), was diminished substantially by the separation of state powers and the prevalence of law subject to the vigilance of democratic scrutiny. Representative democracy was without any doubt a glorious step towards the emancipation of the individual from the erratic desires and passions of her ruler(s), which thanks to false interpretations, outright lies and naked usurpations always bore the rubber stamp of ‘divine’ authority furnished upon them with the eulogies of clergymen, theologians and ‘secular’ or ‘technocratic’ statolatrists.

As decisive as the transition to representative democracy has been, it would nonetheless be a pernicious illusion to assume that representative democracy went as far as it should in abolishing the Ancien Régime. In fact the opposite claim may contain a greater deal of truth, as modern democracy effectively absorbed many of the doctrines that were used by the aristocratic despots, certainly not unquestionably but by making timid changes in the forms wherever necessary, so that internal contradictions would not be obvious to the uninformed minds and the inattentive observers. The accumulated experience of the old world order and especially the metaphysical super- or sub-structure that supported it, proved to be quite a cozy environment for the early democrats and a rather powerful tool in repositioning the locus of authority and the means through which control over the society of individuals would be exercised.

In as far as sovereignty is concerned, it is evident that the modern order is nothing but a reformed version of the older era, since the core principle of the Westphalian state, that of state sovereignty was not brought under closer examination and was thus never really refuted. It is of my view to encapsulate this insight in the understanding that “our” states are fundamentally still clinging on to the dubious dogma of sovereignty/power springing from a largely incomprehensible supreme being, which was known as ‘God’ in the ancient and medieval times and has simply but straightforwardly been renamed as nation or fatherland (terra patria) in our ‘secular’ times.

This is in my opinion true, as I shall also discuss below, despite numerous litanies to the contrary which make judicious reference to the concept of popular sovereignty, for that too is, once examined, the product of an imaginary construct deriving from the belief in the existence of an ontological collective conscience –the nation– as separate from the individuals, which itself has, inter alia, an interest and a will.

What actually happened in the evolution of things and the transition from the late-medieval feudal and authoritarian order to the modern capitalist, nationalist and democratic system, was that sovereignty was transferred to the parliament which was/is the only institution that is purported to bring together the fiction of the national will, the volksgeist.

Declaration of the Rights of Man
and of the Citizen (1789).
Picture credit: Wikipedia

Indeed according to Article 3 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), which has been praised by many theorists as the apotheosis of liberty, we get the following unfortunate metaphysical proposition which essentially plagues political thought till this day:

The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.

In observing this statement which is still considered as near-sacrosanct by almost all politicians, lawyers and technocratic planners of our age, at least in the democratic world; a Cynic like myself is compelled to set in motion a train of thought that will ask a number of perhaps uneasy questions in an effort to expose the impossibility of these claims and the scurrilous metaphysics underpinning them:

  1. If the principle of all sovereignty resides in the nation, what is this exalted ‘being’ called nation which is given the supreme right to hold precedence over all citizens within a given territory?
  2. If the nation is nothing more than the aggregation of all individual nationals then how can it possibly be said, without contradicting oneself, that the nation as such is the ultimate source of all sovereignty?
  3. But if the nation is the aggregation of individual nationals then it ought to be inferred that sovereignty effectively is a purely individualistic concept, made manifest in the fact that all individuals are the masters of their own body; which then refutes the very reference to an exterior entity being supreme to the individual(s). Hence whence does this sovereignty stem from and why is it the nation as such the ultimate subject and the unquestionable source of all legality?
  4. If a body of individual has no right to do anything which supposedly is not directed by the nation, then one must ask by what means, or through which agents, will this phantom termed nation will reveal its will and dictate its commands?
  5. If all sovereignty rests in the nation as such and if the constitution, the state and all secondary legislation are the products of this supreme being, it is understood that the only agents of the nation qua nation, are those individuals named government or state officials, or “majority” who being individuals may only interpret in accordance to their own set of beliefs and prejudices, what this mystical will of the nation may be. Therefore isn’t this flummery of national sovereignty nothing more than a thin veneer of quasi-divine legitimacy to the acts of the state apparatus, which is purported to be the physical embodiment of the nation (as nation-state)?
  6. And if the state is the physical manifestation of the national will, then it must be deduced that either state and nation are the same entity or that one of the two is distinct from and perhaps superior to the other. If they are the same entity then the concept of national sovereignty is nothing but fraudulent as it can never be properly said that the state represents or is identified with all the nationals. If on the other hand the state is distinct from the nation then stateless nations may or do exist, which once again refutes the idea of the state being the incarnation of the nation; yet if the concept of a stateless nation is accepted, then it is understood that the state is not the conduit for the transmission of the nation’s directions, bringing us back to the question of who or what is going to tell us what the nation “wants” and who or what that nation “is”?
  7. With all of the above in mind, one may be tempted to substitute the word ‘nation’ for that of ‘God’ to derive at the following compelling dictum: “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in God. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from God.” As the inferences to be drawn from the above lemmas, syllogisms and questions wish to illustrate, the concept of ‘nation’ is essentially a metaphysical postulate identical to the one which provided legitimacy to medieval despots. Hence what is the real difference between the mystics, oracles, seers and clergymen of ages past who justified policies in the name of God’s will from our modern statespeople who profess to know the ‘national interest’, the ‘social good’ and other such imaginary notions and who derive their authority by the application and interpretation of an otherwise groundless and utterly ludicrous doctrine of state sovereignty?

In defense of the position I am subjecting to criticism, one may suggest that a rebranded version of this kind of constitutionalism, or of positive morality, as the legal theorist John Austin (1790–1859) would put it, can be identified in the Charter of the United Nations, given that the 1789 Declaration is no longer valid for the needs of the 21th century. Article 2 of the UN Charter states:

[The Purposes of the United Nations are:] 2. To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;

While superficially different from the secular metaphysics of the French revolution, the article in the charter of the United Nations does not escape being a pile of absurdities and contradictions spawned from –and vindicating– the statolatric, nationalist doctrine which grants sovereignty to the nations as such. If peoples have the right to self-determination, through which canals will they make this manifest and real? Should it necessarily be carried out via some sort of a nation-state as is always the case hitherto? If yes then it is not peoples who have the right to self-determination, but states in the name of peoples, which understandably is a far cry from what the article purports to authorize or refer to, as it essentially centers the state as the subject, even though the state per se is a human institution, i.e. an artificial construct.

Ultimately what is this “people” meant to be? Should they have certain common cultural or ethnic characteristics or may they be a heterogeneous mass of individuals? Moreover can individuals within a purely homogeneous people claim this right to self-determination or are they not ‘people’?

If ‘people’ should necessarily have certain common cultural or ethnic or other characteristics to be recognized as such so that they may enjoy the right which the UN Charter states; then this doctrine is in effect nothing more than the delicate recrudescence of nationalism and identity building, as it requires the prior existence of an ethnos broadly understood to stand as the external, ‘objective’ proof of the validity of any claim for self-determination. If that were the case then the argument ought to be considered specious, since as was previously discussed it is profoundly antinomic in its political ramifications, for it is propounded on the tacit existence of a fictitious construct of ‘nationality’ which is the modern, secular way of saying ‘God’, while sounding ‘scientific’.

If on the other hand the term ‘people’ may encompass individuals regardless of cultural or ethnic or any other ties, then where lies the distinction between ‘people’ and ‘individuals’? Understandably any interpretation of either the letter or the spirit of the law may result in arbitrary dividing lines, which will always obfuscate the practical fact that sovereignty and self-determination, among others, are always and everywhere only individual realizations which can never be properly attributed to any collective imaginary be it ‘nation’ or ‘people’ or ‘state’ etc., unless force combined with obscurantist state apologetics are set in place.

For the article in the UN Charter to have any real meaning without being self-contradictory and without impregnating yet more squabbling nation-states; it should make explicit reference to the right of every single individual to self-determination and her capacity to conscientiously object the state per se.

With these prolegomena to the libertarian perspective of nationalism in place, I may proceed to answer the question whether Catalans have the right to secede from the Spanish state, given that any such claim is branded ‘nationalist’, which as has been noted above is fundamentally antithetical to the libertarian worldview. The libertarian[3] rejects any statement or belief, be it public, legal or even apocryphal, which provides a moral, legal or scientific patina of individuality to entities that are either holistic and by definition non-individual and who are a fortiriori necessarily imaginary and therefore metaphysical in their capacity as agents of individual attributes.

In a nutshell the libertarian rejects as spurious, mendacious and immaterial such concepts as national sovereignty, state supremacy etc. whenever there is a tacit claim in their capacity as ontological entities and not as mere metaphors and human institutions (artificial constructs). For the libertarian, sovereignty is always a matter of the individual; the society is the collection of individuals and the polity setting the rules of this society is the environment where individuals interact with one another in their capacity as sovereign beings; while the economy, the agora, is the sphere of voluntary exchanges between these sovereign individuals. In political, not cosmological terms, there is no entity above the individuals whose power is superior to them, unless we resort to theology or its modern equivalent –holisticist palaver– which will eventually open a broad sluice gate for the interpretation of all phenomena by the unbridled organon of ‘scientific’ metaphysics[4].

Catalans have the right to secede from the Spanish state

Taking all of the above into account an unequivocal answer to the question of Catalan independence must be offered. In my understanding as has been documented in this article (and in previous posts on related issues) any number of Catalans willing to secede from the Spanish state have the right to do so immediately, even in the absence of a law be it national or international, envisaging such a right. Therefore the claim for Catalonian independence is just in as far as the right to reject the Spanish state is concerned.

However it must be pointed out that this principle of primitive, primordial or ‘natural’ legality is not found on the principle that ‘Catalans’ constitute a people or a nation (even though they probably do), which in our times is the prerequisite to any struggle for independence and autonomy (meaning self-rule – for much more see Cornelius Castoriades, The Imaginary Institution of Society). In contrast it is predicated on the principle of individual sovereignty which implies the right to secede from the state –any state– at any point in time and to institute a political order which will better meet the need for greater liberty.

As such while fully in favor of the independence of Catalonia, I am also suggesting that individuals residing in Catalonia also have the right to secede even from an independent Catalan state, if they may find it appropriate to do so, whether they are considered as a separate ‘people’ or not. In other words I am proposing that it is not Catalonia as such, which ‘itself’ has the right to declare independence and cut its ties from another state –the Spanish state–; but rather it is individuals now branding themselves as the majority of the Catalans who are exercising their individual sovereignty to conscientiously object the Spanish state.

What is implied in this clarification, is that in the future world where a Catalan nation-state will have been erected, or even in a purely theoretical context, individuals, including ‘Catalans’ (‘nationals’) will always have the right to object their state and declare their own independence in whatever form they find it most appropriate. Understandably this differs from nationalism in that it does not consider ‘Catalonia’ as a nation qua ontological entity, which itself has a right to be self-determined as against the Spanish state. ‘Catalonia’ as such can never exist (and the same applies for all other nations of course) – only Catalans, only individuals, exist and only they may make use of their sovereignty to oppose a metaphysical state.

And at this point in time, the majority of Catalans are just in their demands, just as any individual is rightful in conscientiously objecting the state per se.


1. In referring to sovereignty being a central theme of economics I am not attempting to introduce yet another field for specialized studies in this age of over-specialization. By this note I am attempting to outline the core fallacies of the world-view of modern society, which eventually feed into the social sciences. What I consider as a tissue of absurdities in the holisticism underpinning the nationalist doctrine, I identify it for instance in the artificial dichotomization of the micro from the macro sphere, with the two worlds supposedly being hermetically shut from one another and with each one of them possessing its own rules, regularities and unique features. This profoundly erroneous perception, which is inherent in the Smithian, Ricardian, Keynesian, Neoclassical and Monetarist schools among others; is I believe an indication that economics has to a large extent failed to get out of the slough of fallacies constituting the early moralistic and metaphysical systems of thought. As such the ideas permeating this article can be seen as the theoretical backstop to a genuinely subjectivist methodology in economics, without which it is impossible to oppose root and branch the pile of illusions, fictions and figments peddled by mainstream economics.

2. While the influence of Hegel in the history of thought can be considered talismanic, it would be an egregious misunderstanding to attribute to his works, the tendency of intellectuals to venerate the state as a morph of some greater value they uphold, be it morality, justice, nationality, ‘the proletariat’ etc. It is of my opinion to see in Hegel a philosophical element which I term holisticism, understood as the tendency of human to treat holistic aggregates as if they could assert properties which may only be observable, realizable and possible as purely individualistic experiences. Within the broader tradition of holisticism one could include all doctrines expounding on the merits of the community or the ‘macro’ sphere, however defined, over the individual, ranging from religions, to atheistic worldviews such as communism and traced even in the works of some libertarians such as Cornelius Castoriades (in his magnum opus “The Imaginary Institution of Society”) who saw in ‘society’ features and powers which may only be properly appreciated as trappings of the imaginary rather than an excruciating and precise formulation of subjectivist themes, which see in the individual the starting and ending point for all inquiry into the world (in saying so I am not willing to suggest that Castoriades’ contributions are not worth praise and study, but to point out what I consider an unfortunate inconsistency).

3. In adhering to libertarianism I am not assuming that there is a coherent and universally accepted system of thought that any one may make judicious reference to in an attempt to vindicate one’s claims. In fact there are several strands within the broader libertarian tradition. Nevertheless it is the opinion of the present author to consider such labels as e.g. “right-libertarian” or “left-libertarian” as doctrinal, often superfluous or even sectarian in that they emphasize and categorize differences which are often related to interpretations of the very same principles, rather than disputes over the premises themselves. Academically these divisions ought to be traced and examined in conceptual separation, always with the tacit understanding that they constitute parts of a broader apparatus of thought. But such a task should not lose sight of the greater picture which brings libertarians of all stripes together in the common struggle for the abolition of control of human by human.

4. To avoid any misunderstandings, my scathing critique of quasi-religious doctrines in the field of political life, broadly understood, should not be interpreted as a necessarily atheistic preposition. Being an agnostic I may only suggest that my means of proving or disproving the existence of God(s) are inadequate, which however implies that no individual or group of individuals branding their selves as interpreters or representatives of divinity in whatever sort that may be, have the right to instruct society as per their arbitrary and profoundly subjective evaluations. All that can be said, at least from my own Cynical standpoint, is that religion is a purely subjective concept intended to morally educate the individual and must therefore only be contained in that sphere for once it escapes from it, in order to provide general rules to society it loses its meaning as it becomes a tool in the hands of oligarchs to shape the society of individuals in accordance with their own schemes. As such I do not reject religion per se, but I strongly oppose religious doctrine becoming part of politics as a weapon in the panoply of authority.</div>