The Good Fight

History Returns in Catalonia

The weekend’s scenes in Barcelona send a troubling message about the future of liberal democracy.

Spanish police officers drag a man as they try to disperse voters arriving to a polling station in Barcelona on Sunday.

Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images

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The day after Donald Trump vowed to keep people “in suspense” whether he would accept the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, one simple question was enough to stop me in my tracks: “So how likely do you think it is that we’ll have a civil war sometime in the next, say, 10 years?” my friend Lee, who is not usually prone to dramatic prognostications of doom, asked me.

For months, I had been the most pessimistic person in the room, warning about the rise of populism and the real possibility that Trump might somehow get elected. More often than not, the people I spoke to stared at me incredulously, then put on a forced smile. Now it was my turn to look incredulous.

“Civil war? What do you mean, civil war?” I asked him.

“Well,” Lee said, “let’s say about 1,000 political deaths a year, for two or three years running. Would you say it’s 20 percent? Or more like 10?”

The possibility had honestly never occurred to me. Civil war? In the United States? In the 21st century? It seemed absurd.

But as I began to think about it, I realized that the prospect of widespread political violence was probably a little less absurd than I had assumed. Trump’s ascent was proving just how divided the country was. A major party nominee was calling the legitimacy of the election in doubt. Was it so hard to believe that he would be willing to incite his supporters to rebel against the new president if he lost?

As it turned out, we never got a chance to find out. But the nagging questions remain: What exactly would have happened if he had lost and had applied all his shamelessness to undermining a peaceful transition of power? What, for that matter, will happen if he loses re-election in 2020?

All of these questions are fresh on my mind on Monday because real political violence has just broken out in another part of the world where virtually nobody anticipated it: Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, and one of the most beautiful and affluent cities in Europe. How, I have been asking myself, could minor political tensions turn into a major political crisis quite so quickly?

The situation in Catalonia—a semi-autonomous region in the northeast of Spain that features its own culture and language and has long harbored ambitions for full independence—could only have devolved so quickly because all sides have been phenomenally irresponsible. This is undoubtedly true of Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia’s current leader. Puigdemont heads up a government that was elected by a minority of the population and is composed of a fractious coalition between conservative and far-left parties. The only thing holding the government together is a desire to secede from Spain at any cost. So it has cynically contrived a political crisis that, it hopes, will hasten Catalonia’s independence.

Polls show both that a majority of Catalans want a free vote on independence and that a majority of Catalans would likely vote to stay part of Spain in a real referendum. But instead of building a clear parliamentary majority in favor of a referendum and debating the region’s future with some modicum of civility, Puigdemont has violated every democratic norm and procedure over the past weeks.

The government rushed the necessary legislation for the referendum through the Catalan Parliament without giving deputies adequate time to discuss it. It passed the legislation in a late-night session even though the opposition was absent. It vowed to secede from Spain even if a majority of the population stayed away from the polls. And, taking a page from Trump’s playbook, it has been smearing everybody from opponents of secession to judges doing their jobs as enemies of the people. Far from democratic, the referendum planned by Puigdemont was nothing more than an authoritarian plebiscite in which the result was foreordained long before election day.

Considering these circumstances, the Spanish government had every right to deny both the legality and the legitimacy of the referendum. If Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had called upon Catalans to stay away from this false show of democracy while keeping the door open to a truly free vote in the foreseeable future, he may well have been able to defuse the crisis—and to save Spain’s territorial integrity.

Instead, Rajoy chose a path that is even more cynical and irresponsible than Puigdemont’s. Not content with disputing that the referendum’s results would be politically meaningful, he was determined to stop voting from happening at all. So he called out the riot police and instructed them to quash the referendum by any means necessary.

Anybody who has opened a newspaper or looked at Twitter over the past day will have seen the result. The Spanish police used totally disproportionate force to storm polling stations and confiscate ballots. Even when there was no apparent purpose, it roughed up protesters and fired rubber bullets. Hundreds of ordinary citizens—from young boys to old ladies—were injured as they tried to cast their votes. If Rajoy was intent on demonstrating that he held aspirations of Catalan independence in disdain and was willing to risk large-scale political violence to quash it, his message was received loud and clear.

It is far too early to predict what the future may hold in store for Catalonia. It is certainly possible that Rajoy and Puigdemont will find a way to diffuse the crisis in the coming days. And as the New York Times’ Max Fisher has argued on Twitter, it would be premature to assume that the independence movement would turn to violence or terrorism in the absence of such an agreement. There is a very large difference between hundreds of injured protesters and hundreds of killed protesters. Even by Lee’s broad definition, civil war in Spain remains very unlikely today.

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Yet it seems quite likely that things will continue to escalate. On Sunday night, Rajoy once again took a hardline position, refusing to apologize for the actions of the police or to offer a real dialogue with the Catalan government. Puigdemont responded in kind, claiming that the “citizens of Catalonia have earned the right to have an independent state” and implying that he will issue a unilateral declaration of independence in the coming days. If Puigdemont follows through on his threat and Rajoy sends in the army to bring the region under control, it is difficult to see how even greater bloodshed could be avoided.

The willingness of both sides to risk throwing a stable, affluent region of the world into chaos and civic strife is all the more remarkable given that the stakes are ultimately so low. Spain would survive even if Catalonia went its own way. By the same token, the citizens of Catalonia have hardly been living under a brutal dictatorship that violates their rights, refuses them the freedom to worship their own gods, or condemns them to lives of poverty. Even in the most fortunate regions of the world, it seems, the veneer of civilization could easily go up in flames—and the past years have increased everybody’s willingness to play with kindling.

A quarter-century ago, Francis Fukuyama famously predicted that liberal democracy would bring about the “end of history.” By fulfilling most citizens’ desire for recognition and meeting their material desires, he predicted, our political system would be able to win near-universal adherence.

One reason why this prediction now looks mistaken has to do with identity and economics. As the rise of identity politics has made clear over the past years, many people do not feel that liberal democracy has adequately met their desire for recognition. And as the deep discontent with stagnating living standards shows, many people do not feel at all confident that liberal democracy will be able to meet their material desires in an uncertain economic future. If the end of history signifies a perpetuation of the status quo, a lot of people have good reason to rebel against it.

To Fukuyama’s credit, he himself anticipated that. In the last paragraph of his book, he warns:

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period, there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. … Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.

I, too, share this ambivalence about the posthistorical age. Just as it is boring to live at a time when politics is reduced to economic calculation and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands, so too it is exhilarating to live at a time when you get to fight for a grand ideal. What could be more meaningful than to defend the integrity of Spain or fight for the birth of the Catalan nation—or indeed to cheerlead the Trump revolution or resist his attacks on liberal democracy?

Indeed, though all of the political writers I know are genuinely appalled by Trump, I can’t help but notice that most of us have enjoyed our renewed sense of purpose. As I myself know full well, writing a blistering attack on a terrible president and his immoral misdeeds feels a lot more meaningful than writing an even-handed op-ed about a well-meaning president and his midsize failures. Yet anybody who takes the harrowing pictures of violence in the streets of Barcelona to heart should resist this nostalgia for history’s more dramatic moments and the bloody thrills they offer.

Countries that still feel posthistorical must do their best to resolve simmering conflicts by boring, peaceful means. But what about countries—like the United States—in which populists who are hellbent on getting history started again have already taken power?

So long as the threat posed by Trump and leaders like him around the world persists, there is nothing wrong with savoring the fact that doing the right thing now calls for “daring, courage, imagination, and idealism.” But lest we betray the noble ideals we purport to defend—and risk becoming complicit in needless cruelty and suffering ourselves—we better be careful not to get too drunk on that feeling: Let us never forget that our ultimate goal must be to return to the times when large-scale political violence close to home seemed unimaginable, and our lives were a little more drab.