We’re All Just Making It up as We go Along

Depending on what news sources you read, a thing that may have occupied your attention of late is Spain’s mini secession crisis. To simplify somewhat, Catalonia wants to hold a referendum in only Catalonia on seceding from Spain, and the Spanish government very much would prefer that they do not. If such a referendum were to be held, independence from Spain for Catalonia would almost certainly be the result. And of course Spain is hardly the only place of late in Europe that has had to confront the issues of referenda, borders, and the demarcation of political and territorial units.

Indeed, all this talk of secession has served, among other things, to drive home the point that we’re all just making this up as we go along. Take the case of Catalonia. The Catalans’ imagined referendum (and indeed the non-binding, demonstrative one that took place on November 9th) would be held in Catalonia, and not the rest of Spain. But this raises all sorts of issues concerning who ought to be able to vote on a decision like secession. Imagine a person born and raised in Madrid, but who moves to Barcelona for a job after university. She might vote in favor of remaining within Spain, but her preference will be trumped by those of pro-independence Catalans. Fair enough, you might say, since that’s kind of the point of direct democracy. But then consider Catalans who now live in say, Galicia, and can’t vote – their preference doesn’t get registered at all. Or, what if you live in Andalucia, but have always conceived of Spain the political unit as encompassing Catalonia, and you visit frequently – what if Spain as, Spain including Catalonia, is deeply important to you? Since the status quo has Catalonia as part of Spain, shouldn’t you as a Spanish citizen get a say in whether or not a large portion of your country disappears?

Obviously people with a stake in the outcome will claim otherwise, but there really aren’t obvious answers to these questions; there isn’t a “from first principles” prima facie right choice. It’s all improvised and contingent, the result of negotiations between competing power centers and interests. Imagine the world as a cartographical blank slate – populated exactly the way it is now but without any of the attendant borders. Then try and decide where to put them, and who gets to participate in votes on those decisions. It’s easy enough establish, I dunno, that China and the United States aren’t the same country; there’s an enormous ocean between us. But go ahead and try and argue on principle for the US-Canada and US-Mexico borders being where they are.

It’s impossible. Once you accept, though, the fact that there have to be borders somewhere, since the entirety of North America would be a bit too unwieldy to govern as a single unit, you’re inherently accepting some level of arbitrariness. You could move the southern edge of Arizona 500 miles north or south and geographically it would be irrelevant. The only reason it would matter now is that it’s been where it is as long as it has. All this emphasizes that there aren’t preexisting polities in the world that inherently deserve their own states or have a right to a political community; that we perceive such things to exist now is the result of the interplay between complex processes of legitimation, self-definition, and political and violent struggle.

Of course, on a daily basis we take almost all of this at face value, no questions asked. That the United States looks the way it does on the map isn’t something most people (I assume) spend a lot of time thinking about over breakfast.* But that the very physical basis of the country (and therefore the people it contains) is a bit arbitrary should give us all a greater appreciation for the fact that none of this is preordained. Any country at any given moment is the result of a dynamic, ongoing project of contestation and negotiation between innumerable forces, groups, and interests, all with their own often incompatible goals. We tend to perceive the results of this project as having a remarkable fixity, but one suspects our domestic politics would improve substantially if we all were a bit more cognizant of the arbitrariness underneath.

*Unless they, like I did, had a placemat as a kid which was a map of the United States