Catalonia and the United States: Two Lockean Revolutions 240 years apart

21 abril 2015 per Oriol Vidal-Aparicio.

(The following is a slightly modified version of the presentation I gave at Georgetown University (Washington, DC) on April 16, 2015, as part of a conference entitled “The Case of the Catalans, 300 Years On”, which sought to explain the ongoing independence process in Catalonia to an American audience. / Aquesta és una versió lleugerament modificada de la presentació que vaig fer a Georgetown University (Washington, DC) el 16 d’abril del 2015, part d’una jornada acadèmica que, sota el títol “The Case of the Catalans, 300 Years On”, es proposava explicar al públic nord-americà l’actual procés d’independència a Catalunya.)

The United States declared independence by primarily invoking the political philosophy of John Locke, especially the idea that governments are legitimate only insofar as they fulfill the purpose for which they were established by the governed. Almost 240 years later, the process that is underway in Catalonia announces a new era where independence movements will go back to using Lockean political principles, after a 20th century when the general trend was instead to justify independence processes putting an emphasis on the classical principles of nationalism, primarily based on identity and cultural homogeneity.

To simplify, historically independence movements have availed themselves of two types of arguments:

  1. What we could call Lockean arguments: the notion that every political community is entitled to good government, and if a government fails to perform the functions for which it was set up in a specific territory, it ceases to be legitimate and the people there have a right to secede and set up a separate government. This was precisely the American approach in 1776. The big question to answer in this type of justification for independence is, “From a governance point of view, does independence make sense?” It’s no surprise that the most influential pro-independence pamphlet published during the American Revolution was entitled precisely Common Sense. It made sense to declare independence; it made sense for the 13 colonies to govern themselves.
  2. Another way to argue in favor of independence is the classic nationalist idea that all peoples, all nations, have a right to their own sovereign state, even regardless of governmental efficiency, regardless of whether independence would arguably bring better governance to the people pursuing it. The big question to answer in this type of justification for independence is, “Are we a separate people? Are we a nation?” This was the prevalent approach of many of the national revival movements that pervaded Europe in the 20th century, or the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and this was also the rationale behind many cases in the big wave of decolonization that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s after the creation of the United Nations.

Read the rest of the article here. We recommend it.

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