Is there a democratic case for Catalan independence? My analysis in El Pais, Madrid.
There is without doubt a strong movement within Catalonia for secession from Spain. Regional leaders, now Carles Puigdemont and before him Artur Mas, have claimed that they have a democratic mandate from recent elections and now the disrupted referendum.
But do they? What is the democratic argument in the matter?
Whether or not there is an electoral majority in Catalonia for secession is not clear. If there is, it is at best a small majority, with a large minority remaining in favour of Catalonia staying within Spain. Is a small majority, if there is one, enough for a democratic mandate for so large a move?
Two main rules of democracy are:
- in the end, the majority decides,
- in so doing, the majority has a duty to respect the interests of relevant minorities.
Democratically, the question of whether Catalonia remains a part of Spain or leaves the union is to be settled by a majority. But which majority?
People who live in Catalonia have an interest in the matter. But so do the people who live in the rest of Spain. If Catalonia were to secede, the remaining Spain would be a different country. The relevant constituency in the matter, then, is all Spanish people. Even a majority in Catalonia is a minority in Spain and can have no democratic right to change all of Spain. This principle was recognised, for example, in the 2014 Scottish referendum on independence. The right to hold that referendum was constitutionally given to Scotland by the British Parliament (in what is known as an ‘order in council’) after negotiations between the British government and the regional Scottish one.
Catalonian pro-secession leaders may be right that they have a democratic mandate of sorts. But if so, the mandate is only to seek secession. There is no democratic mandate for people in Catalonia on their own to decide on an important matter that effects all of Spain. For a Catalonian referendum, for example, to be democratically valid, the rest of Spain, as in the British case, must, at the least, have conceded to Catalonia the right to hold a referendum and agreed to abide by its majority.
How strong, then, is the mandate? Since there is (at least) a large minority within Catalonia against secession, the mandate for secession must be said to be a weak one. The minority has a right to have its interests respected. The question of independence is one of great principle. A small majority in a population hardly has a right to simply impose its will on a large minority in an important matter. The mandate to seek secession, if there is one, must contain a duty to persuade the doubters. Before Catalonian leaders could argue the case for secession with force in front of the rest of the Spanish population, they would need to show that they have at last a solid majority in their own population behind them.
The strength of the mandate is influenced, further, by the reasons that are given in favour of secession. In a founding text, the American Declaration of Independence, it is stated ‘that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes’ and that the ‘Right to throw off such Government’ arises only as a result of ‘Abuses and Usurpations [and] a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism.’
The Spanish union is long established. The government is democratic and no group or province within Spain is under despotism. From the Catalonian side, it does not seem that strong arguments are given for secession, and certainly nothing of the kind suggested in the American declaration. It seems mainly to be a case of resentment. It is said within Catalonia that the relatively wealthy province is being forced to subsidise poorer areas in the country. But that kind of redistribution is standard in a well-governed country and obviously nothing like despotism.
However, the Catalonian leaders may still have a democratic mandate to seek independence. They therefore represent a minority within Spain with a valid interest in a vital matter. The rest of Spain therefore has a duty to respect the interests of that minority. One way to do that might be to negotiate with Catalonia for a different constitutional settlement.
But, again, if such negotiations were to result in proposals for a radical centre-provincial realignment, the democratically relevant constituency for ratifying the realignment would be the entire Spanish population, for example as represented in the national assembly, the Cortes.
“Participatory democracy” is a bit of a misnomer. Democracy is by definition participatory: citizens vote and engage in the making of public opinion into a political force. On this level, the role of citizens is to make demands on the governance that is in the hands of representatives and officials.
But there is now a view that this is not enough of a role for citizens if democracy is to be vibrant and responsive. There is a demand not just for different policies but for a different way of doing politics.
A first response is to improve the channels for citizens to provide political input. Much can be done here, for example with techniques such as deliberative opinion polling. That is important, but still limited: citizens are allowed opinions, but the doing is by “those up there.” Can citizens participate directly in the doing?
They already are. People do voluntary work in the provision of services and make financial contributions to charities that do good works. Governments support this with tax exemptions for charitable givings. This is a form of participatory provision of public goods. More could be done by building on this experience.
Here is a proposal: Governments step up their contributions from tax exemptions to obliging themselves to match the contributions of citizen. Whatever citizens provide, either in money or labour, would generate an equivalent provision from the government. That would be a huge stimulus to citizens to engage in good works.
It would also represent a shift in decision-making. The deciding on what to do would be in the hands of citizens. They would have contributory support from the government but the doing would be theirs. We would then have a model in which citizens are in charge of deciding and doing, with the government in the more limited role of facilitator.
Say, as an example, a group of parents think the local school should offer pupils more physical education. They raise half the money to employ a teacher for the purpose, knowing that the government is obliged to match their contribution. The parents have decided what service should be offered and are able to get it done.
You might argue that it is the government’s responsibility to provide services. Well and good, but if you insist that all the doing must be the responsibility of the government, you are also saying that your own role can be no more than to put pressure on the government. If the starting point of this argument is that the participation available to citizens is too limited, why not welcome the opportunity to take charge directly in the deciding on what should be done? Why not welcome a participation that comes with both power and responsibility?
In the example given, there is a lot in it for citizens, in this case the group of parents. They get a teacher job established by raising only half of the money needed. For every £1 they provide, £2 go to the school. They get to decide what teacher job should be established – they have the power. They get involvement with the local school. They get an opportunity to shift a bit of their family spending from yet more consumption trinkets to socially useful doings under their own control.
There is also much in it for the government. As a result of its facilitation, it sees a useful service being provided. It has let citizens decide which service and helps realise something citizens want. It is cheap for the public purse. Not only have citizens raised half the money needed, much of the additional money the government puts in, it gets back. The money goes into a salary on which the school pays social insurance contributions and the new teacher pays income taxes. The teacher spends the remaining income, generating VAT revenue back to the public purse. That spending in the next round stimulates further economic activity, which generates further public revenue.
Step up a notch and imagine thousands and thousands of such initiatives throughout the land. You then have a democratic structure of social justice: doings are in response to needs identified by citizens and under their authority. Citizens massively decide on the provision of public goods, in a decentralised pattern. Ordinary people here, there and everywhere make decisions. They take power and accept responsibility. The government facilitates and supports their doing. Much of that doing will be in the form of job creation. You therefore have a structure that creates jobs, and by and large good jobs. And an efficient structure free from stifling bureaucracy.
In the aggregate, there is again much in it for the government as well. It offers a way out of the blight of public poverty within private wealth. Things get done which the government itself could not do. When the government is the doer, all doing needs to be funded from taxes. But the raising of new taxes for additional doings is now very difficult. By and large, tax revenues are committed to existing doings, and by and large tax extraction has reached its limit within the constraints of global capitalism. Cynically, the arrangement I am suggesting is a way to get people to pay voluntarily what they would not be willing to pay in taxes.
I have had in mind a country like Britain, which is relatively poor in the provision of public goods and in which tax extraction has (pretty much) reached its social limit, but which is rich in what might broadly be called public provision institutions. That includes, for example, institutions like the National Trust or English Heritage and many similar ones, many local, schools and universities, and a vast network of charities. These are institutions rearing to do more work in their respective fields. Along with a strong tradition of voluntary and charitable participation, they represent an underused national capital. With more stimulus, it would be meaningful for citizens to get together and create their own institutions, small or larger, to work for causes of their interest.
Obviously, there would have to be a regulatory regime for which private provisions would trigger an equivalent government provision and which institutions are eligible partners. Obviously, there would have to be oversight to avoid exploitation and corruption. Not easy, the devil is in the detail, but doable.
My argument is that with strong government encouragement in the form of a 100% matching commitment, a second level of public provision, grounded in citizenship participation, would be possible. On the first level, citizens pay taxes and the government provides services. This, roughly, is the “welfare state.” On the second level, citizens take in hand service provision and are able to do that thanks to government facilitation. This we might call the “participation state.”
The classical theory of representative democracy is that citizens elect representatives who then do the governing until it is time for the citizens again in the next election. That puts power in the hands of the people but gives them no other role in governance than to vote.
This theory has much to it, but has been overtaken by history. The age of deference has passed. There is now an expectation that democracy will be participatory.
But what does that mean? While the classical theory of representative democracy is clean and straight, we have no theory of similar clarity for participatory democracy. Enthusiasts sometimes speak of it as the more participation, or activism, in whatever form, the better and the more democratic. But that is superficial. We have some serious thinking to do about participatory democracy in practice.
In representative democracy, the executive listens to divergent opinions in the legislature and shapes public policy accordingly. In a participatory democracy, one might think, the public is brought into the process directly and continuously. Policy then results not only from the exchange between executive and legislature, but between executive, legislature and the public.
That’s well and good but does not take us very far towards a different kind of democracy. First, representative democracy has never functioned the way the classical model has it: the public is already involved. Second, it does not give the public any other role than to exercise pressure on those who make decisions, which is not much by way of participation. Third, it leaves aside a big problem of unfairness, the interests of those who do not engage, who do not march, who do not demonstrate, who do not write newspaper opinions, who do not have think-tanks working for them. And fourth, there is a cost to incessant participation in decision-making in the form less efficient governance.
A different line might be to think of participation not only in exercising pressure on decision-making, but also in public management. The classical model here is again one that gives the public only limited roles. The government taxes the people to fund public services that are delivered back to the people. The role of the public is to pay taxes and consume services, all managed by the government.
I suggest we think of participatory democracy as involvement by citizens not only around the making of decisions but also in their implementation into practical management.
Here is one way that could be done: Services, broadly understood, are brought to recipients by agencies of various kinds. These may be public or semi-public agencies, say, thinking of Britain, the National Trust, the Environment Agency, the universities. Or they may be private, such as charities of various kind. Such agencies are engaged in works to improve social quality.
Participation in the works of such agencies could come about by government encouragement. Citizens could be encouraged to invest in causes in which they have an interest. The government could do that by pledging to match the investment of citizens. If you give £10 to a charity of your interest, the government contributes £10. If you put in five hours of voluntary work, the government matches that with five hours pay. You are given the power to decide where investments go, and the value of your own investment is doubled in the bargain (and, as a bonus, at a very low real cost to the government). You are a participant with say both in decision-making and implementation, and also, importantly, in a participation which involves both power and responsibility.
That, in a sketch, is the idea. I will elaborate in a future post.
Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in the French presidential election suffered a massive hacking intrusion days before the final vote, probably of Russian inspiration. It turned out to be of no consequence but nevertheless goes to show that democratic procedures are vulnerable to manipulation from outside. In the American presidential election, the Democratic campaign suffered similar intrusions, which there may have had some influence on the outcome.
A democratic polity is like a market economy: it only works if certain conditions are satisfied. A market economy only works, for example to generate fair prices, if there is effective competition. If one or a few dominant actors are in a position to rig prices, consumers end up paying more than they should and monopolies earning more than they deserve.
As a market economy depends on effective competition, a democratic polity depends on effective elections. Only if elections are free and fair will they generate outcomes that are representative of the balance of opinions in the population. If one or a few dominant actors have decisively more influence than other citizens or groups, the will be like market monopolists. They may rig election outcomes in the way market monopolists rig prices.
Since Adam Smith, economic theory has recognised the distorting influence of monopolies. It is therefore standard economic doctrine that markets need regulatory protection against monopolistic influence. It is also standard economic policy in most countries to exercise such regulatory protection (more or less efficiently, no doubt).
But political theory is less clear about the vulnerability of democratic procedures and their need for regulatory protection. Rather, in most democracies, the polity is wide open to being manipulated.
Hacking, such as that of Russian inspiration, is a primitive form of interference, and probably does not represent much of a danger, at least now that we are aware of the menace.
Another form of primitive interference is in outright cheating, such as to rig the count of votes or to destroy unwanted ballots. This happens, but is now not the rule in at least reasonably mature democracies.
The more sophisticated, and democratically dangerous, rigging is that which occurs during the process up to and before election day. Elections are free if no one interferes with the casting and counting of votes and fair if the process up to election day has been unrigged. It is here, in the process, that democracies are particularly in risk of monopolistic distortions.
Such distortions occur when information or nominations are manipulated. If one side is able to dominate the information that flows through the campaign, that side may secure itself an advantage over others come election day. If organised interests are able to more or less control nominations, they may win the election before anyone even casts a vote.
The one resource above others that may enable self-selected groups to attain monopolistic political influence, is money. There are other influences that come to bear but the infusion of private money into democratic procedures is the main culprit.
It is money that may enable determined organised interests to manipulate the flow of political information. With modern IT tools – big data analysis, orchestrated use of social media – the scope is enormous for systematic information manipulation, provided enough money is available to put in efforts on a serious scale.
It is money that may enable organised interests to manipulate nominations in their favour, again provided serious money is available. Here, the American case is the horror show. In a system of mega-expensive politics and non-stop campaigning, candidates for elected office are dependent on raising private money, whereby the givers of money have won control over nominations. If there is no hope of winning without private money, candidates whom the givers of money will not invest in need not try.
We know that democratic procedures need some regulatory protection. Well functioning democracies invest enormously in protecting the integrity of the vote. But we do not in a similar way protect the integrity of pre-voting procedures. We allow private money to transgress pretty freely into the domain of politics. (“Transgression” is the term coined by the economist Arthur Okun for money flowing from markets, where it has a job to do, to politics, where it is an alien influence.) That money WILL distort information and nominations because that is the purpose of the investment.
It is urgent to give democracies regulatory protection against the monopolistic influence of dark money. In his final State of the Union Address, then President Barack Obama called on his fellow Americans that “we fix our politics” to prevent “democracy from grinding to a halt.” That’s strong language from a president, but he was right (and it was he who coined the term “dark money”). With the overpowering influence of money, as now in the American system, Obama explained, representatives are “trapped” and not free to make policies for the public good. And further: “We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections … and democracy brakes down.”
America is an extreme case but it would be a mistake to think that other democracies are clean. British democracy, for example, is shot through with the corrupting influence of private money. The need for regulatory protection is universal in the democratic world.
That the need for such protection of democratic procedures is poorly understood is in evidence in the American Supreme Court. This Court has fallen under the spell of a bizarre theory according to which the giving of money to political cause is a form of expression of opinion and therefore protected by the freedom of speech clause in the Constitution’s 1st Amendment. It has accordingly chipped away at such regulatory protections as existed in the American system. The Court the purpose of which is to protect American democracy is instead, by entirely convoluted logic, presiding over its erosion. It is also giving ideological coverage for practices of transgression elsewhere.
So there is a theoretical battle here, which should be waged primarily against the American Supreme Court, and there is a practical battle of regulatory policies, which should be waged everywhere.
In the French presidentials, the establishment candidates were dismissed in the first round. But here, for reasons difficult to explain, there had been a political realignment giving voters who wanted to reject the establishment a centrist alternative to go to. We have perhaps thought that the politics of anger must find its outlet on the extreme right or extreme left, but that may not necessarily be the case. France is showing the way – who would have thought?
There are two dimensions to the politics of anger. One goes to the substance of public policy. There is a failure to respond to the pressures of modern capitalism with a credible agenda of fairness and social justice. Economic progress trickles up but not down, resulting in a landscape of affluence on one side and public poverty and exclusion on the other side.
The other dimension goes to the way politics is made. Citizens are able to vote but otherwise feel, or many of them do, that they have no say in public affairs, that they are not involved and not invited to be involved.
For now, we have no good answer to the challenge of social justice. Following the economic crisis of the 1930s and World War II, advanced democracies invented welfare states that were effective as a civilising influence on industrial capitalism. Now we need a similar civilising influence on post-industrial capitalism, but that is yet to be forthcoming. In Britain, for example, where the Labour Party was the leading force in the welfare state revolution, that movement is now without ability to confront the fact of a very different capitalist order.
To the question of how politics is made, however, we probably do have an answer. The reason many citizens feel excluded from influence, is that they are excluded from influence. “Populism” is hardy a wave of irrational anger, but a reasoned reaction to the gulf of distance that separates “them” up there and “us” down here. The way to respond to “populism,” then, is not by blaming angry citizens for not understanding their own good but by rebuilding structures of policy-making for less distance.
Democracies with decentralised governance are more successful than centralised ones in terms of cohesion between political leaderships and citizenry. It is easy to understand why. When public policy is made in a balanced way between central and local decision-making, citizens have more opportunities for involvement, and for involvement in matters that are near and relevant to them. If you are on the losing side in national elections, for example, that is not the end of the line for you. There are still real and meaningful local arenas to be involved in.
The age of deference is over and citizens expect to be taken seriously and to be involved in public matters. The more governance is centralised, the more citizens have no other way of “participating” than by airing anger in demonstrations, protests, manifestations and the like. Hence we get the paradox that many young people in particular are involved and ready to spend time marching, but cannot bother to vote.
Much of the answer to the how-politics-is-made dimension in the politics of anger, I am suggesting, lies in local government, local democracy and a setting of real local authority and responsibility. In trying to understand matters such as democratic culture, it is generally advisable to assume that people are as they are and good enough and to look to how they are treated. If citizens have arenas of meaningful involvement, we can expect social peace. If all that is available to them is to respond to removed and centralised governance, there is no involvement within reach and no other “participation” than in the venting of anger.
An optimistic reading of the French situation, one week ahead of the final round of the presidentials, is that the new centrist force is responding to both challenges of populism, both the substance of policy and the way policy is made. That is perhaps a very optimistic reading, but there is at least some hope for a non-extremist alternative to the politics of anger. Looking out from Britain, it is good to have a straw of hope to cling on to. Here, too, we face elections, but so far the campaign gives no promise of any innovation, neither in the substance of policy nor in the way policy is made. In the country in which the politics of anger made itself felt with such force that the constitution is in turmoil, it is as if there is nothing to be learned form that experience.
In the dramatic events of 2016, Brexit and the Trump victory, one lesson must be clear: the importance of voting. In both events, if more voters had turned out to vote the results would almost certainly have been different.
It may not sound exciting or innovating, but those of us who care for democracy should take care always to uphold the sanctity of the vote. Back to basics: Vote! Do not diminish the vote by over-theorising about alternative forms of participation.
With low voter turnout, as traditionally in America, it can be enough for a relatively small constituency in the population to mobilise to carry the vote. This, by all accounts, is what happened in enough states to hand the victory to the Republican candidate. In Britain, the young are predominantly in favour of the European Union. If more of them had voted, the tightly balanced referendum would probably have swung the other way.
There is a tendency now in many democracies for more citizens to not vote. That, paradoxically, includes many of the young who are intensely engaged in social and political issues. It doesn’t matter, they say, it’s all the same. WELL, we now know that it isn’t all the same and that it does matter. Many of the young prefer other forms of participation, in single-issue campaigning, manifestations and the like. That’s well and good but is not an alternative to voting. The vote is the core instrument of democracy and electoral democracy does not work unless enough voters go to the polls. If you don’t vote, you must take what you get and it is too late to complain and protest afterwards.
There is a tendency in some corners of political thinking to hold up participation and activism as an alternative to voting. In a recent roundtable I was in at an American university, one of my co-participants made the case that American democracy remains vibrant thanks to many citizens being engaged and making themselves heard, for example in demonstrations. Of course, citizens should keep up the pressure on their representatives between elections. But if they turn their backs on democracy by not voting, they cannot compensate with other forms of activism later.
The political competition is over power. Democracy is a way of allocating power peacefully and holding its exercise under control. If you don’t vote, you let others decide who will hold power over you. If you don’t vote, you do not represent a threat to those who hold power that you can take it away from them at the next election. When the vote is over, the power game is decided and can then not be undone by after-the-fact protestations.
In America, on the day after President Trump’s inauguration, millions participated in demonstrations across the country around issues of women’s rights and dignity. This was probably the largest day of organised protest is American history with about one in every 100 Americans participating, with brilliant timing, in a glorious day for a righteous cause. However, the man the protests were directed against had the day before taken hold of the reins of power and there was then nothing anyone could do about it. It is right to make one’s voice heard. It is gratifying to see it done on a grand scale for a worthy cause. It is satisfying to participate and to be there with all the others. But the sad truth, once the power game is decided, is that protestations, even on a massive scale, unless kept up relentlessly for a long duration, is of little consequence. In the vote, if we use it, we the people have power. In demonstrations, we are the powerless.