What’s the Problem with (Spanish) Catalunya?
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

Most of the research by economists on the state has focused on a quite narrow subset of things the state does. For example, Daron’s paper “Politics and Economics in Weak and Strong States” on the ability to raise taxes as the key dimension of whether a state was weak or strong. This was subsequently a key theme in the 2011 book Pillars of Prosperity by Tim Besley and Torsten Persson who focused on the development of fiscal systems to raise taxes and legal institutions to efficiently enforce contracts.

In our work with Rafael Santos on Colombia, “Monopoly of Violence: Evidence from Columbia, we focused on the creation of a monopoly of violence. (We will also soon report on some other new work of ours on the economic consequences of state capacity and state building).

But all of this research ignores one of the most fundamental things that modern states do — to create a national identity eliminating alternative identities.

One of the reasons, for example, that modern Tunisia is so different from neighboring Libya is that after independence the first president, Habib Bourguiba, invested heavily in creating a national identity. Instead, the rulers of Libya, such as Muammar Gaddafi, exploited and exacerbated different identities as a way to stay in power.

Modern states obviously differ a lot in how successful they have been at creating national identities, with huge consequences, as the previous example shows (it is Libya, not Tunisia, that is tottering on the verge of civil war at the moment). This is even true within Europe, a place that we tend to think of as having very successful consolidated nation states. Take the case of Spain and France. Though some people in the southwest of France still speak Occitan and grumble about being controlled from Paris, the reality is that the French state did a very effective job at forging a national identity (the locus classicus on this process is the 1976 book Peasants into Frenchmen by Eugen Weber which we mentioned in an earlier post, where we discussed why the English had been so bad at obliterating the identity of the Scots – who may ungratefully declare independence this year).

In recent research Laia Balcells, a political science professor at Duke University, has investigated the differences between Catalans south of the Spanish border and those north. In her paper “Mass Schooling and Catalan Nationalism”, she points out that Catalunya was split between France and Spain by a treaty in 1659. The Catalans had a distinct history with their own language yet the extent to which people identify as Catalan today differs greatly north and south of the border.

In Spanish Catalonia, Balcells shows that Catalan is the main language of communication between members of the family for 37% of the population; also, 7% say that Catalan is not the only language, but that it is more usual than Spanish.

In French Catalonia, in contrast, only 0.5% of the population speaks Catalan within the family: French is the main language in family communications for 87.6% of the population. This use of language is one way of seeing the different facts about identity.

The question then is this: why is there this divergence with Catalans in Spain currently demanding a referendum on becoming an independent country while nothing of the sort is taking place in France?

At some loose level this is obviously connected with what Eugene Weber was writing about. The French created a very effective top down state and socialized everyone into being French, particularly through the educational system where French was the only language which could be used.

Balcells does not dispute this claim but makes a more subtle argument. She puts it in the context of “nationalistic revivals” which take place in three phrases:

  1. Phase A which she calls “scholarly interest” led by intellectuals who discover and celebrate some lost or repressed identity
  2. Phase B which she describes as “patriotic agitation” where people become much more aware of the issues and more general nationalists sentiments surface;
  3. Phase C, finally, is the “rise of a mass movement” where collective action for national recognition and even independence takes place.

Balcells’ argument is that what is critical is the interaction between these social dynamics and what she calls, following the terminology of political scientist Keith Darden, a “scholastic revolution”. This corresponds to the first generation of people to receive mass education and when a community first shifts from an oral to a literate mass culture. The important point about France was that the strong state was around at the time of the scholastic revolution that meant that Catalan nationalistic sentiments got no air time in school.

In Spain, where the central state had not effectively exerted itself in the periphery, mass schooling arrived at just the moment when Phase B was in full flow. In consequence the state could not control the teaching of Catalan nationalism in school. Hence the first generation of people who received schooling was socialized into being highly sympathetic to the cause of Catalan nationalism. In Darden’s view the “scholastic revolution” is a “critical juncture” in identity formation that then massively persists over time even in the face of efforts to repress it. Balcells shows this is precisely what happened in Catalonia during the dictatorship of Franco.

The critical factor causing the divergence between the north and south of the French-Spain border in terms of Catalan nationalism was that the Spanish state was weak at exactly the wrong time — when the scholastic revolution interacted with a wave of patriotic agitation.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (http://whynationsfail.com/).
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