Why is the Basque Country more Violent than Catalunya?

In our last post, we examined why Catalans in Spain had developed a distinct Catalan identity, to the point of pushing for an independent state, while those in France had not. Looking at the wider Spanish scene one sees the failure to create a Spanish identity more broadly. This is true not simply in Catalunya but in Galicia and perhaps most obviously in the Basque country.

But this observation raises other interesting questions because there is obviously a huge difference between the nationalism of Catalunya and that of the Basque Country: the former is not violent while the latter is. What could explain this?

Exactly this issue was addressed by political scientist David Laitin in his paper “National Revivals and Violence”. Laitin argued that in the Basque country, the nationalist movement ETA was very successful at tapping into local social capital and recruiting young men from small towns based on mountain-climbing clubs, called mendigoitzale, or youth gangs, or cuadrillas. In contrast Catalunya lacked these types of social groups and social capital. (This is related to the idea that social capital can be used for good or ill purposes, so its political implications are much more subtle than what one might at first conjecture, as we discussed in this post a while ago).

Laitin argues that, in the Basque country, small town life was dominated by patron-client ties to political parties and that economic groups, like trade unions were much more important. This provided a social base for political parties that were much more inclined to negotiate than fight.

Yet Laitin also argues that these different social structures only made recruitment easier in the Basque country, and they also leaned more towards violence in the sense that ETA, based on local social capital, did not have simple and effective channels of communication with Madrid, which could have facilitated negotiation (unlike the situation in Catalunya).

Paradoxically, what further precipitated violence was that it was “more costly” for people in the Basque country to become Basque nationalists, particularly from a linguistic point of view. Basque is a non-Indo European language and completely different from Spanish, while Catalan is very close. Hence in the Basque case it was more difficult to get local people to become nationalistic without using violence to ‘encourage’ them. In Catalunya it was much easier to speak Catalan, and moreover people probably also expected others to switch to speaking Catalan, something that was much less likely with Basque.

Laitin uses this language example as a bit of a metaphor for the fact that being Basque was harder than being Catalan, which meant that those trying to promote Basque nationalism were more prone to resort to violence.

The last piece of Laitin’s argument is more idiosyncratic. He also argues that early successes were important in sustaining the violent strategy of ETA. ETA commandos assassinated Luis Carrero Blanco, the Spanish Prime Minister and heir apparent to Franco and ETA membership quickly doubled in its wake. The execution of two ETA prisoners in 1975 yielded a general strike and turned the victims into martyrs, further boosting support for ETA. 

In the end Laitin’s analysis blends structural factors, the different nature of social capital, the different cost of being Basque, with idiosyncratic shocks which allowed particular violent strategies to consolidate themselves and appear successful.

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