Notes on Freedom

Libertarian, humanist social theory

Catalonia: For a free Spain, Against the EU

I am watching the Catalonian crisis unfolding 40 minutes down the road. Here are four observations, as the independence of Catalonia is set to be declared on Tuesday.

1. The central Spanish state has sparked the current crisis. Before 2010, only 15% of Catalans supported independence; now, around 40% do. This growth in Catalan nationalism is a direct response to aggressive strikes from the Spanish central state, particularly the Partido Popular (PP). It started in 2006, when the Catalan authorities drafted a new statute of autonomy: this was passed by the Catalonian parliament, public referendum in Catalonia, and finally by the Spanish parliament. Yet the PP side-stepped democratic bodies and launched a case in the Constitutional Court in an attempt to get the statute struck down. Four years later, they succeeded: the Constitutional Court struck out 14 articles and provided the interpretation for 27. In response, angry crowds marched in Barcelona, chanting ‘We are a nation, we decide’.

The pattern has been repeated time and again, as the right-wing PP, now in government, has increasingly used courts and military police to draw a line on the Catalan question. It used the Constitutional Court to declare the 1 October referendum unconstitutional and illegal. In the run-up to the referendum, it launched military police (Guardia Civil) raids on Catalonian government offices, confiscating documents and generally treating elected representatives as subject minions.

Yet these shows of force are hollow: there is nothing behind them. The authority of the Spanish state becomes reduced to the legal injunction and the use of force: it is reduced to armed units of Guardia Civil, shutting down polling stations or raiding offices. Now the Spanish government is prosecuting the head of the Catalan police for sedition, citing his failure to assist Guardia Civil raids. Sedition!: such a medieval, kingly crime. When a state prosecutes for sedition then you know that all appeals to democratic authority have gone.

Indeed, the Guardia Civil complain that they have been ‘abandoned’, sent in and ordered to close down an election, without a plan or backup. As the national military police, they represent the last line of executive authority, but they are increasingly bearing the whole burden of the central state’s representation in Catalonia. They are the messengers and agents for a distant and not-present Madrid (The Spanish interior minister reinforced this impression when he tweeted lamely: ‘The agents of Guardia Civil aren’t alone in Catalonia. They have all our respect, affection and support’ ).

The Guardia Civil were so much without backup that they were successfully evicted by crowds from the hotels in which they were staying. The crowds shouted ‘out with occupiers’, and indeed this is how the central Spanish state has conducted itself – as an occupying army, only working through its proxies rather than bearing its own face. The popularity of Catalonian independence is primarily a result of these shows of arms-length aggression.

2. The Catalan president has no mandate to declare independence. The Spanish ambassador to France described the plan to declare independence as a ‘coup d’etat’, with a section of the Catalonian political elite seizing the instruments of state. He is not entirely wrong. There is no majority of Catalans in favour of independence – a poll before the referendum put it at 41% for independence, and 49% against. Most say there are only around 25% of hardcore independistas.

The move for independence has often looked less like a popular uprising, and more like an exercise in rubber stamping. The Catalan government reformed parliamentary regulations so that the laws relating to the referendum, and the ‘transition’, could be passed in a single sitting, with no amendments, based on an absolute majority (rather than the 2/3 majority required for previous constitutional changes).

One of the laws ruled that the results of the referendum would stand regardless of the level of participation – reducing the need to get a democratic mandate. In the end, only around 42% voted, meaning that the government is declaring independence on the basis of a referendum in which more than half the population did not vote, and which occurred under the shadow of ballot boxes being confiscated and armed police shutting down polling stations. This is not a plebiscite that would be recognised in the shakiest African state.

Logically, it was the half of the population opposed to independence that did not vote, either from fear or because they thought the poll illegal. Therefore, the Catalan political elite is in some ways doing the same as the Madrid government: weilding instruments of state in shows of bravado, while side-stepping popular mandate.

3. Catalan nationalism has lost its rational basis. Historically, Catalan nationalism represented the claims of a dynamic industrial region, against the life-sapping body of a parasitic and inefficient Madrid-based bureaucracy. ‘We in Catalonia must sweat and toil so that ten thousand drones in the Madrid Government offices may live’, the Catalans would say (1). Writing in the 1940s, Gerald Brenan commented that ‘Spain has one of the most centralized governments in Europe’ and that ‘every country postman, village schoolmaster and customs official has owed his appointment to the minister in Madrid’ (2).

Yet this is no longer the case: the Catalan region is autonomous in all matters except for taxes, immigration, and defence; it runs its own health, education, transport, courts. The basis of Catalan nationalism now comes less from economic dynamism, and more from claims for the special status of Catalan culture: it can be narrow, parochial, and put-upon. In a debate on French radio, a Catalan activist told the editor of El Pais newspaper that he couldn’t understand or comment on Catalonia because he wasn’t from there.

The more open currents in Catalonia look beyond the issue of culture to the national situation – for example, the groups on the Catalan left , ‘Catalunya en Comú’, argue that social problems are questions of class, not culture, and therefore shared across Spanish society.

4. The real enemy, for the whole of Spain, is the EU. There are compelling ideas being expressed by the crowds in Catalonia – to be free, to rule themselves. There are compelling problems there too. There has been a phenomenal degradation in Spanish living standards since the economic crisis in 2008: general unemployment has reached 25%, youth unemployment has surpassed 50%. A large portion of people who left school 10 years ago have never worked: their frustration and disillusion has channelled into a spate of popular movements, including the call for Catalan independence.

But this situation is at least in part the result, not of the actions of Madrid, but the strictures of Brussels. One analysis by Spanish economists argued that Spain’s integration into the single European currency was as a ‘periphery’ country: it received unproductive investments in infrastructure and construction, while becoming a market for products manufactured in the ‘central’ countries such as Germany. EU integration, they argue, led to the collapse of smaller Spanish industries and accentuated the existing weaknesses and imbalances of the Spanish economy.

In 2008, the bubbles of external investment popped. All around Spain lie the skeletons of half-finished buildings, sometimes vast complexes even on the outskirts of Madrid, with hollow windows and roofless tops. External investment was withdrawn and the EU now appeared as  the source of imposed budget cuts to health, education and public sector wages. This singular focus on budget cutting has imposed a depression experience, reducing incomes and quality of life, while doing nothing to solve the essential problem with productivity and domestic industry.

The question of political/economic decision-making has been largely removed from the Spanish government, and the Spanish people, meaning that their salaries and pensions are in effect decided in Brussels or Berlin rather than Madrid. Spain takes on the appearance of a subject state, with little room for political manoeuvre and little ability to respond to popular demands.

So this, then, is the key to the Catalonia question. As state sovereignty is undermined in substance by the EU, both the central state and Catalan authorities resort increasingly to gestures of muscle-showing, in a private battle of one-upmanship that is tearing a country apart.

 

(1) The Spanish Labyrinth, Gerald Brenan, CUP 2001

(2) The Spanish Labyrinth, Gerald Brenan, CUP 2001, p19

 

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‘Rewilding’ and the attack on civilisation

Throughout the French Pyrenees, large paint letters are stamped out on high mountain roads: ‘Ours Non’, No to Bears. Bears were reintroduced by the French government in the late 1990s, starting a long ferocious battle with shepherds and sheep farmers. At the last bear release in 2006, hundreds of farmers mobbed the release site, daubing red paint and smashing windows and lighting fires. This summer bears chased 200 sheep over a cliff edge, sparking demonstrations and demands for the bears to be removed from the Pyrenees. When state wildlife experts visited the affected area, a group of farmers fired shots towards them and slashed their car tires.

Over decades, centuries, farmers had sought to eliminate the predators that were tormenting their flocks. No sooner had they succeeded, the government reintroduced them – only this time from Slovenia, and as a protected species. The state introduced a predator that preys on flocks and forbade shepherds from touching them.

The Pyrenean bear is an example of what has been called ‘rewilding’, the reintroduction of species that had been hunted out of existence. Rewilders want to bring the bear back to the UK – an even less suitable location – along with the lynx and the wolf. Rewilders hate sheep and they hate sheep farming. The environmentalist George Monbiot says that sheep farming has turned the Lake District into a ‘desert’, with only a small proportion of the species that would populate a wild forest were it allowed to go to seed.

Yet the Lake District is not an ecological model; it is a landscape that has been made and remade through continual work and effort. What is beautiful about the Lakes is not only the shapes of the fells and crags revealed by sheep cropping, but the ways in which the hills are criss-crossed by the paths of people and their animals. The sheep farmer James Rebanks says that he looks down from a fell and sees a landscape ‘crafted by largely forgotten working people’: ‘a unique man-made place, a landscape divided and defined by fields, walls, hedges, dykes, roads, becks, drains, barns, quarries, woods and lanes’ (1).

It is the shepherds who know what nature is and how it works. If you talk to a high mountain shepherd, who lives in a hut for months on end, he knows every rock and crag, the call of every bird, all the moods and rhythms of the weather. He knows nature because he works upon it. Similarly, the families who have farmed the Lake District for generations are welded into the landscape; they are grounded in a place in a way that we can barely imagine.

Rewilders’ version of nature is a fantasy, committee-room nature. It was people sitting in committee rooms in Paris who thought that it would be nice to bring back the bear. Perhaps they imagined nature films of roaming bears and their cubs, or thought of the bear logo on Pyrenean produce. The ideal of wilderness comes from people who rarely experience it, or only experience it in an aesthetic or fantastical manner, as some kind of antidote to the jaded effects of urban life. (The US environmentalist Timothy Treadwell romanticised the bear and lived with them for years, but he did not know the bear, anymore than children know bears, which was why he was entirely surprised when a bear eventually attacked and ate him).

It is by working upon nature that we come to know it in its reality. Before agriculture and farming, nature was a mystical world peopled by spirits and animated by mysterious forces. With agriculture, people started the business of taking hold of nature and attempting to mould it; they knocked up against the reality of animals, plants and rocks. Slowly, ideas of spirits and mystical forces began to dissipate, and incipient scientific understandings developed: they came to understand how plants reproduced, what they required to grow, how animals could be bred and tamed.

The first agriculture required a battle against wild nature – the clearing of forests, draining of swamps and killing of wild animals. The first civilisation in the Nile Valley was founded on the sweat of those who cleared the beast-ridden swamps, dug irrigation channels and built protective walls. The Russian biochemist Verdansky wondered at the ‘unbroken, indefatigable’ labour required to tame the ‘humid forests and marshes’ of ancient China: ‘to subdue these and bring them under cultivation – destroying the forests and ridding them of their animal inhabitants – would have taken tens of thousands of years’. He quotes the comment that ‘Literally trillions of men and women have made their contribution to the contour of hill and valley and to the pattern of the fields. The very dust is alive with their heritage.’

This collective experience is preserved in myth, such as in the labours of the Greek hero Hercules, with his contests with hydras and monstrous beasts that are terrorising villages and towns. Hercules’ labours recapitulate the origin of civilisation, the work that was required for the founding of cities.

Rewilders complain that the wolf has been unfairly demonised, as if it is only fear and misconception that are preventing packs of wolves from happily loping around English hills. Yet the demonisation of the wolf is the legacy of the centuries of wolf hunts, the paying a bounty for wolf tongues, the effort of making a land where flocks are safe from attack. Indeed, the British landscape owes its distinctive idyllic quality partly to the successful elimination of the wolf, which was possible as an island. The elimination of the wolf was the work of our ancestors – something they won for us, for our peace – yet now rewilders want to undo this work and reverse it.

Of course, there are still genuine wildernesses in the world, largely in areas not suitable for agriculture or in unpopulated regions which have been set aside. People can still go to these places to experience an untouched raw nature that seems to be outside of human time and history.

But the Pyrenees or the Lake District are not wildernesses. Indeed, the main visitors to these areas are walkers, whose interests very much coincide with those of the sheep farmers. Walking in a forest is fine for a bit but after a while is very dull: you see nothing and could be anywhere. Without sheep there would be no views below 2000m in the Pyrenees and none at all in the Lakes. Grazing allows you to experience the mountains as mountains, rather than as the same old trees stretching in all directions.

Pyrenean sheep farmers have told me that they feel that they are being pushed out of the mountains; they feel that the powers that be are hostile to them and their way of life. Conservationists argue that the numbers of sheep lost to bears each year are relatively few, about 300 out of 600,000, and that far more animals are lost to illnesses and accidents. Yet the issue is not only the losses sustained, but the meaning of these losses. The threat from the bear isn’t an accident; it’s an attack. The state has reintroduced a predator that is protected and has 150 people monitoring its wellbeing. Farmers have been forced to build defences, to put up electric fences, bring back mountain sheep dogs and full-time shepherds.

Reintroducing marmots, beavers or kites is one thing, but when it comes to predators of flocks there is a line. To take the side of the bear is to take the side of the hydra against Hercules: it is not only an attack upon farmers but upon civilisation.

(1) James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life, Penguin, 2015

 

We must barricade our homes against the state

I am in touch with a 52-year-old woman who is suffering panic attacks after a visit from a council enforcement officer. He knocked on the door, asked her name, was let in. Once in her sitting room he set upon her in a manner that she describes as suitable for a mass murderer or hardened criminal. He said she had committed an offence and could spend six months in prison. Partway through the tirade it transpired that he was filming her: he was filming her in own front room, without her consent.

Her offence was a pallet left over from flooring, which the lady couldn’t carry and her builder was due to come and remove a few hours later. A perfectly ordinary, understandable situation. She had moved the pallet to the least obstructive position, and called her builder to remind him to come. The Enforcement Officer was deaf to her explanations and left a £300 fine for fly-tipping before he would leave her alone.

The threshold of a home was traditionally seen as a serious, even a sacred line. When classical states developed public forces who had certain powers over private citizens, these forces generally could not enter the home. Roman soldiers were barred from crossing the threshold of a private home.

In more recent times, law made a distinction between actions inside and outside the home. The Public Order Act 1986, which creates very questionable and broad offences of ‘harassment, alarm and distress’, nonetheless did not cover any speech or writing delivered within a private dwelling.

This respect for the home has gone. Now, in officials’ minds, there is no line there. When they cross the threshold, are invited into someone’s hallway or front room, they do not see this as imposing different conditions upon them. If they can film someone in a street, they think, they can film them in their home. If they would harangue them in the street, they harangue them in their home.

The line of a person’s dwelling is seen as blurry and beside the point. People have been fined for public offences committed while standing on their own land. One lady was fined for litter after she put a cigarette out on her doorstep; another was fined for a dog offence while she was standing on her own front lawn. One man was told that he couldn’t smoke for half an hour before council officers visited his flat, since his flat would count as a ‘place of work’ for the officers. The presence of a state officer means that your flat is transformed into the state’s domain, subject to its specifications and conditions.

Indeed, if anything, coercive powers are particularly targeted on the home, with more strenuous conditions imposed inside than outside our private walls. For example, the government scrapped a planned offence of causing ‘nuisance and annoyance’ in public, because it was too broad, but kept the offence in relation to housing. People are pursued for actions in their home that would not be an offence in the street. One woman is currently fighting a Community Protection Order which prohibits her from causing harassment, alarm and distress to her neighbours. Evidence cited included the fact that her front door slammed loudly and she liked to sing in her flat. A loundly slamming office door would not be targeted for criminal sanction, nor would singing in the street.

Social housing residents are perhaps particularly targeted: for example, Scottish councils and housing associations are apparently looking at banning smoking in local authority homes. But the fact that your home is your own doesn’t seem to make a great deal of difference, either. Councils have issued ‘Community Protection Notices’ ordering people to cut their grass, trim their bushes, clean their windows, or even to not cry within their home. These powers also allow councils to carry out works on the outside of your property without your consent, then bill you for the cost.

Such measures fly in the face of the reality of the home: what it is, what is means to us. This is why a drubbing from a council official in your front room can have such an effect. When an officer harangues and films you in your sitting room this can transform your relation to your home, and therefore to something even more fundamental. The home is our domain, it is the space protected from the demands, pressures and judgements of the outside world. We set forth from the home to do battle, to take the hits, and retire back to it at the end of the day. Our home grounds us. A violation of this space can unseat the very basis of our personhood.

So there is still a line at the threshold and it still matters. When people are being hassled by state authorities for petty matters, we must defend them, defend the line with them. Our doorsteps are the barricades upon which personhood depends.

Transsexualism and the breakdown of personality

In the 1980s and 90s, some people started to modify their bodies in ways that were unprecedented in modern times. They felt there was something about their bodies that was ‘not right’. Their nose was too long, or short, or too wide; their bum was too big or too small, their breasts overly ample or flat. Parts of the body that might look fine to anyone else, to them were the source of discomfort. They felt physically uncomfortable, not at home in their own bodies. They sought to nip and to tuck, to change their bodies in order to change this feeling of not-rightness.

Tattoos and piercings were part of this too. One young woman said that she did her piercings ‘at times when I felt like I needed to ground myself. Sometimes I feel like I’m not in my body – then its time (to do a piercing).’ The act of piercing – of choosing the spot and the ring, caring for the wound, seeing the new look that had been chosen, made – was a way of grounding the self in the body. One occupied one’s body by piercing it, drawing on it, cutting it.

The growth of transexualism in the past 10 years is a development of this phenomenon. Only now, the matter is more serious. Transsexualism is not a question of this or that body feature, of the nose or bum or breasts; it is not a question of degree, of position on a scale of big or small. Nor is it a question of cosmetics, of taste or adornment. Rather, transsexualism is a question of the fundamental polarity of the body: the fundamental polarity of male or female.

The genitalia are not like other body parts: they do not vary along a gradation, but instead exist as a polarity, of A or B. Therefore, the transexual does not just feel wrong in part, in degree, but in essential definition, in essence. The transexual experiences the not-rightness in their body as a question of core; they feel that, at core, their body is the wrong one. They should be in a body that is not just different to their own but the opposite: they feel that they should take a physical form which is the opposite of the one they have.

In this, we see a breakdown of the unity between the person and their body, a unity that is personality. To be a person means to occupy the particular physical frame in which you are present in the world. It is yours. You are born stocky or skinny, tall or short. To always want to be tall when you are small, or vice versa, means that you are not appropriating your physical reality: you are not occupying it, making it yours.

Hegel describes personality as the unity of ‘the sublime and the trivial’. A person is on the one hand completely free, they can freely determine themselves through their thoughts and actions, but at the same time they are something ‘wholy determinate’: ‘I am of a certain age, a certain stature…and so on through whatever other details you like.’ (1) The ‘sublimity’ of personality means that it sustains this contradiction; the free aspect of the self possesses the body, it animates a particular given, natural form with purpose and spirit.

Now, with the concept of cis-men and women, the relationship between an individual and their body becomes entirely contingent. To identify with your physical existence is considered a specific personal choice or preference. You might choose to affirm the body in which you exist, just as you equally might not.

That there is a specific cis category suggests that it is entirely possible, normal even, to not identify with your physical existence. The personality and the body become potentially unrelated to one another; they go their separate ways. A woman can feel that she is actually a man, a man a woman, just as a white person can feel that they are actually black or a black person white.

At base, transsexualism expresses an inner tension, a tension between one’s sense of who one ‘really’ is, and one’s physical reality. One transexual said: ‘My voice and my body betray me’; ‘I want to look like what I am’ (2). Another said, ‘I must transform the body I have so it fits as closely as possibly my image of myself.’ (3) Therefore, there is a separation between ‘me’, and ‘my voice and body’; between the true self and the form in which one exists.

This is a contemporary manifestation of a much older tension, perhaps the oldest tension in the book: between existence and essence. That is, between a given reality, and one’s sense of what truly could or should be. The tension between existence and essence has been at the heart of social phenomena for thousands of years, whether that is religion, or politics, each in their various ways feeling a ‘not-rightness’ of reality and a seeking of a true or ideal state. Both religious soul searching and social revolution sought to bring existence in line with essence: to unite reality with an ideal or truth.

What is significant now is that this existence-essence tension is no longer playing out in social forms, or even between the individual and society. This is no longer a case of people spurning ‘society’ and going off on their own, to be in their own heads, away from the corruption of the world. Instead, the tension and feeling of ‘not rightness’ now plays out at the level of the individual – between the two composite elements of personality, the self and the body. Instead of not feeling right in their their country, or vocation or social position, the transexual does not feel right in their own body.

Therefore, a tension that had existed in social forms now appears in a guise that is both individualised and naturalised. The ‘true’ self takes a form that is entirely physical. The person you really are is not a matter of spirit or vocation – it is not a matter of your actions or choices in the world. Instead, it is the desire for an alternative physical form. Therefore, the true self (the person I ‘imagine myself to be’) has the content of a body, another body, the opposite body to the one you have.

Therefore, the true self appears as an opposing natural form. The existence-essence tension is playing out between two different kinds of natural form: between the wrong body, and the right body.

The sense of wrongness is reduced to a matter of genitalia, of having a penis when there should be a vagina, or a vagina where there should be a penis. Becoming who you really are is a question of physical removal and reconstruction, of folding stomach flesh into a penis shape, or constructing a hole between the legs.

The tension between existence and essence is reduced to the body – and the resolution of that contradiction takes the highly limited and inadequate form of a surgical procedure.

Josie Appleton is talking about ‘Self, society and alienation’ at The Academy on 15 and 16 July.

(1) GWF Hegel, Philosophy of Right, section on ‘Abstract Right’

(2) Transgender Studies Reader, Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, 2006

(3) Making the Body Beautiful, Sander L Gilman, 1999

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