The permanence of nations is an illusion

We make countries, grow restless, and then unmake them

03 October 2017 - 07:23
People react as they gather at Plaza Catalunya after voting ended for the banned independence referendum, in Barcelona, Spain October 1, 2017.
People react as they gather at Plaza Catalunya after voting ended for the banned independence referendum, in Barcelona, Spain October 1, 2017.
Image: REUTERS/Susana Vera

The pictures coming out of Catalonia over the weekend were violent: Spanish riot police dragging women by the hair and beating elderly men to the ground; a torn T-shirt revealing a bloodied torso; angry young people facing a wall of shields.

Before they were deleted from the public eye by the atrocity in Las Vegas, the images stirred anxiety and even shock. How, people asked, could such anti-democratic and draconian violence happen in the heart of Europe? And why not just let Catalans vote in their referendum?

The first question is easily answered. The force on display was excessive, but there is nothing inherently peaceful or democratic in the DNA of Europeans. Indeed, just three generations ago they were murdering each other by the tens of millions, and Spain only became a democracy in 1976 when it decided to stop being a fascist dictatorship. If you believe that Europe will always lead the democratic process, just Google Hungary.

The second question, however, was more understandable. This is the age of freedom of choice and individual rights: if Catalans want to go, why can't Spain just let them go?

Secession is an idea gaining popularity. Around the globe, people who claim a shared identity are demanding the right to rule themselves. In some cases their claims are based on history or culture; in others, on being dedicated fantasists, like the 4400 people who voted in 2016 for the Western Cape to secede from South Africa. (If you read their manifesto you'll see they want strong borders, which I assume will involve a roadblock on the N2 at Plettenberg Bay patrolled by five very bad-tempered dachshunds.)

On paper, it seems like a live-and-let-live kind of idea. You go your way, and I'll go mine. Except it isn't. Because when a part of a nation-state leaves, the state begins to die.

That's because countries aren't clubs where some members can decide to leave and are seen off with a handshake. Instead, they are cults, held together by a shared belief in the righteousness of the cult's project and its leaders. If a member slips away in the dead of night, those who remain will wonder why; and unless the leaders step in hard and fast, doubt will creep in. Authority will be questioned. And finally, belief will waver and the cult will fall.

Countries only exist because their citizens have conjured them into existence by believing in them. Their constitutions are written in black and white, but ultimately these are statements of belief - the modern version of the Ten Commandments. Stop believing that there is a higher power backing them up, and the wife-coveting and parent-dishonouring starts.

Even this cult analogy might be giving countries too much credit for being self-determined and agents of their own destiny. Often, it seems, they are merely the geographical manifestation of a decision to defer difficult questions until later; the product of an exhausted stalemate; created from a reluctance to keep fighting rather than a desire to form a new place. And sometimes they simply end where the railways companies stopped making a profit.

The maps we study appeal to permanence and certainty. National borders are drawn in thick, hard lines. But this, too, is a bluff. Borders were invented about 3000 years ago and since then they have moved like snakes sliding across each other on a temple floor. Indeed, if you imagine this expanse of time as a clock face, then most of the planet's current borders, carved into it at the end of World War 1, appeared just two minutes ago. The last major redrawing (after the fall of the Soviet Union) happened 31 seconds ago. And still the lines writhe: a country called Kosovo appeared 11 seconds ago; South Sudan is seven seconds old.

Will the next 10 seconds produce an independent Catalonia or Palestine? Will there be a Cape Republic in the next 20 seconds? Will the United States still be united in 30 seconds? I don't know. But I do know that this is what we do. We make countries, grow restless, and then unmake them; and then do it all again; new dreams, new cults, and new lines on a map that pronounce: "This time it's forever!"