Feuding Nationalism: A Review of Jaime Lluch’s Visions of Sovereignty

“2012 Catalan independence protest on September 11th” by Kippelboy. CC BY-SA 2.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Nationhood is complicated. A major threat to large democracies is the presence of multiple nations within their borders that rupture the sanctity of the unified nation-state. Though the nationalism of yesterday is often looked at in terms of majority nation nationalists and the patriotic picture that they painted for the rest of the world to see, the nationalism of today is minority nation nationalism, and the internal challenge that it presents for multinational democracies. Today, nationalism manifests itself in referenda of secession rather than rallies for unity. Jaime Lluch confronts these contemporary forms of nationalism and the problems that they present for democracies in his book, Visions of Sovereignty: Nationalism and Accommodation in Multinational Democracies, examining Catalonia in Spain and Quebec in Canada, both deemed “stateless nations,” with a refined theoretical approach.

The primary objective of Visions of Sovereignty is to present what Lluch calls the “moral polity thesis” in order to explain why and in what ways stateless nations seek forms of self-determination. Lluch continues to pursue a novel argument in shattering the standard dualism that presents nationalist visions of sovereignty as either secessionist or non-secessionist. There are two theories formed before Lluch’s that he claims are insufficient: the national consciousness thesis and the materialist thesis. The national consciousness thesis asserts that variation within national movements and their inclination to seek self-determination depends upon cultural agreements on national identity and values. The research presented in Visions of Sovereignty, though limited to Catalonia and Quebec, persuasively demonstrates that most nationalists, despite disagreement over policy, maintain a national consciousness, that all agree on the status of their stateless nation. The theory depends on a homogeneous national consciousness, based on central cultural values, that supposedly guides nationalists. In showing that several national parties in a given country share central cultural values, yet are heterogeneous in political orientation, this theory is insufficient for explaining such variance in national movements.

The materialist thesis asserts that economic considerations are the primary motivator for the actions of nationalist movements. Yet Lluch’s research overwhelmingly shows that economic considerations are rarely the primary or even secondary focus for nationalist militants, at least in Catalonia and Quebec. Lluch does, however, include several brief examples of similar cases in national movements across the globe, widening his lens to make a crucial point: the economy is rarely the priority for nationalists. His moral polity thesis could be briefly summarized as the political alternative to the above theories, focused on cultural and economic considerations respectively. Lluch’s unique and original theory outlines how, in multinational democracies, nationalists consider themselves as part of “moral polity” wherein stateless nations have expectations of reciprocity, accommodation, and recognition by the central state to which they belong. As a result, nationalism arises by the perceived dominating, homogenizing, and incompetent rulership of the central state. Nationalists express their discontent in the political pursuit of sovereignty.

However, Lluch continues to pursue a novel argument in shattering the standard dualism that presents nationalist visions of sovereignty as either secessionist or non-secessionist. He argues that nationalism in multinational democracies has three major political orientations: independentism, autonomism, and federalism, each with different visions of sovereignty embodied by their own political parties. Independentists favor secession from the central state, federalists simply decentralization, and autonomists stand somewhere between the two, often non-secessionist but seeking special status and privileges. These three orientations present the “nationalists’ trilemma,” a confusing choice for nationalist militants in places like Catalonia and Quebec that leads to a diverse array of opinions among individuals. In his research, Lluch uncovers that, though autonomist parties in Quebec are officially autonomist and have platforms in accordance with such, most of their militants would individually self-describe as independentist. His analysis suggests that the political expression of nationalism is highly dependent upon the agency of its militants rather than labels and categories. Militants exercise their agency not in what they say, but in what they do. Though these militants may call themselves independentist, they vote overwhelmingly in favor of less radical, autonomist policy.

The complexity of this breakdown is well-served by Lluch’s presentation of his research. He presents thorough, qualitative field research conducted in both Catalonia and Quebec across all of the relevant political parties, interviewing party leadership, engaging in focus groups with base-level militants, and distributing a questionnaire. His findings are impeccably organized in Visions of Sovereignty, which is chock full of charts, spectrums, and well-divided sections that produce a tight and effective classification of the several nationalist political parties across Catalonia and Quebec. Ironically, it is evident in those interviewed by Lluch that most nationalists would reject such a thorough breakdown, one party leader going so far as to say to Lluch that, “we do not fit into your scheme.” Despite such rejections, the scheme present in Visions of Sovereignty is effective in both demonstrating the complexity of nationalist politics in Catalonia and Quebec, but also demystifying them. The classification is essential for Lluch’s analysis, which is largely comparative.

The tragic weakness of Visions of Sovereignty is that it already feels dated, despite being published in 2014. Unfortunately for Lluch, several developments have occurred across nationalist movements, especially in his countries of study, but also elsewhere, since his book was written. The autonomist political party Lluch studied in Quebec, Action Démocratique du Québec, no longer exists, having declined and merged with a new party. Catalonia engaged in a failed move for a referendum on self-determination. Most notably, the Scottish referendum on September 18th failed. All of these events have served to agitate nationalist militants, and it is probable that the opinions Lluch documents in his book have changed. He addresses the possible implications of such recent developments on his work in a brief four-page addendum to his conclusion, yet this is insufficient to deal with the magnitude of change national movements have undergone since 2010. However, such changes likely favor Lluch’s moral polity thesis. The denial of the Catalonian referendum by the Spanish central government, for example, is a prime example of the non-accommodation by the center that he asserts lies at the heart of nationalists’ grievances.

Despite the specter of change hanging over Visions of Sovereignty, it remains relevant. Lluch writes a compelling case for his moral polity thesis that proves to be far more satisfactory than explanations that have come before it. It is a more complex and diverse explanation of nationalism as we know it today. Visions of Sovereignty is a reminder of the political problem presented by the nationalism of today, and that its solutions must manifest themselves in terms of politics as well. If multinational democracies are to maintain their reach, they must strive to accommodate minority nations through plural institutions and measures for autonomy. Otherwise, rupture may prove inevitable.

About Author

Cole Edick

Cole Edick is a Staff Writer for the HIR. He contributes to the Global Notebook and World in Review sections of the magazine, as well as Books & Reviews.