Poor Spain. After enduring the tiresome humdrum of the Catalan issue in September (left unresolved, as ever), the country now faces yet another purgatory with the long campaign to be had before the December general elections, a campaign that will consist, as it always does, of a constant adulation of the voting masses and a mishmash of idiocies and empty promises.
Leaving aside for a moment that cognitive distortion known as nationalism (or whining provincialism), Catalonia’s latest attempt at sedition exposes political issues that are perfectly applicable to the rest of Spain as symptoms of a sick system.
The first of such issues is the inexorable bankruptcy of the Welfare State unless radically revamped. Indeed, what triggered this plebiscite (disguised as regional elections) appears to be the extreme weakness of Catalonia’s regional government’s finances, crushed underneath its very size and suffocated by the burden of its public debt, a consequence of the accumulation of past excesses and reckless fiscal behavior. A gigantic government always carries the yoke of a despotic and pervasive bureaucracy and the unbearable weight of brutally high taxes, both features to be found in the rest of Spain. Confronting what seems to be a dead-end street, Catalonian nationalism has tried to postpone the system’s final explosion by trying to force further control over tax revenues, while drawing attention away from its own clear responsibility for the current state of affairs. In fact, the Welfare State has already begun to crack not only in Spain, but in the rest of Europe as well. Believing that its end will always lie beyond the horizon of the next election, political leaders avoid facing reality and shun changing course, which would inevitably result in frustrated expectations among citizens. However, simple mathematics shows, for example, that current public pensions are completely, utterly unsustainable under slow economic growth and hostile demographic conditions, neither of which should be expected to change anytime soon. Also, a private sector ruthlessly harassed by voracious tax collectors and overwhelming, tyrannical regulations will also be incapable of supporting three million public employees from 17 regional feudal kingdoms involved in a maddening contest to show who is more burdensome and least efficient. But the greatest damage to society brought upon by the Welfare State is to give the impression that you can have freedom without responsibility and rights without duties. Thus, citizens have been brought up in the false belief that it is not necessary for them to take responsibility for their own lives, as the State will provide total security, a concept completely alien to the world of adults and that is no more than a mirage. The naked truth is that we have been living beyond our means at the expense of future generations. Meanwhile, the weakest continued to be neglected by a State which does not need to offer public services galore, but which does however have the moral obligation to offer subsidiary support to the neediest among us, a minority always unable to offer enough electoral reward for the demagogue du jour to care about beyond rhetoric.
The second issue has to do with the dire consequences of the impunity with which the ruling class systematically violates the law. Before debating the likely need to amend our Constitution, I would first try to enforce the law and see what happens. This would of course be unprecedented in our democracy. The gradual, almost imperceptible decline of the rule of law in Spain has created a sense of impunity among the ruling class with regards to our institutionalized corruption, but also and even more importantly concerning the arbitrary exercise of power. The same law which mercilessly oppresses ordinary citizens turns a blind eye to the ruling class, which also exerts enormous control over the highest courts of the judicial power, just in case. Aristotle warned that ‘in all well-tempered governments there is nothing which should be more jealously maintained than the spirit of obedience to law, for transgression creeps in unperceived and at last ruins the state, just as the constant recurrence of small expenses in time eats up a fortune.’ In general, Spanish politicians do not understand the concept of the rule of law and scoff at the concept of legal certainty, doing and undoing, making and breaking, based only on the demagogic urge du jour or the interests of a few. In Spain, we are yet to understand that legal certainty costs nothing, while legal uncertainty ultimately ends up being extremely dear.
The last issue which I would like to highlight is more far-reaching and affects every part of society: it is the exaggeration of the importance of feelings. In the case of Catalonia, we have grown accustomed to ascribing serious meaning to periodic surveys which measure whether Catalan citizens ‘feel’ Spanish or Catalan, as if this were decisive for resolving such an essential issue; naturally, the results vary from one week to the next. It is just another symptom of the adolescent nature of today’s society. By giving disproportionate weight to feelings, it prevents them from being balanced and softened by reason, equanimity and principles. The instant satisfaction of the self does not tolerate any limitations, neither duty, nor law, nor respect for the truth or one’s word. It goes without saying that, anywhere you go, the demagogue feels more comfortable playing on the feelings of the masses than responding to more prosaic and measurable variables, such as the unemployment rate, per capita income, the results of the PISA report, the quality of health care or corruption rates (in all of which Spain comes out looking quite bad, incidentally). Additionally, the feelings of the masses most easily stirred up by the demagogue are not usually associated with values such as tolerance, diligence, responsibility, justice or compassion, but rather fear and hate, envy, greed and resentment. In Catalonia, demagoguery dons the convenient guise of nationalism, but in all other respects, it has many similarities with what in the rest of Spain is adopted by the populism of all the parties.
Aristotle stated that: ‘No ordinary man can discern the symptoms of this problem, but only the true statesman.’ Where and when will we find such a statesman? And when we finally do find him, will we vote for him, or spoiled and nullified as individuals by the Welfare State, will we rather choose the demagogue lulling us with what we want to hear?