EXCERPT | Critique and Limitations of the Theory of "Subversive Institutions"

EXCERPT | Critique and Limitations of the Theory of "Subversive Institutions"

By Hrvoje Ćurko

EXCERPT | Critique and Limitations of the Theory of  "Subversive Institutions"

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Institutions of autonomy get a “subversive” character when certain conditions have been met, but we can never take into consideration all the possible situations and conditions of the examined societal phenomena. Otherwise, we would face a classical problem of “too few cases/too many variables” (Peters 1998; Lijphart 1971; Goggin 1986). Therefore, only some of the noticed limitations of our hypothesis(the theory of subversive institutions), which are the most important for the arguments of this paper, will be mentioned; namely, to what extent the institutions of autonomy will indeed act as “subversive” and lead to stronger peripheral nationalism and secessionism.

The first precondition for the secession of autonomous (federal) units is, of course, the existence of a strong distinct identity of the ethnic community. Some authors mention the issue of immigration, which induces a sense of threat and xenophobia among the minority population, and fosters secessionism as an attempt to respond to the identity loss and to the societal implications that immigration brings along (Conversi 2000a; Mansvelt Beck 2005). On the other hand, partially as a consequence of immigration and of the mixing of the population, and partially as a result of the process of the nation-building at the state (federal) level, a problem of a dual, mixed, split or overlapping identity has been observed. It appears in multinational states, where the population of the region feels, up to a certain extent, loyalty and allegiance towards two homelands – the local homeland, that is, to the region, and the wider homeland that the state represents, the country of which the region is a part. In the case of Basques, there are two allegiances and affiliations; to the Basque Country, on the one hand, and to Spain or France, on the other.

Some authors relate the “subversiveness” of institutions to economic development. With respect to the example of the several Russian autonomous republics in the period, 1987–1992, Giuliano (2006) argues that secessionism appeared out of the fear of losing control over the economic resources. From the four examples he had examined, Galicia and Catalonia in Spain, Scotland in the United Kingdom and Quebec in Canada, Martinez-Herrera (2008) noted that only Galicia, which was economically less developed, did not experience a more significant rise in secessionism. On the other hand, the other three regions, which were relatively rich, experienced a growth in secessionism. He explains it, on the one hand, by the differing interests of the local economic elites compared with the elites from the political center. Local elites help the local nationalist intelligentsia, which in turn mobilizes the masses in its interest – that is, in the interest of the region.

Finally, being better off in a wider community (state) entails state-wide solidarity and the transfer of funds from richer to poorer regions. This argument, in the Spanish case, is valid more for Catalonia, than for the Basque Country, given that the latter enjoys a privileged status with its Concierto Económico (Economic Agreement, i.e. Fiscal Pact). However, it is also one of the economic grievances of the nationalists. For instance, under the provisions of the Concierto Economico, Euskadi’s contribution to the Spanish budget is 6,24%, while its GDP was 6,21% of the Spanish one in 2014, but its population is only 4,65%. It “pays according to its revenue, but receives according to its population”, which means that Euskadi is “overcontributing almost 33%” (sobreaportación) (Álvarez, 2013).

Also, the richness entails more immigration from other regions, which in turn increases the feeling of there being a threat to the local population and xenophobia. The local nationalists see the solution to the problem in secession (Martinez-Herrera, 2008: 15–20). This argument has been valid with respect to the Spanish Basque Country, in the past – at the end of 19th century, when the founder of the Basque nationalism Sabino Arana formulated the Basque nationalist ideology, in the 1960s, but also today. That is to say, the Spanish Basque Country has during all those periods, as one of the most prosperous parts of Spain, been exposed to big waves of immigration from other Spanish regions. “…Political decentralization in relatively wealthy culturally differentiated regional minorities…seems to further fuel inclinations for separation” (ibid: 18)

If the institutions of autonomy in ethno-federal states indeed work as “subversive institutions”, are the states aware of that situation and do they attempt to prevent it? We argue that the answer to both questions is affirmative and obvious. Proofs and examples are numerous. There is a whole arsenal of “arms” against the “subversive influence” of institutions of autonomy, which we could refer to as “counter-subversive” action of the state. It ranges from state-building and state/official nationalism, the actions of different state institutions, and state public policies, like social policy, public and secret diplomacy, up to the use of coercive institutions, like the army, police or secret service. With all these, the state prevents and diminishes the “subversive” influence of autonomy and the potential for secessionism (“counter-subversive” action).

State nationalism, if the schools have been already under control of local, “autonomous” institutions, can act through the media, culture, sports, and other propaganda, which strengthen the state (national) spirit and unity. For instance, in the case of the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country, the Spanish state can foster a Spanish national spirit through sports events (Olympics, World Championships) whereby supporting the Spanish national team, Spanish patriotism is being encouraged.

Some more examples of such state actions, with respect to our cases of France and Spain, could be mentioned. Both states show a consciousness, even a fear of “subversive institutions”, and attempt to prevent or mitigate their impact. Some examples are a result of successful “countersubversive” actions of the state. France, due to its centralized polity and Jacobine idea of a unitary and civic state, since the French revolution in 1789, has not embraced regionalism, as if it had wanted to prevent any “subversive influence” of institutions by offering “opportunity structures” to regional, peripheral nationalism. Mansvelt Back quotes the reports by the French Ministry of Interior, which oppose to the creation of the Basque département because they see a threat of secessionism in it (2005: 123). France, in spite of some attempts in the 1980s, has not let the three Basque provinces (Soule, Basse-Navarre, Labourd) achieve territorial unity, in the form of a single administrative unit (département). Thus, it has prevented the potential “subversive” implications of such institutions, which could never come about simply because those institutions have not been allowed to be set up in the first place. Consequently, in the French Basque Country, here is no secessionism, not even a well-articulatedregionalist movement which could create a critical mass of pressure on the central government to establish a single Basque département. Precisely the “absence or the fail of devolution processes could partially help to understand why some cultural communities in France…have not developed a secessionist strategy beyond some marginal movements” (Balcells et al. 2012: 4), because the minorities have no “autonomous political unit under which they can organize and mobilize” (ibid: 12).

In contrast, the Kingdom of Spain, after Franco’s death in 1975, has undergone a fundamental state reconstruction based on a quasifederal principle. However, it intentionally avoided mentioning the term “federation” in the Constitution of 1978, exactly with the purpose to avoid giving too much importance and “subversive” character to the autonomous communities (Moreno 2006: 4). The decision not to give autonomy just to a small number of so-called “historical nationalities”, but to give it to all Spanish regions (popularly called “café para todos”, a “coffee for all” phenomenon) resulted in the foundation of seventeen autonomous communities. The decision aimed at diminishing “the subversive influence that Catalan and Basque identities contain” (Ruggiu 2012: 16), that is, to “dilute” Catalan and Basque nationalism.

Finally, we should not neglect the actors, elites, and leaders, i.e. the relation between structure and agency. The successful, competent, and charismatic leader (of a minority or of a regional government) can compensate for and overcome the institutional vacuum. Conversely, an incompetent and uncharismatic leader will not be capable of taking full advantage of all the opportunities and authority that the existing institutions offer him/her.

This article has been developed from a Ph.D. thesis defended at the University of Zagreb in 2016 under the title "Politics of National Identity. Cases of Spanish and French Basque Country"

Publication Details:

CIRR XXII (76) 2016, 52-84 ISSN 1848-5782 UDC 323.17:341.2 DOI 10.1515/cirr-2016-0006 Can Institutions of Autonomy Become Potentially “Subversive Institutions”? , Open Access Article.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the author’s employer, The Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of the Republic of Croatia.


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