« Last hitch for Repsol and Argentina | Main | Ecuador can be trusted, says ICSID »

February 19, 2014


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The secession of Montenegro from Serbia was bizarre. Same people, same language, same religion.

At the end of the day if people genuinely want to leave there is no point in stopping them. The British have been smart about this - the Scots get a one time vote (not a neverendum as in Quebec), on a clear question (again contra Quebec).

Those who want to secede must face the consequences on currency, economic and other treaties, even modified borders.

I'm with you on the practicalities and the way the U.K. government has handled the issue. Since I don't hold much to all-encompassing ideologies, I'll say that were I the British PM, I'd handle the issue the same as Blair and Cameron. (And Canada didn't do badly, once the Supreme Court declared that all borders would be open for discussion if a secession referendum passed.)

But as a voter, I can be more absolutist. In a normative sense, I think that secession should be out of bounds in anything short of an Ireland-Algeria-Kosovo situation. It is just morally wrong.

But maybe my logic is back-asswards. Many of the commentators at Crooked Timber seemed to think so, although they never convinced me that they had a real moral leg to stand on. Is there a moral ground for secession from a democratic state in the absence of recent ethnic discrimination, state repression or intercommunal violence?

One funny thing is that the European Union has traditionally been seen as the sort of organization that might enable separatism. The argument went that, in regions like western Europe where traditional elements of nation-state sovereignty have been downloaded to subnational polities or uploaded to supranational organizations, the transition from autonomy to independence might not be a big deal at all. This hypothetical European situation, at least in Canada, has been contrasted with a North American situation where classical national sovereignty is much more viable.

I'm not sure that many people inclined to study separatism thought that the EU might actually _discourage_ separatisms.

Hahahah! True that; it is ironic.

Over on that Crooked Timber discussion thread, I'd raised the subject of Jane Jacobs and her support for Quebec separatism.

Her argument started from her observation that Quebec constituted a nation without an independent state, and that Quebec over time was becoming increasingly marginalized within the Canadian state as Ontario and western Canada outpaced it. (Jacobs made the good point that the relative declines of Quebec and Montreal long preceded the growth of Quebec nationalism, dating at least as early as the opening of the St. Lawrence seaway in 1959 and possibly much earlier (see http://westislandgazette.com/blog/blue-notes/story/2011/05/26/when-did-the-decline-of-montreal-really-start/). Though Jacobs didn't care to bet on the chances of success, she did think that Quebec could use its nationalism to break from Canada and at least experiment with different kinds of models of economic growth.

(As an aside, she was very skeptical of sovereignty-association, and a shared currency, for this reason. Leaving aside the dubious plausibility of establishing a new Canada-Quebec political union when the old one had failed, if Quebec was to gain independence in order to better control its own future why would it not bother to establish its own currency? She was right, I think, in thinking that would only be an interim measure.)

Jacobs was particularly interested in the example of Norway, which, while in union with Sweden, over the course of the 19th century ended up developing the institutions of statehood. 1905, in her story, came almost as an anti-climax.

A question. Would Norwegian independence have fallen astray of your guidelines?

Not guidelines. Weak moral principles that should be violated whenever the costs are two high.

I can't comment intelligently on Norway and Sweden. My knowledge of the split is next to zero. But if you know more, it's easy to answer:

(1) Was there a recent history of violence?
(2) Was Sweden undemocratic?
(3) Was the division rooted in a policy dispute?

If the answer to those questions is no, well, then no. Unless there was some practicality involved, the same way it would be stupid for a Canadian or British government to deny forever the possibility of secession regardless of the morality.

Aside: Jane Jacobs has never much impressed me as a thinker. But that is due to her work on urban form, which is a mess of half-baked prejudice combined with an aversion to actual data.

Norway split from Denmark in 1814, not from Sweden. See the informative site (in English, natch) http://www.eidsvoll1814.no/default.aspx?aid=9078804

Basically, Denmark backed Napoleon, and when he was defeated, part of the punishment was to split Norway away from Denmark and hand it over to Sweden. Independence (under a Danish sovereign) was preferable.

Randy was asking about the split from Sweden in 1905, LT. (Wait, it's CPT now, right?)

OK, so I looked at Wikipedia, which now makes me an expert!


Randy, tell us what Jacobs said, because if the Wikipedia article is halfway correct, then the capsule version of her argument makes no bloody sense whatsoever.

Of course, that would not surprise me. Jacobs gained the reknown that she did because she reflected a part of the zeitgeist, not because she was a good thinker or scholar. Her writing on cities makes me want to plow a giant freeway through lower Manhattan. :-)

The Norwegians celebrate 1814 as their independence; from the Wikipedia article you cite we read that Norway was self-governing under its own constitution throughout the period of rule by Sweden.

To add to 12:27 post, yoking two different societies with different suffrage rules together, as the Wikipedia article describes, doesn't seem like a long-term recipe for union.

Okay, second period just ended in the third-most-important recurrent sporting event in human history. If Randy responds during game time, I will revoke his Canadian citizenship. There will be a grateful nation behind me.

LT, you hit why I don't understand Jacobs' characterization. In her world, as described by Randy, Norway slowly evolved away from Sweden. In the world of our limited sources, these were two countries yoked together in a loose confederation that never developed common state institutions. And worse yet, hitched more-democratic Norway to less-democratic Sweden.

That ain't a recipe for much. And it doesn't have good modern parallels ... save maybe a British withdrawal from the E.U.

Over to you, Randy. After we humiliate your Canadian sisters, of course, and squash their dreams even worse than we stomped y'all in soccer at the WWC and summer Olympics. Hooah! U-S-A!! Glory glory hallelujah!

Suck it, Canuckistan! You shoulda surrendered in 1812; spared y'self the humiliation in 2014. Victory!

By the way, Jussi, mazeltov on your victory!

The Jacobs hypothesis would imply celebrating US Independence Day on July 9th, 1868, when the 14th Amendment was adopted.

That's not unreasonable. "Oh, we're the fighting' soldiers of the First of Arkansas ..."

But I don't follow why it follows from Jacobs.

(Fucking counterrevolutionary monarchists just scored.)


Assuming that the first four score and twelve years of the American republic were just two societies yoked together in a loose confederation that was unable to develop functional common state institutions.

This is closer to personal than I like - and apologies in advance - but what about Puerto Rico? That would seem to be the exception that tests your rule.

JKR: I wouldn't say that the country lacked common state institutions before 1868. The United States had some quite profound state institutions between 1787 and 1860: a national judiciary, a common external tariff, internal free trade, federal public lands, patents and copyrights, federal bankruptcy law, and much else. The United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway we were most definitely not. Am I missing the point?

David Allen: I don't support Puerto Rican independence, so I'm not sure I see the exception. That said, Puerto Ricans have a better moral case than the Scots, because residents of the island cannot vote in federal elections. (It's still a lousy case.) Could you explain what you're getting at?

Noel, you are correct; I am also adopting the wishy-washy Jacobs logic here.


Can't vote in federal elections, are geographically separate, and are a distinctive society that's linguistically and culturally very different from the US mainstream.

I still wouldn't support PR independence for a moment, even if I was PRican and lived there. But it's not a completely daft notion.

Doug M.

What he said.

Actually, after some coffee, I'd add a hypothetical pro-independence argument that the Great Puerto Rican Novel that might have been written in a PR-independent ATL won't be written in this one because the person who would have written it is teaching in a community college in New Jersey.

North Atlantic culture is more IDIC-friendly than it was 60 years ago, but I can understand why anyone who values their local dialect might want to get an army, or at least a police force, to go with it.

Does not compute, David. You're saying two things.

(1) Speaking a different language makes political independence justifiable regardless of anything else.

(2) Great literature is impossible without political independence.

If that's not your argument, then you've got to clarify more. (IDIC?) If it is your argument, then you've got to explain to me why either proposition makes sense.

Side note: Doug did not justify political independence for Puerto Rico. He said it was "not daft." I would disagree with that proposition, but that depends on the definition of "daft." Let's define "daft" then as "batshit crazy." How you get from "not batshit crazy" to "morally justifiable" is not something I understand.

I don't actually watch the games, because in my opinion they should have been boycotted.

Regarding the main topic; true enough, occasionally secessionism requires a cramped nationalism. But every now and then, so does the desire to hold an artificial country together.

In other words; what is Britain's reason for existence these days?

Vive la monarchie!

I will try to post a review of the Jacobs book tonight. On re-reading, swathes of it are less impressive than I remember.

In the case of Scotland, if there really is going to be sustained tension between a strongly social-democratic Scotland and a differently-organized rUK, and the difference between the two can't be reconciled, then secession might not be a bad outcome if it meant that Scottish and non-Scottish Britons would stop rubbing on each others' nerves. (If.) In that case, though, I don't see why Scotland would want to enter a monetary union with the rUK that would limit Scotland's willed fiscal difference.

Looking forward to Randy's take on Aunt Jane.

Here it is.


Be kind?

(Also, why mightn't the Great Puerto Rican Novel been written by a Puerto Rican outside of Puerto Rico? Brilliant cultural achievements in diasporas aren't rare.)

David is making a cultural argument. I'm not sure I agree. The PRan interaction with mainstream USAn culture has produced its own rich and deep literature; google "Nuyorican Movement", and that's just the beginning. The literature and poetry of an independent PR would certainly be different, but I'm not sure it would be better (for various definitions of "better").

Note that an alternate universe with an independent PR is an alternate universe without Pacino's and Penn's performances in "Carlito's Way", a movie based on a novel by a Puerto Rican American. Whether that's a good or a bad thing is left as an exercise etc.

Doug M.

Noel, neither David nor I are suggesting that every linguistically distinct community should have its own country. But having an own language is certainly an important factor to be considered.

PR, like the Philippines, was a late 19th century conquest. One Spanish colony was set on a path to eventual independence, while the other was integrated more strongly into the American system, but it's hard to find a deep rationale for the difference beyond "Puerto Rico was smaller and closer".

Doug M.

I agree with that, Doug. If linguistic differences make it impossible to coexist in a state without violence, political paralysis or unpalatable discrimination (note the adjective) then separation is a good idea. But language differences by themselves aren't a good basis for secession absent a cramped nationalism. I think you and I agree, save my (likely incorrect) read of "daft" as a synonym for "dumb."

So I am honestly confused about David's point. Help! If you're not arguing that linguistic minorities deserve their own states, then why does Puerto Rico show that my moral proposition is self-contradictory or leads to unpalatable outcomes?

Seriously, I'm lost.

Randy's take on Jacobs seems pretty apt. I think her approach to the issue of Canadian urban development comes across as stale and dated, unlike Death and Life of Great American Cities, which remains fresh and interesting to read (or at least was fresh and interesting when I read it 15 years ago). It seems obvious that Montreal has not turned into Winnipeg, but even more to the point, Winnipeg has not turned into the Winnipeg of her fears.


Mightn't small size and remoteness be sufficient justification for attachment to a larger country? Martinique, say, arguably has done better as an overseas department of France than it would have as an independent state. How might Puerto Rico plausibly have fared as an independent state?


I really do not get why Jacobs assumed that the Canadian urban hierarchy would evolve in the way it did. It's a yawning a priori assumption that didn't hold up at the time, never mind now.

I don't think Doug was trying to argue that Puerto Rican independence is a good idea, just that it isn't batshit crazy.

If you're asking about an alternate history for the island, then that's easy: there is no plausible set of circumstances under which an independent Puerto Rico would have been better off than its Spanish Caribbean neighbors after 1898.

Costa Rica is the best case scenario, a proxy for Cuba without the Revolution, although Puerto Rico had a lower land-labor ratio, greater initial inequality and an unfortunate location in a hurricane zone.

How the island would have fared had remained an autonomous province of Spain is a harder question, but not really relevant.


So, basically, outcomes not unlike those of the Dominican Republic?

One of the things that makes great empires great is that the most talented creatives head for the metropolis, where they create a rich culture. The flip side of this is that the provinces take a twofold hit: their best talent is gone and the local traditions will be in stiff competition with those imported from the capital. If the provinces become independent, they will struggle to adapt the capital's traditions to their own new identity and establish or re-establish their own.

How this happened in the first 50 years after Yorktown was a major theme in the American Lit survey courses I took (mumble) years ago and it's even more of a thing in literary studies today. Google "decolonizing literature" for a sample.

No, the literature and culture of an independent America/Scotland/Puerto Rico won't necessarily be better than what would be produced as part of the larger empire, but to the independentistas it is more important that it is *theirs*.

I don't necessarily agree with this. But I can sympathize with the Puerto Rican who might say something like "If things continue as they're going, my great-grandchildren won't speak Spanish, and their grandchildren won't care that we weren't always part of the United States. But what can we do, as a mere commonwealth?"

*Sympathize*, not agree. Everything changes, and there are benefits to being part of the empire, too.

I picked Puerto Rico as a test case because the relation between the island and the mainland seems so asymetrical. We (mainlanders) could do all manner of crud to them without even realizing what we're doing, and there is very little they could do about it. The cultural part of the crud is/would be only one part, but it would be especially insidious.

(Hopefully this makes sense. It's late.)

IDIC = Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination, IIRC. Star Trek philosophy.

Randy, the Great Puerto Rican novel being written by someone in the diaspora could happen, but ISTM it would be like someone from Ontario who spent a couple decades living in the American Midwest and then wrote while retired in Florida. Possible, but not the way to bet.

I'm not conversant enough with PRan history to be able to judge how alt-independent PRs might fare. But that raises a question: are we talking about whether PRan independence was / would have been a good idea Back When, in 1950 or whenever? Or are we talking about its attractiveness or sanity today, now?

BTW, Costa Rica's PPP-adjusted pcGDP is around 80% of Puerto Rico's. Lower, but not grossly so. Would it be worth a 20% hit to your income to be part of your own country instead or ruled from a distant metropole? Historically, lots of people have said "yes", including the US Founding Fathers.

Doug M.

This would be the subject for a longer post, but the short version is that Costa Rica was in a much better position than Puerto Rico in 1898.

Puerto Ricans are now much better off -- you need to be careful with the adjusted GDP figures, as you know. Puerto Rico's HDI beats Denmark: 0.91 versus Costa Rica's 0.77. Median nominal monthly wages differ by a factor of four.

Please don't bring George Washington into the discussion! If the franchise were off the table, or were the United States less than a democracy, then I'd fully support secession. By making the false comparison to the American Revolution, my argument is distorted into something quite different. Don't do that! After all, I was quite explicit about the conditions under which secession is neither cramped nationalism nor a political cop out --- including two examples from the last century and one from this one.


The strange thing about that a priori assumption is that Jacobs is supposed to be such an insightful writer on urban issues, and lo! here she is wallpapering out the most simplistic kind of urban analysis. I would cut her some slack for not being a born-and-bred Canada expert, but on the other hand speaking at public lectures on a country's urban policy would ordinarily require actually studying the topic.


I'm really taken aback by the assumption Jacobs made about the inevitable centralization of Canada around Toronto. Even at the time, there were examples of large countries with multiple contending urban centre, West Germany standing out most clearly. Australia, too?

As I said in my review, in other respects Jacobs' analysis was quite strong, dealing with many of the myths in fair fashion. It's just that the centrepiece of her analysis is flawed.


Mavis Gallant was counted as a major Canadian writer despite her lifetime in Paris. I'm sure I can think of others.

Is there actually a likelihood of language shift from Spanish to English on Puerto Rico?

you seem to make a big distinction between ireland 1921 on the one side, say, and catalonia on the other (I'll let you win on scotland); i am not sure that makes sense. both england's subjugation of ireland and castile's of catalonia are the result of military force (in the case of catalonia, more recent than in ireland). in both cases, citizens have second-class status (you cannot use your native tongue communicating with tax authority, say; the center tries to "anglicize" you or to "hispanisize" you - as the Spanish education minister recently proudly proclaimed). as both an irish peasant and a catalan entrepreneur, you get a raw deal (tax here, spend there) with minimal devolution (home rule never happened, and there is basically no devolution in catalonia worth having - everything apart from the train schedule/teaching hours is decided in madrid). finally, the culture is really different -- people with very different preferences don't make good bedfellows in the same state if you want it to be functional. put simply, i see no reason why catalonia should be taxed to death by castile today, any more than we should return holland to castilian rule. surely, in a democratic europe, we do not want the accidents of long-ago military history to trump the will of the people? if Catalans were black, everyone would be outraged about the colonialism of the spanish state. finally, i don't think it helps castile in economic terms. much of castile is living on handouts, just like southern italy; solidarity doesn't work at the "national" level, just as development aid doesn't work. instead of galicia living on catalonia's riches, it would surely be better for them to find something to do that it more useful than government handouts?


How about Esmeralda Santiago's When I was Puerto Rican http://nypl.bibliocommons.com/item/show/17108979052907_when_i_was_puerto_rican

Seems like a decent candidate for the GPRN.

Randy, yes, Jacobs is wise to bring up the point that sovereignty means nothing without affirmatively adopting a different approach to government and the economy from the former metropole.

I have not closely followed Canadian politics since the mid 90s, but perhaps Quebeckers who wanted something different have gotten that opportunity with Canada's shift from a centre-left government to a centre-right government.

Speaking about Quebec, my sense is that the province has gotten as much as it wants. While retaining the Canadian currency and other federal institutions (including transfer payments), Quebec is largely free to run its own education, language, immigration, and even domestic economic development policies as its electorate wants. There's even federal recognition of the Quebecois (define how you may) as a distinct nation within Canada.

A new separatist movement is imaginable, I grant. Right now, I've difficulty seeing how it could get up. If Canada comes apart, I suspect it would be as a consequence of devolution generally to the provinces. Quebec might not even be the trigger; I'm fond of the GURPS Transhuman Space setting's making Newfoundland and Labrador the first province to secede.

Newfoundland and Labrador certainly have a shorter history as part of Canada than Quebec, and arguably their loss wouldn't jeopardize the Canadian national project to any great extent.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)