Populism and Secessionism: a Talk by Professor Guillermo Graíño Ferrer 

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John Cabot University welcomed Professor Guillermo Graíño Ferrer as a guest speaker in the Rome Political Theory Colloquium on September 17, 2018. The event was co-sponsored by the Department of Political Science and International Affairs and the Department of History and Humanities. Professor Ferrer holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and a Ph.D. in Philosophy, and he has translated French Philosophy Classics into Spanish. He teaches Political Theory at the Universidad Francisco de Vitoria de Madrid, and he is currently a visiting Professor of Political Theory at LUISS Guido Carli. Professor Ferrer’s lecture was entitled, “The Intersection of Populism and Secessionism: the Case of Catalonia.”

Guillermo Graíño Ferrer

Guillermo Graíño Ferrer

Professor Ferrer opened his talk by maintaining that human beings use politics to intervene in the world in which they live, in an attempt to take control of their social environment. He differentiated between constitutional politics and ideological politics: the former contents itself with trying to empower humans in modest ways, given the permanent tensions of political life, while the latter is more ambitious and tries to control the social world more completely. According to Ferrer, populism and secessionism are both forms of ideological politics, which are not moderate in their aims, and which aspire to bring about radical change. Professor Ferrer argued, by contrast, that “the world is not as flexible as ideological politics thinks that it is.”

According to Ferrer, populism is a reaction to the feeling of impotence experienced by modern citizens with regards to their political orders, while it is presented by its supporters as an alternative kind of democracy, a better kind. Populist ideology strongly challenges Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History” thesis and its argument that Western liberal democracies are the final form of human government. Again, populism opposes constitutional politics, and so it views liberal institutions as ways for elites to weaken the power of the demos and thereby to prevent the people from ruling themselves.

Secessionism, for its part, is the belief that secession is legitimate even in well-functioning liberal democracies. According to Ferrer, there are two principal kinds of secessionism, classical nationalism and then the liberal theory of secession. Nationalism holds that the world is naturally divided into nations, that there are pre-political divisions that should be politically respected. The liberal theory of secession, by contrast, emphasizes the fact that the connection between the individual and state must be consensual.

Political actors, of course, invariably adapt their arguments to fit the moral context of the times. Today, no political concept has more legitimating power than that of “democracy.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the discourse of Catalan separatism has exchanged the arguments of the ethnos’ right to self-determination (nationalism) for the demos’ right to decide (liberal secessionism). Increasingly, borders are viewed as the arbitrary or contingent products of history. Consequently, the argument goes, they should be subject to democratic accountability. Interestingly, the rhetoric of secessionism and populism today share an ideological premise: real democracy, without reference to liberal rights or constitutional rule, is the only proper solution to long-standing political problems.