Beyond the barricades

It was a romantic story. The secret vote took place in school houses and town halls across Catalonia. The organizers, many of them students, spoke of creating a new state that would not just look backward to their Catalan heritage and language, but also forward into a more egalitarian society. As I read about the young people scrambling to protect the ballot boxes from Spanish police in riot gear, I could almost hear the songs from Les Miserables: “Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me? Beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?”


The situation remains uncertain as the Catalan parliament decides how to respond to the Spanish government’s attempts to control the region and shut down the independence movement. The power struggles within the regional parliament, in which pro-independence parties have a slim majority, may be the biggest hurdle that the nationalists have to clear.


Peter Krause of Boston College suggests that the biggest challenge that nationalist movements face is not outside opposition, but fragmentation within their own leadership. An organic, decentralized uprising of the people makes for a great musical, but not for great political progress (it didn’t end well for the students in Les Miserables, either). In his book Rebel Power, Krause argues that the single clearest factor in whether nationalist movements succeed or fail is the cohesion or fragmentation of their leadership. If a movement has multiple, competing centers of power, its leaders will be more focused on establishing their own status within the movement than on larger strategic goals. Groups compete for attention, making it easy for foreign powers to shop around for the leaders they find most cooperative. Weaker groups may act as spoilers if it appears that a nation might emerge but be led by another group. In contrast, a movement with a strong central leadership group can focus on its political strategy and force its domestic foes and foreign powers to negotiate on its terms.


We’re looking forward to learning more at Dr. Krause’s talk for the Bustani Middle East Seminar on Tuesday, October 19.


You can hear an interview with Peter Krause here on the POMEPS Middle East Podcast.