How Zizek’s Theory of Belief Explains Catalonia’s Conflict

I’m a Spanish citizen smack in the middle of the Catalan conflict (my father is from Barcelona, my mother from Madrid) and I’ve found that a Zizekian reading of the current conflict over the possible independence of this Spanish region may work very well to shine a light through the confusion about this issue.

On Tuesday, the Catalan regional president, a self-proclaimed separatist who has driven the separatist movement for the last couple of years, stood in parliament and declared Catalonia an independent republic: for all of eight seconds, apparently, since he said next that he would propose that the parliament suspends such a declaration while additional rounds of dialogue are conducted with the Spanish government.

If you read either the Spanish or the international press today, it’s clear nobody can make any sense of this almost-independence declaration: since the Catalan parliament didn’t vote on anything and later separatist MPs signed the declaration, is the declaration suspended or not? Is Catalonia independent or not? Half-independent maybe?

To make sense of this, I’ve found that Slavoj Zizek’s theory of belief is extremely illuminating. Just this morning, I was listening to an old radio interview that Zizek conducted when he was promoting his movie “A pervert’s guide to ideology.” At one point, the British radio host asks Zizek to explain this theory of belief and Zizek, as he often does, goes back to his years as Yugoslav citizen: he tells the host how in the dying years of Communism nobody really believed in the ideology sustaining the regime, but many were comforted and sustained by the idea that others believed, that true Communist believers were out there somewhere. As Zizek fans will know, he often uses the same analytic framework to explain how an ethno-religious state like Israel can flourish when much of the population is in practice Atheist.

This, Zizek tells the host, allows the “fake” believer, the one who desperately wants to believe, to convince himself that he or she is a real believer; the trick will even allow you to make fun of your own ideology, a common occurrence among Catalan nationalists (see this famous Catalan-language show here). As Zizek put it:

”Even if you make fun of it, the ideology still functions. For a certain ideology to function, to be operative, to structure your life, you don’t need to believe, you just need to act as if you believe.”

Zizek’s notion is very similar to that espoused by some Christian theologians: that religious belief often flows from the act of worship. That the physical routine of adhering to a religion or ideology (going to church on Sundays, not eating pork for Muslims and Jews, meeting for mass separatist rallies in Barcelona or Marxist discussion groups for Communists) is a fundamental method to make belief take root at the most basic level.

This strikes a chord with me because I’ve met many separatists in person. I wrote for the Wall Street Journal about the pro-independence movement, and went to the very core of the propaganda machine around the movement, the TV3 network, about which I did a long story.

I often confronted separatists with the obvious in-built contradictions within their ideology: how can you support a separatist movement within the European Union while desperately clinging to EU membership as a marker of modernity? Why would the EU allow this to happen, as it would undermine its central message of promoting European unity against 20th century nationalism? How can you believe that half of the population can force the other half to give up the country to which they belonged for 500 years and this will not create a huge internal divide within Catalonia? How can you believe such a forced breakup won’t create a centuries-long conflict with the rest of Spain and insist that a friendly separation is possible? How can you support an ideology that explicitly sees Catalan independence as the first step towards the creation of a Greater Catalonia that will seek to take parts of Spain and France, and not see this as a clear Balkanization of the Iberian peninsula? In summary: how can you be so freaking naive? (I go into more detail about this stuff here)

The responses are almost always vague, evasive, of the “God will provide” kind. They think they will muddle through the filth and emerge unscathed at the end, like Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption, and an independent Catalonia will be just like the Mexican beach in the last scene of that movie.

Just yesterday, I spoke with one of these separatists, via private message. He will remain unnamed, but this is not a stupid or a non-educated person; actually, this is a person who boasts of not watching TV: so you know that kind of person we’re talking about.

I gave this person my arguments against Catalan independence, mostly focusing on the key point about Balkanization: if you’re so upset about the very mild police violence during the independence vote on October 1, we both will be horrified by what may happen if Spain turns against itself like Yugoslavia did and the crazies take control. His response was illuminatingly succint:

“I won’t be a coward. I will continue defending fundamental rights (2000/C 364/01) together with others.”

The reference to 2000/C 364/01 is, a quick Google search shows, to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. One would be tempted to think: are you so stupid as to, not only believe on that, but to make it a central ideological tenet to promote what you fully understand (you said you won’t be a “coward”) is a position that may lead to horrifying violence and destruction?

One would be wrong. The reference to the Charter simply shows this person is not personally prepared to justify or defend his own ideology. But this person is convinced that “others,” like he put it in his message, are. His belief is sustained by a piece of paper that has no relevance to the case, because others believe it too.

This person is like the Atheist Israeli who is 100% convinced that a non-existent God gave the Jews all property rights to Palestine. This person is comforted by the fact that many believe in something he very much would like to believe: and so he does, in a way, believe. My impression is that many Catalan separatists believe the same way.

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About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
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4 Responses to How Zizek’s Theory of Belief Explains Catalonia’s Conflict

  1. Nice write up. Ugh ya, the ideological imaginary—the echo chambers of these cult belief groups are lending superficial validation to any irrational theory now, especially if they tack the words “human rights” onto it. I personally know people that just sit inside of their minds all day getting drunk on the feedback loop of their chosen partisan media bias (fox, cnn, etc). Rational thought is increasingly (and sadly) being damned as fascist sentiment or revolutionary impotency—rather than pragmatic, logical arguments highlighting the potential consequences of a viral, “balkanized” irrationality.

    I read that originally only a minority of Catalonians wanted to secede, then the separatists worked them up against Spain’s voting blockade—smashing the referendum was a nail in the coffin then. Spain should have “allowed” the referendum and likely the Catalonian nationalists would have lost officially, just by acknowledging Catalonian ire. But maybe not… I don’t live over there, so I don’t know the sentiment on the ground outside of what I can get my eyes on through the web. In your opinion, if Catalonia does inevitably secede, will Spain/EU suffer? If the EU allows Catalonia reentrance? Obviously it would be making more precedents to support others’ dreams of nationalization, but what would be the real impact of a Catalonian split you think?

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    • David Roman says:

      Regardless of the merits of independence itself, in a vacuum, I think it would be disastrous for all the parties involved, unavoidably driving Spain (and France) to a Balkanization process. This is fairly self-evident, if one knows Spanish history and the nationalists’ long-term goals of creating a Greater Catalonia (echoes of a Greater Serbia and a Greater Croatia are not misplaced). I don’t think independence will happen, because a majority of separatists are only superficially committed to independence: that is, they are not looking for true independence a la Brexit, but to going up one rung within the European Union’s pecking order, staying the same, only with a different flag. In the end, few are willing to sacrifice much for that kind of gain, so all they can hope for, all they can bet for, is total capitulation by the Spanish government..

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  2. Lluís Rey says:

    An interesting point or wiew, however I strongly recommend you to read Zizek’s article supporting independence or Catalonia on scotish newspaper The independent: “This is why the left can’t bring themselves to back Catalan independence” (10-04-2017)

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    • David Roman says:

      Zizek doesn’t really express support for Catalonian independence on that article; and yet, it’s the strongest endorsement of the separatist movement by anyone of note in Europe, which tells you a lot about the outside perception of such movement

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