Bob Dylan was almost certainly thinking of the future of the European Union when he penned his gospel song Gotta Serve Somebody. Doubtless he was describing Europe’s rich panoply of characters when he sung:

“Might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk,
Might like to drink whiskey, might like to drink milk,
You might like to eat caviar, you might like to eat bread,
You may be sleeping on the floor, sleeping in a king-sized bed.”

Europe’s secessionist movements, comprising as they do high-born and low-born, all seem to be expressing a desire to escape their fealty to a particular Noble Leige. But as Dylan goes on to say, “you gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed…Well it may be the Devil or it may be the Lord but you gonna have to serve somebody.” The question for all of them, however, is who, in fact, is the Lord, and who the Devil? Or, as they say in Catalan: Qui es el Senyor?

In the old, old days, say before the EU, us Europeans used to send our tribute to the Big Man. This is the origin of taxation. And of rackets like the Mafia (the main difference being the violence used to extort—and the fact that you don’t get public education from the Mafia). If the biggest “Man” around these days has been in Brussels (or has been Brussels), it now seems like Europeans, or many of them, either want a smaller “man,” or think the big man has moved into their neighborhood.

In Europe today multiple sub-nationalisms are energetically attempting to re-direct their funds and their loyalties from a distant to a more proximate Lord, or Devil, who the latter actually is will ultimately be discovered in the details, as the Brexiteers are discovering. Or the Welsh, for example, who voted overwhelmingly Leave. Although the Welsh have their own secessionist movement from the UK, opting out of Europe means they throw their lot back in with London. And if most economists and political pundits are to be believed, they have suffered a shot in the foot in the process—among the many things Wales can chalk up to European membership are clean beaches, international investment, affordable mobile phone service, and perhaps most of all a massive agricultural export market.

Among all these sub-nationalisms, Catalonia is today pushing the hardest for independence, but it is just the tip of an iceberg of frustration scouring the Titanic of a body-politic that is Europe: below the water lurk Scotland, the Pays Basque, the Veneto, Lombardy, South Tyrol, Bavaria, Flanders, Brittany, just to name a sample. The list is almost endless; wherever there is an identity to be had, it seems, there needs to be a nation to go with it.

The trouble is that when it comes to economy, big is usually beautiful. This is old politics: The Romans knew this. The Chinese certainly knew it too. The Mongols—who created the world’s largest contiguous free-trade zone—also knew it. Luckily for them, however, they did not have to contend with referendums.

There are good—and bad—reasons for being skeptical of the big-is-beautiful model of polities.

The good reasons would include the fact that many—but by no means all—Lords/Devils were racist. That is to say, in large polities which included multiple ethnicities and languages (and religions) the ruling classes often came from a master race, and tended to mistreat the occupied. The Chinese Han empire, for example, was quite protective over the Han ethnicity (even if they sold their princesses north of The Wall to keep the Barbarians mollified, in the process terrorizing their own daughters, and mixing the bloodline.)

The British in India are another example of racist ideologies sewing discontent in their colony and giving the occupied people a solid reason to rebel—even if there were at times economic reasons to support the unification of the Indian sub-continent under one leadership. (From Gandhi’s point of view, however, this was no trade off, as the Brits merely exploited Indian resources, and sent them back to the Home Country, while selling Indians industrial products at a rich profit—thus destroying India’s sustainability as a village-based economy of traditional artisans).

But bad reasons for being skeptical of the big-as-beautiful model also include the fact that they were often not racist, instead promoting people to positions of power based on their ability—as did the Ottoman Empire—a Muslim polity comprising hundreds of ethnicities and languages. Even slaves could rise to positions of enormous power—precisely and significantly because they had no allegiance to tribe or village, having been brought up in the Palace.

Other Muslim empires, notably the Umayyads and ‘Abbasids, in Damascus and Baghdad respectively, not only searched out talent in politics and knowledge (‘ilm) more widely. But They also created a protected kind of “infidel,” or non-Mulsim, non-Arab subject known as the Dhimmi. Mostly “people of the book” i.e. Jews and Christians, Dhimmis at least recognized some kind of (incomplete) monotheism, and were therefore allowed to conduct business (almost) as usual. (In reality, living as a Dhimmi in Baghdad was probably not easy. At the very least you needed to pay a tax for not converting to Islam. But you got to keep your head.)

Big polities in other words had the potential to allow the talent to rise to the top, and often exhibited considerable tolerance of race, ethnicity and religion, largely through necessity, because oppressing vast swathes of humanity was simply too much hard work. The Mongols, who are not exactly a by-word for progressive politics, were in fact quite…progressive. That is to say they understood that they were sub-par when it came to running settled societies, and so allowed many of the vanquished rulers to stay in power, govern their lands, and pay over a large amount of tribute for the privilege.

Monty Python is of course instructive here. As has been noted by at least one major historian, the ambiguities of empires (or let’s call them “Large Polities”) has nowhere been explored better than in the “What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us scene in the Life of Brian. The point ultimately made by these clowns/Oxbridge graduates is that when you unify multiple little statelets, you often end up with a surprising state of peace—in addition of course, to roads, medicine, aqueducts, etc. The reason for this is that war is historically what states do. The city states of Ancient Greece existed, for example, to defend against other Greek city states. Only once they were in league (as in “Union”) was war prevented—until of course it broke out within the league. It is for this very reason that statesmen like Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterand pushed for European Union in the first place, haunted as both were, by memories of World War Two.

Back in the old days—again before the EU, and before Spain, even—the Catalans probably asked themselves the same questions about Rome. And may have given themselves the same answers. Now, however, they are asking, “What have the other semi-autonomous regions of Spain ever done for us?” because of course Spaniards there are none, only Basques, Catalans, Castillians, etc. Anybody who visited Barcelona before about 1975 and then again after 2000, might well point to that fabulous port city in answer to this question, much as Reg’s annoying followers pointed out all the benefits of Rome to him.

But here’s the weird thing: history has a habit of changing the meaning of things; that is to say, where once Madrid’s control over Catalonia was unquestionably forced—Franco’s nationalism serving to suffocate regionalism, its languages and economies, and direct all their goods to the benefit of the state (like a real Mafia)—today, especially in the face of Catalonian independence, the idea of a united Spain is largely free of those associations. Time has created of Spain a more united entity than than it ever has been, as regional languages and customs have been allowed to surface, and local governments (such as the Basques) been given more autonomy. Spanish unity today, therefore, admits to a progressive flavor—a kumbaya, stronger-together kind of moment. This is largely because being a part of a larger body politic for so long, population exchange has happened (especially between Andalusia and Catalonia). It is therefore much harder to say who is a Catalan today. This also explains why so many Catalans (more than half—a bit less than half?) prefer to also be Spanish.

“Nationalism,” said the preeminent historian of nationalism, Ernest Gellner, “is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.” This is because we are a species that creates narratives to live by. If “thinking makes it so,” then Catalonia, or Wales, or South Tyrol, or any of the other sub-nationalism which are stubbornly poking holes in their respective uber-nationalist body politics, will never go away. But neither will the Senyor, to which taxes and obedience are due. And as we suggested above, “You may be rich or poor, blind or lame/ you may be living in another country under another name/but you gonna have to serve somebody.” And it may well turn out, in the end, to cost less to serve the Big Man in a more distant capital, than uncle Jordi down the road. And even if paying Uncle Jordi feels less like daylight robbery, it may also turn out that the little Jordis—one’s cousins—are on the make, just as much as those dog-faced strangers over the hills in another “nation.”

About the Author
Adrian Cole studied Arabic at Exeter University in the UK, Alexandria, Egypt and Harvard University. He is now a freelance writer, living on an island in Casco Bay, Maine, with his wife and children. His book The Thinking Past was published by Oxford University Press in 2014.
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