Few months ago I was invited to Barcelona by the Autonoma University to give several lectures on democracy, peace and nonviolence. In a panel that I shared with Dr. Cristina Narbona, from the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, I mentioned that one of the major problems of liberal democracies in today’s world is to lack political leaders with a moral capital. By that I meant, citizen-politicians who are more concerned with the art of organizing a society rather than governing people with lies, corruption and force. If the political price of ruling others, instead of organizing a society with them is to humiliate those who disagree with you, then the price is surely too steep and there is no place for democracy.
Following the recent riot police clash with the nonviolent independentists in Barcelona, it would be perfectly legitimate to ask why those who are mixed with power politics have so much difficulty to be righteousness and ethical. Does this mean that in today’s world, ethics is no more relevant to politics? Or should we arrive at the conclusion that there is no such thing as moral conscience in power politics?
When I speak of politics with conscience, I am thinking of a society of citizens which lives in truth and is build on truth. The Czech philosopher Jan Patočka once wrote that “a life not willing to sacrifice itself to what makes it meaningful is not living.” Patočka argued that history began when persons started moving in the world in a distinctly human way, by living in truth.
Today Catalans are making history, either with or without Spain. And not only because some of them want independence and some remain faithful to the Spanish sovereignty, but because, unlike the police officers that attack the demonstrations, they call to a concept such as “conscience” in politics to give a more ethical foundation to their civic demands. That is why, I am convinced that we can never preserve the Spanish democracy, or even “democratize: it, on rule of law if we do not at the same time build an ethical state that is – regardless of how sovereign it is – more humane, compassionate and empathetic.
Let us be frank. When look from afar, what is absent today in the agenda of the future of Catalonia is simply the concept of ‘politics with conscience’. Politics with conscience is not the pure practice of morality, it is mostly the creation of a space that should be understood in terms of decency and nonviolence. It is simply a matter of serving “the otherness of others”. This is a conception of responsibility that certainly does not correspond to those who stand on the side of power and a centralized state, but it concretely concerns the lives of those who think differently and want to live autonomously. This genuine concern for the otherness of others reminds us of the inherent fragility of human existence and the frailty of the human political condition.
Beating up young and old Catalans who demonstrate for the independence of Catalonia, on the streets of Barcelona is a sign of weakness, not an example of moral leadership. The use of violence is neither a sign of tolerance, nor an invitation to dialogue, it is just a way to try to show that one is a master in someone else’s home. Despite the best intentions of the world, I don’t see how and why political leadership and the police force need to humiliate Catalans in order to control them.
If tomorrow the majority of Catalans, except one person, change their minds and become unionists, the truth will remain the truth, even for the minority of one. That leads me to the question of whether what is happening in Catalonia has any effect on what happens to the otherness of others in the world? I believe profoundly that what is going on in Catalonia is not a political revolution, but what we can call a “revolution of values”. I borrow this term from Martin Luther King, Jr, who considered history as a matter of listening and learning. He knew that without choosing to listen to each other, humans will walk in the dark. Dr. King was brave, not because he was able to defeat his opponents through physical strength, but because he helped win a democracy for his country by protesting peacefully and non-violently. He saved America, because he believed that American democracy matters, but even more, because he was of the opinion that human dignity matters After all, combining politics and ethics is not a naïve dream. Naturally, for those who understand politics as a heightened responsibility for the ethical state of society, subordinating politics to conscience is to understand and practice democracy in terms of decency. Naturally if that is the case, it is time for political leaders to become aware of the fact that there is only one way in Catalonia, in Spain, in Europe and in the world to remain faithful to the democratic notion of politics: to be decent and to act in harmony with one’s conscience. But for that, everyone needs to listen to Catalonia’s “revolution of values”, including Catalonians themselves.