Pro-unity demonstration in Barcelona SOPA Images/Getty Images

A Spanish Disquisition

At first sight, the idea that Spain could descend into chaos is puzzling. But the actors in the conflict between Catalonia and Spain are facing what political scientists call a social dilemma: either side gains from selfish behavior unless the other side behaves selfishly, too, in which case both sides lose.

GOTHENBURG – Within a few days, the Catalan regional parliament may declare Catalonia’s independence, after 500 years of history with Spain. A few hours afterwards, the Spanish government may respond by sending thousands of police to detain top Catalan officials, putting an end to 40 years of prosperous self-rule. In turn, many Catalans may take to the streets, launching a revolt with scary consequences.

At first sight, the idea that Spain could descend into chaos is puzzling. The country is ranked among the world’s top-performing democracies – ahead of France, Italy, and the US according to some indicators. And it is one of the favorite destinations for investors and tourists worldwide. Having strolled through the magnificent and charming streets of Barcelona, the possibility of violent clashes there seems as unlikely as a guerrilla in the forests of British Columbia.

Nonetheless, a physical confrontation between the Spanish authorities and Catalan insurrectional forces is a possible outcome, unless the major actors change their course of action. And none of them has incentives to do so. Like James Dean and Buzz in “Rebel Without a Cause,” the Spanish and Catalan governments are speeding their cars toward a cliff, with each expecting the other to be the first to jump out.