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The Rebirth of Nationalism
Nationalist Intellectuals Lead Catalan Fight

In Spain, academia’s ivy tower is colliding with popular Catalan unrest. The Catalan Parliament voted earlier this month to hold a referendum on independence from Spain, and though Spain has said the referendum would be unconstitutional, six leading Catalan academics are throwing their weight behind the secessionist movement.  The WSJ profiles the six’s leader Xavier Sala-i-Martin and the group in general:

The scholars—five economists and a political scientist from Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, the London School of Economics and prominent institutions—call themselves the Wilson Initiative, after U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, a champion of national self-determination […]

“If you were to ask in which ways economists today are having the most influence on the world, this movement would be close to the top of the list,” George Mason University economist [and AI board member] Tyler Cowen wrote in his widely read “Marginal Revolution” blog.

This story illustrates an important historical phenomenon: intellectuals often take the lead in nationalist and secessionist struggles. This was true in 19th century Europe,  it was true in 20th century anti-colonialist movements, and it is true today, with the Catalans are carrying the torch.

Several factors link intellectuals to nationalist struggles. Intellectuals and professors get paid to think and read, so they have more time to go into these things; professors are in close contact with students and are more exposed to the passions of youth for change and new thinking; they often have the ability to take the inchoate ideas, longings, and discontents of the rising generation and give them the intellectual and programmatic coherence that makes them effective political rallying cries for the larger public.

But there are also less noble reasons: academics and intellectuals are often among the biggest beneficiaries when new countries are formed. Somebody has to staff all those ministries, somebody has to sit in Parliament, somebody has to fill all those embassies and government posts abroad. When a province becomes a country, a lot of power gets redistributed and a lot of people move up.

This is not to cast doubt on the seriousness of nationalist movements or to besmirch the reputations of the often idealistic people who lead nationalist revolts. But nationalism is more than a moral sentiment; it creates winners and losers. In an independent Catalonia, many professors and intellectuals will become ambassadors, EU bureaucrats, government ministers, and senior civil servants. Younger academics will get faster promotions, and fluency in Catalan will likely be required for all public jobs.

Nationalism has been one of the strongest historical forces of the last 200 years. Nationalists have defeated huge empires, launched world wars, and defied efforts by ideologies like communism to crush them. One thing serious students of world affairs need to do is to watch events like the Catalan and Scottish movements for independence not simply on their own terms but as opportunities to learn how nationalism works and what makes it so strong.

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  • FreeRider

    I support both Catalan and Scottish(Gael or Celts) movements, these two nation have same roots, they came from so called protoCelts. They want to save their own nationality, their identity…they want ot preserve their way of life… “Nationalism is a belief, creed or political ideology that involves an individual identifying with, or becoming attached to, one’s nation. Nationalism involves national identity, by contrast with the related construct of patriotism, which involves the social conditioning and personal behaviors that support a state’s decisions and actions.” Rothi, Despina et al. (2005). National attachment and patriotism in a European nation: A British study. Political Psychology, 26, 135 – 155

    • Vadim Pashkov

      “their way of life” was destroyed by industrialization and globalization long time ago

  • Jim__L

    “We will not be ruled by those whose ways are strange to us” is the core of Nationalism. As such, interestingly, it covers the culture wars of the US as well as the independence movements of other countries.

    It is also the bloodiest force in all of human history, edging out government incompetence / maliciousness, Conquest by a factor of ten, and leaving Religion behind by orders of magnitude.

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