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.