Want to experience cognitive dissonance? Try reading George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” while visiting Catalonia. That’s what I did in mid-August.
When Orwell was in Barcelona in 1937, after having been wounded fighting against the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War, the city was convulsed by conflict between anarchists and communists. “The sunlight streets were quite empty,” he wrote. “Nothing was happening except the streaming of bullets from barricades and sand-bagged windows.”
Today, by contrast, the streets are thronged with prosperous-looking pedestrians. The biggest excitement is provided not by soldiers, but by the stars of the FC Barcelona soccer team. You would think the residents of Barcelona would be living in bliss. Instead, many people are agitating for independence for Catalonia, the region of which Barcelona is the capital. Never mind that Catalonia has been part of Spain since the modern state was founded in the 15th century. Because it has a distinct culture and language, activists argue it should be its own country.
Last fall, secessionists staged a referendum in which they claimed 92 percent support among the 43 percent of eligible voters who turned out. The central government in Madrid declared the referendum illegal, suspended the regional parliament and locked up nine independence leaders on charges of sedition. You can see posters scattered throughout Barcelona demanding “Freedom for all Catalan Political Prisoners & Exiles,” as if Spain were a police state.
What is happening in Catalonia is being replicated, in one form or another, across the West, indeed the world. Everyone from Silesians to Sicilians to Scots seems to want autonomy or independence. The British voted to leave the European Union, and hostility to the superstate is rising across the continent. The growth of nationalism and tribalism is evident not just among minorities but also, even more menacingly, among majority groups. President Trump is tapping into white nationalism in the United States, Vladimir Putin into Russian nationalism, Viktor Orban into Hungarian nationalism, Recep Tayyip Erdogan into Turkish nationalism, Xi Jinping into Chinese nationalism, and so on. Their tried-and-true technique is to play up fear of “the other” — whether it is Mexicans, Muslims, Kurds, Gulenists, international bankers, the CIA or other boogeymen.
You would think people would be immune to such fearmongering, given that the world has never been more peaceful or prosperous. Interstate warfare is all but extinct, and deaths from violence, as a percentage of population, are at the lowest point in history. In prehistoric societies, there were as many as 1,000 violent deaths per 100,000 people. In 2007, by contrast, there were just 0.33 violent deaths per 100,000 people according to Oxford economist Max Roser. (Using a different measure, the World Bank recorded 5.3 homicides per 100,000 people in 2015.) Meanwhile, the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has fallen from 94 percent in 1820 to 9.6 percent in 2015.
Of course, not everyone has benefited equally from these trends. Some people, such as the unemployed coal miners and steelworkers of the Rust Belt, have been left behind by growing prosperity. Some groups, such as the Uighurs and Kurds, are struggling against genuine oppression. But it is striking the extent to which so much nationalist agitation is taking place among Westerners who have never had it so good — whether they know it or not.
We now have leaders, such as Trump and the Brexiteers in Britain, who are endangering the hard-won achievements of the post-1945 era by embracing nationalism and calling into question international institutions such as the European Union, the World Trade Organization and NATO. For many politicians, this is a cynical exercise: They are manufacturing grievances to justify their lust for power. But why are so many ordinary people willing to go along?
The military historian Michael Howard provided at least part of the answer in a brief but wise 2000 book, “The Invention of Peace.” “Bourgeois society is boring,” he wrote. “There is something about rational order that will always leave some people, especially the energetic young, deeply and perhaps rightly dissatisfied. . . . Militant nationalist movements or conspiratorial radical ones provide excellent outlets for boredom. In combination, that attraction can prove irresistible.”
Boredom with the long period of post-Napoleonic peace in Europe, along with the rise of virulent nationalism, contributed to the outbreak of World War I. The chief of the German General Staff, Gen. Erich von Falkenhayn, wrote in 1912 that all of the European powers would suffer from a “great European war” and that the chief beneficiaries would be the United States and Japan. But, he added insouciantly, “For me it will be all right. I am most tired and extremely bored by this lazy peacetime life.”
Two world wars later, Europeans and Americans longed for nothing more than the return of the “lazy peacetime life.” But with the passing of the Greatest Generation and even the Silent Generation (those, like John McCain, born between 1925 and 1945), we seem to have forgotten how precious peace and prosperity can be — and how hard to maintain. I fear the West may be sleepwalking into another catastrophe out of sheer boredom as much as anything else.