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Demographic changes are not destiny

Demographic changes are not destiny


There are 8 billion people roaming the planet, up from 1 billion a century ago and 4 billion since 1980. They are more mobile than ever before with technology bringing information – and disinformation – to their palms within seconds.  

People have not only become more mobile, with an estimated 114 million refugees among them, but have seen their negotiating powers changing as various tribes, nations, ethnic and religious groups have grown at different rates. 

Although fertility has been declining in developing, poorer, failing countries, they are still far above the 2.1 replacement rate, whereas in most Western countries, the rate is below 1.5, meaning that their populations will decline by some 50% within a few decades.  

Migration and differential fertility rates changed the balance of power within Western societies, as some groups did not melt into Western civilization’s pots. Their members’ voting and importing ethnic conflicts weakened institutions that made the West click and deepened divisions. 

The demographic changes brought the territorial definitions of “states” under pressure both in practice – as attested by both the massive illegal migration to the US and the march of a million to Europe in 2015, followed yearly since by hundreds of thousands – and in principle by rationalizing porous borders. 

Western welfare states, already under pressure because of their aging demographics, accommodate migration and justify it by a variety of academic, idealistic ideas now getting legal recognition – the notion of “sanctuary cities” among them. 

Policy debates avoided discussing the fact that welfare policies have drastically changed migratory patterns. Before the “welfare age”, migrants either made it in their new countries and subsequently paid for their families to join them, or, if they did not, they returned to the countries from whence they came. 

According to historian Thomas J Archdeacon, 46% of Italians who entered the US between 1899 and 1924 returned to Italy permanently.

An underlying idea behind both migration and some domestic policies has been that since human nature is the same, multiculturalism and more porous borders would benefit all, as people will live together peacefully in no time. The historical evidence, however, contradicts these ideas. 

Instead, it confirms Confucius’ observation that “Human beings draw close to one another by their common nature but habits and customs keep them apart.” As long as the vast majority of immigrants shared much of the habits and customs of Western countries’ populations, migrants integrated and in the process contributed to “American,” “French” and other national cultures and characters.  

The question raised now is just how many immigrants can democratic countries accept without risking their institutions. True, the issue of large-scale migration did arise before, both in Western European and American history, but the perceived risk was different. 

President Franklin Roosevelt opposed bluntly both Asian and European migration on the ground that – quote – it “would contaminate the domestic blood” – a view he shared with no other than Hitler. Now, the clash is not about “blood” but rather “culture.”

Denmark’s government just announced that 64% of second-generation Palestinian immigrants are criminals and now pursues far more stringent asylum and migration policies. France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, facing similar statistics, have also changed drastically their asylum and migration policies.  

The issue of distrust – mainly against Muslims, as they represented the largest flow of migrants to Western countries in recent decades and turned out to be the most difficult to accommodate – was unfortunately labeled by a misleading medical metaphor of “Islamophobia”, suggesting a medical condition of the receiving population. 

However, the issue is not allergy but rather has to do with Confucius’ observation. Habits of mind are shaped by living for centuries in societies built around either deistic conceptions or dictatorships, both having created all-encompassing legal systems, institutions and customs assumed to last forever. 

To abandon such a model for today’s Western model of society implies accepting the transfer of authority of deity-created institutions and legal systems to that of people. 

This transformation threatens traditional frames of mind while the ones being shaped are in their infancy and lack authority. Such transitions have taken centuries and have always been accompanied by international and domestic violence, not to mention much corruption.

Napoleon articulated the meaning of such change when spreading his legal innovations through Europe’s drastically changed demographic features to both Metternich and Count Nicolai Rumyantsev, Russia’s foreign minister: “Your sovereigns, born to the throne, may suffer 20 defeats and still keep returning to their capitals. I cannot. I am an upstart soldier. My rule will not survive the day on which I have ceased to be strong and feared.” 

Today, these comments resonate considering current events in the Middle East. Israel’s neighbors with their deistic, monarchic and dictatorial models of society have suffered many defeats but survive, though the Shiites and Sunnis, both groups united against Israel, fight ferociously in their midst (not fitting the “Islamophobic” metaphor, but based more on conflicting deistic conceptions). Israel, as Napoleon, cannot afford even one defeat.

The above conflicts have been going on for millennia. When populations were smaller and less mobile, blood and tribal relations were the glue uniting them. As populations grew, religious beliefs became an additional glue to “re-link” the increasing number of people (the term “religion” comes from “re-ligare” meaning to “re-link”).  

As population and mobility continued to increase and neither religion nor force of empires could keep the different tribes and ethnic groups together, “nationalism” became the next idea to unite people. 

Later, Marx came up with the idea that loyalty to a “working class” could be stronger than national and religious ties to unite increasing numbers of people, by violence if necessary, through dictatorship of the “proletariat.” 

This idea stood in sharp contrast with still another idea: uniting people around a maze of institutions enhancing meritocracy, giving scope to trial and error and hopes of mobility up and down in the distribution of wealth. The latter came to identify Western civilization, whose fundamentals that now include massive welfare nests are now questioned due in part to sharp demographic changes.

Western observers were mistaken in assuming that post-WWII Germany and Japan’s models of transitioning from dictatorial and deistic mindsets to meritocratic ones could be easily replicated. Not so.

Yes, Germany abandoned Nazism. However, this ideology did not have centuries-old roots. Japan abandoned both a warmongering political leadership and the concept of emperor divinity when in an Imperial Rescript on January 1, 1946, Emperor Hirohito declared that he was not a living god.

These acknowledgments were not so drastic as they may appear since the 1889 Constitution of the Empire already separated state and religion and distinguished Shinto from other religions: Its rituals became just a part of Japan’s program of national ethics.  

These cases of “de-radicalization” in relatively short order are thus not applicable to populous Muslim states now, expectations of “Arab Springs” notwithstanding.

They were not applicable to the Soviet Union either when communism fell. Russia, as societies based on deistic-dictatorial conceptions never had the institutions to disperse power – financial power in particular. 

Voting is no remedy in such circumstances. As the government remains the sole financial intermediary, power remains concentrated. The changes only brought a new dictatorship, masked by democratic jargon.  

Latin American, African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries – all having gone through radical demographic changes – display similar patterns accompanied by corruption, concentration of power and violence.

History may not repeat itself but often rhymes whenever drastic demographic changes happen within a short time. Demographic changes are not destiny – during key turning points they can give rise to individuals who can steer society either toward peaceful adjustment or toward conflict and violence. 

To paraphrase a well-known saying: “Necessity is the mother of invention – but also the stepmother of deceptions.”   

The article draws on Brenner’s books, “History – the Human Gamble”, “Betting on Ideas”, “Force of Finance” and “Re-linking 7 Billion People (2017).”


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