Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Crisis of the 2020s

China's population pyramid. The crisis of the 2020s will be triggered in part by the end of cheap imports from China and the return of inflation.

New Year's 2021. Little seems to have changed over the past three years. Technologically, there are more smart devices to entertain you or to help you with your work. Economically, things are supposed to be better, but that's not your impression. Politically? Not much either. Most of eastern and central Europe has gone nationalist, but they always were, weren't they? There's Italy, where Berlusconi governs with two nationalist parties, but isn't that a rerun of what he finagled two decades earlier? Finally, North Africa is in the news, but no one seems to know what's going on there.

Yet something is afoot. A friend makes a remark he never would have before. He of all people! At the health club you try to follow the news on TV, but it seems harder to follow than usual. You're thinking of traveling abroad, but it's more complicated, supposedly because of the terrorist threat ...


The Crisis of the 2020s will not be readily apparent when the decade begins. Nationalist parties will be in power over most of Europe, but the Western European "core"—the United Kingdom, France, and Germany—will still be postnational. Yet even there nationalist parties will have made inroads at the regional and municipal levels. These electoral successes will be self-reinforcing, with one leading to another, especially in regions that are culturally and linguistically similar.

But this nationalist consensus will have to reckon with an opposing consensus that is already in place and likewise self-reinforcing. This postnational consensus took shape in the 1940s, when elites throughout the West blamed nationalism for the Second World War and the preceding depression. It grew stronger in the 1950s and 1960s with competition by the two superpowers for the hearts and minds of emerging nations in Asia and Africa. The Cold War had the perverse effect of making the United States and the Soviet Union mirror images of each other, each trying to preach its own universal gospel to the unconverted. 

This elite consensus entered a new phase with the end of the postwar boom in the 1970s and a slowdown in economic growth throughout the West. This slowdown has been attributed to several causes:

- The postwar boom was driven by low prices for raw materials, especially oil. In the 1970s oil prices spiked, as did prices for other key commodities.

- The postwar boom was also driven by population growth—the baby boom. Young adults spent more on housing, children's clothes, educational supplies, and other family-related purchases. They also became more willing to invest in the future, both personally and collectively, since they were literally investing in their children. During the 1960s fertility rates declined dramatically, and by the 1970s declines in school enrolment and household spending had become noticeable. 

- A backlog of technological innovation had piled up during the Great Depression and the Second World War. By the 1970s this backlog was largely gone.

- Thrift and saving had become ingrained during the depression and the war. By the 1970s the culture had shifted toward greater acceptance of living beyond one's means.

These causes should be viewed with some caution, since the slowdown happened across very different political and cultural contexts in North America, Western Europe, and Japan. It also happened in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Slow growth may simply be the historic norm, and economies return to this norm as they mature. In any case, policy makers are less interested in causes than they are in solutions, and to find solutions to slow growth they have consciously or unconsciously turned to postnational thinking for inspiration. 

A slowly growing economy isn't necessarily bad for the average person. Because population growth has likewise slowed throughout the West, economic growth, however sluggish, translates into more wealth per capita. Because companies can no longer count on a growing market, they have to compete much more with each other for market share, thus improving the quality of the goods and services they offer. They also have to compete for a limited supply of labor, thus bidding up wages and raising productivity through automation and robotization. Japan has taken that path, and it isn't doing so badly despite the doom and gloom one hears. Labor scarcity means that 74% of Japanese aged 15 to 65 have a paid job—well above the OECD average of 67%. Only 1.2% of Japan's labor force has been without work for a year or longer—below the OECD average of 2%. Also, Japanese life expectancy at birth is 84 years—well above the OECD average of 80 years.

Slow growth may not be bad news for the average person, but it is for the rentier class—those whose income comes not from work but from dividends, interest, and speculation. When economic growth falls to 2 or 3% a year, this becomes their return on investment. It's not enough to live on, at least not in the style they're used to.

The rentier class has thus pushed Western governments to make the economy grow faster than it normally would. Since the 1970s, growth has been spurred through financial stimuli of one sort or another: tax cuts, deficit spending, lower interest rates, and monetary expansion. This is still a popular response, but the shortcomings are now well-known. The immediate one is inflation—in the 1970s inflation rose to double digits throughout the West. It has since been contained by a mix of money supply management and globalization, i.e., outsourcing jobs to low-wage countries and insourcing low-wage labor for jobs that cannot be outsourced (agriculture, construction, services). In the U.S., massive low-wage immigration began with the Reagan amnesty of 1986, although this outcome was emphatically denied at the time. Upward pressure on wages has further slackened with the decline in unionization, itself largely a result of globalization, particularly the loss of jobs in manufacturing and the shift to less easily unionized jobs in services. Finally, immigration itself has been seen as a way to stimulate the economy through increased aggregate demand, particularly for real estate and construction.

While these stimulus measures help to spur growth over the short term, the outcome seems more dubious over the long term. Today, interest rates are at record low levels throughout the West, and immigration is running at record high levels—in the U.S., legal immigration alone is over three times what it was in the 1960s. Yet year-to-year economic growth is much lower: 1.6 to 2.5% in the 2010s versus 2.3 to 6.5% in the 1960s.

The economy seems to habituate to these stimulus measures. We thus have the apparent paradox of more and more stimulus producing less and less growth. This paradox has three causes:

- People take further growth for granted, particularly in their willingness to go into debt. Growth becomes a Ponzi scheme.

- Uninterrupted growth leads to accumulation of inefficiency. Without periodic recessions to remove wasteful companies and work practices, the economy becomes less productive.

- Sources of immigration have shifted to cultures that are less oriented to the market economy and to the values that make it possible. Historically, most economic growth has been within two culture areas: Europe, especially northwest Europe, and East Asia. These cultures are characterized by high levels of trust, high future orientation, and low willingness to use violence for personal disputes (Clark 2007; Clark 2009; Frost 2015; Frost 2017; Frost & Harpending 2015). Most immigrants to the West no longer come from either culture area. As a result, trust is declining, fear of violence is increasing, and more resources are being earmarked for external behavioral controls (police, private security), which are replacing the internal behavioral controls that used to be enough. Transactions now have to be double-checked for evidence of fraud, theft, or counterfeiting, with the result that economic activity costs more and in some cases is no longer worth doing.

For the near future, Western policy makers will continue to follow the postnational consensus, not so much because they believe in it but rather because they are immersed in it and have little exposure to alternate views. This echo chamber will, in fact, cause the prevailing consensus to become more radical over time. One example is the recent call from Canada's council of economic advisers for a sharp rise in immigration:

The 14-member council was assembled by Finance Minister Bill Morneau to provide "bold" advice on how best to guide Canada's struggling economy out of its slow-growth rut. 

One of their first recommendations, released last week, called for a gradual increase in permanent immigration to 450,000 people a year by 2021 — with a focus on top business talent and international students. That would be a 50-per-cent hike from the current level of about 300,000.

The council members — along with many others, including Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains — argue that opening Canada's doors to more newcomers is a crucial ingredient for expanding growth in the future. (Blatchford 2016)

This is the backdrop for the Crisis of the 2020s. On the one hand, the postnational consensus will continue to radicalize in the core countries of the Western world. On the other hand, a very different consensus will dominate most of central and eastern Europe, with inroads being made into France and Germany. These opposing consensuses will diverge more and more, if only because mutual antagonism will make dialogue impossible.

The crisis itself may be triggered by one or more factors:

- Inflation will return after a four decade absence. China's supply of cheap labor is drying up, and alternate sources, such as Africa, will prove unsuitable. Prices for certain commodities, especially food, may also rise. This will be pivotal because globalism has gone unchallenged among the elites largely because it has delivered on its promise of inflation-free growth.

- There will be a growing realization that the new migrants to Europe have a different work ethic. They will end up being tax consumers rather than, as hoped, tax payers. Forget about them paying for your pension and health care.

- The French presidential election of 2022 will be much closer than the one in 2017, the result being a narrow defeat or a narrow victory for the Front national. Either way, the country will become ungovernable. A similar situation may or may not develop in Germany after the 2021 federal election.

- NATO may try to intervene in one or more countries in eastern or central Europe.

The actual trigger will matter less than the instability of the world-system. This instability will cause even minor conflicts to escalate, either within the Western European core or, perhaps, in response to a failed intervention in Eastern Europe.

Such escalation will be demanded by those who support the postnational consensus, yet it will work to their detriment. A world-system is stable only if, as Wallerstein (1974) argued, it meets three conditions:

- Military strength is concentrated in core societies

- Ideological commitment to the system is pervasive, i.e., "the staff or cadres of the system (and I leave this term deliberately vague) feel that their own well-being is wrapped up in the survival of the system as such and the competence of its leaders. It is this staff which not only propagates the myths; it is they who believe them."

- Peripheral societies are unable to unite against core societies.

Conflict, especially armed conflict, will destroy the illusion that the postnational consensus is a consensus and thus the only sensible way of viewing reality. Uncertainty and disenchantment will spread even among "sensible" people. Furthermore, if military strength no longer remains concentrated in the core, being used, for example, to intervene in the periphery, there may not be enough people in uniform anymore to defend the entire world-system. Defeat in one country may lead to a chain reaction where one country after another defects to the other side.


Blatchford, A. (2016). Finance Minister's key advisers want 100M Canadians by 2100, Thestar.com October 23

Clark, G. (2009).The Domestication of Man: The Social Implications of Darwin, ArtefaCToS, 2, 64-80

Clark, G. (2007). A Farewell to Alms. A Brief Economic History of the World, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.

Frost, P. (2017). The Hajnal line and gene-culture coevolution in northwest Europe, Advances in Anthropology, 7, 154-174.

Frost, P. (2015). Two Paths, The Unz Review, January 24

Frost, P. and H. Harpending. (2015). Western Europe, state formation, and genetic pacification, Evolutionary Psychology, 13, 230-243.

Wallerstein, I. (1974). The rise and future demise of the world capitalist system: concepts for comparative analysis, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 16(4), 387-415.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The unlikely domino

Ahmed Ouyahia, "The Eradicator" - Prime Minister of Algeria. (Wikicommons: Magharebia). "We are the kings of our home!"

When political change comes to a world-system, does it begin near the center and then spread outward? That seems to be the common view. Karl Marx predicted that communism would first triumph in the U.K., France, and Germany, yet he was proven wrong. In 17th century England the "Levellers" called for giving all men the right to vote, an aim first achieved in the United States and only much later in England. Similarly, the late 19th century saw women gain voting rights in Scandinavia, some Australian colonies, and some western U.S. states. Not until 1928 were the same rights recognized in the U.K. 

The center is an interesting place for new ideas, but it's terrible for getting them implemented. It’s the place where power is concentrated, where resistance to change is strongest, where the elite has been established the longest, and where the elite has diverged the most from ordinary people in terms of self-interest and social distance. So the center is where new ideas have the most trouble spreading through all social strata and gaining acceptance. 

The situation is different farther out on the periphery of a world-system. Social distances are generally shorter and the elites less entrenched. This is partly because peripheral societies tend to be more recent—often beginning as colonies of central societies—and partly because weaker control by the center and greater contact with other world-systems may make them the scene of war, rebellion, and social upheaval, which in turn means replacement of local elites. New ideas can thus percolate more easily throughout the whole of a peripheral society

These are tendencies to be sure and, as such, may not always hold true. The periphery may be a quiet backwater where elites stay put and become more distant from the people. Furthermore, a new idea may face hostility not only from the elite but also from ordinary people. Communism, for instance, was admired in the Muslim world for its opposition to Western imperialism, but its atheism made support impossible among the working people it targeted.

In writing this series I'm simply arguing that public sympathy isn't the only factor in the spread and acceptance of new ideas. There is also elite hostility, and that factor tends to be more formidable at the center than at the periphery.

The next two to three years

A nationalist bloc of European nations has formed on the periphery of the Western world—Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Austria, and Hungary. This has happened not only because public sympathy for nationalism is stronger there but also because elite hostility is weaker. The elites are less differentiated from the rest of society; consequently, there is more social cohesion and commonality of purpose. Finally, the language of the Western world being above all English, the centre has trouble maintaining ideological conformity in those countries where English is poorly understood and where ideology, like culture in general, tends to be locally produced.

In my previous posts I’ve argued that the nationalist bloc will spread outward into culturally similar countries, as well as into countries where post-national elites are unpopular and weakly entrenched. By the year 2021 this bloc will cover a much larger area: almost all of central and eastern Europe, plus Italy. 

It will also include a seemingly unlikely area that isn't European at all, an area that is, in fact, African and Muslim.  

Background to the migrant crisis

Population pressure has been mounting in sub-Saharan Africa for some time. While fertility rates have fallen throughout most of the world, often dramatically, the picture is different in this world region. Fertility declines have at best been modest, and in some countries, like Somalia, fertility has actually risen. The current pace of population growth will continue even if fertility rates fall dramatically:

Rapid population growth in Africa is anticipated even assuming that there will be a substantial reduction of fertility levels in the near future. The medium-variant projection assumes that fertility in Africa will fall from around 4.7 births per woman in 2010-2015 to 3.1 in 2045-2050, reaching a level slightly above 2.1 in 2095-2100. After 2050, it is expected that Africa will be the only region still experiencing substantial population growth. As a result, Africa's share of global population, which is projected to grow from roughly 17 per cent in 2017 to around 26 per cent in 2050, could reach 40 per cent by 2100.

[...] It should be noted that the population of Africa will continue to increase in future decades even if the number of births per woman falls instantly to the level required for stabilization of population size in the long run, known also as "replacement-level fertility". Growth continues in that scenario thanks to the age structure of the population, which is currently quite youthful. The large numbers of children and youth in Africa today will reach adulthood in future decades. Because of their large numbers, their childbearing will contribute to a further increase of population even assuming that they will bear fewer children on average than their parents' generation. In all plausible scenarios of future trends, Africa will play a central role in shaping the size and distribution of the world's population over the next few decades. (United Nations, 2017, p. xxii)

Meanwhile, the inevitable has begun. When the slave trade ended in the early 19th century there began a long period when relatively few people left sub-Saharan Africa. Some did, but their numbers were relatively small—Senegalese riflemen, Somali seamen and, later, university students. This hiatus came to an end in the early 1970s. To fill insecure, low-paying jobs, French employers extended their zone of recruitment to sub-Saharan Africa, and this example was followed by employers elsewhere. Even Greece began to recruit African labor for jobs in construction, agriculture, and shipping (Pteroudis 1996).

The stream of migrants continued despite the economic slowdown that set in with the Oil Crisis of 1973 and the 1982-1983 recession. They came for the most part on temporary visas and then overstayed. Large-scale illegal entry did not begin until the early 2000s, via a route across the Sahara to Libya and then across the Mediterranean to Italy by boat (De Haas 2008). In 2008, Silvio Berlusconi, signed a treaty with Muammar Gaddafi to block this route, but enforcement collapsed with Gaddafi's overthrow and murder in 2011. The result was a surge in African migration.

Yet this surge is only the tip of the iceberg:

[...] it is a misconception that all or most migrants crossing the Sahara are "in transit" to Europe. There are possibly more sub-Saharan Africans living in the Maghreb than in Europe. An estimated 65,000 and 120,000 sub-Saharan Africans enter the Maghreb yearly overland, of which only 20 to 38 per cent are estimated to enter Europe. While Libya is an important destination country in its own right, many migrants failing or not venturing to enter Europe prefer to stay in North Africa as a second-best option (De Haas 2008).

African migrants currently take three routes to Europe: a western route via Morocco and Spain; a central one via Libya and Italy, and an eastern one via Egypt and Greece. Given the chaos in Libya, the central route is shifting to Algeria, and that country is increasingly becoming their final destination. "Our studies revealed that more than half of the migrants in Algeria actually live there," explains MDM. [Médecins du Monde]" Even if this was not their plan at the beginning, they end up finding a job and settling in one place." (Matarese 2016)

A changing response

Until recently, the official Algerian response has been similar to that of Western countries. Last July, the government announced plans to grant at least some of them residency rights and job permits. These measures were announced in a sympathetic tone:

"The presence of our African brothers in our country will be regulated and the Ministry of the Interior is using the police and the gendarmerie to take a census of all the displaced people," said Tebboune, who was replying to the concerns of deputies of the National Popular Assembly during debate over the government's action plan.

[...] "There are parties who wish to tarnish Algeria's image and label it as a racist country,' said Tebboune, who added: "We are not racists. We are African, Maghrebin, and Mediterranean."

"Africa and the Arab world are the natural extension of Algeria and the space in which it has evolved and developed," said Tebboune, underscoring "the moral and human duty that requires us to provide assistance to our brothers who are forced to flee their lands because of poverty and the torment of war." (Huffpost 2017)

Other members of the government, however, were less sympathetic. Also last July, the Minister of State, Ahmed Ouyahia, condemned the growing numbers of African migrants:

The African community that illegally resides in Algeria brings drugs, delinquency, and other scourges. One cannot say to the authorities: "Throw them into the sea" but one must live in Algeria legally.  [...] People will say to me "human rights!" but we are the kings of our home! (RT 2017)

Public opinion has also turned sour. In June of this year, an anti-migrant campaign was launched on the Algerian social media via the hashtag No to Africans in Algeria! This slogan may sound strange in a country that is, in fact, in Africa, but the reality is that the average Algerian feels more in common with Europe or the Middle East.

Anti-migrant discourse is summed up by this comment:

[...] these Africans from all over the Sahel think they're in conquered territory, being arrogant and threatening. They forcefully demand money and not food. They're everywhere and present a sorry picture of what a human being should be. Begging, nothing but begging from these hefty guys who are more athletic than Cristiano Ronaldo and who refuse to roll up their shirtsleeves and work. Now they're no longer content to be in southern Algeria; that's no longer their fine seigneury. They're moving into the coastal cities. There are hundreds of thousands of them, and more come every day. (RT 2017)

Threatening behavior might work in Europe, where the average citizen feels that only the police are entitled to respond to threats with violence. In Algeria, however, the police are a relatively recent institution, as is State authority in general, and every adult male feels entitled to use violence if threatened or even insulted. An exchange of insults can quickly escalate into fighting by both parties:

Kader, an Ivorian who has been in Algeria for six years, said there was a growing number of Guineans in Algiers. "They don't know the country, and they react very badly the minute an Algerian is rude to them or insults them. It ends up in a fight, and people get hurt." (Chenaoui 2017)

A single incident may become a riot. In March 2016 more than a hundred residents of a small town south of Algiers showed up at an abandoned shopping center where migrants were living and assaulted dozens of them in retaliation for an alleged rape (The Observers 2016). At about the same time in another town, some 300 local inhabitants surrounded and attacked a refugee reception center after a migrant from Niger murdered a local resident during a break-in (Huffpost 2016)

Last August, Ahmed Ouyahia was appointed Prime Minister, and migrant policy has grown increasingly hardline. Since August 25, more than 3,000 migrants have been summarily deported to Niger, including many from other African countries (HRW 2017). There is a striking similarity here to Israel’s response when African migrants began pouring into that country. It, too, initially responded like Western states but did an about-face partly because of the magnitude of the problem and partly because of pressure from public opinion. Whatever one thinks of either country, they are both fundamentally democratic, more so in fact than most Western countries. The elites cannot defy public opinion because they’re too close to the public and because they lack the firm ideological control that makes defiance possible.

Algeria, like Israel, will have to adopt harsher measures against the migrant influx. Unlike Israel, the migrant population is much larger and will continue to grow through natural increase alone. Meanwhile, public opinion is radicalizing. The situation may become like what we see in Greece, but without the external coercion that comes with being an EU member.

The migrant issue will loom large in Algeria's 2019 presidential election. Ahmed Ouyahia may run as a Trump-like populist candidate. He may even, à la Trump, call for construction of a fence along the southern border. And like Trump he has already been condemned by human rights groups, notably for his role in the "eradicator" faction that pushed for all-out war against the Islamist insurgency in the 1990s.


Chenaoui, Z. (2017). Adrift in Algiers: African migrants marooned in a new transit bottleneck, The Guardian, October 31

De Haas, H. (2008). Irregular Migration from West Africa to the Maghreb and the European Union: An Overview of Recent Trends, International Organization for Migration, Geneva

HRW (2017). Algeria: Surge in Deportations of Migrants. Apparent Racial Profiling, Summary Expulsion of Sub-Saharan Africans, Human Rights Watch, October 30

Huffpost (2016). Après les affrontements de Ouargla, 700 migrants subsahariens transférés à Tamanrasset (Wali), March 3

Huffpost (2017). Abdelmadjid Tebboune : La présence des migrants subsahariens sur le territoire algérien sera réglementée, June 24

Matarese, M. (2016). Migrants in Algeria struggle for acceptance, Middle East Eye, January 6

Pteroudis, E. (1996). Emigrations et immigrations en Grèce, évolutions récentes et questions politiques, Revue européenne de migrations internationales, 12, 159-189 (Espagne, Portugal, Grèce, pays d'immigration).

RT (2017). L'Algérie raciste ? Une directive anti-migrants, finalement retirée, fait polémique dans le pays. RT en français, October 3

The Observers (2016). Police watch as locals attack migrants in Algeria, March 29

United Nations (2017). World Population Prospects. The 2017 Revision, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, Volume 1, Comprehensive Tables

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Terra Nostra, for how long?

Giorgia Meloni, president of Terra Nostra. (Wikicommons: Niccolò Caranti)

A nationalist bloc of nations now extends across much of eastern and central Europe, but Italy seems like another world. In the Italian parliament the leading nationalist party, the Lega Nord (LN), has lost seats at each general election since 1994, except for the one in 2008. The party is also under pressure from members to distance itself from Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, particularly after both failed to make major electoral gains this year. Finally, by its very nature, the LN is limited in its potential for growth—it’s a regional party whose support is confined to northern Italy.

Ironically, Italy had once been Europe’s epicenter of political change, as novelist and literary critic Umberto Eco pointed out:

Italian fascism was the first right-wing dictatorship that took over a European country, and all similar movements later found a sort of archetype in Mussolini's regime. Italian fascism was the first to establish a military liturgy, a folklore, even a way of dressing—far more influential, with its black shirts, than Armani, Benetton, or Versace would ever be. It was only in the Thirties that fascist movements appeared, with Mosley, in Great Britain, and in Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Yugoslavia, Spain, Portugal, Norway, and even in South America. It was Italian fascism that convinced many European liberal leaders that the new regime was carrying out interesting social reform, and that it was providing a mildly revolutionary alternative to the Communist threat. (Eco 1995)

What would have happened if Italy had stayed out of the Second World War? Would fascism have remained an “interesting” alternative not only to Communism but also to liberal democracy? Probably not. It would have fallen prey to dry rot and eventually collapsed, like in Spain and Portugal. There were fundamental problems with fascism besides the obvious one of stupid jingoism. There was also the problem of maintaining traditional values in an increasingly urban and anonymous mass culture, and this mission was assigned to a state/clerical bureaucracy that might, one day, have other ideas …

As a credible postwar movement, fascism persisted longer in Italy than elsewhere. Indeed, a neo-fascist party was represented in the Italian parliament throughout the postwar era. This was the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MRI), which held seats in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate from 1948 until its dissolution in 1995, when the MRI rebranded itself as the Alleanza Nazionale (AN) in a bid to gain mainstream support. 

Although it was for a long time preoccupied with the debate of fascism and anti-fascism, the party distanced itself from this in the early 1990s to rather focus on contemporary Italian issues. [...] When the party transformed itself into the AN, it outspokenly rejected fascism, as well as "any kind of totalitarianism and racism." In contrast to other far-right parties in Europe which increased their power in the late 1980s, the MSI chose to not campaign against immigration, because [there] was less than [in] other European countries. (Wikipedia 2017a)

This transformation paid off, electorally. In 1996 the AN peaked at 16% of the popular vote, and in 2001 it joined a coalition government with its leader as Deputy Prime Minister and Silvio Berlusconi as Prime Minister. Finally, in 2009 it was absorbed into a new party created by Berlusconi, Il Popolo della Libertà (PdL).

There is a lesson in this. If you imitate the mainstream in order to gain power, you may destroy your reason for seeking power, which is to promote your ideas and make them public policy. The end becomes cannibalized by the means.

And yet ...

One may conclude that nothing points to a nationalist breakthrough in Italy, at least not in the near future. Yet things aren't necessarily what they seem. Although the Lega Nord has lost support at the national level, it has gained support at the regional level, particularly in the 2015 regional elections. A party member, Luca Zaia, was elected president of the Veneto region with 50% of the vote, the combined score for the LN and Zaia lists being 41%. The party came second in Liguria (22%) and Tuscany (16%) and third in Marche (13%) and Umbria (14%). These were record successes.

One doesn't have to look far for the reason. Over the past three years half a million migrants, mostly from Africa, have poured into Italy. And the end isn't in sight. The migrant wave is being driven by population pressure in Africa, and not by specific events like the civil war in Syria:

While irregular crossings in the Mediterranean to reach Europe have been growing for a number of years, 2015 marked the sharpest rise in sea arrivals to the EU with a four-fold increase from 2014.

[...] There has been a rapid decline in the presence of Syrian nationals who went from 24% of arrivals in 2014 to just 5% in 2015. While Eritreans were the largest single nationality group in 2015, it is the presence of young single men from a wide range of African countries that truly characterises the Central Mediterranean route in 2015. (Crawley et al. 2016)

Meanwhile, an alternative to the Lega Nord has been taking shape. In 2012 the Fratelli d'Italia (FdI) was founded with Giorgia Meloni as president and a membership drawn largely from the old AN. Its ideology is described as follows:

[The basic principles are] nationalism, national conservatism, and the Social Right [a French movement of social conservatism].

In economic matters, these [principles] mean abandoning the euro, implementing protectionism for products made in Italy, and repealing the European Fiscal Compact.

On the issue of taxation, the electoral program calls for a "family quotient" [taxation that takes the size of the nuclear family into account], a lower sales tax of 4% on goods for young children, and tax deductions substantiated with receipts for such goods.

The party also calls for a social mortgage, i.e., establishment of a publicly funded institution to build housing and living quarters for sale to families who do not already own a home. Mortgage payments will not exceed one fifth of family income, and an eligible family must have at least one gainfully employed member.

At the international level the party declares that it is close to the Front National of Marine Le Pen and the Law and Justice party in Poland. (Wikipedia 2017b)

The party is opposed to birthright citizenship and decriminalization of illegal immigration, and it supports a naval blockade in the Mediterranean. Finally, in the field of civil rights, it opposes gay marriage and parenting, stating that it wants to safeguard the traditional family.

Although the FdI won only 2% of the popular vote in the 2013 general election, it has done better in subsequent municipal and regional elections. In the 2016 election in Rome it received 12% of the popular vote. In the 2017 regional election in Sicily, a politician close to the party was elected president. In preparation for the 2018 general election, the FdI is working to form a broader nationalist front called Terra Nostra (TN) (Wikipedia 2017c).


At first glance, Italy’s nationalist scene looks moribund. Over the past twenty years the Lega Nord has steadily lost support in general elections. In the 1990s the Movimento Sociale Italiano lost its raison d'être and eventually disappeared into the political mainstream. A closer look, however, shows that the LN has been increasing its support at the regional and municipal levels. The last few years have also seen a new nationalist party come into being: the Fratelli d'Italia, now renamed Terra Nostra. Time will tell, but it has already shown promising growth in municipal and regional elections. The TN is partly a response to electoral successes by similar parties in other countries, notably the Front National in France and the Law and Justice party in Poland, but its main impetus seems to be events in Italy itself, particularly the sharp rise in immigration from Africa over the past three years.

Both parties will have to overcome several barriers to electoral success:

- The Lega Nord cannot fully mobilize the nationalist vote. Its support is confined to northern Italy and is fueled by a perception that the north is subsidizing the south and an overgrown central government. It has in fact tried to build support in southern and central Italy, but with little success.

- Terra Nostra is new, and new parties are prone to problems that plague any new team of people: disagreement over vision and ideology, uncertainty over direction and strategy, etc. Since many of its founding members had formerly belonged to the AN, and previously to the MRI, they will tend to follow old visions and old ideology. In particular, belief in a strong central state will block cooperation with the LN.

- There is a lack of time. Immigration to Italy has reached high levels. With a fertility rate of 1.2 children per native-born woman, the most likely scenario will be rapid demographic replacement. Indeed, this fate awaits the entire southern tier of Europe.

Although both parties may do very well in the upcoming 2018 general election, they will probably not do well enough to form a coalition government on their own. The outcome will likely be a three-way coalition: Lega Nord, Terra Nostra, and Forza Italia, i.e., Berlusconi's party. This raises the prospect of absorption into the political mainstream, as was the case a decade ago. This time, however, the tail might wag the dog; there are signs that Forza Italia voters are realizing that Italy, like Europe as a whole, is facing an existential crisis. On the other hand, their party is still a mix of liberal and traditionalist tendencies:

In October 2014 Berlusconi personally endorsed Renzi's proposals on civil unions for gays and a quicker path to citizenship to Italian-born children of immigrants. However, recent developments proved the party more socially conservative. FI clarified that it considers marriage solely as the union between a man and a woman. The majority of its members voted against civil unions, whereas the NCD voted in favour. Moreover, the party is critical of teaching gender studies in schools. Party members are generally pro-life and therefore seek to limit abortion and euthanasia. The party has criticized illegal immigration and the way it has been managed by centre-left coalition governments. It has also declared itself against the introduction of jus soli in Italy. In addition, the party is opposed to drug liberalization, which it considers potentially negative for health and not useful for solving criminal matters. When FI's predecessors were in power, they restricted the legislation on the matter, with the Fini-Giovanardi law. Finally, FI considers Italy as a country with a Christian civilization and, thus, favours displaying Christian symbols in public places. (Wikipedia 2017d)

This is typical conservatism, and on several points it is vulnerable to the sort of manipulation by outside interests that we have seen with conservative parties elsewhere. If, for example, only illegal immigration is problematic, why not solve the problem by legalizing it? Perhaps Berlusconi has learned his lesson, but the example of conservatives elsewhere isn't reassuring. Again, time will tell.


Crawley, H., F. Duvell, N. Sigona, S. McMahon, and K. Jones (2016).  Unpacking a rapidly changing scenario: migration flows, routes and trajectories across the Mediterranean. Unravelling the Mediterranean Migration Crisis (MEDMIG) Research Brief No.1 March 2016

Eco, U. (1995). Ur-Fascism, The New York Review of Books, June 22

Wikipedia (2017a). Italian Social Movement.

Wikipedia (2017b). Fratelli d'Italia - Alleanza Nazionale.

Wikipedia (2017c). Brothers of Italy

Wikipedia (2017d). Forza Italia.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The next two to three years

Election posters for the radical nationalist SRS (Srpska radikalna stranka), (Wikicommons: Micki)

A nationalist bloc of nations has come into being in eastern and central Europe—Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Austria, and Hungary. This is a new development, and most commentators in North America and Western Europe are still digesting what has happened. So they are easy prey for three misconceptions:

This is right-wing nationalism, even far right. Actually, in denouncing the erosion of the welfare state and in rejecting military intervention abroad, it has more in common with Bernie Sanders than with Margaret Thatcher. It is, in fact, a sharp break with the thinking that has dominated the right since the days of Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s.

This is a return to the belligerent nationalism of the early 20th century. Europe no longer has enough young men to sacrifice in needless wars—ironically, that's what postnational Western elites have been pushing. In the early 21st century, nationalism is about rejecting military adventurism abroad and defending what we have at home.

This is an Eastern European thing, a legacy of communism. True, in its initial stages. National identity is stronger in Eastern Europe, partly because the Iron Curtain hindered the inflow of Western culture and partly because these societies are less differentiated and more homogeneous. Because citizens share similar interests, consensus can be reached more easily and then spread elsewhere. And the new nationalist consensus has already spread west of the former Iron Curtain. 

Over the next two to three years, this consensus will spread into other small countries or regions where the elites are close to the people, where English isn't widely used, and where the culture is similar and tends to be locally produced. The next dominoes to fall will thus probably be Slovenia and Croatia to the south and Switzerland, Bavaria, and Saxony to the west. This political change will happen as much through ideological conversion of old parties as through electoral upsets by new parties.

The nationalist consensus will spread to other countries with the help of another factor: the relative weakness of the local elite and, conversely, the relative strength of public feeling that change is necessary. If we look at Europe as a whole, we can identify two zones where the elites are weak and the desire for change is correspondingly strong. One is Serbia/Macedonia/Bulgaria. The other is Italy.


Although Serbia is next to Hungary, it has less in common with that country than does Austria or Czechia. As a state within Yugoslavia, it was never part of the Warsaw Pact and only an associate member of Comecon. It was communist, yes, but it remained nonaligned during the Cold War. In addition, its religious heritage is Orthodox and not Catholic. Like much of the Orthodox world, it had once lived under Muslim rule and thus views the Islamic world differently—as a former colonizing power and not as a former victim of colonialism.

Currently, Serbia is ruled by the SNS (Srpska napredna stranka), which won 48% of the vote in the 2016 parliamentary elections. The party originated in a group that broke away from the much more radical SRS (Srpska radikalna stranka), a nationalist party that opposes European integration and globalism. Internationally, the SNS cooperates with the FPO of Austria (Freedom Party) and Yedinaya Rossiya (United Russia). 

Nonetheless, Serbia’s governing party is acting more and more like postnational Western elites. In 2015, it gave 600,000 migrants free passage through the country, partly under pressure from the EU—as the foreign minister hinted in an interview with Deutsche Welle:

DW: Serbia is one of the main countries that refugees transit on the Balkan route to the European Union. What measures has your country adopted in response?

Ivica Dacic: Up to now we had a fair and constructive approach to this issue, and for this we were praised by the entire world and commended for our behavior from the European Union, the United Nations and all world powers. I have to note that in 2015 we had 600,000 migrants pass through Serbia. (Deutsche Welle 2016)

The government is in fact seeking EU membership:

Serbia's prime minister said Wednesday [June 28, 2017] her future government's goal is membership in the European Union along with modernization of the troubled Balkan country.

Ana Brnabic told Serbian parliament that the government will lead a "balanced" foreign policy, seeking good relations with Russia, China and the U.S.

Lawmakers are expected to vote her government into office later this week. If confirmed, Brnabic will become Serbia's first ever female and openly gay prime minister.

"The time before us will show how brave we are to move boundaries," Brnabic said in her speech. "Now is the moment to make a step forward and take our society, country and economy into the 21st century."

She warned that "if we don't take that chance, we can hardly count on another one again."

When President Aleksandar Vucic nominated the U.S.- and U.K.-educated Brnabic to succeed him as prime minister earlier this month, it was seen as an attempt to calm Western concerns that Serbia was getting too chose to Russia despite its proclaimed goal of joining the EU. (Gec 2017) 

This pro-EU attitude has been adopted in the name of realism. Unemployment hovers at 20% and, despite widespread privatization, the painful transition to a market economy is showing no signs of ending. For advocates of EU membership, the solution is to be patient and to work at becoming like Western Europe. This discourse has a strong element of faith:

There is a Serbia of lies, deceptions, myths, hatred, and death. It is a rural, patriarchal, collectivistic, clerical, anti-Western and anti-modern Serbia. It is also a Serbia manipulated by cynical leaders who exploit its primitiveness and stupidity. Whenever this Serbia had its say, it brought death onto others, and misery onto itself. But, there is another Serbia, urban, modern, pacifist, cosmopolitan, liberal, democratic and European! This is our Serbia! This other Serbia is the only possible future for all of us! We will work hard together with our neighbors and foreign friends to reform Serbia and make it worthy of the European future that awaits it. (Vetta 2009)

Neighboring Bulgaria, however, has been an EU member since 2007 and a NATO member since 2004, yet there too the "transition" shows no signs of ending. The unemployment rate is lower, around 10%, but this figure excludes the large numbers of young Bulgarians who have left the country. From almost nine million in 1988, the population has fallen to a little over seven million today. Serbia is likewise losing its young people, as is most of Eastern Europe.

The transition to a Western market economy has been problematic wherever one goes beyond the Hajnal Line—this imaginary line that runs from Trieste to St. Petersburg. Individualism is weaker and kinship correspondingly stronger, with the result that nepotism and familialism prevent the market from working optimally. We in the West call this "corruption," yet most people in the world think it's normal to favor your kin, just as it's normal to favor yourself. Kith and kin are an extension of the self.

To be sure, consumerism is making Serbian culture more individualistic and hence more accommodating to the market economy, but this cultural change is still incomplete and not without adverse effects. In Eastern Europe, like elsewhere, people buy prestigious consumer goods that they don't really need and, often, don't have the means to pay for. They go heavily into debt and decide to postpone having children. With the exception of Russia and Albania, the one-child family has become the norm throughout Eastern Europe. Economic change is thus linked to a demographic change that is ultimately more serious:

Serbia has been enduring a demographic crisis since the beginning of the 1990s, with a death rate that has continuously exceeded its birth rate, and a total fertility rate of 1.43 children per mother, one of the lowest in the world. Serbia subsequently has one of the oldest populations in the world, with the average age of 42.9 years, and its population is shrinking at one of the fastest rates in the world. A fifth of all households consist of only one person, and just one-fourth of four and more persons. (Wikipedia 2017)

Many Serbs are still hoping that stronger ties with the West will solve their problems. Yet, increasingly, this seems to be a vain hope. The Western model of economic and social development may not be equally applicable to all cultural settings. Indeed, it might not be applicable anywhere in its current form, given its promotion of individualism and its rejection of enduring collective identities like the family, the ethny, and the nation. 

Faith in the Western model is giving way to disillusionment throughout Eastern Europe, and a feeling of having reached a dead end, as Viktor Orban wrote in 2011:

[...] Europe now stands at a fateful juncture. For over twenty years I have been taking part in various European counsels and conferences, and at these gatherings one thing has been consistently clear: the participants have always agreed that there is a well-worn, time-tested path down which it is both worthwhile and indeed necessary to continue plodding. But over the course of the past year and a half the mood at these gatherings has changed fundamentally. Today all of Europe is compelled to face the unpleasant fact that we have run out of well-worn paths. At most the familiar paths will lead us back to the familiar past and its mistakes, setbacks, and failures. (Orban, 2011)

In itself, disillusionment does not cause political change. One must articulate an alternative to the status quo and make it known through mainstream or alternative media. This is one thing that defenders of the status quo fear the most, such as those in Serbia:

Traditional media outlets in Serbia see themselves constantly confronted with direct or indirect pressure. That pressure ranges from direct threats against public media journalists to economic pressure applied to private media companies, especially through mechanisms such as the control of paid advertising. The situation has caused many citizens to turn to Facebook to get their news. For a large portion of society, Facebook and Twitter have become people's main source of information. "It is a reaction to government control of traditional media outlets," says Zeljko Bodrozic, from the Independent Journalists' Association of Serbia (NUNS). "Besides a few other online portals, social media outlets have become the only source for independent news information."

[...] Television outlets, as well as radio and popular daily newspapers, continue to set the tone and influence opinion. "At the same time," says Bodrozic, "social media has been 'hijacked' by the governing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). The government cannot forbid or limit internet use, but it can poison independent news sources or make them appear senseless by actively deploying internet trolls." (Deutsche Welle 2017)

Interestingly, Facebook is cooperating with Serbian authorities in this crackdown on alternative media. News sources will now have less prominence on Facebook unless they're willing to pay for placement in the main feed (Deutsche Welle 2017).

The SNS leadership has come a long way from its nationalist origins. Could this be a double game? Are they trying to get the perks that come with EU candidacy (loans, investment, visa liberalization) while having no real intention of joining? There is probably a mix of motives. Many party members have misgivings about EU membership but feel it's necessary to get Serbia back on its feet. Others are tired of being vilified in the Western media and even in Hollywood movies. For them, EU membership will be a ticket to international acceptance. Finally, others have fully internalized the worldview that prevails in the West, certainly at the U.S. and U.K. universities that the prime minister attended.

In any case, it doesn't matter what the governing party really thinks. All that matters is what it does, and that, in itself, has already caused irreparable harm.

Next week: Italy


Deutsche Welle (2016). 'In 2015 we had 600,000 migrants pass through Serbia' Date: 13/02/2016

Deutsche Welle (2017). Facebook dual feed experiment: Giving users what they want or enabling state censorship? Date: 03/11/2017

Gec, J. (2017). Serbia's next premier: EU membership, modernization priority, World Politics Review, June 28

Orban, V. (2011). The Year of European Renewal - The Prime Minister's Thoughts on the
Hungarian EU Presidency, Hungarian Review 1, 5-11.

Vetta, T. (2009). Revived nationalism versus European democracy:
Class and "identity dilemmas" in contemporary Serbia, Focaal-European Journal of Anthropology 55, 74-89

Wikipedia (2017). Serbia

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Why the dominoes fall

Election Poster for the Lega dei Ticinesi (Italian canton of Switzerland), an "isolationist, national conservative party" (Wiki). Currently, it holds 21 out of 90 seats in the Ticino legislature (Wikicommons: NAC)

My last post was on the collapse of communism in 1989, specifically why it began in Hungary and Poland and why it spread so fast throughout Eastern Europe. At the end I mused that the same two countries were once more the bad boys on the block.

History doesn't repeat itself, at least not exactly. Today, the actors are different, as is the dominant ideology, which for want of a better term I will call "globalism." The cultural context is also larger and more diverse. In 1989, the dominoes fell within a geographic space that was not only smaller but also more homogeneous socially and culturally. Even if we ignore earlier points in common (Catholic and/or Slavic heritage of most countries, largely agrarian social order until recent times), these societies all shared the historical experience of the postwar era: occupation by the Red Army, destruction of the prewar elites, imposition of a new socioeconomic model, and transnational integration into the Warsaw Pact and COMECON.

Today, the dominoes are falling within a larger and more diverse geographic space—Europe in its entirety, as well as overseas societies of European origin. People do share points in common within this space, notably a long history of Christianization and a consciousness of being "white" in relation to the rest of the world. For most, however, this commonality has become a source of ambivalence and, increasingly, shame. Furthermore, this larger geographic space is marked by differences in political and social development that dwarf those of Eastern Europe in 1989.

So what makes the dominoes fall? Beissinger (2007) called this phenomenon "modular revolutionary change" and tried to identify the processes that drive it:

I use the term "modular" in the way in which Tarrow used the term to describe the spread of collective action across groups. Modular action is action that is based in significant part on the prior successful example of others—a model being, in one of Webster's definitions, "an example for imitation or emulation."

[...] Modular phenomena based in the conscious emulation of prior successful example constitute only one form of cross-case influence; spillover effects, herding behavior, path-dependence, and reputational effects are other ways in which cases may be connected with one another.

To explain this power of example, Beissinger (2007) proposed "the elite defection model":

[...] once example gains momentum and crosses the tipping point where modular behavior accelerates across groups, a general expectation about the direction in which events are flowing demoralizes those representing established institutions, potentially promoting defections among them and encouraging bandwagoning behavior. Here, established elites entertain doubts about their own legitimacy and the future of the structures they are defending, so that a demonstration of the vulnerability of such structures in other contexts leads them to co-opt opposition demands or to seek to bail out before it becomes too late.

This bandwagon effect isn't inevitable. If the elites of one country see what is happening in another, they may try to prevent the same thing from happening in theirs, either through negative measures (harsher repression) or through positive ones (reform). Beissinger (2007) mentioned only the possibility of negative measures:

[...] established elites opposing modular change learn the critical lessons of the model from its repeated successes and failures and impose additional institutional constraints on actors to prevent the model from succeeding further. Under this model, established elites retain a belief in the future of current institutions, hold that established elites in other contexts where modular change was previously successful squandered that future as a result of foolish moves, and respond to the threat of modular change by moving aggressively to prevent such challenges, repressing them and raising the institutional constraints that they face.

There are reasons why this kind of situation causes elites to respond with negative measures rather than positive ones. First, even modest reform can spin out of control if people strongly desire change. Second, the elites themselves may fall prey to their own propaganda, particularly their demonization of the opposition. They may thus double down and strive even harder to portray opponents as wicked traitors who must be stopped at all costs.

Third, the elites don't necessarily have the same self-interests as the rest of society. This was less so in communist Eastern Europe, where social distances were relatively small, partly because of socialist ideology and partly because the prewar elites had been eliminated. In 21st century Western Europe and North America, however, the top 1% live in a very different world and accordingly have a very different view of self-interest. In particular, over the past half-century they have greatly improved their position at the expense of their fellow citizens by outsourcing work to low-wage countries and by insourcing low-wage workers for those jobs that cannot be outsourced. In short, the elites can relocate labor and money to maximize return on their investment, while the Western working class cannot so easily relocate itself.

In any case, fewer and fewer countries can offer Western working people the standard of living they once enjoyed. We can debate back and forth whether globalism is raising the living standards of the world's poor—in some countries it has and it others it hasn't. One thing however is clear. Throughout the Western world, incomes have stagnated or declined for most people—largely as a result of a shift from high-paying, largely unionized jobs in manufacturing to much lower-paying, non-unionized jobs in services, where competition with immigrants is most intense.

This point was made by Bernie Sanders in an interview with Lou Dobbs on CNN:

SANDERS: If poverty is increasing and if wages are going down, I don't know why we need millions of people to be coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages than American workers and drive wages down even lower than they are now.

DOBBS: And as we know, the principal industries which hire the bulk of illegal aliens, that is construction, landscaping ...

SANDERS: Lou, I just heard something.

DOBBS: Those are all industries in which wages are declining. I don't hear that discussed on the Senate floor by the proponents of this amnesty legislation.

SANDERS: That's right. They have no good response. I read something today that a lot of people coming into this country are coming in as lifeguards. I guess we can't find — that's right. We can't [find] American workers to work as lifeguards. And the H1B program has teachers, elementary school teachers. Well, you know.

DOBBS: And that H1B program, we got to watch Senator Ted Kennedy watch there with the sole witness being one Bill Gates, the world's richest man, telling him he wanted unlimited H1B visas, obviously uninformed to the fact that seven out of 10 visas under the H1B program goes to Indian corporations that are outsourcing those positions to American corporations in this country and that four out of five of those jobs that are supposed to be high-skilled jobs are actually category one jobs which is low skill.

SANDERS: Well, you raise a good point, in that this whole immigration guest worker program is the other side of the trade issue. On one hand you have large multinationals trying to shut down plants in the America, move to China and on the other hand you have the service industry bringing in low wage workers from abroad. The result is the same — middle class gets shrunken and wages go down. (CNN 2007)

And this is only one aspect of the economic, demographic, and political crisis that now faces people throughout the Western world, particularly those who thought they had a nation-state to defend their interests. Radical change, by its very nature, tends to do more harm than good, and the change we’re now facing dwarfs that of any previous revolution. Robespierre and Lenin didn’t attempt what the current leadership of the West is now attempting. In many respects the crisis we face is an existential one.


How many dominoes will fall? And how fast? Clearly, the process will be slower and more irregular than it was back in 1989. Compared to Eastern Europe, the Western world is much more heterogeneous culturally, politically, and historically. Its elites likewise have less in common with the average man and woman. Finally, they can rely on support from each other, most crucially from elites at the center of the Western world.

On the other hand, this same heterogeneity means that some countries have elites whose hold on power is weaker and whose legitimacy is correspondingly weaker. In such countries, repression may be harsher and yet less effective because there is so little collaboration at the grassroots level. If change is in the air, agents of repression may hesitate to act, for fear that they might later be held accountable for their actions.

So more dominoes will surely fall. For now, they'll fall where the elites are more peripheral in the Western world, where their hold on power is weaker, and where cultural affinity or shared historical experience can facilitate the bandwagon effect. In my next post, I will peer into this near future and the apparent surprises that lie in store.


Beissinger, M.R. (2007). Structure and example in modular political phenomena: The diffusion of Bulldozer/Rose/Orange/Tulip revolutions, Perspectives on Politics 5(2), 259-276.

CNN (2007). Lou Dobbs Tonight, June 21, CNN.com Transcripts