Analysis by Keith Rankin.
The growth rate of the world population is slowing. Indeed, there is a possibility that it will never reach nine billion; there are demographic ‘headwinds’ affecting both fertility and mortality.
What we do know is that the population age structures are very different in different continents, and different countries. This at a time when extreme ‘territorial fundamentalism’ has made the 2020s the most difficult decade in modern times for most people to get permission to travel to another country, let alone migrate to it. Before the nineteenth century, the main barriers were physical geography and other factors (dangers) which made long-distance travel slow, expensive and risky. The ‘other factors’ include cultural barriers which would have made it difficult for strangers – ‘strange people’ – to settle in places away from their birth localities. And, before modern times, in feudal times people were bonded to their birthlands; they were serfs bonded to their lords’ lands.
Today, as in the past, we live in times when many people of ‘working age’ live in places in which they are not economically productive; yet the barriers to resettlement – from countries with labour surpluses to countries with labour deficits – are huge. Perceived ‘land abundance’, such as territories populated ‘only’ by a few ‘natives’, is a thing of the past; but there are many places of opportunity in today’s world, with labour shortages which can be resolved by a mix of migration and skills education.
Colonisation and Decolonisation: past, future and present
In the European context, the Mediterranean Sea long represented a space around which colonisation could take place; in the context where powerful and growing mini-states could gain economies of scale and living spaces for their growing populations. Important early colonisers were the Phoenicians, the Greeks, and the Romans. In early times, migration meant a mix of conquest and colonisation. Settler colonies of these regional superpowers would form, and later would be trashed as power balances changed.
One important later example of classical-era colonisation reached beyond the Mediterranean Sea, namely the Roman colonisation and settlement of the island of Britannia. In the time of Julius Caesar (the ‘discoverer’ of Britannia) – 2,070 years ago – the ‘tangata whenua’ of Britannia, the British, were essentially the P-Celtic people we know today as ‘Welsh’. (There were also the Picts in much of today’s Scotland.)
Military and economic opportunities, and then demographic pressures, led to the creation of a romanised European world. Romans settled in Britannia from the forties (the 0040s that is) and native Britons were substantially romanised. The process was not unlike the nineteenth century britanisation of New Zealand. Roman Britain lasted for over 300 years as a prosperous and relatively stable example of colonisation. Further, the ’empire struck back’, meaning that increasingly the population of Rome itself were romanised non-ethnic-Romans; not unlike the anglicised South Asians prominent in British politics today. Late-Roman emperors were not always ethnic Romans; other Roman leaders were even more likely to be romanised non-Romans.
With the eventual collapse of Rome, in the fifth century, that Empire imploded. This implosion would be equivalent to a coming ‘collapse of the West’ in, say, the twenty-second century. In Britannia it was the romanised Britons who inherited the greater part of the island. Indeed, the legends of ‘King Arthur’ reflect this short and mythologised phase of British history. Times were tough in the sixth century, and not only because of empire collapse. The year CE 536 has been described as the worst ever in recorded history: refer Why 536 was ‘the worst year to be alive’, Science, 15 Nov 2018; and Volcanic winter of 536, and Battle of Camlann, both Wikipedia.
Nevertheless, a combination of the inevitable fall of the Roman Empire and the ‘acts of God’ in the sixth century created demographic spaces. In the larger part of Britannia, the part that became England, the spaces were filled by Germanic people from places across the North Sea: Lower Saxony, Anglia, and Jutland. Most traces of Romans and Roman culture were erased. Latin was erased, and British (‘Welsh’) was marginalised to the western periphery. A new language and new culture filled the void; English (Anglaise).
Looking forward, beyond the present, to the end of the modern era – say the quarter millennium (the year 2250) – this transformation of Britannia signals a possible fate for Aotearoa New Zealand and other far-flung neo-European settlements. In this scenario, the present European hegemony (aka ‘the west’) diminishes (maybe eventually collapses). Anglo New Zealanders continue to leave throughout this late-modern period, leaving anglicised Māori and Polynesian and Asian New Zealanders to maintain an ongoing sense of Britishness. This unravelling southern outpost of the Commonwealth would then represent a demographic opportunity to new groups of colonisers. The ‘south seas’ equivalent of Lower Saxony and Anglia will most likely be places in South Asia or East Asia.
The conquest of Great Britain 2,000 years ago came from relatively afar, Italy. The conquest of New Zealand in the nineteenth century, then a land of opportunity for British people facing demographic pressure, came from as far as it possibly could have come. The next conquest of Zealandia will be from further than Rarotonga, though from closer than Britannia. Human settlement never was and never will be a simple process of one ‘tribe’ arriving in an unsettled land, staying, and fending off newcomers.
In the present era, Britannia and Zealandia represent lands of demographic opportunity, places working people want to go to as economic migrants. Historically, the two main demographic magnets have been lands and cities. In the nineteenth century, people migrated to new lands, and, there, multiplied in huge numbers. And they went to cities – new cities like Chicago and Melbourne (refer James Belich, Replenishing the Earth 2009) – and established cities like London and Paris. Unlike the new hinterlands, which facilitated human fertility, the big cities served as demographic sinks. That, however, did not mean that cities were unattractive places. Cities gave opportunities for people to express themselves through cultural interaction and creativity, rather than through monocultural pastures of human and animal reproduction.
It is urbanisation which puts an end to Malthusian (ie exponential) expansion of humanity. First, cities – especially the bigger cities – tended to be mainly characterised by their high mortality. Today, they are characterised by low fertility. The world’s population may never reach nine million, if our cities are allowed to fulfil their role as demographic magnets, given that they will continue to be demographic sinks. (That said, it only takes a pandemic to create temporary forces favouring urban depopulation and rural repopulation.)
European Centre and Periphery
The ‘Third Reich’ project, which developed in Germany in the 1930s, had two central themes. First was the inspiration from the Roman Empire, with Berlin posited as the new Rome. The second theme was ‘Lebensraum’ (living room) which meant the conquest and settlement of the lands in Eastern Europe by German people, to create a large German hinterland which would favour the multiplication of the German people at the expense of the other (mainly but not only Slavic) peoples of East Europe.
While that project failed, thankfully, it can be argued that the present European Union project is a kind of ‘Fourth Reich’, in which Berlin plays a less overt role as the centre of power. In this occurrent project the demographic forces in play are a centripetal pull towards the economic centre, and a depletion – a de-peopling instead of a re-peopling – of the European periphery. This may be called ‘reverse Lebensraum’. In the Fourth Reich, the ‘King’ (or ‘chancellor’) is a committee – or a nexus of committees – rather than a monarch or republican autocrat. The Fourth Reich is a bureaucracy rather than an autocracy. (Refer Europe’s Forbidden Colony, Al Jazeera27 Feb 2017, for an analysis of the European Union as an ‘ultra-neoliberal’ and ‘imperial’ project. ‘Colonisation’ here refers to the imperial “logic of extraction”, through which we may understand there is a process of people-mining as well as land-mining.)
The European periphery is multi-faceted. (And we note that London has broken away from this Fourth Reich, creating an independent power centre in the region.) The inner peripheries of Europe are the rural hinterlands of each EU partner nation; these are subject to significant depopulation, especially in the member countries which use the Euro currency (ie the Eurozone). As long ago as the 1970s, I recall cycling through French villages not on public transport routes, and hearing about these communities’ losses of services and young people.
Next is the periphery of the European Union itself, which includes the East, the South, and Ireland. Ireland is a kind of boom-bust special case, which is able to trade on its location, corporate tax policies, English language, and high education standards, to become a European front for American-centred multinational businesses. Ireland is a country with a long history of diaspora, and this was a key feature of its experience in the Eurozone crisis which was at its worst in 2012. The other countries which suffered substantial losses of young people and services in the early 2010s were of course the southern countries of Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal.
Now, the depopulation crisis is concentrated in the east of the European Union. All of the eastern European Union countries have lost substantial portions of their youth to the central economic hubs of Berlin and northwest Europe. (Indeed if you watch German movies on Netflix you will see many Eastern European names in the credits.) Those hubs themselves are demographic sinks, growing through ongoing human replenishment from the periphery of the Union. The eastern nations have the least financial capacity to retain their young people.
Depopulation in East Europe has been happening for a while. Shifts from rural to urban East Europe implied reduced fertility; this continues to be the main dynamic of population contraction in Russia. Now the main cities of East Europe are increasingly by-passed in favour of the privileged urban zones in the north and west. The United Kingdom was one of the most favoured destinations for East Europeans prior to Brexit. It still is, though the balance is changing with relatively more people from non-EU (Balkan, southeast European) countries risking the increasingly tortuous journey across the Strait of Dover. About twenty percent of those crossing to England in small boats this year have been from Albania, a Balkan country with fewer than three million people.
What also happened around 2015 and 2016, with the mass influx into the European Union of Syrian refugees, was that these new EU immigrants displaced immigrants from the non-EU Balkan nations. Indeed one of the ironies of non-EU east Europe is that, while both the push and the pull the demographic forces they face are the same if not stronger than those within the European Union, the presence of the EU in much of the east has made the competitive disadvantage ever harder for the youth of Serbia, Albania, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Montenegro.
The kind of economy that is emerging in East Europe is of a mix of traffickers and other service providers (many from eastern EU countries) ‘assisting’ the trafficked, meaning would-be immigrants from disadvantaged non-EU countries. The most populous of these non-EU countries feeling the push and the pull are from what might once have been called ‘Asia Minor’ or the ‘Near East’ (in addition to the ‘Middle East’, part of which is the Levant). As well as Ukraine, these include former Soviet Union countries such as Moldova, Armenia and Georgia; and, increasingly, Russia itself (noting the many anti-war refugees who have fled to places like Georgia).
Finally, the European political and economic periphery includes Africa; pretty much all of Africa, although people from southern Africa will naturally gravitate directly to the United Kingdom rather than the European Union.
Many of us of European ethnicity continue to make condescending assumptions about Africa, and Africans. (I feel privileged to have travelled in Africa, albeit a long time ago, and feel that my brief time there gives me a less unbalanced perspective on that part of the world.) At worst, too many ethnic Europeans simply assume that African nations are ‘basket cases’. Some of us continue to see Africa as the “white man’s burden”. While many realise that African countries now have the fastest growing populations in the world, few outside of that continent realise that Africa has been experiencing the world’s fastest economic growth.
Yet we see so many Africans, young Africans, risking all to ‘escape’ to Europe. We don’t bother wondering about why they are leaving Africa; we simply assume that Africa, as a continent, is chronically subject to the three checks emphasised by Malthus in 1798 – warfare, famine, disease. (Refer to this entry in Encyclopedia Britannica, and Are Malthus’s Predicted 1798 Food Shortages Coming True? 1 Sep 2008, by economist Jeffrey Sachs.)
Yes, all three do happen in Africa. But not everywhere there, all the time. What is actually driving people out of Africa this century is the same as what was driving people out of Europe in the nineteenth century; capitalist economic structural change, and the presence of people magnets outside of Africa.
The underlying circumstances of certain groups in history is known to economists as the ‘zero marginal product of labour’. What this means is, if one worker leaves an industry or a farm, the economic output of that enterprise is unaffected. Historically, this principle has been most applied to agricultural workers, especially in a ‘peasant’ context.
When industrialisation takes place in some part of the world, it is typically ‘powered’ by new industries (typically but not only urban) with a high marginal product of labour drawing people from the countryside. From a worker’s point of view, the attractant is higher wages in the new industry. Then, as the city starts to demand more from the country, farms come to be organised more as capitalist production enterprises than as rural welfare communities. Thus, push factors come into play as capitalist farmers divest themselves of unnecessary labour. Once pushed, young workers then survey the scene; if they find that the best opportunities in their own countries’ cities are already taken, they look to better opportunities in other countries.
In the nineteenth century, such people in Europe looked to far-away lands in the ‘new world’ as better bets for themselves. Better opportunities also meant better opportunities to have large families, because the economic security of rural older people lay in their own adult children. In the twenty-first century, it is no longer the availability of foreign rural lands that is the incentive. Rather it’s the opportunities of large foreign cities to provide a personal income with enough left over to remit to families in the workers’ countries of origin. First generation immigrants do have larger families, even in urban settings, than people already in those cities. Nevertheless, on balance, those bigger cities continue to be demographic sinks.
The following is an example of a Zambian radiation oncologist now working in Palmerston North, New Zealand. Stuck in a neocolonialist past: Is the migration brain drain an outdated concept? 21 Sep 2022, which featured on Deutsche Welle. Not only does she – the Zambian doctor – understand that her productivity is higher in New Zealand than in Zambia, she also actively contributes to her community in Zambia through remittances, and through an understanding that her current work in New Zealand represents an investment which, eventually, can be paid forward to her country of origin.
Globalisation versus Deglobalisation
‘Globalisation’ can be a problematic word, because many use it to mean an ideologyof global neoliberalism. That’s unfortunate, because the correct meaning of globalisation is the emergence of a world economy with diminished territorial barriers to the flows of money and especially labour. (I say especially to labour, because, even in the years before 2020, labour barriers were entrenching just as economic forces of demand and supply were creating increased demands for a globally mobile labour force.)
In today’s (sort-of) post-covid world economy, deglobalist nationalist ideologies conflict directly with economic sustainability and the requirements of the nations’ labour markets. We are now starting to understand that, in a high productivity high population world, the urban metropolises – with their economies of scale – are the most sustainable and stimulating environments for most people to live in. And we are about to start understanding that a sustainable city-dominated modern global economy will depend on reverse flows of money – for present purposes, we may call these ‘remittances’ – into the hinterland communities (such as, in the New Zealand context, Tairāwhiti and Samoa). Such remittances are not mere gifts; the hinterlands where people are raised and educated are places of investment; meaning that these ‘remittances’ are really returns on investment. Through their remittances supporting the Philippines’ economy, nurses trained in Philippines enable Philippines to continue to be a ‘nursing factory’ for the world.
The big demographic story today is not the size of the world population; but the huge geographical imbalances between labour supply and labour demand, and the barriers which prevent labour markets from clearing. Powerful global market forces will work to mitigate these; though these market corrections are to a large extent illegal and misunderstood. An activity (economic migration) which for the most of history has been legal – though in some cases has been accompanied by conquest – is now illegal for many (because of the bureaucratisation and excess of national border controls), creating needless cost and tragedy for those who are responding rationally to market forces. The barriers and the bureaucrats create ‘rent-seeking’ opportunities for smugglers.
The European Union has its own tragedy, as we saw with the Greek economic depression after the global financial crisis. This Union needs to be a fiscal union – more like the United States of America – whereby the hinterlands, international hinterlands within the European Union as well as those within each nation, need to be supported by more than private remittances. People resident in Transylvania should have comparable economic rights as residents of Thuringia.
The global economy needs to develop (preferably universal, non-bureaucratic) systems of ‘public remittances’; within its nations, within its Unions, and eventually with a fully global component. People will grow up, gain skills, work in places – commonly in cities away from their places of nurture – where they can maximise their marginal productivities; and a mix of their earnings and taxes can be ‘remitted’ to maintain the health of their source communities.
Keith Rankin (keith at rankin dot nz), trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.