The Demographic Decline and the Crisis of the Western Model
Andrea Graziosi 11 March 2019

Translation of an extract from the book by Andrea Graziosi, Il futuro contro. Democrazia, libertà, mondo giusto, Bologna: Il Mulino 2019


In a schematic but clear manner, the essence of the Western model’s crisis can be summarised in just a few words; Modernity is not viable. It was not viable even over the short-term in its socialist version, which collapsed over the course of a few decades due to the irrationality of its ideological structure. Albeit over a longer period, it is not viable even in the version one can identify with the Western development model or system, based on openness and markets, which has been Modernity’s most successful variant, one to which we owe decades of amazing development.

It was a leap in productivity caused by the passage from agriculture to industry and services, as well as a way of life, living standards and freedom that were previously unimaginable. In contrast with the socialist system, which extinguished itself after decades of stagnation in 1991, the reasons for the long-term fragility of the Western model are paradoxically the result of its own success.

Such success is confirmed by its effectiveness also in contexts differing greatly to the one that gave it life, as shown by the case of China as well as many other Asian countries, joined now by Africa that is clearly set on the path to a demographic and economic boom. In all countries this model has fuelled a great race to the future, capable of significantly increasing the wellbeing of the populations involved.

This race demands a great deal from the planet’s resources and many have therefore searched for the reasons of its long-term instability in “ecological” terms, which has led to questioning the possibility regarding whether such a fast-moving race could continue indefinitely. These considerations, in turn, worked as incubators for “conservationist” cultures and movements that are difficult to classify simply as conservative or illiberal, but have most certainly represented elements of the reaction to openness and to progressive liberalism.


Different origins


However, it seems possible to affirm that the Western system is not viable over the long term and tends to lead to illiberal impulses over the medium term, especially due to another kind of mechanism, which has become clearly visible over the past few decades, but possible to catch a glimpse of earlier in the countries in which that system was born. Already in 1915, for example, a British classicist and political scientist of German origins Sir Alfred Zimmern, […] observed that modern states were actually industrialised and largely migratory democracies, whose populations were destined to be composed of groups of increasingly diversified origin.

The implication was that the Western system cannot manage to reproduce itself if not by absorbing human energy from the exterior, and from an increasingly distant exterior, and hence one increasingly “different” in cultural terms (broadly speaking), compared to the pole of attraction, within a mechanism ingrained in its own victorious deployment.

This mechanism is sparked by the system’s inability to fully reproduce within itself the human resources indispensable for its own survival […]. The reasons for this demographic retreat, which occurs following the boom due to a fall in infantile mortality and then increased life expectancy, are not entirely clear.

These reasons are linked to personal expectations and decisions, family organisation, opportunities to be seized, fear of losing the wellbeing so suddenly achieved, individual mentalities and culture etc. In particular, it seems possible to state that in passing from a rural/traditional society to urban/modern ones, a contradiction appears between the collective interest to have at least as many children as necessary for reproducing society as it is and the understandable and in any case irrepressible individual interest to live the best possible life […].

In any case, unless there are continuous transfusions of human resources from the exterior, the Modern model therefore ends up running aground on a demographic decline that replaces young, mobile and dynamic societies with ones that, left to their own devices, are on the way to extinction. This process can only be partly opposed by implementing strong policies supporting women and the birth rate rather than traditional families.

More in detail, the centres that are this model’s driving force “rapidly” lose their biological reproductive capabilities […] and are able to reproduce and continue to grow only by attracting individuals and energy from areas that their very own development has set in motion, but where conditions remain difficult and the better informed and active inhabitants experience the cultural and powerful call of better conditions.

With few exceptions, where problems are instantly evident, this mechanism begins to result in consequences directly linked to illiberal tendencies we address only after a few decades […]. It is possible to deal with such tensions quite easily for as long as the process of change, linked to these migrations, helps support wellbeing’s extraordinary growth, as usually happens before the full unfolding of the internal demographic crisis and during the mass passage from agriculture to industry and services […].

Over time, there is a progressive deterioration – in the sense of the situation becoming more complicated and its management increasingly problematic – which is what we have been experiencing over the last decades. This occurs when various phenomena coincide. The first is the new peak reached by migratory currents following those of the end of 19th – early 20th centuries.


The “era of mass migrations”


We are once again living in an “era of mass migrations”; it is calculated that in 2015 there were about 250 million migrants and 65 million refugees in the world, meaning people obliged to leave their own countries. In the United States those born abroad in 2017 amounted to about 14% of the population (the same percentage as for the period between 1880 and 1914) compared to 5% in 1970, and in Europe figures are historically high with countries such as Italy, which over just a few decades have reversed their position from centres of emigration to immigration hubs.

The second phenomenon is that of the change of direction experienced by these flows, linked to the European demographic crisis, also seen in large American urban centres. This has coincided on the one hand with a rise in their attractiveness in terms of economic and social opportunities and, on the other, with the continuous and expanding of the first stage of demographic revolution in the former Third World, marked by the “production” of a large number of young people […] equipped with an ability to move around and who are part of the modern world’s great economic and cultural flows.

These usually consist of the most active members, and therefore the natural elite, of those lower classes of the populations of countries that are relatively poorer or unlucky and, in the case of wars, oppressive regimes etc., they are also members of their social and cultural elites that are therefore a great opportunity for countries capable of managing their reception.

The depletion of nearby centres of demographic energy, however, results in these flows coming from further and further afield […]. Distance is often, but not always a synonym of greater linguistic, cultural and religious diversity, thereby automatically causing more tension. This can of course be positive and provide greater wealth in economic, social and cultural terms, but also causes greater resistance and conflict in the countries of destination, conflict that Africa’s increased role and thus that of “colour” seems destined to fuel in Europe.

The fear and concern caused by rising differences have also been recently increased by the presence, in addition to that of “economic” migrants, of displaced people and refugees, often coming from areas in which state-building processes have at least temporarily failed. They are the living witnesses of crises and conflicts one fears, one would like to be protected from and want to see kept at a distance.

We now come to the third of the elements we are analysing. The arrival of this kind of migrant generates particular concerns, also linked to the ideologies and the violence of those conflicts that the mass media report on every day. In addition to this, there is the often, but not always, unreasonable fear that these refugees, and some immigrants or their children, may in turn bring violence. This fear was increased by the attacks in the United States and in large European capital cities, without which the 2015 migratory crisis would probably have had a far less explosive political impact.


The Islamic extremism


In particular, Islamic extremism, its ideology and its customs have been a powerful trigger of fear and mistrust, transforming generic fear of all that is different, often not difficult to overcome, into a reaction, certainly partly emotive, into a difference perceived as hostile and associated with a religious clash, also defined as a clash of civilisations and identities.

This also happens in sectors of Western populations that consider themselves progressive, but it is also for this reason that they feel even more distant and threatened by religious radicalism. All this has fuelled the need and demands for order and authority, indirectly emphasising the value of the State and the benefits that come from its presence, its power and its ability to defend the “identity” of the resident population.

Such requests, which have created a significant breeding ground for populism and western illiberal tendencies, are strengthened by the fact that these increasingly large and diverse migrations are affecting populations that over time have become older and more settled […].

Finally, the new arrivals coincide with the crisis of the redistributive state. The redistribute state has given rise to expectations it is no longer able to meet, also through official statements at the foundations of its legitimisation, such as constitutional articles. It now also appears to be subtracting further resources from the pact entered into with citizens in order to deal with those new arrivals […].

As time goes by, hence over the long term, this situation involving rising tension will obviously lessen and so will one of the factors that contribute to current illiberal trends, as well as to the vitality of mature societies. Ongoing trends clearly indicate that over a few decades, the number of countries with demographic dynamics able to sustain such massive emigration will be drastically reduced.

Due to its qualities and capabilities to offer a freer and better life, the socio-economic model at the basis of the Modern model does not only attract immigrants to its cities. It also spreads in countries that are now the source of immigration, resulting, over time, in a drying up of these sources. The great transfer of people and therefore of energy, towards the world’s most advanced centres is destined in the future to be seen as the extraordinary privilege it is really is.

Once it is over, it will have only been enjoyed by those who have had the intelligence and the ability to take advantage of it in the best possible way. Welcoming the energy that is now available and doing so in an intelligent manner, hence reducing to a minimum the inevitable tension and maximising the great benefits it undoubtedly can bring, is not destiny.

These choices can be mistaken, and maximise conflict for example, thereby deciding to anticipate the entropy inscribed in the code of the Modern system, intentionally accelerating its development […]. From this perspective, the apparent vitality of Italian identity populism seems instead to conceal a powerful death wish.

Over the medium-term, however, which we are currently living in, the West is called upon to address the issue of the encounter between a local ageing population, and therefore more anxious and fearful and prey to its own perceptions, and migrations coming from very distant places in conditions having little financial margins.

The first, especially in a period of decreasing expectations and loss of centrality, has a natural tendency to react by providing a real problem with an instinctive answer, that of “I come first” (the League’s “Italians first” or Trump’s “America first”) of which it is easy to see the leitmotif. This answer should not, therefore, be judged and addressed from a moral perspective, as one could of course do.

It should instead be analysed and understood, explaining why this answer is wrong even from the point of view of the interests of locals, but equally addressing the fear and insecurity that motivate and remind one – again because it really is important – that it is in any case possible to choose from a range of policies that go from Japanese closure to very qualified Canadian openness, of which it is worth learning the cost and the final outcome. In other words, the West’s new situation requires a great and difficult “pedagogical” effort, with uncertain results, to oppose a situation that spontaneously produces illiberal trends.


Translated from Italian by Francesca Simmons