Arguably, aside from climate change, the most intractable single problem facing the world in the 21st century is that of demographic instability arising from shifts in population both within and between countries and continents. While it has to be acknowledged that even now many analysts refuse to accept there is really any problem, those who do would probably agree that it dates from the second half of the 20th century.
While opinions differ as to both the nature of the problem and solutions to it, it would probably be generally conceded that it would not have arisen – or at least not so soon – but for the huge and wholly unprecedented rise in the world’s population since World War II. This has been such that by 2019 it had reached 7.7 billion, almost four times the level recorded in 1950 – when the then level of around 2 billion had merely doubled in the preceding 100 years. In fact the total figure would almost certainly have caused alarm bells to start ringing much earlier than they actually did (in the 1980s) but for the fact that the post-war period (up to 1973) was one of exceptionally high economic growth in the developed world, where it was generally agreed that more or less full employment was prevailing. Another factor of great importance from around 1970 has been the “green revolution” enabling the progressive banishment of chronic famine – and consequent lesser restraint on population growth – from developing countries such as India.
The withering of the post-war boom after 1973 – leading to a fall in average annual GDP growth from around 4 per cent to 2.5 per cent or less since the 1970s – was scarcely recognised as a long-term phenomenon by any mainstream political party or movement in the OECD countries at the time or since – nor by most economists. Yet the pace of population growth has scarcely moderated in the subsequent period, while that of technological change has if anything accelerated, leading to a progressively diminishing need for labour. Consequently the vision of global “development” entertained by many economists, and governments, for decades after World War II – according to which growth would steadily expand and encompass an ever increasing proportion of the global population – was shown to be utterly deluded.
The human impact of this trend has been reflected in a remorseless rise in levels of unemployment and underemployment, not least in “middle ranking” economies such as Algeria, Chile, Colombia, Egypt, Hong Kong, Iraq, Lebanon and South Africa, not to mention scores of even less developed countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Increasingly this has led to levels of frustration that have boiled over into civil unrest as young people in particular have sensed that their prospects of achieving an adequate and sustainable living standard in their existing country of residence are increasingly remote for the vast majority. While in most cases such frustration has not been explicitly identified as a cause of the recent manifestations of discontent in such countries, it is clear that lack of economic opportunity for the mass of young people is a common underlying factor– and even in more advanced economies such as France and Italy.
Undoubtedly the growth of unemployment and underemployment are a reflection of chronic low global economic (GDP) growth since the 1970s. In response to this constraint developed-country governments have sought, in line with orthodox neo-liberal assumptions, to promote higher growth by containing inflation, holding down corporate tax rates and public spending and otherwise acting to encourage private investment – particularly since the onset of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. However, by 2020 this strategy of austerity is widely perceived to have failed, particularly in Europe, where it has been most consistently and assiduously pursued despite growing scepticism as to its effectiveness – doubts that have even been given expression in the columns of the Financial Times1
Just as unrest has grown along with the perceived failure to deliver improved material prospects for most people there have also been increasing political upheavals associated with the chronic failure of governments to demonstrate minimally acceptable standards of competence or integrity, often accompanied by increasingly intolerable levels of repression. The strongest expression of protest against such abuses was given vent in the “Arab Spring” of 2010-2012 . All these tendencies have coalesced in the breakdown not only of economies but of political and civil order more generally, as witness the total collapse of the Syrian state and society since 2011.
This combination of chronic economic failure and political and civil breakdown has served to precipitate a steadily rising outflow of refugees from the affected countries or regions in search of a better life elsewhere. This has been going on at least since the 1980s, although it has only been noticed as a serious problem – at least in Europe – since 2015, when a huge upsurge in refugees from the Syrian conflict – and other humanitarian disasters (civil and economic) in the Middle East and adjacent regions – finally caught public attention. Meanwhile a similar process has been going on more gradually across the Atlantic, as the flow of economic migrants and political refugees seeking to move north of Mexico has become increasingly chronic.
It is perhaps to the credit of the existing inhabitants of the wealthier regions of Europe and North America that many of them have been inclined to welcome displaced migrants. However, as the German government discovered following its generous offer to accept 1 million Syrian refugees in the wake of the crisis of 2015 (out of a total of at least 5 million estimated to have been displaced since the start of the civil war in 2011), such gestures can have negative political consequences among those sections of the existing population who feel threatened by them. In these circumstances attempts to depict resistance to major refugee inflows as racist or xenophobic tend simply to exacerbate rather than ease tensions, while the plight of the refugees only gets worse. Moreover, these pressures tend to disguise the fact that most of the refugees created by this instability are not surprisingly anxious to return to their country of origin as soon as possible – a fact lost on many of their supporters in host countries who are keen to promote their integration into the societies of which they are reluctant guests.
At the same time the flows of new refugees from the numerous destabilised source countries continues unabated. As the constraints to accommodating or absorbing them within the putative host countries in the more or less “developed” world of the OECD become ever greater, other more far-reaching, fundamental solutions must be sought. Thus far the only ideas to have emerged from debates on possible alternative approaches seem to consist of increased allocations of resources to the interventions traditionally supported by international aid programmes, notionally aimed at promoting faster growth of output. employment and consumption per head in the target countries.
Clearly, however, this approach fails to take account of the lack of success of such strategies hitherto in achieving a generalised rise in the living standards of the vast majority of the populations affected. Equally it reflects their proven inability to ease rather than exacerbate the chronic levels of inequality that have hitherto resulted from the neoliberal, market-based model of economy which has been the pattern ordained by the dominant Western powers. More serious still is their failure to take account of the growing pressures to restrain world growth more generally in the interests of protecting the biosphere as well as human habitat.
This record of failure suggests more strongly than ever that totally new structures must now be put in place if the world’s economic resources are to be equitably and sustainably shared among its burgeoning population. This is not only with a view to diminishing the symptoms of mounting social unrest referred to above but also in consideration of the need to combat global warming and other environmental pressures now threatening the very survival of our species if not the planet itself.
Above all, such a new approach must be based on a rejection of the idea of economic growth (GDP) as a desirable goal of public policy. Instead it would seem self-evident that mechanisms must be devised to promote a progressive reduction in levels of inequality while at the same time meeting the minimum survivable needs of all. Equally, it must obviously be recognised that anything like rapid growth cannot be compatible with global environmental sustainability. It should be immediately apparent that any such model of income and resource allocation amounts to a complete rejection of the basic principles of the market economy which form the basis of the present dominant ideology based on maximisation of profit and growth. In short, what we know as capitalism must be seen to have outlived its validity as an economic system.
Clearly such a model, aiming gradually to eliminate significant differences in living standards both within and between countries and regions – i.e. on a global scale – is only likely to achieve its objective in the very long term. In order to have any hope of attaining it, however, the global community will clearly need to establish some measure of agreement on whether and how to do so, something which may well seem improbable to many. Without such a quasi-utopian vision, however, it may be evidently wondered if our species can expect to survive at all.
1 How austerity blighted the middle ground of European politics by Wolfgang Münchau, FinancialTimes 23 December 2019