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How to Relink Seven Billion People?

World population has increased from one billion a century ago to roughly seven billion now, with rates varying greatly between different countries, tribes, and religious groups. Many of today’s unsettled political, economic, and environmental issues—the latter reflected in the recently published UN report stating that human encroachment on habitats may lead to the extinction of numerous plant and animal species around the world—are related to these drastic changes.1

It is not the first time that people have struggled with these issues. The trial-and-error search for new technologies and political solutions to link members of each tribe and to harmonize relations between different tribes has gone on for millennia. Drawing on a brief, representative—though by no means comprehensive—selection of historical events, I will show that many of today’s problems and associated ideological anxieties can be framed as reactions to radical demographic changes. The solutions that societies came up with decades, centuries, and millennia ago—some mistaken, some prudent—continue to shape perceptions of current challenges and ongoing experiments aimed at realigning relations among and within nations.

Demographic change frequently lurks behind the search for grand “new world orders”—whether drawing on “socialist,” “capitalist,” or “nationalist” ideologies—unfortunately all “isms” simplified to the point of ridicule. These are all implicitly and explicitly rooted in questions concerning the kinds of institutions needed to create functioning societies over the long term and to hold individuals accountable as populations continue to grow and become more mobile.2  

I will start with “nationalism,” as it has roots going back to Biblical times, which already point to the links between demographic and technological changes as well as to questions related to religion, ideologies, and political power applicable now.

Tribes, Nations, and Religion

Historians, philosophers, and social scientists argue that “nationalism” became the dominant political force shaping the history of Europe over the last two centuries. William McNeill remarked that “The triumph of nationalism is . . . the central reality of modern times.” Norman Rich, in his Age of Nationalism, wrote that nationalism became the most pervasive ideological force in nineteenth-century Europe: “On the basis of the national principle Germany and Italy were unified; the independence of Hungary was recognized . . . Serbia, Montenegro, and Rumania were conceded complete independence from Turkish rule.”

But exactly what was new about nationalism in late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, and why has it resurfaced with renewed vigor now? After all, people always belonged to groups, distrusted strangers, and hated menacing foreigners, especially as the latter’s numbers grew. Three ancient documents—the Old Testament, Homer’s Iliad, and Virgil’s Aeneid—already tell the epic stories of either creating a new tribe (Jews in the first, Romans in the last), or recreating one (with Ulysses returning and restoring Greece).

In the Old Testament, the Jews were the “chosen people,” who had to beware of the seductions of inferior cultures so as not to be weakened and overwhelmed. Samson and Delilah’s story taught this lesson: the wild, strong Hebrew is weakened when he succumbs to the ways of another culture through a harlot’s charm and letting his hair down, literally. The exact same story is found in Gilgamesh, the oldest surviving epic. It describes how Enkidu, the wild man of the steppes, is seduced by a harlot, a frequent symbol of inferior cultures.3 Illiterate audiences of antiquity required such memorable images and striking metaphors to remember the teachings. In later ages, those addressing literate audiences came up with a variety of pseudoscientific racist jargons to make the same point.

When people distrust and fear their growing neighbors, they have to make greater efforts to survive as a group. A tribe’s members must be motivated by something more than personal gains to stay together, maintain discipline, and react appropriately.4 When facing such threatening conditions, people bet on tribal ties, religious groups (the word religion is derived from the Latin religare, meaning to “re-link”) and/or “nationalist” ideas rationalized in different ways. Fear is a great motivator, and ideas and institutions drawing on such fear sustain higher levels of effort—especially when neighboring populations grow at higher rates. But these binding institutions sometimes failed when populations adapted new technologies, experienced further rapid growth, or underwent other changes. In these situations, the question societies repeatedly faced was: What kind of new ideas and institutions would reunite people, discipline them, and motivate common efforts while mitigating conflicts?

The story of the Tower of Babel offers an answer to this question. In this story, for only the second time in the Old Testament, the term “city” appears. The first time the term was used it was linked to Cain fleeing to the city of Hanokh—a story that, once one lifts the veil of language, also turns out to be a story of population growth and adapting to new technology. After all, cities cannot exist unless populations have already grown, and the Hebrew word “hanokh” means to educate, to civilize.

Babel comes into being by attracting many people who have “some things” in common, though we do not know for sure what exactly they share—what the Hebrew “dvarim achadim,” meaning “certain things” in literal translation, referred to. Among the shared “certain things,” though, is the knowledge of how to make bricks—this innovation is mentioned in this story for the first time. (The Hebrew word “safa,” appearing in the same verse, also suggests people sharing the same “language.”) Famously, Babel’s inhabitants decide to build a tower (“infrastructure,” in today’s jargon) to “make themselves a name.”

The Old Testament condemns such ambition by these citizens. But what was wrong with pursuing such a venture? After all, just one chapter later, Genesis 12:2 has this to say about the promise to Abraham, one of the Jewish tribe’s founding fathers: “I [will] make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, and [you shall] be a blessing.”

The implication is that the editors of the Old Testament reached the conclusion that building monuments and sharing a language will not create a long-lasting, stable culture—solid things will easily melt into thin air.5 Indeed, while technology and the building of the tower drew on Babel’s population having some things in common, they were not enough to build a lasting civilization—just as these days the technology drawing on “ones and zeroes,” or even physical infrastructure, does not appear to achieve lasting harmony either.6 In fact, Babel’s story ends with Balkanization, as we would call it now: suddenly people talk in different languages and are no longer able to communicate and share whatever they might have had in common at one time—a case of history, or myth, rhyming. Modern communication, on which civilization depends for creating and sustaining trust, has occasionally gone awry, too.

After the failure of Babel’s infrastructure project to keep people united, Abraham, one of the Jewish tribe’s founding fathers, appears in the Old Testament out of nowhere (we do not know anything about his background). The Old Testament gives up on the Babel kind of “globalization”—that is, technology and construction without a moral backbone—as the solution for keeping increasing numbers of people peacefully together.

From this point on, the Old Testament tells the story of a radical new experiment to unite people and extract extra levels of effort by creating—through centuries of trial and error, suffering, struggles, hesitations, and debates—a special kind of “tribe.” Its laws, customs, and culture require ferocious discipline and commitment to be transmitted across generations. This culture draws on the then unprecedented idea of “ethical monotheism” becoming the moral backbone for commitments that the members of this new tribe must make before settling in a “promised land.”7 As it turns out, we are now, millennia later, back to debating the choice between an ethical and a Babel vision of society.

Cain Did Not Kill Abel: Farmers and Herders Killed One Another

Babel’s failure to hold together a society based only on technology and public spending is not the first time that Genesis describes the struggles related to population growth, technology, and the conflicts arising when society lacks both strong moral foundations and institutions for mitigating conflicts.

A close reading of the Cain and Abel story (in Hebrew, since almost all the content gets lost in conventional translations), illustrates another facet of such painful adjustments. In this case the Old Testament warns against the perils of adopting “agriculture” without finding ways to impose constraints on potential abuses of power that might accompany the adoption of this particular new technology.

The third chapter of Genesis notes that “Cain brought of the fruit of the soil an offering to the Lord; Abel he too brought of the firstborn of his flocks and of their fattest, and the Lord turned to Abel and to his offering; but to Cain and to his offering He did not turn, and it annoyed Cain exceedingly.” Briefly, Cain was the farmer, Abel the shepherd or herder.

There is undisputed historical evidence around the world that keepers of sheep, who used to let animals graze freely, fought the tillers of the ground, the Cains of the world, the latter eventually enclosing their lands and defending their turf. The fights have been ferocious as populations grew and when the customary “technologies” of herding and gathering were no longer sufficient to feed humanity’s increasing numbers. Yet harvested lands—it takes years to produce wine from vineyards, and oil from olive trees—need to be protected, and protection means having laws, armies, a police and, by implication, a concentration of powers.8  Even those unfamiliar with the Bible and historical or anthropological essays can recognize this sequence of events if they listen to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma, in which the conflict is between the farmers and herders settling America.

This more recent story demonstrates the Old Testament’s warning about the dangers of shifting to agriculture. Whereas on this continent the settlers eventually developed a variety of institutions to mitigate conflicts through force, negotiation, and compromise on property rights, bringing about a disciplined, law-abiding citizenry, most agricultural societies around the world—as well as those endowed with other natural resources—did not stumble on stabilizing institutions until recently, if at all.9

After Cain, the farmer, “kills” his brother, the keeper of sheep, his “punishment” is that he must leave the land, and he is condemned to become a “wanderer,” settling in the land of “Nod” (Nod means “wander” in Hebrew). The text, however, warns against taking vengeance on Cain and says to let him be. Cain settles down, and the text then says that he “knew his wife; and she conceived, and bore Hanokh. Now he became the builder of a city, and called the city’s name according his son’s name, Hanokh” (Genesis 4:17).

There has been a great deal of superficial philosophizing about why Cain is not punished, and plenty of sarcasm about whom Cain married: where are all the other people coming from?, ask people who take wildly off-the-mark translations and succinct metaphors literally.10 But little attention has been paid to the fact that this is the very first time that the Old Testament mentions a “city.” Cain’s name is derived from the Hebrew word that means “to buy” (“kinyan” meaning “acquisition”), and the word “Hanokh”—the first city—means to train, to discipline, to educate, what we now mean by the word “to civilize.” Unfortunately, English translations typically refer to both the city and Cain’s son as “Enoch,” and do not translate the names of Enoch’s children, which, in Hebrew, refer to specialized occupations in urban settings. As a result, the English translations bring absolutely no associations to similar sequences of events around the world among readers who do not know Hebrew (confirming an Italian saying “traduttore, traditore”—translator, traitor). 

In brief, the Cain and Abel and Babel stories are consistent with all anthropological and historical findings. They summarize succinctly the problems facing largely non-literate societies increasing in numbers, moving to cities and developing agriculture. The transition was accompanied by bloody conflicts that diminished the habitats of traditional societies of gatherers, herders, and tribes of tropical “gardeners,” who for hundreds of centuries either roamed the planet with few humans around or stayed put in isolated places, islands in particular.11

Up to this point, the Old Testament makes no mention of laws, agreements, or treaties for resolving conflicts arising from increased populations, whether in urban settings or among tribes working the land. It only records Cain’s observation that he cannot be expected to be the “keeper” of his brother.12 This is a straightforward, obvious observation since in tighter, smaller gathering and herding societies, people could more easily watch their “brothers,” as there were few of them around. But as a population increases, such communal watching to discipline people is no longer possible, and people have to invent new institutions and technologies to mitigate conflicts by, inter alia, keeping an eye on many “brothers” who could now more easily violate laws and disappear in crowds.13

It is at this point that the Old Testament begins telling the stories of inventing a maze of laws, customs, and institutions by trial and error, religious ones in particular, in order to unite people within a new tribe, and also of ways to negotiate treaties between different tribes. To offer a somewhat counterintuitive example, consider the origins of the particular taboos associated with raising and eating pigs, a custom for mitigating conflicts that is still observed millennia later.

Anthropologists have long found that tribes that raised pigs have had more disputes with neighboring tribes that raised cattle. It turns out that pigs have more destructive foraging habits than cattle and grow more rapidly. Cattle require different kinds of resources and are also herded away from cultivation. In addition, pigs provide no “returns” when alive—such as milk—but cattle do. Pigs only offer meat, when slaughtered, and then they must be consumed quickly in warm climates. Not surprisingly, anthropologists found that there were far more disputes between neighboring tribes when one was raising pigs and another raising cattle, or neighboring tribes raising pigs only.

Anthropologists also found that tribes keeping pigs share the custom of “pig feasts” after slaughters. Such “sharing” has nothing to do with a less “greedy” population. The fact was that, unless consumed within a short time, the uneaten meat would have to be thrown away in warmer climates. So why not appear altruistic and prevent envious reactions within the tribe? People have always been very good at rationalizing selfishness and covering it with veils of language and customs. Such customs are part of civilizing behavior, helping to comply with the tenth commandment of “do not covet,” mitigating envious reactions.14 

Note, too, that there have been many speculations about Jews being prohibited from eating pork. The evidence of more disputes caused by raising pigs might have been one rationale for the taboo. Not raising pigs mitigated these costly disputes.  And ideas and institutions, taboos as well as customs of sharing, have long lives, surviving long after the circumstances that gave rise to their invention and adoption have gone.

Before jumping a few centuries and continents, a question needs to be answered: why did the Old Testament warn against the dangers of agriculture and innovations related to urbanization? 

The text’s answer is explicit: laws, agreements, and treaties are not enough at times to sustain an agricultural society’s survival, and neither is education. Societies need to rely on military powers to defend the land and the city against marauding strangers.

When allowing rulers and institutions to have such powers in agricultural and urban settings, there is a risk that rulers and institutions might abuse these powers. That is the warning the Old Testament continuously makes. In fact, Shabbat’s uniqueness, ranking as second from the top in the hierarchy of Jewish holidays,15 is sharply distinguished from a simple day of rest as rationalized in other religions. The day is the permanent, weekly reminder to every member of the tribe that the ultimate power lies not with political rulers.

We know today that, as populations grew, societies around the world turned gradually from gathering and herding animals to farming and trading in cities, and “cities” imply increased population density. Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel do not a city make. We also know that innovations in agriculture did not occur randomly, but came in response to population pressures. It is likewise amply documented that such pressures have rarely occurred without conflict, not in Biblical times, and not in any century since.16 

The message of the Old Testament is that, as populations grow, it is necessary to find ideas that would discipline people, unite them, and inspire common efforts, a version of “nationalism” as we would call it now. (In the case of the Old Testament, it drew on ethical monotheism.) In addition, while new technologies are needed to support population growth, these technological changes must be coordinated with the creation of new institutions, and these new institutions often increased the potential for abuses of power. These messages have resonated since Biblical times. And in the last century, global population has increased from one to seven billion, with vastly different rates of growth among national, ethnic, and religious groups.

Demography and New “Brotherhoods” in Modern Europe

Long before “nationalism” became an “ism,” there were political units in Europe that had distinct national characteristics, such as Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Hungary, and France. Within these “nation”-states, however, the idea that there were advantages to ruling over just one ethnic group did not exist. Poland, for example, sought to attract traders from different cultures. A large number of Germans, German Jews in particular, were given special privileges to settle there. 

And the Dutch Republic became the miracle of the seventeenth century through its then unprecedented laws tolerating all religions and avoiding restrictions on capital markets. The combination attracted Huguenots, Jews, and Italy’s bankers (restricted elsewhere by usury laws). The inflow of immigrants turned Amsterdam into the financial, trading, and scientific center of the world, despite the natural disadvantages of this underwater “low country.”  Note also—particularly with respect to doctrines that would later develop around “free trade”—that Amsterdam’s relative advantages were created by its unprecedented laws and building of dikes, rather than derived from passive adjustment to “natural endowments.” And this was not a case of local fishermen rapidly becoming specialized bankers and traders. The new laws and migration of skilled people brought about this “Dutch miracle.” 17

The point here is that the novelty of the late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European idea of “nationalism” lay not in the creation of national or ethnic political units per se. Rather, this “ism” became a dominant political doctrine for uniting or reuniting increasing numbers of people and redefining “brotherhood.” The specific demographic changes of Europe during these centuries combined with ideas born during the French Revolution brought about this new doctrine.

The French Revolution in 1789 identified a citizen as “French” not by language, religion, or ethnicity, but by a commitment to new political institutions. It built on a sense of “fraternity” (“brotherhood”) that had been stimulated since at least the fifteenth century among those living on lands where French kings ruled: this link between people was based on territory and not a “book” (the world was still mainly agricultural and illiterate). This happened both because the English were the common enemy during the Hundred Years’ War, and because of the continuous growth of France’s central government, which replaced feudal institutions. Also, with the exception of a small number of Jews, France was a Catholic country. (The mistrusted, entrepreneurial Huguenots were expelled by the end of the seventeenth century; France’s loss was Amsterdam’s gain.)

For French citizens of the newly defined “nation” after the revolution, institutions built on the slogan “liberty, equality, fraternity” came to define the obligation to be “brothers’ keepers” in a new era. These included expectations that remedies for grievances could be sought within these new institutions. Simon Schama, in his Citizens (1989), remarks that when people “were told that a true national assembly would . . . provide satisfaction, they were given a direct stake in sweeping institutional change. This was exactly what happened in the late 1788 and early 1789.” The revolutionary government also introduced universal conscription, which resulted in a vastly expanded state power leading to eventual abuses.

The rest of Europe thus observed the following events: France lost almost every war during the eighteenth century, including the humiliation of the Seven Years’ War, and was bankrupt in 1789. Yet just three years later, in 1792, it declared war on Austria and Prussia. In November of the same year, its armies invaded the Austrian Netherlands (today’s Belgium), Savoy, and some of the principalities of the Rhineland. The occupying armies secured the loyalty of many inhabitants by establishing regimes based on the principles of the French Revolution, abolishing feudal privileges, and redefining “brotherhood.” Although the European powers formed coalitions repeatedly against France, they were defeated. Between 1806 and 1812, most of Europe was either under French control or had become French allies.

The totally unexpected, repeated, and spectacular military successes of Europe’s most populous state—a state that was bankrupt just a few years before—led the statesmen of Europe to look closely at the new French institutions and military strategies. They wanted to see what could suddenly bring about a disciplined population and provoke and sustain such heights of effort. They reached the conclusion that mass conscript armies, centralization, and myths of newly defined national destiny were the means by which increasing numbers of people could now be united.  Part of this sequence of events is a reminder of the lessons in the Old Testament, though expressed in very different words—these legacies still impact events unfolding now. History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes, once one lifts linguistic veils.

“Nationalism” became the ideology rationalizing a model of society capable of uniting larger numbers of people among whom traditional ties were weakening. Rulers came to believe that the strengthened national ties could both mitigate domestic divisiveness and diminish the risk of military defeat.

During the eighteenth century, France became Europe’s most populous country. During the nineteenth century, however, its population growth slowed, and its population grew older, whereas among most of its neighbors, including within the Habsburg Empire, fertility and population were on the rise.

France’s population in 1700 was 21 million; in 1800 it was 29 million, and in 1900, 41 million. The Kingdom of Prussia’s population rose from 1.75 million in 1700 to 9 million in 1800. During the nineteenth century, Prussia dominated the other German states. In 1834 it formed a customs union and then, in 1871, an empire. The German confederation had a population of 35 million in 1850, and 57 million in 1900. (Under Bismarck, Germany also introduced what we would call now “welfare legislation”—with the explicit goal of inspiring loyalty among German workers.18) Among most other European groups, their population at least doubled during the nineteenth century. Population growth among one’s—not fully trusted—neighbors has always brought about fears, especially when wealth was mainly derived from land. And each age articulates these fears in its own way.19

Of course, philosophers had offered nationalist theories before the nineteenth century. But a distinguishing characteristic of the nineteenth century was that misgovernment by foreigners (whether from fading feudal or imperial legacies) came together with the energizing and disciplining ideas of the French Revolution, and subsequent military successes of the reinvigorated nation.

Soon, though, “nationalism” as a solution for relinking increasing number of people was facing competition from other ideologies and models of society.

New “Isms”

Moss Hart and George Kaufman’s 1936 play You Can’t Take It with You contains the following dialogue:

Grandpa: Penny, why don’t you write a play about Ism-Mania?
Penny: Ism-Mania?
Grandpa: Yeah, sure, you know, Communism, Fascism, Voodoo-ism, everybody’s got an -ism these days.
Penny: Oh. I thought it was some kind of itch or something.
Grandpa: Well, it’s just as catching. When things go a little bad nowadays, you go out, get yourself an -ism and you’re in business.”20 

Following World War I, nationalism was no longer the only “ism” available to rationalize relinking increasing numbers of people or promote stability and political legitimacy. Communism sought to do the same, drawing on the notion that allegiance was based on classes, with increased number of “workers” around the world uniting against everyone else.

Whatever President Wilson’s personal views at the time, his administration’s interest in promoting national “self-determination” after World War I was pragmatic and two-fold (though Wilson disregarded the facts on the ground—the overlapping ethnic map of Europe). The administration hoped that nationalism could continue to link people, establish loyalty, secure political legitimacy, and would prove to be a strong competitor to communist doctrines. The new nation-states emerging from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire would also counterbalance the bellicose German nation-state.

“Communism” was perceived then as a serious alternative model of relinking the world’s increasing population. Russia, most prominently, was experimenting with it. Unlike nationalism, it drew on the notion that there must be an insurmountable animosity between rigidly delineated classes—animosity that could serve as a stronger glue for uniting people within a class than religious or national ties, whether defined by ethnicity, language, ideology, or culture. “Communism” excludes the possibility of an alternative model of society uniting people by allowing social mobility up and down. Within the communist vision, mobility happens through vaguely conceived revolutionary transformations with private property eliminated. 

During this same period, “capitalism” was being formulated more precisely too, not only as an economic doctrine but as a model of society. This “ism” was drawing on the idea that the increasing number of people within a country and across the world could be best relinked through “anonymous”21 “invisible hands”—note that both terms have meaning only when populations are large and on the move. Within this model of society, social mobility—up and down—happens when encouraged by a maze of institutions, especially democratized financial markets, fueling entrepreneurial ambition while mitigating envy, and uniting people behind institutions enabling such a “mobile civilization.”22

The implicit and explicit assumption behind this “ism” is that, through trial and error, the voluntary associations arising from trade and market negotiations would bring about accountability, personal responsibility, and social mobility, and thus mitigate conflicts. Among nations, free trade agreements between countries would complement the distinguishing features of this “ism” mitigating international conflicts.

By 1930, though, grave policy mistakes in the United Kingdom and the United States (some social, some economic23), weakened “capitalism’s” institutions and undermined its claims. With unemployment hovering around 30 percent, this “ism” did not appear to be an obviously superior model of society. And when one “ism” does not appear to work as expected for an extended period of time, people start betting on others, as was the case then and is the case today.

Another model of society emerged following World War I and the disastrous Treaty of Versailles, and it gained more currency after hyperinflation destroyed the stabilizing middle classes in Germany, Austria, Italy, and Hungary.24

Germans faced this question: how do you unite people defeated in war, and who, a few years later, have all their savings wiped out, their capital markets destroyed—and morals with them—and high rates of inflation by the hour?

In a state of utter social disarray, Germany disastrously succumbed to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, which demanded increasing “living space” (“lebensraum”) for Germany’s population. The party’s explicit goal was also to attract workers away from communism, while appealing to national roots (some mythical and others having Bismarck’s policies to draw upon). Initially, the party was anti–big business, though this stand was soon abandoned. Vicious anti-Semitic and racist theories, variations on ancient themes of despising “strangers,” along with anti-communism, came to define the party and Germany’s eventual actions, leading to unprecedented catastrophe and abuses of power, to say the least.    

Wilson’s administration thus tragically miscalculated when encouraging the simplified “nationalist” model of society to unite people as a solution to mitigate domestic and international conflicts in Europe. These political bets did not prevent either German or Communist aggression. Also, adherence to the abstract principle of “self-determination” and the creation of small, politically independent states did not solve the problem of smaller “tribes,” who now found themselves within new, arbitrary borders hastily drawn not only in Europe but in the Middle East as well. They came to be called “minorities,” so as to deflect their claim to nationhood and self-determination. Language is an effective weapon.25

Nor were these issues addressed decades later when the idea found its way into the UN’s 1970 Declaration on Principles of International Law, with a predictably unsatisfactory distinction between the right of self-determination and the right of secession—ideas plaguing the world to this day with rising tribal populations, be it within Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Libya, or Afghanistan, even Europe (Catalans, Scots, Basques among them). Unsettled, not quite “brotherly” tribes found themselves in countries or unions with accidental borders and institutions no longer fitting the changing demographic landscapes.

Following World War II, Western European countries were traumatized by two world wars, along with hyperinflation and high rates of unemployment between the two, that had destroyed or significantly weakened their economies and their religious and moral foundations. Facing the threat of Soviet Communism, they sought compromises between the various historical “isms” that would offer lasting remedies. They bet on robust roles for the state (the United States too, building on the 1930s New Deal)26 and, at the same time, on cooperation in both monetary issues (based on Bretton-Woods) and in military affairs (NATO). Internationally, the world bet on the UN, which, badly structured, turned out to be little more than a superficial debating society not much different from the failed League of Nations.

The result in the West, until the 1980s, was a mixed order that was neither fully “nationalist” nor “globalist,” neither “communist” nor entirely “capitalist,” held up by U.S. hegemony and the Soviet threat—with many unsettled issues, such as links between “democracy” and “democratized capital markets,” a credible global debt-enforcement regime,27 migration,28 welfare policies, and the treatment of minorities all looming in shadows.

All these issues came to the fore—first gradually, then in recent years more intensely—as Soviet Communism collapsed and populations around the world continued to grow, in unstable countries in the Middle East, Latin America, Asia, and Africa in particular. Many of these populations increasingly sought to emigrate to Western shores.

In part, the rise of today’s version of “nationalism” and “populism” in the West has been a consequence of the above events compounding over the last thirty years since Communism fell, combined with grave mistakes in executing “freer trade,” as discussed below.

The Post–Cold War Vacuum

The fall of Communism and other dictatorial regimes left a vacuum of laws and institutions in its wake. While some good things filled this vacuum, plenty of nonsense did too. Recall, for example, the irresponsible “shock therapies” advocated and implemented in post-Communist countries lacking legal and other institutions to assure accountability.29

In the caricature of “capitalism” pursued then, there was no role for building, rebuilding, and sustaining foundational institutions. There was no insight either into the sequence in which this rebuilding should be done—never mind that this “ism” had its foundation in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and not wealth of the world, and that Smith assumed disciplined behavior and personal responsibility shaped by a Theory of Moral Sentiments (his preceding volume), too. In addition, by simply insisting on voting—ignoring the need for democratized financial markets and other economic institutions—in many countries governments remained the sole or primary financial intermediary, facilitating concentration and abuses of power, while disregarding warnings from millennia ago.30

The superficial modeling of this “ism” (hiding behind mathematical abstractions) reflected the assumption that voluntary interactions of individuals would ensure peaceful coexistence within and between countries—notwithstanding incompatible religious beliefs, national interests, and radically different customs, traditions, and laws, or the fact that laws and police are insufficient to bring about civilized behavior. The need to reestablish the political solidarity necessary to gradually build or rebuild institutions—and for leaders to communicate why this was necessary in a more mobile world with a drastically different demography—was not taken into account. 

Economic models rationalizing the benefits “free trade” show that sudden, unexpected lowering of tariffs is beneficial for society on one condition only: the condition is that there are institutions in place so as to compensate those falling behind when such changes happen—negotiating gradual changes being one such remedy. As this was not done, a consequence of the post–Cold War events was that a variety of formerly “immobile” businesses moved out of the United States and other Western countries, and segments of these populations fell behind as they lost their negotiating power and connection to advanced production processes—a power that political leaders could have restored, but did not.

While these events were unfolding, Western entrepreneurs, financiers, and others with technical and organizational skills—the “mobile”—could leverage their know-how and access to capital since such skills were relatively scarce in the rest of the world, thereby reaping the “peace dividend.” Moreover, since the United States and the West did not insist on opening their countries gradually, conditional on legal and institutional reciprocity, some individuals were able, through personal relations, to secure contractual agreements through powerful connections in Russia, China, or African countries—countries with a very different (or no) legal infrastructure. The combined impact led to predictable increases in inequality in the West and around the world, to corruption, and to problems of national security.

The superior solution would have been to negotiate a more gradual move toward freer trade, with more focus on the mazes of institutions needed to support mutually beneficial exchange. That was not done then, and now, when Trump’s administration tries to do it, it faces far more obstacles. Some industries have already adjusted over the last few decades to the new status-quo.

This combination of mistaken policies has brought about the present discontent blamed on “mercantilism” and “populism”—two other poorly defined “isms”—though the issues go far deeper than these “isms.” Indeed, such terms either mislead, or mean little. What there is no doubt about is that the institutions that enabled the rise of the West and the United States in particular have been weakened.

Brothers’ Keepers?

Here is how Paul Kennedy summarizes the Habsburgs’ policies toward minorities in their former empire: “Vienna’s classic answer to all . . . particularist grievances was to smother them with commitments, with new jobs, tax concessions, additional railway branch lines, and so on. There were, in 1914, well over 3,000,000 civil servants, running things as diverse as schools, hospitals, welfare, taxation, railways, post, etc.” 31 The Habsburgs sought to maintain attachments by bribing people through such “infrastructure” favors, as we call them nowadays.  

When finding access to capital closed, the political mobilization of minorities excluded from acquiring private capital is understandable. This is what I wrote more than twenty years ago in a chapter on “Nationalism,” before the present intense Balkanization within the United States happened:

When its financial markets were closed to some groups—Afro-Americans prominent among them—symptoms of aggressive “tribalism” . . . surfaced within the US too.  Militant organizations, whose goal was to rebuild the strength of these marginalized groups, soon emerged.  But at the same time, events such as the civil rights movement were also helping to restore trust between the many “tribes” living under the US’s federal umbrella. These new institutions were successful in transforming governments into a source of capital when capital markets stayed closed. The debate today in the US asks whether or not capital markets have now been opened sufficiently to members of these groups, and thus whether government should no longer single them out for preferential treatment.

Yet though capital markets became more accessible, the civil rights movement had unexpected consequences I did not foresee.  Its main idea—colorblindness in accessing schools, universities, and capital and equal rights before the law—should have gradually reduced the desire for lasting preferential policies, whether for blacks or for any other group, as discriminatory barriers came down. It should have created greater unity among the population around the highest principles of the American founding.  That is not what happened, however.

In quick succession, new groups sought to imitate and exploit the civil rights movement’s success. Various ethnic and other groups began demanding legal and economic remedies from their fellow citizens. Each and every hardship and statistical discrepancy came to be seen as a consequence of “injustice and prejudice.” As such, these discrepancies had to be remedied with laws, regulations, and monetary compensation—even though the new principle of “diversity” promoted by politicians, courts, and academics went against the principles of “colorblindness” and equal rights that the civil rights movement was about. New policies ended up legitimizing quotas in employment, universities, and the awarding of loans, mortgages, and contracts through the backdoor. This has contributed to the present divisiveness. The weakening of family and community ties due to other developments has also led anchorless people into identity movements—though today’s identity-politics is a ridiculously distorted shadow of the civil rights movement.    

History is not repeating itself, but it rhymes. As under the Habsburgs, so in the United States and the West, when there is nothing to unite a population except the hope for government favors, politics becomes a competition among identity groups (including, in the case of today’s “alt-right,” white identity groups) seeking to leverage their victim status. Tolerance and any sense of obligation to society as a whole are forgotten.  Americans have thus come to disregard former president Theodore Roosevelt’s warning, delivered to a group of Irish Catholic Knights of Columbus at Carnegie Hall on Columbus Day 1915:

There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americans. . . . The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality . . . feeling more sympathy with . . . that nationality, than with the other citizens of the American Republic.

The Choice Today

In a 1970 essay, titled “Whose Country Is America?,” Eric Hoffer eerily anticipated some of these events.  He related the weakening of U.S. institutions to the distortion of education across generations, which was in turn related to demographic change—the baby boomers’ bubble and the affluence associated with that period. “The general impression is that nowadays the young act like the spoiled children of the rich,” he wrote, with younger generations having been heavily subsidized to stay in educational institutions with lowered standards requiring less effort. Education was becoming the basis of prosperity, yet “education” can easily lapse into “certification” backed by no knowledge whatsoever. Hoffer noted that wealth without work “creates a climate of disintegrating values with its fallout of anarchy.” And it was these graduates who came to populate government bureaucracies, the media, the courts, and the subsidized, rapidly multiplying network of NGOs. He predicted that the newly accredited “social doctors” would “want to influence affairs, have a hand in making history, and feel important,” and would do so by “prescribing an injection of so many billions for every social ailment.”

As the widespread affluence of the mid-twentieth century recedes, the present controversies are not particularly surprising. The large number of grave mistakes in recent decades has led large segments of the population to fall between the cracks. Meanwhile, Western youth, whose adolescence is subsidized well into their twenties, are now experiencing frustrated expectations as the implicit promise of university credentialing no longer guarantees upward social mobility but often a downward trajectory—back into their parents’ basement in their thirties.  

In a way, the United States and Europe are now facing the same choices that people faced millennia ago. One option is the Babel kind of world, with weakened moral and ethical anchors, weakened family and national ties (as recent polls about decline of patriotism suggest), as well as weakened communication among fractured social groupings. The other choice is to relink people by drawing on institutions that have, for centuries, brought about the most successful (though never perfect) societies. These institutions worked to correct mistakes—in some countries sooner than others.

There is not one particular tax, regulatory reform, or internationally negotiated treaty that can restore and sustain the maze of institutions that in previous eras allowed for economic mobility and social solidarity. Written constitutions can promise checks and balances, but their spirit can be subverted and their words rendered meaningless when ethical standards erode and access to capital narrows.32 The events summarized here show that solving these problems will require a firm moral anchor that can relink populations and thereby ensure social mobility, political accountability, personal responsibility, and prevent abuses of power.

This article is an American Affairs online exclusive, published November 20, 2019.

1 In addition, such encroachments have also led to conflicts on various scales between peoples.

2 See Reuven Brenner, History: The Human Gamble (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); Reuven Brenner, Force of Finance: Triumph of the Capital Markets (Texere, 2002); Reuven Brenner, “Unsettled Civilizations: How the US Can Handle Iraq,” Asia Times, June 23, 2004; Reuven Brenner, “Prohibiting the Pursuit of Happiness,” Center for the Thought of John Paul II, June 6, 2016.

3 In Ulysses, a goddess tempts Ulysses unsuccessfully, and in the Aeneid, Dido, queen of Carthage, tempts Aeneas unsuccessfully, too.

4 This is one reason underlying the flaws of another “ism”—“libertarianism”: dealing with uncertainty (being threatened by “neighbors” being just one example) requires reliance on family, tribe, religious community, or a nation and calls for sacrifices and military efforts, the latter representing centralized cooperation.

5 Genesis had a point: Consider today’s Balkanization even within the United States, with some eager to destroy century-old monuments (and tribal conflict in places like the Middle East leading to far more violence).

6 Consider Europe handing out infrastructure money to Hungary and Poland, among others, while the two disregard—legally—directives of the Brussels bureaucracy on immigration.

7 And only when settled does a tribe become a “nation” (“am” in Hebrew; until then they are an “eda,” a “tribe,” in Hebrew). Note that two national epics, Homer’s Ulysses and Vergil’s Aeneid both rely on ancient legends before having been put in writing following wars, political upheavals, and economic chaos. In the first, Ulysses overcomes tragedies and temptations, hoping to restore a stable society. Aeneas goes through similar trials and temptations, and promised to found the nation of Rome. But both Ulysses and Aeneas must first reach “lands”—whereas the Jewish tribe depends on “the book.”  

8 See Brenner, History, and Reuven Brenner, Betting on Ideas: Wars, Inventions, Inflation (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1985).

9 See Brenner, Force of Finance.

10 The text had to be succinct since the texts had to be hand-written on papyrus or expensive leather, so the content transferred orally and memorized. See Brenner, History.

11 Sumerian legends describe similar events. The story of Dumuzi and Enkidu, the first, a shepherd, competes with the second (a farmer) for favors from the goddess Inanna, who makes her decision based on the importance of the offered produce. This goddess vacillates between the two, but chooses the shepherd to be her husband. See Gary Greenberg, 101 Myths of the Bible: How Ancient Scribes Invented Biblical History (Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2000), 69. See also, Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer (New York: Harper and Row, 1983); note that “The Sumerian Dumuzi, who comes from the agricultural, more traditional area of southern Sumer . . . is characterized as the force in the grain. . . . The Akkadian Dumuzi, comes from the northern nomadic peoples, who emphasized the arbitrary will and power of the gods, is characterized as the shepherd” (p. ix). Cf. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, “The Atrahasis Epic and Its Significance for Our Understanding of Genesis 1–9,” Biblical Archaeologist 40, no. 4 (December 1977): 147–55; William H. McNeill, “Violence and Submission in the Human Past,” Daedalus 136, no. 1 (Winter 2007): 5–12.

12 See Brenner, History, ch. 1–2; Reuven Brenner, World of Chance: Betting on Religion, Games, Wall Street (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), ch. 1; and Brenner, “Prohibiting the Pursuit of Happiness.”  “Primitive laws” were extremely precise about contracts and compensations, but they were oral, and the laws were enforced by family and kin. Relatively isolated, small-sized tribes cannot have much specialization.  

13 Now the internet can be used for watching “brothers”—though most “brothers” do not want to be watched. 

14 See Brenner, History and World of Chance on human nature and how institutions can mitigate envious, destructive reactions, and also accommodate ambition.

15 Yom Kippur is on top, as the “Shabbat of Shabbatot.”

16 See Melville J. Herskovits, Economic Anthropology (New York: Knopf, 1952), ch. 15, titled “Land Tenure: Hunters, Herders and Food Gatherers,” about both various arrangements considering rights to land tenure and resolution of disputes as population density grew.

17 See Reuven Brenner, Labyrinths of Prosperity: Economic Follies, Democratic Remedies (Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 1994), ch. 3. But the Dutch Republic was no welfare state: immigrants sank or swam, as was the case in the United States, too, for much of its history.

18 See Brenner, Betting on Ideas.

19 The Industrial Revolution notwithstanding, Europe was still an agricultural society with a 70–90 percent rural population in the nineteenth century.

20 Recently Rep. Rashida Tlaib came up with “people-ism”—whatever that means.

21 See Brenner, History, ch. 2.

22 See Brenner, History and “Prohibiting the Pursuit of Pleasure.”

23 See Brenner, Force of Finance and Reuven Brenner, “Toward a New Bretton Woods Agreement,” American Affairs 1, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 84–106.

24 And possibly in China too. See discussion in Brenner “Toward a New Bretton Woods Agreement.”

25 This internationally recognized principle may even have made things worse by raising expectations of any group which had any grievances, and who could now appeal in the name of “self-determination” to the new great powers (which, when it was in their interests, were happy to comply). Such expectations could only start conflicts or prevent them from being settled more quickly. Events leading to World War I showed how this happened in the past. Recent events in what was Yugoslavia are a reminder. See Brenner, Force of Finance, ch. 6. 

26 They had to: when governments inadvertently destroy or weaken capital markets (in communism case because of ideology), they have to take on increased roles as financial intermediaries. See Brenner, Force of Finance, ch. 1.

27 Such regime existed between 1904 and 1929, an epoch titled “Dollar Diplomacy.” See Faisal Z. Ahmed, Laura Alfaro, and Noel Maurer, “Lawsuits and Empire: On the Enforcement of Sovereign Debt in Latin America,” Law and Contemporary Problems 73, no. 4 (Fall 2010): 39–46.

28 How many immigrants can a country absorb within a certain time, without changing the features of its political institutions? Can Canada open the doors to, say, 37 million migrants, doubling the size of its population? 

29 See Brenner, Force of Finance, ch. 1. Many academic advocates of shock therapy at the time came from top U.S. universities yet were blind to the fact that these countries had weakened domestic institutions, religious ones among them, and did not have legal and political institutions to prevent rapid, outrageous corruption.   

30 See Brenner, Force of Finance, ch. 1.

31 Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Random House, 1987).

32 Such centralization is accompanied by rising envy, since people’s success is perceived as related to government favors, corruption and arbitrariness, rather than merit. See Brenner, Labyrinths of Prosperity, ch. 5 on envy in communist Russia.

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