Rise And Fall

Over at Jacobite magazine, Nick Land has posted an item called Modernity’s Fertility Problem. It addresses a liability that, although it presents itself in an especially virulent form today, is hardly unique to modernity, and has been the death of high civilizations since antiquity.

We read:

Modernity has a fertility problem. When elevated to the zenith of savage irony, the formulation runs: At the demographic level, modernity selects systematically against modern populations. The people it prefers, it consumes. Without gross exaggeration, this endogenous tendency can be seen as an existential risk to the modern world. It threatens to bring the entire global order crashing down around it.

We’ve discussed this here before. A couple of years ago, in precisely the same context, I wrote:

Observers of the life-cycles of civilizations long ago noticed that there is a natural demographic process that tends to enfeeble high civilizations as they reach their apogee. The idea is that as civilizations advance, they create more and more knowledge, literature, art, etc., and that for the civilization to continue to advance requires that there be enough people in each succeeding generation with the cognitive and behavioral capacity to absorb it all and carry it forward. The fact that these traits are highly heritable means that those in each generation who possess these necessary qualities must maintain a certain rate of fertility in order to ensure that there will be a large enough pool of such resources in the next generation.

The problem, however, is that high civilizations offer a great many agreeable distractions and diversions for these cognitive elites (not least of which is the work of building upon the knowledge and culture passed to them by their antecedent generation) — and so the messy, expensive, and time-consuming work of raising children becomes less and less attractive. Once the fertility rate drops below a certain critical point, there simply aren’t enough children of sufficient quality to shoulder the load, and the whole structure becomes more and more top-heavy. Eventually it collapses. This has happened again and again throughout history.

In his discussion of this phenomenon, Mr. Land focuses his attention on where the problem is, and has always been, the most acute: cities. He quotes an essay by William McNeil, Cities and their Consequences:

Intensified exposure to infectious disease was the traditional reason why cities did not reproduce themselves. […] But it is the cost of raising children in all urban environments, not disease, that best explains why urban populations generally decline without immigrants from rural areas. Wherever adults go off to work in factories, shops and offices, and small children are not allowed to accompany them, who looks after the young? How can they be readied for gainful employment? Public education and pre-schooling are seldom available in urban slums, particularly outside Western countries, but occasionally even within them, too. Grandmothers and elderly neighbors can sometimes do the job, but extended family coherence is not as prevalent in cities, and often such caregivers are not available. Professionals of various descriptions must then be found. That renders the cost of children’s upkeep high, and the nurturing that such professionals usually offer rarely matches their large fees. […] Even as children are more expensive in cities, they are less economically useful at an early age. There are few berries to be picked, no small domesticated animals to herd. There is a much longer wait until children can begin to contribute to family income in urban settings.

Land pauses here to identify recognition of this fertility crisis as a crisis as being roughly congruent with membership in the new Right (in his words, the ‘far right’). To the goodthinkful modern mind, if you notice this problem, and think it really is a problem, then you are already, if not actually beyond the pale, perched upon it, looking out toward the darkness.

Why is that? It’s because problems have causes, and because this problem has some causes that are rooted in sacred modern beliefs. If you start tugging on these threads, a good deal of contemporary social fabric will soon begin to unravel.

Land continues:

Feminism has been the first, inevitable target. It is tightly correlated with the collapse of fertility, and is something modernity tends (strongly) to promote. The expansion of female social opportunities beyond obligate child-rearing could scarcely lead anywhere other than to a drastic contraction of family size. The inexorable modern trend to social decoding – i.e. to the production of an abstract contractual agency in the place of concretely determined persons – makes the explosion of such opportunities apparently uncontainable. The individualism fostered by urban life might, to the counter-factual imagination, have been in some way restricted to males, but as a matter of actual historical fact the dereliction of traditional social roles has proceeded without serious limitation, with variation in speed, but no indication of alternative direction. The radically decoded Internet persona – optionally anonymous, fabricated, and self-defining – seems no more than an extrapolation from the emergent norms of urban existence. Feminist assumptions, at least in their ‘first-wave,’ liberal form, are integral to the modern city.

There’s a lot to unpack here. I wouldn’t have used the term “social decoding”, which as far as I understand, refers to the process by which different people will extract different meanings from social messages depending upon their particular cultural embedding (a deeply and typically postmodernist notion). In the context of “the radically decoded Internet persona”, I take the point here to be about the process by which, especially in the past half-century of the modern West, higher-level natural categories and individual particularities are stripped away.

This peeling away of properties and categories is due to a number of factors. First, it is a natural result of the simultaneous centralization and intrusiveness of government power, in which every aspect of life is increasingly managed and monitored; this is simply not possible, as a matter of scale, while preserving fully detailed individuality as regards the multitudes being so governed. In this way, then, the blooming profusion of qualities and particularities that differentiate every person must give way, in public interactions, to a smaller, and lower, subset of more basic commonalities. (It is precisely analogous to what computer science refers to as a “base class”; highly centralized governments must address their people through what a C++ programmer would call a “base-class pointer”.) Second, it is an equally natural consequence of postmodernism generally, which exerts an entropic and deliquescent effect on every salient, objective feature of the world. Third, it is due also to the uprooting of immigrants to cities from their homes, which provides an opportunity for self-reinvention. The range of possibilities for doing this would have been far smaller in earlier times (though still considerable), but nowadays it is practically unlimited.

These complexities aside, what is quite plainly and certainly true in the paragraph quoted above is that feminism “is tightly correlated with the collapse of fertility, and is something modernity tends (strongly) to promote”, and that the “expansion of female social opportunities beyond obligate child-rearing could scarcely lead anywhere other than to a drastic contraction of family size.” (If any of you reject that premise, I’ll be interested to know why.)

Religion is up next. Simply put, religious people have more babies.

Religious traditionalist lamentations in this regard are, of course, nothing new. Christianity – especially under Catholic inspiration – has connected modernity to sterility for as long as modernity has been noticed. A number of crucial factors have nevertheless changed. Since the early years of the new millennium, secular liberals have begun to notice the connection between religiosity and fertility, and to express gathering concern about its partisan political consequences. In a 2009 paper, Sarah R. Hayford and S. Philip Morgan discuss the transition from a traditional discussion of the topic, focused upon differential Catholic and Protestant fertility, to its contemporary mode, subsequent to the convergence of denominational differences, and now mapping more closely onto red / blue state partisan affiliations. Their abstract is worth citing (almost) in full:

Using data from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), we show that women who report that religion is “very important” in their everyday life have both higher fertility and higher intended fertility than those saying religion is “somewhat important” or “not important.” Factors such as unwanted fertility, age at childbearing, or degree of fertility postponement seem not to contribute to religiosity differentials in fertility. This answer prompts more fundamental questions: what is the nature of this greater “religiosity”? And why do the more religious want more children? We show that those saying religion is more important have more traditional gender and family attitudes and that these attitudinal differences account for a substantial part of the fertility differential.

This should hardly be surprising; nearly every religion inclines a person to a viewpoint that extends beyond the atomic self, both horizontally and vertically, and fosters a sense of embedding in both time and culture.

Land continues:

“Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?” asked Eric Kaufmann in a 2010 book with that name. A peculiar twist in the Darwinian inheritance had begun to bring the heritability of religious attitudes into prominence, and linking it (positively) to the question of reproductive fitness. Those groups previously seen as having been unambiguously vanquished by a triumphant evolutionary science were now subject to an ironic – and from the progressive perspective deeply sinister – evolutionary vindication. This is a story that has still scarcely begun to unfold.

Exactly right, I think. I’ve believed for many years now that religiosity increases fitness, and that secularism is maladaptive. (I recommend David Sloan Wilson’s (aptly named!) Darwin’s Cathedral for a theoretical overview.) I wrote about this in 2009 from the perspective of social cohesion, but its depressing effect on fertility is perhaps an even more serious problem.

Land also touches on the profusion of sexual categories, which places ordinary, binary breedership at an increasing numerical disadvantage in the range of available options, but this is simply another manifestation of the current-day triumph of entropic postmodernism, radical skepsis, and atomization, in which everyone is condemned to define themselves, even down to the most basic (and actually objective) qualities. It is a lethal sickness.

Now we get to what Land considers an inevitable stage in the effect of urbanization in a small and globalized world — and in this, he may be right that we are in new historical territory. It is that great modern cities, in contrast to earlier times, have fully consumed their hinterlands, and now, due to the ease of travel in the modern era, attract more and more immigrants from everywhere in the world. In this way they become engines of demographic replacement, on a scale that even the greatest cities of the past cold never manage. This, argues, Land, leads in turn, quite lawfully and dependably, to reaction:

Politics, by prophetic etymology, is about cities. The inevitability of an emergent ‘Alt-Right’ in the mass politics of advanced modern societies is already fully predictable from a minimal understanding of how cities work. It is simple delusion to imagine that mere contingency rules here, perhaps under the guidance of particular political personalities. Rather, the urban metabolism – essentially – at a certain phase of its development, generates circumstances overwhelmingly conducive to the eruption of popular ethno-politics. Cities are demographic parasites. They trend intrinsically to a dynamic that – beyond a comparatively definite threshold – cannot fail to be perceived as a systematic policy of ethnic replacement.

Here we have got into more speculative territory, I think. “Cannot fail to be perceived as a systematic policy of ethnic replacement”? Really? I’m sure that it cannot fail to perceived as such by some, but, living as I do in New York City, and reading the media organs of those elites who run the place, and hob-nobbing with my affluent and bien-pensant friends and neighbors here in Park Slope, Brooklyn, I can assure you that it is hardly perceived that way by all. Indeed, to perceive it that way would be a thing from which most of the people I know around here would recoil in horror.

Land continues:

There is still much hope of coaxing toothpaste back into its tubes. In other words, there is a massive failure to appreciate the profundity and magnitude of the processes underlying the current global crisis. For instance, the incendiary language of migration-driven ‘genocide’ is not going away. It is bound, on the contrary, to spread, and intensify. The re-emergence of the race topic, and all of its associates, is deeply baked into the modernist cake. Comparative modernity is automatically racialized once global metabolism lends differential (urban/rural) fertility its ethnic specificity. What is unfolding, among other things, is the racial disaggregation of the ‘population bomb,’ with drastic inevitability. This is not a product of intellectuals, but of the modern process inherently, and all attempts by intellectuals to obstruct its cultural condensation are hubristically misconceived. “Who, actually, is having kids?” It is a species of insanity to think this question can be strangled in the crib.

In other words, there is “still much hope” that the reaction provoked by these fatal liabilities and inherent pathologies of secular modernity will at some point provoke a life-saving immune reaction in the body politic. Is that so? Or is it perhaps the case, as I have argued here, that it is the uniquely lethal property of our modern, postwar memeplex that it functions like AIDS: a memetic pathogen that I have labeled “CIV”, for “Cultural Immunodeficiency Virus”. It attacks the very mechanism by which a healthy, living culture would defend itself, and its wasting effects are already visible all around us.

This is not the first time around the wheel. This cycle of early vigor, high accomplishment, cultural complacency, decadence, irreligion, loss of virility, and plummeting fertility has been the rule, not the exception, in the arc of civilizations throughout history. Usually the story ends with accelerating pressure from, and finally invasion and conquest by, lean and hungry outsiders. Does this all not look familiar? Will this time be different?

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4 Comments

  1. well, at some point it *was* different (otherwise there would be no civilizations at all). and, as you remarked, it is already different: modern growth is unparalleled in history.

    cities are burning fuel (in the form of high IQ people) – their problem is similar to that of the fabled “peak oil”. eventually they will have to convert to some other kind of propellant (or die). it’s a problem all around, but one can rest assured it takes synthetic intelligence (capital) to solve (and fables about restoring greatness just won’t do).

    Posted June 22, 2017 at 10:24 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Uriel,

    well, at some point it *was* different (otherwise there would be no civilizations at all)…

    Perhaps I don’t understand you correctly. Civilizations have risen and fallen in a repetitive arc that has characteristic features in evidence again now; my question is whether there are sufficient qualitative differences this time round to make things any different. Nick Land suggests that the acceleration of demographic replacement will be sufficient to trigger a negative-feedback reaction that will reverse the trend this time; my own feeling is that the other factors typically producing this cyclic pattern (in particular, insufficient birthrates among cognitive elites, and a swelling underclass) will go about their work in the usual way.

    If what you’re saying is that it will be AI to the rescue — well, maybe, but that’s a pretty slender reed to hang our hopes on, I think. Nobody can know what that will bring.

    Posted June 22, 2017 at 11:16 am | Permalink
  3. Mike in Boston says

    This cycle of early vigor, high accomplishment, cultural complacency, decadence, irreligion, loss of virility, and plummeting fertility has been the rule, not the exception, in the arc of civilizations throughout history.

    Yup. If you haven’t seen it before, Sir John Glubb’s The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival is a pretty comprehensive survey of the commonalities among civilizations. I find it pretty impressive considering the fact that it was written back in 1976, when our own civilization had not yet declined quite so far.

    Glubb writes that “whereas the life histories of great nations show an unexpected uniformity, the nature of their falls depends largely on outside circumstances and thus shows a high degree of diversity.”

    If that’s so, then even if “it’s different this time” (known on Wall Street as “the four most expensive words in the English language”), perhaps it’s not really different this time.

    Posted June 23, 2017 at 12:13 am | Permalink
  4. Issac says

    Land hits the high point as usual, and with uncharacteristic musing about hope. I don’t know that I can sign off on your terminal diagnosis, but I from my perspective the odds of a deus ex machina tech resolution to the problem are slim.

    What I will say is that we do have some observable phenomena to play with that might yield some clues as to how to negotiate the collapse period for potentially superior rebound. First and foremost, the enemies of civilization aren’t terribly difficult to spot. Unlike prior epochs the intellectual differential between the civilized and the uncivilized is a yawning gulf.

    This lends itself to the very real possibility that current technology might allow larger than historically normal pockets of civilization to remain viable while other formerly civilized points are overrun. That leads to the second point, which is that the epicenters of invasion are largely localized phenomena. Though numerous urban centers will be affected, the hinterlands have not truly been exhausted.

    Given the worst destabilization will be perfectly obvious and telegraphed abroad, one can imagine the circumstances in which a reactionary decentralism was proffered by either quasi-elites or as a holding pattern for elites to continue to harvest intellect at a slower pace. The latter would be controlled demolition, but it would offer substantially longer time horizons for reactionary politicos to organize.

    Third and finally, I find the prospect of unilateral outside invasion spurious today. The lean invaders of yesteryear were comparatively uniform and numerous. China could muster such a force, but I know from personal experience their internal economy is wholly premised on exports to the West. There are no other consumer destinations on offer that wouldn’t directly balk at becoming an import mecca.

    So while I wouldn’t posit that the alt-right is invariably going to bloom into some cultural antidote to the decline, I would argue that the down-slope is comparatively manageable. There will almost certainly be hideously illiberal things to come, but I wouldn’t count on the latter day Vandals snuffing out civilization entirely and producing a true dark age.

    Posted June 23, 2017 at 6:39 pm | Permalink