Monday, November 26, 2012

On David Goldman, demographics and the fate of nations

David P. Goldman's book How Civilizations Die was mentioned in a recent comment on this site. If you (like me) haven't read it, you might be interested in this rather confronting (and revealing) interview which Goldman did with Jamie Glazov at Frontpage.

Goldman emphasizes the crucial importance (as he sees it) of national birthrates as indicators of the health and future viability of cultures. His interpretations focus particularly on religious ideas.

Here are a few notes and preliminary thoughts on what he is saying.

He sees Islam as being in a downward spiral, and as failing to come to terms with modernity. Birthrates in Islamic countries with high levels of literacy are more or less equivalent to European birthrates. He mentions Iran, Algeria, Tunisia and Turkey. (With respect to Turkey, however, he notes that the Kurdish population is increasing.)

On radical Islam: 'Never in history have so many people committed suicide in order to kill large numbers of innocent people.'

Goldman appears to have an unrealistically sanguine view of America's strategic and military prospects. (This may be in part – but only in part – explained by the fact that, at the time the interview was conducted, it seemed likely that a Republican would be in the White House in 2013.)

'Americans often forget how exceptional we are,' he declares. 'Our founding premise is that God gave inalienable rights to every individual. The notion of a covenant in which every individual derives rights from God such that no earthly power can take them away begins at Mount Sinai. In Islam, it is absurd to suggest that God might limit his own power by a permanent grant of rights to every individual. The arbitrary, capricious and absolutely transcendent god of Islam would not condescend to a covenant with humankind. The institutions of representative democracy are a hollow shell without its covenantal premise.'

He draws an interesting contrast here between the God of Judaism and Christianity and the God of Islam. But this passage also brings out the fact that Goldman clearly bases his political philosophy on religious beliefs (which rules it out as a model from my point of view).

I agree with him that rational self-interest is not enough to explain human behavior, but Goldman overreaches when he attempts to condemn the tradition of thought initiated by Thomas Hobbes on the grounds that it is 'materialistic'. What he calls materialism may or may not be sufficient to motivate populations to behave well, but it certainly does not preclude the development of plausible theories of human behavior which take account of irrational elements.

Put simply, Goldman fails to appreciate the obvious fact that you can be a physicalist and still recognize the irrational drivers of human behavior.

I am also uneasy about the way he divides the world up into cultural and ethnic groupings. Sure, such groupings are significant, but people are increasingly identifying with multiple and overlapping groups, most of which are not defined in terms of ethnicity or traditional culture, religious or otherwise.

Goldman states: 'We live in a world in which most of the industrial nations find themselves in a demographic death spiral, a Great Extinction of the nations unlike anything we have seen since the 7th century... Why do some nations find the spiritual resources to embrace life, while others chant, 'We love death'? ... Franz Rozenzweig's sociology of religion ... provides a better framework for understanding these problems than the political rationalism of Leo Strauss.'

I don't know about that. Rosenzweig was essentially a religious thinker. He was a secular Jew who, following a mystical experience, embraced Orthodox Judaism, and I would be very surprised if his sociology of religion did not bear the marks of his passionate religious convictions (which would not condemn it, but would certainly limit its interest for those not sharing such convictions).

Whatever the merits or otherwise of the intellectual sources on which he draws, however, it seems pretty clear that Goldman's vision for America is utterly unrealistic.

The United States may have looked like the 'undisputed world hyperpower' for a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a purely military sense, it may still be just that.

But U.S. government indebtedness and the shift in the balance of global wealth from West to East means that, as Goldman recognizes, rising powers like China will be playing an increasingly important role in international affairs.

Does he really think China would respond meekly to a more aggressive and militaristic stance on the part of a debtor nation?


  1. One odd feature of Goldman's thinking is that he doesn't comment on China's demographic problem. If demographics is so important, and China's demographic problem is a deep one, then China too is a "dying civilisation". There's a lot of it going around, apparently.

    China just landed a jet for the first time on its first aircraft carrier, which has no military capacity. China's GDP per capita is still well below the world mean, about on a par with that of Albania, Turkmenistan, East Timor and Thailand. Global wealth and power haven't shifted all that much.

    The US has some big problems, but it is still a super-rich society and its demographics are OK. Its main problem is indeed debt. Europe has both debt and demographic problems, which is a deeper hole to be in.

    1. As you say, there's a lot of it going around! I'm a bit more upbeat about China than you are – but who knows?

      What I see is a shift away from nation states and back to a world of regions and empires and free-floating individuals. The borders and boundaries are overlapping and complex and ever harder to draw (and secure).

  2. @ "What I see is a shift away from nation states and back to a world of regions and empires and free-floating individuals. The borders and boundaries are overlapping and complex and ever harder to draw (and secure)."

    Have you ever read Huntington's Clash of Civilizations? He sees a similar phenomenon. He basically argues that the triumph of the West in the cold war did not mean a rush of underdeveloped nations to adopt the political and economic model of the West. Instead, they sought to rejuvenate their traditional cultures even as they sought technological modernization. His cultural groupings do not acknowledge the overlap that you note. He predicts future conflict may be between civilizations rather than nations. Or if conflicts begin between nations, they will soon turn into cultural clashes as the nations in conflict seek to rally other nations with similar shared cultures to their side. An very interesting read.

    1. No, I haven't read Huntington. I'm a little bit wary of grand explanatory schemes. But ethnic loyalties involving racial, religious and general cultural elements do seem to be becoming more significant, and purely political or patriotic loyalties less significant.