Tiger By the Tale

–Landlady…
–My name is Rosenberg.
–I didn’t know there were Jews in Dublin!
She grimaces, palpably, and says,
–Yes, there are Jews in Dublin.
–Well, then, Mrs. O’Rosenberg, what can you tell me about the Celtic Tiger? Has it bitten anybody lately?
–Bitten?
–Yes. Where is this tiger now, and does he bite?
Mrs. O’Rosenberg begins to laugh, softly at first, and then even more softly. –Neal Pollack (2000)

The tiger will see you a hundred times before you see him once. –John Vaillant (2010)

One explanation proposed for Arab Spring, riffing off the work of Emmanuel Todd, is demographic in nature.

Rejecting claims of poverty, inequality, food prices, and unemployment, Andrey Korotayev and Julia Zinkina argue Egypt’s economic transition out of the classic Malthusian trap placed it into another,

[Hosni] Mubarak’s administration was well aware of the threat hidden in the growing gap between declining death rate and stably high birth rate, and almost since the beginning of Mubarak’s reign (1981) it started taking measures aimed at bringing down the birth rate (see, e.g., Fargues 1997: 117–118). However, only in the second half of the 1980s the government managed to develop a really efficient program of such measures…

[T]he absolute population growth rates reached their maximum in 1985–1989. Extracting 1985–1989 out of 2010 we obtain 21–25, which is the age of the numerous generation of young Egyptians who came out to the Tahrir Square in Cairo in January 2011…

In absolute numbers the growth of this cohort is really astonishing, as it almost doubled during 15 years. Namely this cohort enters the labor market in more or less developed societies (including Egypt), so even for a fast-growing economy it was virtually impossible to create millions of workplaces necessary to absorb the young labor force.

Demographics can clearly shape historical trajectories. A country with a large majority below 30 at one and the same time may be subject to the kind of despair, aspirations and ideas that foment revolutions. A country with high infant mortality or, alternatively, a low birth rate or sex bias may be steered in other directions.

But demography is as much effect as cause. A kleptocracy can by virtue of its theft and murder produce severe infant mortality or, not unrelatedly, high birth rates. A structurally adjusted health system can increase chronic morbidity across age groups.

Imperial designs can deny any demography’s destiny, should such an intrinsic property exist. Many of the Middle Eastern and African countries–e.g., Iran, Iraq–were democracies until U.S. interventions overthrew them. The murder of Patrice Lumumba and Mobutu’s installation set Congo’s trajectory for a half-century running.

For that reason we would do well to investigate the political economy of any demographic approach that holds injustice at arm’s length. Cui bono? Who benefits from, and pays for, such work?

Korotayev and Zinkina, for one, acknowledging Egypt’s repressive police state and Tunisia’s example only in passing, argue that in sharply decreasing crude death rates, particularly infant and child mortality, Mubarak’s neoliberal policies produced an ungrateful fate,

Without these successes many young Egyptians vehemently demanding Mubarak’s resignation (or even death) would have been destined to die in early childhood and simply would not have survived to come out to the Tahrir Square.

Included among the presumptions underlying the argument are that even capitalism’s failures stem largely from its success, history is the plaything of the powerful, and, in this case, Mubarak’s offensive paternalism was really an expression of a literal fatherhood for which Tahrir Square should have shown gratitude instead of shoes.

Such fallacies aside, what use of a principle, even assuming good intentions, when it routinely falters even on its own terms? Countries expressing the same demographic trajectories routinely produce different political outcomes. And vice versa.

Demography and history appear then–to mix parlances–a conditional dialectic, whose causal relationship continually changes in strength and direction in different parts of the parameter space. We need continually check in when causes act as markers, makers causes, or, better yet, back and forth, as each other’s input. Perhaps to the point they exist at times as a single object or, in the other direction, unmoored off each other entirely.

A demographic theory of history more broadly reflects ecology’s identity crisis: how do we draw general principles from population processes which by their nature are characterized by dynamic variation, feedbacks, and contingencies?

Clearly we can and do, but for any given ecology it appears we must also allow room in our analyses for place-specific idiosyncracies, which, perhaps counterintuitively, requires at one and the same time a finer sampling scheme and a higher-order abstraction. We must do so not merely for the sake of completeness, but by fundamental necessity.

Otherwise we confuse our tigers. To either our oblivious ridicule, or worse–without a self-consciousness, without an understanding of the scientist’s place in the political economy–caught by capitalism dumbfounded in our own tracks.

For others, on the other hand, who know exactly on what side their bread is buttered, fuck all that. Procrustes in tweed, they write their reports to fit a paycheck. Biweekly nibbles that lead them into a Cheshire maw. They are eaten alive by their captains of industry.

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2 Responses to “Tiger By the Tale”

  1. Vladimir Suchan Says:

    I am impressed. I too looked and did not see. I too was among those who only heard of the tiger without catching a sight of him. Now the tiger’s presence is more discernible. Investigating political economy by embracing justice rather than holding her at arm’s length is also close to my own heart. Moreover, I also admire the way you presented your pointed critique–it combines wisdom and poetry with the affairs of the world.

  2. rgwallace Says:

    Thank you for the kind words, indeed. Catching such a tiger–by its toe or otherwise–is hard enough. It hunts better than its hunters. For others the task turns dangerously nonsensical when they are placed on the tiger’s payroll. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something,” Upton Sinclair put it, “when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

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