The New Biopolitics
How individual reproductive choices made around the world can destabilize the global economy and threaten our securityand what we can do about it.
Will globalization destroy itself? Every few years, another crisis suggests it might. The Internet, satellite phones, and intercontinental air travel help terrorists cross the world in an instant. The global spread of democracy shakes authoritarian governments–and opens the way for Islamists in Tehran and Cairo, a populist strongman in Venezuela, and nuke-happy nationalists in New Delhi. Open capital markets wreck the economies of Southeast Asia. Divisions between Muslim immigrants and the rest of Europe explode in French riots and Dutch assassinations.
These unhappy stories are familiar by now. An open, mobile, interconnected world creates new threats, or amplifies familiar ones, and countries throw up new borders in self-defense. The uncertainties of political and personal freedom make invented traditions seductive: pure Islamic states, India for the Hindus, premodern idylls available for free download.
But, along with electronic commerce, transnational fanaticism, and increasingly fluid borders, there is a missing piece in the current picture of globalization, one that puts the familiar paradoxes in a new light: biopolitics, the politics of human life and reproduction. Around the world, people are taking control of childbearing in new ways, which could produce serious consequences for global politics. In Europe, Russia, Japan, and South Korea, women are having too few children to sustain the current population. A shrinking workforce means too few taxpayers to support the next generation of retirees. The only obvious solution is greatly expanded immigration–which, recall, is already the source of riots, xenophobia, and deep political anxiety. All this threatens a perfect political storm of bankrupt welfare states, struggles over immigration, and crises of national identity. Meanwhile, in India, China, Taiwan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, a very different problem is growing. Abortion of female fetuses, along with other causes, has produced a population with roughly 100 million more men than women–men who are a prime constituency of extremist political movements in that volatile part of the world.
The demographic crises of globalization express a deep, troubling question. The crises emerge from hundreds of millions of free choices that earlier generations could not make: whether and when to bear children, and which children to bear. In other words, the two demographic crises express a dramatic new form of freedom, part of the unprecedented control people have gained over their lives in the several centuries of the liberal, modern experiment. The question is whether we have gained more freedom than we can handle. Liberal modernity is all about expanding human freedom, not so much in the mystic chords of George W. Bush’s foreign-policy speeches as in the expanding realm of personal choice. Communication and mobility make traditions optional, not mandatory–by moving, or just watching and listening and mimicking, people decide who they will be as never before in history. And, as ideas and desires expand, technology increases our power to make wishes come true: hopping around the world, meeting a partner from another continent, choosing the most promising of a dozen embryos or 3,000 sperm donors. None of this has to be forced on us; people run headlong toward every one of these new choices.
Technology, with the liberal international economy that ensures its rapid spread, has made all this possible. But technology doesn’t care whether you use it for an anti-landmine campaign or to wreck world climate and vaporize a neighboring country. It is as benign or destructive as the wishes it makes true. And free choice often turns out to be more choice than people want. Modern democracy is the great marketplace of easy answers to hard questions: nationalism, fundamentalism, and any other halfway believable story about how the world makes more sense than in fact it does. Critics of freedom and democracy have always argued that people are too selfish, frightened, and confused to bring these hopeful principles to life. The last several hundred years have been a test of the question, with mixed evidence–good results from North America and the last 60 years of European history, disasters in Europe between 1914 and 1945, and Russia, alas, showing that no system, from monarchy to authoritarianism to democracy, is guaranteed to work. Globalization takes the same question to a new scale.
Do the biopolitical crises of Europe and Asia suggest that globalization makes the pessimists’ argument? Is control over reproduction more freedom than we can handle, a kind of private selfishness that undermines politics and public institutions? Maybe. The answer will depend mostly on the intelligence and boldness of the political response. A pure laissez-faire approach to biopolitical problems might well mean a broken Europe, an inflamed Asia, and a failed globalization. On the other hand, a takeover of reproductive choices by the state might mean an even worse outcome, a return to the disastrous eugenic policies of twentieth-century totalitarianism. However, a political response that enhanced rather than cut back the personal freedom that drives the new biopolitics would make globalization fairer and more humane than it is now. And innovative financial arrangements could link the biopolitical fates of regions in a new model of an international and intergenerational bargain that would pave the way toward a governable globalization for mutual benefit.
The Biopolitical Atlas Three biopolitical regions are emerging in the twenty-first century. First is an axis of inequality, including India, China, Taiwan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and parts of nearby East and Central Asia, which now have approximately 105 men per 100 women, with ratios among younger cohorts running as high as 118:100. Second is an axis of decline, sweeping in almost all of Europe along with Japan and South Korea, where fertility rates–the average number of children born to an adult woman–are well below the replacement rate of 2.1 required for a stable population. In a third group of countries, fertility presently hangs around the replacement rate: the United States, major Latin American countries like Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, and even giant Indonesia are all somewhere in this band.
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