Human affairs never stand still for long. Innumerable small, everyday and almost unnoticed changes have a way of undermining existing patterns of behavior and belief until a single individual's actions or a single public event may suddenly trigger rapid and far-reaching alterations in the public life of millions or, in our day, hundreds of millions of people. The Oath of the Tennis Court was such an event in 1789; Lenin was such a triggerman in 1917; and now, 200 years after the French Revolution, Mikhail Gorbachev has initiated changes that may well turn out to be comparably important, even though they have not yet provoked much revolutionary violence.

Ever since their conversion to Orthodox Christianity in the tenth century, it has been the Russians' fate to coexist with a civilization more skilled and therefore richer and more powerful than anything attained within Russian borders. Russia's modern greatness rests on the fact that twice (under Peter the Great and Stalin) the country's rulers deliberately tried to overcome backwardness by hectic, heroic action. They met with considerable success, but ironically their very success, by lopsidedly emphasizing military power and relying on the command principle for energizing innovation, differentiated Russian society more sharply from the looser social structure of the leading countries of Western Europe. Dependence on orders from above also tended to inhibit the sort of spontaneous innovation needed to sustain creativity. Bureaucratic lethargy and inefficiency were therefore free to take their toll, assuring the eventual renewal of Russian backwardness. Much of what is happening in Russia today, therefore, looks very like a reenactment of what happened after the Crimean War ended in 1856, when the tsar's government found itself lagging behind France and England so conspicuously that something had to be done, even though effective consensus about what to do was never achieved.

Nonetheless, the current situation of the Soviet Union differs from that of late nineteenth-century Russia in three important respects.

First of all, the "dark and deaf" peasantry that constituted an overwhelming majority of the Russian population before 1917 no longer undergirds urban society. Millions emigrated from the countryside to provide unskilled labor for the Five-Year Plans. Those left behind live under new circumstances, too, thanks to modern communications that have penetrated the villages of Russia. As a result, the sharp gap that once prevailed between what rural folk knew and experienced and what urban populations knew and experienced has been drastically reduced. This constitutes the most fundamental social and political change wrought by the technological transformations of the twentieth century, and its consequences within the Soviet Union are only part of a much wider global phenomenon, to which we will return.

But for Gorbachev and his successors, the awakening of the populace means that they face a more difficult task than Lenin or Peter ever did, because common folk-peasants and ex-peasants who have moved into cities-are now in a position to make their wishes felt far more effectively than ever before.

Only about one-third of the population remain in agriculture today, whereas something like four-fifths were peasant cultivators in 1914. Russian society is therefore no longer composed predominantly of isolated villages, completely unable to defend themselves against urban predation. Nevertheless, children and grandchildren of peasants constitute a majority of the Russian public. Undoubtedly old rural attitudes, combining outward deference and an often grudging obedience to superiors, did not decay all at once. Nevertheless expectations are now far higher, patience is less. Information about conditions of life in other lands has spread throughout Russia. Demands for freedom and justice, together with longings for greater material comfort and more equitable distribution of goods, are strong and insistent.

It is no longer feasible to postpone the realization of revolutionary goals until after the enemies of socialism have disappeared from the face of the earth. Worldwide socialist brotherhood, as Lenin envisioned it, seems wildly improbable after forty post-World War II years during which capitalist countries have prospered as never before and, instead of collapsing because of the inner contradictions of class war, have clearly outstripped the Soviet Union because of greater social efficiency.

The sort of high-handed treatment that Russia's rulers felt obliged to impose on the Russian people in the past will therefore be difficult to replicate in the future, and will surely become impossible if official policy involves continued exploitation and oppression of the majority, as was the case under the tsars and Stalin alike. This means that the old way of catching up by reallocating manpower and other resources through government decree and administrative fiat seems foreclosed, or nearly so. The reason is simple: any really large-scale reallocation will hurt vested interests and arouse politically effective opposition of a sort that was weak and ineffectual when it was merely peasant interests that had to be overridden.

A second important difference between conditions of the 1990s and earlier times is demographic. What has withered away in Russia is not the state, as predicted by Marx, but the abundance of manpower that once sustained both Petrine and Stalinist reforms. As long as millions of peasants could be drawn from the countryside and put to work in new industrial enterprises without noticeably reducing rural productivity, even the crude and wasteful methods of command worked wonders. This was possible because before 1917 untapped natural resources abounded in the Soviet Union, and at the same time the rural population was systematically underemployed. Throughout the winter months there was little or nothing to be done in the fields, so even wasteful use of manpower in factories and on building sites constituted net gain of labor efficiency. But this style of profitable shift of manpower from farm to factory could continue only as long as the remaining rural work force could feed the entire population.

The demographic transformation of rural Russia means that the old path to enhanced wealth and power that first Peter and then Stalin followed is foreclosed in still another way. Reserves of underused labor and of unused natural resources are seriously depleted. The only ethnic groups that continue to produce a rural surplus of population are dubiously loyal to the regime, having a Muslim heritage and a lively tradition of hostility to the Russians. Socialist ideals, secularism and expanded urban careers have not induced Muslims to merge into an undifferentiated Soviet citizenry, as the Bolsheviks once hoped and believed would happen. Instead, mutual distrust permeates relationships between Russians and Muslims, and, of course, the war in Afghanistan exacerbated the uneasiness. As a result, the growing rural population of the Central Asian republics does not constitute as valuable a resource for Russian planners as would otherwise be the case. Instead, it may become an embarrassment if heightened Islamic consciousness ever seeps across the borders of the Soviet republics of Central Asia from neighboring Iran and Afghanistan.

How to reconcile future increases of efficiency with Russian traditions of management by political command remains an unresolved question. If an effective answer continues to elude the managers of Soviet society, catching up with the West will remain an impossible dream, and some other justification for the regime will have to be discovered. Under such circumstances, demoralization of the managerial elites coinciding with tumultuous popular demands for radical improvement of living conditions and for national self-determination might well invite revolutionary change again, as in 1917.

This brings me to the third important difference in the contemporary situation of Russia that distinguishes it from anything experienced in the nineteenth century. Revolution of the old-fashioned kind that occurred in France in 1789, in Russia in 1917 and in China as recently as 1949 has become all but inconceivable today. However nasty, political violence and local disorders, extending over months and even years, were tolerable for most people as long as they lived in villages and raised the food they consumed. But a flow-through economy and society cannot endure disruption of exchanges, even for short periods of time; despite all the defects of its system of distribution, the U.S.S.R. has become such a society.

A persistent paradox of all human achievement is that gains in wealth and power always involve increased vulnerability to breakdown simply because all such gains involve deliberate alterations in preexisting "natural" relationships. This was evident among farmers from the beginning of agriculture. Crop failure often occurred, and so did life-threatening losses of harvested crops to marauding plunderers. These were risks that hunting bands never faced. But subsistence farmers' vulnerability to sudden loss of livelihood is far smaller than the vulnerability urban populations face when political or natural disaster interrupts the flow of goods and services upon which they depend for daily sustenance. Stocks on hand can never be enough for more than a few weeks or months.

Hence it is not surprising that frantic efforts to feed the cities were a prominent feature of both the French and the Russian revolutions; and such efforts succeeded, in spite of all difficulties, because village routines persisted. These routines required harvested grain to be stored in peasant barns, where raiding parties from the cities could lay hands on it. But in a world where the grain harvest depends on delivery of fuel for tractors from refineries located many miles away, urban levels of vulnerability embrace the rural sector of society too. There is no longer any base level at which accustomed routines of life can persist, producing food in accustomed fashion, even when political disorder interrupts the smooth delivery of supplies from a distance.

Thus the increased efficiency achieved in Russia (and many other parts of the world) by shifting from subsistence farming to a machine-based style of agriculture involves an enormous enhancement of risk should breakdown in the flow-through economy occur. Further increases in economic efficiency, if they are ever achieved, will simply increase vulnerability to breakdown. Indeed, a good part of existing Soviet inefficiency (compared with Western "just in time" delivery) is a form of insurance against the minor interruptions in the flow of goods and services that characterize the system. Soviet factory managers like to maintain large stocks of raw materials on hand to cushion themselves against irregularities in supply; they like to hoard manpower as well, so as to be able to minimize emergencies by improvising repairs or substituting manual work for the output of a broken-down machine.

Eliminating most of these safeguards is the price of further advances in efficiency in a society where massive underemployment and untapped natural resources no longer coexist. Yet, by a cruel irony, reducing these inefficiencies might well put the stability of the command economy as a whole very much at risk. Deprived of existing cushions in the form of hoarded manpower and stocks of raw materials, significant interruption of deliveries to any segment of the economy might spread rapidly throughout the system and create a paralyzing gridlock.

The problem is not unique to the U.S.S.R., of course, but centralized political management of economic exchanges in the Soviet Union minimizes alternate (i.e., market) sources of supply more rigorously than elsewhere. Nonetheless, market systems like that of the United States are vulnerable to large-scale disorder as well. The simple fact is that old-fashioned, survivable political revolution can occur only in predominantly peasant lands. No one really knows what prolonged disruption of a modern, flow-through society would entail. Mass starvation in a matter of weeks would be a first stage, and unless relieved from outside, as happened after World War II in the worst devastated countries, famine might soon destroy most of the population.

On the other hand, if catastrophe really loomed, pressure to accept the dictates of a single leader and knit the pieces of a shattered economy together again as quickly as possible would become enormous. Everything would then depend on what sort of leadership emerged. Possibilities for sudden, sharp turns inhere in such a situation, and should be expected whenever existing daily routines show signs of faltering. Recent events in Eastern Europe illustrate the remarkable volatility that results; and, of course, if one new leader and ideal fails to restore (or maintain) equilibrium, someone else is almost sure to take power and try a different tack.

Appeals to ancient solidarities and traditional, national faiths are likely to prove especially attractive in such circumstances. Hence it is not fantastic to suppose that Holy Orthodox Russia might emerge anew from the tribulations of the twentieth century; and such a government, seeking authentic purity and orthodoxy, might deliberately spurn the entanglements of empire, just as the Ottoman Turks did after World War I. A ferociously secular, fully militarized and defensively aggressive police state is perhaps just as likely. No one can tell ahead of time; but it seems sure that in Russia and throughout the socialist world we should expect sudden surprises, not just in 1990 but for some time to come.

The travail of the U.S.S.R. and its satellites ought not to be counted as a clear and definitive victory for the United States and the American way of life. Freedom has not definitively triumphed, nor has history achieved its appointed end, despite recent assertions to that effect. It is entirely unlikely that the American style of more or less managed market economy and its accompanying political system will ever take root and flourish in Russia. Even heartfelt efforts at imitating a foreign model run into difficulties when what is borrowed has to fit into a very different social and psychological setting. In such circumstances, even when things look the same, they do not work in the same way. Moreover, efforts at imitation are sure to encounter widespread resistance, since deliberate and admitted borrowing from a rival would be humiliating. (Think how hard it is for us in the United States to conceive of deliberately remodeling our conduct along Japanese lines! Instead, we indignantly ask the Japanese to conform to our ideas of how to manage their economy.)

A fundamental obstacle to the effective reorganization of Russia on American or Western lines is the fact that most Russians are convinced that anyone who enriches himself by buying and selling cheats his customers by setting prices too high. Justice therefore requires price regulation and confiscatory taxation of such ill-gotten gains. This makes the growth of a market system for distributing goods politically precarious-persistently and inescapably so. In other words, the old ideal of equity, once sustained by periodic reapportionment of fields in the village mir, is still very much alive in Russian consciousness. Overt repudiation of that ideal seems improbable, however difficult it may be to apply it to the complexities of a modern, flow-through economy.


Another reason for not congratulating ourselves on having won the Cold War is that American society is also in difficulty. Our competitiveness on the world market has decayed. New firms, especially along the Pacific Rim, have left Americans and Europeans far behind, owing to the cheapness and, often, the quality of their output. The resulting shift in economic primacy is still in its infancy and may not endure. On the other hand, if China's enormous bulk should ever begin to attain efficient modernity, it is hard to doubt that the Far East would reassert a world primacy like that it enjoyed between 1000 and 1450, before Western Europe usurped that role. This sort of seismic shift in the locus of world leadership-economic, cultural and political-occurred from time to time in the deeper past and may be under way again. Even without so drastic a change in the world distribution of wealth and power, an indefinite continuation of the post-World War II alignment that so enormously exaggerated the hegemony of the United States and of the Soviet Union, each within its own sphere, is utterly improbable. The only question is when and how suddenly new balances will assert themselves, and in what way they will do so.

Clear signs of trouble in American society and economy are not far to seek. The persistent trade deficit and the unwillingness of our political leaders to balance government income and outgo by raising taxes or lowering expenditures are outward indicators of deep-seated ills. Drug addiction and crime are probably more important symptoms. Ethnic frictions, creeping bureaucratization (private as well as public) and the theatricalization of politics and society perhaps count as additional indicators of social malfunctioning.

Whatever the path toward the future may turn out to be, existing differentials in birthrates are bound to put strain on existing ethnic and cultural relationships as newcomers multiply their numbers and learn to exert an increasing weight within American society. In particular, the place of the black population in our cities is problematic. Will blacks rise on the backs of the newcomers, in the way successive waves of immigrants from Europe did, distributing themselves more or less evenly among the ranks of American society? Or will newcomers outstrip them, as recent Asian immigrants clearly are doing? And if a poor and defiant black population remains confined to urban ghettos indefinitely into the future, what sort of mutual respect and tolerance is likely to prevail in American society as a whole?

No one knows the answer, but it seems clear enough that strains within American society have already called into question the tacit agreement arrived at in the 1950s about the role of government in redistributing economic resources among the citizenry. During that decade, the primacy of defense spending over other forms of governmental redistribution of income came on stream as a feature of peacetime policy. Welfare and social security payments, together with guaranteed price supports for farmers, date back to the Depression years of the 1930s; but these programs benefited minorities at the expense of the majority of the citizenry. For that reason they could never command universal support and attain as massive a scale as defense expenditures soon did.

Military outlay, after all, could plausibly claim to serve the common good. As a result, special interests seeking contracts for new weapons met no concerted opposition, and military expenditure ballooned enormously. Governmental purchases of arms, in fact, became a stabilizing flywheel for the American economy, being more or less immune to the business cycle, since political, not financial, calculations governed the demand and production of weaponry.

In effect, therefore, the arms race with the Soviet Union after World War II allowed diluted forms of deliberate management of the American economy, which had worked wonders between 1941 and 1945, to continue indefinitely in peacetime. It is worth remembering that only when arms production got into gear on the eve of World War II did the Depression of the 1930s finally give way to full employment. During World War II, acute shortages required rationing and other forms of high-handed and unpopular political intervention in the marketplace; but in the postwar period, milder forms of political management, centering on arms expenditure and the deliberate manipulation of tax and interest rates, sufficed to sustain a long period of prosperity.

Rising standards of living for most of the population meant that no one complained very much about continued welfare expenditures, or bothered about subsidies for farmers. This contributed to the smoothness with which the American economy functioned after 1950, although the evened-out flow of goods and services within the borders of the United States depended mainly on defense expenditures. Conceivably, as in Japan and Germany, where weapons production remained unimportant, a different basis for American prosperity could have been devised. But, in fact, it was the arms race with the Russians that provided the principal stimulus for what has turned out to be remarkably effective political management of the economy throughout the past four decades.

If that rivalry should falter, the United States will face awkward choices. What, if anything, ought to replace the billions expended for weapons since 1950? How can resources be reallocated without creating massive unemployment and local disruption? Worthwhile goals are easy to imagine, but attaining anything like a political consensus for expenditures that overtly benefit some segments of society more than others (as, of course, defense expenditures have done covertly) will be very difficult.

Thus, for example, breaking up the ghetto culture of defiance that unfits so many black youths for peaceable participation in civil society may be eminently desirable. A general repair of our system for nurturing the young would be even more useful. But, to be effective, such programs would have to trample on existing interests, alter habits, change outlooks. Where would political support for such deliberate social engineering conceivably come from? And what about the unexpected side effects and undesirable consequences that will result even from well-thought-out programs for social change? Much the same objection hampers ecological reform. Unexpected side effects and hidden costs that haunt existing industrial processes will surely arise if and when policies designed to protect the environment from further pollution come into force.

The simple fact is that the more we tinker with human behavior and seek to manage it in accordance with some deliberate goal, the more we entangle ourselves in processes we do not fully understand. Yet when governmental intervention in the exchange of goods and services already affects everyone's daily life, there really is no choice. Decisions have to be made and policies implemented-somehow. The situation we face in the United States as the Cold War winds down and the arms race peters out-if that does turn out to be the path into the future-is that some new balance among all the special interests and social groupings of American society will have to be contrived. That calls for the sort of political process that went into the redefinition of the role of the federal government after World War II. Debate then centered upon what the United States ought to do overseas to "contain communism." The domestic impact of rearmament and foreign aid was not at issue, and the question was, in fact, almost entirely overlooked. But this time, unless some new foreign danger raises its head, American politicians and the public will have to think about what ought to happen at home.

This promises to be far more difficult than the postwar debate, since, like the Russians, no one really knows what to do or how resources ought to be reallocated. Struggles for governmental favors among ethnic groups, age cohorts, protectionists, environmentalists and other special interests will be hard to compromise as long as a plausible vision of the common good remains stubbornly elusive. Reversion to an unregulated market would introduce its own forms of inequity, simply because some persons and groups are more adept at taking advantage of market opportunities than others. Moreover, once the feasibility of massive and deliberate governmental redistribution of economic resources has been discovered (and that discovery is a matter of our own century), it is hard to imagine that groups disadvantaged by the market will not demand help-and since they constitute a majority, in a democracy they are likely to get it.

The United States does have a constitutional commitment to individual freedom and a tradition of openness to newcomers that may suffice to keep the political process from ugly deadlock among competing groups. Maybe we will manage to maintain our liberal political tradition, even if group rivalries intensify as the tacit compromise of the 1950s that gave priority to defense expenditures wears out. But finding a new consensus will certainly be difficult and may even imperil constitutional procedures, if social confrontations multiply or if the economy falters.

Under the circumstances, an obvious temptation is to maintain arms expenditures more or less at existing levels. It is conceivable that developments in Russia will make such a policy attractive, for the Russians face a far greater problem of shifting resources from armament production than we do, and if public disorder were to threaten the Soviet Union, a return to militarism, with or without the front dressing of Marxist ideology, might well occur. Under such circumstances, it is easy to imagine heartfelt sighs of relief from both governments at being spared the hard choices needed to make a successful retreat from the arms race.

Yet such a policy would exacerbate existing internal difficulties in both countries and make efficient production of real wealth harder to attain. We can probably afford it, at least for a while; the Russians could do so only at great sacrifice and would need to find a fierce and really believable enemy to justify the price their people would have to pay. But deliberate cultivation of intensified hostility so as to justify the arms race is a risky business in our atomic age. And when global communication has penetrated as deeply into private homes as is now the case, can enmity remain intense enough to sustain the arms race and platonic enough to keep the peace?

Obviously, Gorbachev and his supporters in Russia decided that this balancing feat was becoming impossible. Their opening to the West, and the positive responses elicited so far, surely make return to Cold War strategy difficult. But no one knows for sure whether intensified militarization will not seem preferable to facing the difficulties of finding a new domestic balance among competing interests and groups within the U.S.S.R. We in the United States face a parallel dilemma. The upshot will depend on the interplay of policies and personalities, not merely within the two superpowers, but around the world. In addition, the acts, hopes and fears of millions of common people will affect the outcome. So will chance timing of events. As usual, the future remains unknown and unknowable, even though we can be sure that we are living through a time when radical shifts in political alignments both at home and abroad are possible and perhaps inevitable.


In reflecting on the winds of change that are blowing so forcefully around us as the decade of the 1990s begins, it is worth reminding ourselves that the rivalry of the two superpowers and their domestic distresses do not exhaust the complexity of world affairs. National policy, even for such giant states as the U.S.S.R. and the United States, has to take account of the rest of the world, where mounting signs of global disequilibrium make indefinite preservation of the post-World War II balances improbable, to say the least, though exactly how disturbances in the rest of the world may impinge upon the two superpowers is as impossible to foresee as is the internal dynamic of their respective paths to the future.

Still, one can say something about what is happening globally. Not surprisingly the same factors that have been altering political realities and alignments within the borders of the United States and the Soviet Union have upset older social balances throughout the rest of the world as well. The fundamental fact is that demographic surges (and declines), together with more powerful communication nets, are changing human life and experience in every part of the earth, and at a very rapid pace.

In recent decades, rich, urbanized lands are everywhere seeing birthrates fall below replacement levels. This is a very recent phenomenon, or more accurately, it has only recently manifested itself among entire nations. Since civilization began, town dwellers have seldom or perhaps never reproduced themselves; but in the European past, migrants from the nearby countryside, who shared much the same cultural identity, compensated for urban die-off, thus allowing a single people and culture to maintain itself for centuries in the same geographic area. Only since World War II have entire nations in Europe, Japan and lands of European settlement overseas become so urbanized and rich that they have ceased to reproduce themselves.

Under such circumstances, if society is to maintain itself, recruits must cross cultural boundaries to take on lowly jobs that the native-born disdain, thus creating ethnically and culturally plural societies. In Europe, the principal alien immigrants are Muslims: Turks in Germany, Algerians in France, Pakistanis and other "New Commonwealth" immigrants in Great Britain, together with Turks and Iranians from Central Asia in the Soviet Union. In the United States, Caribbean and Latino immigrants from the south play an analogous role; in Australia, it is a mixed assemblage of Asians; and in South Africa, of course, it is black Africans who work at jobs the white inhabitants disdain.

Japan remains exceptional, since so far it has refused to accept immigrants, preferring instead to establish new factories on foreign soil. But the decline of the Japanese work force has barely begun to assert itself, and if existing demographic trends continue (as always, an implausible hypothesis), even xenophobic Japan may decide to admit foreign workers, as other countries with declining native-born populations are doing.

It is worth pointing out that national unity within defined territorial boundaries was not the norm of civilized societies in times past. Large imperial states, especially in the Middle East and India, were polyethnic. The recent emergence of polyethnicity and cultural pluralism in European and American society therefore looks like a return to a civilized norm of the deeper past. But that raises troublesome questions, for democratic politics and liberal economics did not prevail in former times. Maintaining the sort of basic consensus required for effective and democratic public action obviously becomes more difficult if society divides into distinct and separate ethnic and cultural blocs. The capacity to mobilize the whole, or very nearly the whole, of society for war and other common enterprises was at the heart of Europe's recent superiority over other states and peoples. This will become much more problematic, perhaps impossible, if cultural diversity produces enduring cross-purposes and political deadlocks of the sort that characterized the imperial polyethnic states of Eurasia's past. Yet this is what continuation of existing demographic trends in the rich and urbanized countries may provoke if immigrant populations refuse or are not permitted to assimilate to the national norm.

The phenomenon of population decline among Americans of European descent has attracted remarkably little attention in the United States so far, even in regions and cities where whites have become a minority. Quite appropriately, we are much more aware of the galloping population growth that, on a global basis, far outweighs the still incipient demographic decay of the rich and urbanized peoples of the world.

This growth is a rural phenomenon. Until very recently it prevailed in Europe and the lands of European settlement overseas, and in fact sustained more dramatic growth of those populations than anything experienced by the rest of the world until after World War II. Demographic balances between European and non-European peoples have therefore shifted very sharply indeed in recent decades, but political consequences, whatever they may be, have not yet become very noticeable.

Changes in the incidence of infectious disease, combined with intensified food production, public health measures and an improved level of public order, have provoked the modern growth of human numbers. This growth constitutes a remarkable horizon in the history of humanity, and it involves no less extraordinary risk for many of the other species with which we share the earth. Indeed, from the point of view of most other creatures, human beings must be classed as an epidemic disease that underwent a particularly lethal mutation after 1750. Everywhere, growing human populations persist in altering the face of the earth to suit themselves, using an ever more powerful technology to cut down forests, divert watercourses, plant fields, dig mines and in still other ways alter natural environments beyond recognition.

By thus making more room for ourselves in the earth's ecosystem, human ingenuity and organized effort have allowed more and more people to find enough to eat and procreate. Prophecies of disaster have so far proven false even though many millions of people live near the edge of hunger in all the poorer parts of the earth. But hunger stalked human populations throughout history, so this, in itself, is nothing new. What is new is the scale of the human assault on other forms of life, and the disturbances of atmospheric and oceanic balances that human activity has begun to make, not merely locally but also globally. Just what the consequences may be no one knows. They may turn out to be drastic.

At least we are wise enough by now to know that the flows of matter and energy that sustain daily life are inextricably embedded in the earth's ecosystem, and all our skill cannot escape the limits that simple fact imposes. Nevertheless, technical possibilities for wresting still more food and energy from the earth are far from being exhausted, and it seems likely that the modern surge in human numbers will be checked by social and political changes long before absolute ecological limits are approached.

The reason for making such an assertion is this: human populations resist immiserization and will go to great lengths to avoid obvious lowering of their accustomed standards of living. Long before increasing poverty reaches the level of consumption required for bodily sustenance, people take action of one sort or another to avoid further impoverishment. Sometimes peaceable migration or change of occupation suffices to relieve the problem for individuals and families. When that fails, collective violence normally results. The political history of the world since 1750 reflects this fact, for it was rural discontent arising from overcrowding on the land that provided the background for crowd action and revolutionary upheaval in France in 1789, in Russia in 1917, in China in 1949 and more recently in such places as El Salvador, Peru, Lebanon and Iran.

Moreover, resistance to immiserization has become far more vigorous in recent decades because new forms of communication have penetrated even remote villages, thanks to the flexibility of radio and TV broadcasting. Subsistence farmers, who in a previous generation encountered outsiders only rarely and as strangers, find a new world opening before them when radio and TV programs begin to flood into the village square or even into their homes. This has now happened to most of the population of the earth. Entrancing visions of the possible swim into peasants' consciousness when radio and TV expose them to urban talk and to urban scenes. Pushed by intensifying land shortages at home in the village and pulled by the charm of urban comforts as revealed to them by the new communications, peasant populations are ready, as never before, to claim the rights of full citizenship and equality of circumstances with privileged urban dwellers.

This, it seems to me, is the most critical axis of world affairs in our time. Since civilization began, the gap between town and country has been fundamental. The rural majority produced more food than it consumed, and surrendered the surplus to its social superiors in the form of rents and taxes, thus provisioning the town dwellers, who for millennia gave little or nothing back in return, unless one counts a somewhat uncertain protection against rival human predators. Even when economic exchanges between town and village began to modify the stark exploitation of the countryside that prevailed in the earliest phases of civilized history, rural folk long remained economically disadvantaged and politically passive.

The issue in our world today is whether rural aspirations for equality with urban folk and for active citizenship will conform to the patterns of peasant rebellion from the past, or not. Modern communications make it hard to imagine that a great gap between town and country can be maintained indefinitely into the future. Rural folk are unlikely to accept their disadvantaged status passively as in times past, particularly when growing numbers make continuation of traditional village routines impractical because there is no longer enough land to support the rising generation in the old way.

In most of the Third World, this kind of pressure on traditional behavior looms close ahead, if it has not already reached critical levels. To be sure, improvements in technique can stave off immiserization for a while. But there are limits to what new crops, fertilizers and pesticides can do in crowded countrysides, especially when entitlements to the increased harvests are not equally distributed among the population as a whole, or even within the village itself. When successful, agricultural improvements avert crisis for a generation or so. But if population growth continues, that merely postpones collision between still greater numbers and available plots of land, and makes the crisis that much more massive and intractable when it comes.

Whenever the old ways fail to produce traditional and expected results, breakdown of what is perceived to be right and just makes resort to political violence along the lines of traditional peasant rebellion easy to organize. Ideological flags to justify armed rebellion are everywhere ready at hand. Religious, Marxist and nationalist programs compete and blend into various combinations of the three. But generous revolutionary ideals have a nasty way of inviting betrayal. The plain fact is that a numerous, poverty-stricken and angry peasantry, inspired by revolutionary ideals, is almost impossible to fold into democratic politics, and dictatorship, of whatever kind, must depend on some sort of elite, whose efforts to maintain its power and enforce public peace and order are sure to alienate the poor. Leveling down is easier than raising the majority to new levels of skill, wealth and political participation. But that, too, disappoints the hope of betterment that burns so brightly among the world's disadvantaged rural majority.

Emigration to richer lands offers an alternative for some villagers. Millions have already come to the United States and to Western Europe; and their remittances back home help to cushion local difficulties in many Latin American, Caribbean and Muslim villages. But the hardships migrants face, and the dislike they arouse because of their different appearance and behavior, make emigration a political risk for both parties, and, in any event, demographers unanimously agree that migration on a scale sufficient to relieve rural overcrowding among the four-fifths of humankind that now confront it is simply inconceivable.


Behind the turbulence of our age lies another intractable problem. We face a gap between the scale of political management by separate, sovereign national units and the exchanges that flow so swiftly around the globe. Information flows are especially pervasive. As I have already emphasized, by penetrating everywhere, modern communications alter prevailing patterns of conduct, expectation and behavior. Indeed, one can argue that the central disturber of our age is the communications revolution, in the sense that it is this that directly affects human consciousness, arousing new hopes and fears, and provoking new sorts of behavior.

By far the most interesting postwar experiment in widening the scale of deliberate management beyond the national frame arose from the ruins of the Nazi war economy in Europe. After cringing beneath the Diktat of jackbooted conquerors between 1940 and 1945, West Europeans responded to the gentler hegemony of the United States and qualified for Marshall Plan aid by embarking upon a policy of consultative cooperation across national frontiers, beginning in 1947. The European Economic Community, which eventually emerged from these efforts, has proved so vigorous that most barriers to economic exchanges are scheduled to disappear in 1992. How gracefully 12 supposedly sovereign governments will submit to a single set of rules for their respective national economies remains to be seen, although the post-World War II record of international cooperation and coordination in Western Europe, and the prosperity that has prevailed there since the 1950s, augur well for the future.

The European Economic Community, nevertheless, owes much of its past success to the fact that separate and individual European nations felt themselves dwarfed by the emergence of the two superpowers and, more recently, by Japan. By combining resources, Europeans could meet Americans, Russians and Japanese on even terms, or even hope to outstrip them. In effect, therefore, the postwar world has been dominated by a handful of industrialized powers, each responding to its own system of large-scale internal management. And just as big private corporations were once in a position to dictate terms of their exchanges with ill-organized consumers and small businessmen, so in recent decades the best-organized political economies have been in a position to dictate terms of trade to the less well-organized peoples of the Third World.

It is arguable that the result is to increase market risks confronting the poor and ill-organized peoples of the earth. Efforts to concert financial policy among the principal trading nations with respect to loans and aid to the so-called developing nations may ease the difficulty, or may exacerbate it, since what benefits the rich may not always benefit the poor. All depends on how broadly the key managers-political as well as economic-envision costs and benefits.

Clearly what is needed is a global effort at ecologically and politically sustainable development. Somehow worldwide management of capital flows, migration flows, pollution, energy use and exchange of goods needs to become explicit-and efficient as well. In all such exchanges, the needs and interests of the senders and of the receivers must be balanced against each other, relying upon a combination of market pricing and deliberate acts of policy to adjust the terms of trade. That is to say, the scale of management needs to become global to catch up with the actual interdependence that modern communications have in fact inaugurated.

Easy to say; hard, perhaps impossible, to accomplish. But the same might have been said in 1870 about the possibility of managing an entire industrial process from extraction of raw materials to the marketing of finished goods, and the same most certainly was said in the early 1930s, when effective nationwide economic management was only a socialist dream. The reality of our actual interdependence may eventually come home to all the peoples of the earth so forcibly that efforts to minimize risk and expand the range of deliberate control will prevail over all the obstacles that now make such a world system hard to imagine.

Recourse to world government, exercising mandatory and presumably dictatorial power over all of humankind, is anything but attractive to anyone who is heir to the liberal tradition. Recent difficulties in Russia surely suggest that such a regime might be more of a problem than a solution to the disparities that currently distract global society. Piecemeal coordination and negotiation among existing states and transnational organizations, private as well as public, is clearly more promising. People can learn to take account of a widening circle of interests and consequences of their actions if all the parties affected by a given policy are able to make their wishes known.

On the other hand, there are and always will be divergent interests. Policies that benefit some and hurt others will be hard to enforce, even if some urgent global need or a clear majority of the human race may seem to require such an action. Politics has always turned on exactly this question, and if the theater of politics becomes increasingly international and global, as seems likely, one can perhaps suppose that the same sort of compromises, evasions, deceits and half-truths that dominate public life within the national frame will continue to operate within the expanded horizon of transnational interests and concerns.

Real disaster, if it occurs, will teach its own lessons, as the wars and depressions of our century assuredly have done. Conversely, behavior that gets results most people like will tend to spread and multiply. That is how human societies have always conducted their affairs-avoiding what hurts and seeking what satisfies human needs, wishes and hopes. No doubt, mistakes always outnumber effective solutions to new problems, but sooner or later, when mistaken behavior becomes too costly, people correct their mistakes, or at least try to. That is what seems to be happening in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe right now. American mistakes are less obvious, and we are correspondingly sluggish in seeking to correct them.

Two such mistakes, I suggest, are the halfheartedness of official response to ecological problems and a military policy preoccupied with preparing for high-tech international war when low-grade local violence-both at home and abroad-is a more likely occasion for American military action. But our most important mistake, it seems to me, is that our public discourse has neglected demographics almost completely, even though population changes within our country and abroad seem likely to present the most acute problems we will face as a nation in the next fifty years or more.

The increasingly obvious failure of our system of child nurture is perhaps the most critical expression of the demographic changes sweeping across our country, and it surely deserves to be addressed in wider terms than the existing "War on Drugs" and "Just Say No." Thoroughgoing monetization of nurturing is probably inescapable in an urbanized and thoroughly monetized society such as ours. We cannot expect to halt the decay of civil society until we recognize this necessity and allocate the sums needed to assure effective transmission of adult habits and values to the young. Paying mothers to stay home and look after their children is an obvious possibility. How to assess the quality of child care such salaried mothers actually delivered to their young would present obvious difficulties; but ways of checking up and of teaching mothers how to earn their salaries might be discoverable, if we really decided that reorganization of existing patterns of nurturing is necessary.

Action abroad to help other countries absorb the shock of population growth is no less critical. Dissemination of agricultural improvements can help for a time, but in Third World countries, where pressure of population threatens the existing social order, parallel efforts to disseminate methods of birth control are just as necessary. Wherever local governments are prepared to cooperate, international efforts ought to concentrate on hastening both these changes. A few examples of actual success in containing population growth and raising standards of rural productivity, if these goals can, in fact, be achieved, are then likely to prove highly contagious, for no one really wants to perpetuate poverty and civil unrest, which are the only alternatives. The United States ought therefore to devote all the influence it has, both in the United Nations and in the various countries of the Third World, to advancing both agricultural improvement and population control.

Migration flows that reflect rural overcrowding present critical questions as well. Perhaps there is such a thing as an optimal rate of migration both for receiving and for sending societies. If so, no one knows what it is; what is optimal for the sender is unlikely to be optimal for the receiver. In countries with rapidly growing populations, massive concentration of discontented rural emigrants in capital cities creates a volatile crowd that is sure to have decisive political importance in revolutionary and quasi-revolutionary situations. A policy of keeping surplus hands back on the farm has seldom been attempted and is very difficult to enforce. (As far as I know, the People's Republic of China is the only country in which this has been tried, but with what success no one, I think, can tell. Official statistics are certainly no guide to the truth; and risks endured in getting to Hong Kong show that the Chinese, when they hear of a chance to better their lot, are as ready to disregard the law as any other human population.)

Prohibitions of international migration are also difficult to enforce, even though the principle of territorial sovereignty gives each national government full liberty to define who shall and shall not be allowed to come into the country legally. American experience with illegal aliens shows how hard it is to enforce rules that run against the interest and wishes of millions of people. Foreseeable demographic changes in Mexico and other Latin American and Caribbean countries make it equally obvious that additional millions are likely to wish to come to the United States in the next few decades. Only some sort of catastrophic economic depression that made it impossible for immigrants to find jobs would be capable of stopping the flow. Severe police measures might check but could scarcely halt it completely.

This, I think, is symptomatic of the limits of policy. People resist official acts that run counter to their wishes and interests, and are clever at deceiving constituted authority that seeks to prevent them from doing what they want to do. Given the ease with which people now can travel across long distances, and the even greater ease with which information about living conditions in far places spreads across political borders, I suspect that migration, legal and illegal, will increase in scale until such time as differences in living standards diminish so as to make migration less attractive. On the world scene, this requires closing the age-old gap between village and city-a daunting task indeed. It also requires alteration of the family patterns that sustain the extraordinary rate of rural increase that prevails today.

All the same, governmental policy can affect the pace and scale of migration, and if the United States really wishes to diminish illegal immigration, surely the most efficient way to achieve that end is to penalize employers for hiring illegal aliens so severely that the practice would grind to a halt. That, of course, would enhance wage differentials between Mexico and adjacent parts of the United States, and intensify the motivation for deceiving and bribing officials charged with enforcing the law. It would also raise the price of vegetables and other farm products on the American market, and encourage imports.

Whether such costs are worth paying in order to protect Anglo predominance within the borders of the United States is not a trivial question. Ethnic pluralism is sure to lead to internal tensions, especially when class and occupational stratification coincide with ethnic demarcation lines, as will be the case for some time to come in the southwestern United States. It takes time for the descendants of peasant migrants to acquire the skills that might allow them to distribute themselves across the social spectrum of the United States, or any other urban society. Immigrants who hold fast to their native language and culture cannot easily interpenetrate the host society, and, when immigration assumes a certain mass and rate, the motivation for learning the host country's language and coming to terms with the culture of the environing society diminishes sharply.

This, it seems to me, is the crucial question for Latino immigrants in the United States. If they maintain their separateness in matters of language and culture, American society will swiftly polarize between Anglo and Latino communities, with Anglos all too clearly on top. This is a recipe for civil unrest and would put enormous strain on democratic institutions.

Educational policy, immigration policy and the way Caribbean and Latin American societies move either toward greater poverty or toward closer parity with the conditions of life within the United States will govern the way the situation evolves. Two goals of policy emerge: one is to do all we can to hasten the demographic and economic transformation of the lands of emigration so that motives for coming to the United States will fade; the second is to do all we can to hasten the assimilation of recent immigrants into the American mainstream, inviting them, in effect, to distribute themselves up and down the social ladder instead of huddling into a subordinated community of their own.

Of course, they, and we, together with the hard-pressed populations of other peasant and ex-peasant countries, may merely proceed to make new mistakes. Nevertheless, over the long run, people have always preferred wealth and power to their opposites, and, when choice becomes apparent, the great majority of human beings have always been ready and eager to accept whatever social arrangements seemed able to bring them greater wealth and power. In making such choices, foresight is persistently defective. Unexpected side effects and unforeseen costs always arise, creating new situations that require new decisions and further choices. That is the stuff and substance of recorded history; but despite all the blind alleys and cruel disasters that have beset humankind across the centuries, it still remains true that our predecessors did succeed in cumulatively increasing the wealth and power at their disposal until in recent times, everyday reality has outrun the wildest dreams of past centuries.

There is no reason to suppose that this pattern will not continue into the future, even though we may, indeed, have learned to master local circumstances and evade local disasters only by exposing ourselves to fewer but bigger-even global-disasters. Nonetheless, when, amid the multiplicity of errors, an innovation turns up that satisfies human needs better than before, it is highly contagious and tends to displace less effective sorts of behavior, just as biological mutations, when they prove advantageous to the survival of a particular organism, also tend to spread.

The miracles of interdependence that characterize the earth's ecosphere today arose from processes of selection operating on apparently random genetic mutations. The global interdependence of contemporary humanity results from historical selection operating upon a diverse array of culturally directed behavior. We have the advantage over other organisms of being capable of a vastly expanded range of mistakes, simply because we interpose words, numbers and other symbols between ourselves and the outer world. This makes human behavior far more changeable than anything genetic mutation and organic evolution can match. (Mutations in viruses and other micro-organisms are almost as quick, but so far scientists and doctors have kept ahead of nearly all viral mutations so that humanity remains the sovereign disturber of ecological relationships on the face of the earth.)

Another way of describing our role on earth is to say that historical, cultural evolution supplanted biological evolution as the principal engine for changing the face of the earth, from the time our ancestors became fully human and began to combine tools with words to organize the hunt. But historical change, by selecting successful behavior and discarding mistakes, still conforms to the older pattern of evolution in the sense that no one knows the upshot, or foresees the future accurately, even though individual choices and actual experiences of ordinary people, as well as of political leaders and administrators, do add up to making the future into whatever it will be.

In a time when winds of change are blowing very strong, we must rest content with knowing that foresight is always imperfect and that choices must always be made in ignorance of their full consequences. That is the price we pay for being able to make the world over by changing our own behavior, individually and collectively, in response to cherished hopes and shared purposes, framed in words. Our capacity to err is our capacity to learn and thereby achieve partial and imperfect, but real, improvement in the conditions of human life.

The possibility of overcoming the age-old inequity between town and country seems inherent in our contemporary circumstance. To achieve that goal, some way of checking the rural population growth will have to be found, along with who knows what else to bridge the gap that now divides the poor peasantry of the earth from the urban rich. Checking the social decay that exists in contemporary urban society may turn out to be quite as difficult as learning how to accommodate the demands of the peasant majority of humankind. Avoiding ecological catastrophe on a global scale may be hardest of all, since bringing the rural majority up to an urban standard of living would enormously intensify pollution, while the alternative of depressing existing urban standards to peasant levels appeals to no one.

A humane and comfortable outcome cannot be counted on. Moral and practical dilemmas are with us always and will continue indefinitely into the future. All one can say with confidence is that hitherto human history has been a success story, despite powerful back eddies and recurrent disasters. One can believe, but one cannot know, that the trend will continue, even though, or just because, the problems and possibilities of our age are so enormous.

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  • William H. McNeill is Emeritus Professor of History, University of Chicago. This article is adapted from the author's essay in Sea-Changes: American Foreign Policy in a World Transformed, published by the Council on Foreign Relations.
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