30 August 2019

Who Counts? Democracies and the Composition of the People

“The people have lost the confidence of the government. Would it not be simpler if the government dissolved the people and elected another?”, asked Bertolt Brecht ironically in 1953, addressing the east German regime. Today, many governments seem to be doing just that by trying to change the demographic size as well as the composition of their societies. 

Europeans think that the world is overpopulated but there are too few Europeans in it. Danish policy makers decided to offer sex education classes in school, focused on procreation rather than contraception, in an effort to raise birth rates. Many eastern European governments are desperately trying to curb declining fertility and toying with the idea of restricting out-migration in order to stem de-population. Yet, they are absolutely opposed to allowing the entry of “foreign bodies”, be they migrants or refugees, who would putatively pollute the purity of the national polity. Instead, the Hungarian and Polish governments are reminding women of their patriotic duty to have large families. Successive Indian governments, on the contrary, have extolled the virtues of small families, while launching programmes to lower fertility. But several right-wing Hindu nationalist politicians are now asking Hindus to have larger families to ensure that they are not out-numbered by Muslims, whom they accuse of using the demographic weapon to win electoral power. 

By linking the size and ethno-religious composition of the body politic to body politics, the politicisation of procreation is inextricably entangled in questions of citizenship, migration, nationalism and women’s empowerment. The seeming facticity of demographic statistics obscures the fact that reproduction is always inherently political, with normative agendas underlying discourses of demographic decline or of so-called “overpopulation”. Fertility, mortality and mobility are always stratified along class, race and religious lines with respect to bio-political questions of who lives, who reproduces and who counts within a given territory, as Foucault argued. Who is regarded as belonging to the nation and whose fertility is seen to pose a threat to it, are a matter of the demographic imagination. Demographic designs thus involve a concern with quantity as much as with the quality of the population that should constitute a particular nation-state. Eugenics and population control have not only been intertwined historically, as Matthew Connelly shows in Fatal Misconceptions, his magisterial history of global population control. The Chinese state, which once focused entirely on the “one-child” family, is, today, equally concerned about improving the quality of its population to ensure the country’s status as a global power. 

The differential fertility rates of majority communities as compared to ethnic, racial or religious minorities have become politicised in democracies all over the world. The Fear of Small Numbers, the apt title of Arjun Appadurai’s book, points to the growing rage and resentment against minorities and migrants as constant reminders of the failure of the modern nation-state project with its fantasy of homogeneity; the anxiety of a loss of national identity, or racial supremacy, that right wing populists have instrumentalised with respect to electoral arithmetic. The new language of demographic security uses the rhetoric of the impending decline of Christian values and civilization in Europe due to migrants, or the imminent threat to the “gene pool” that they pose, to legitimise pro-natalist demographic measures along with anti-immigrant policies that would guarantee the purity of the nation and stem the threat that diversity poses to the body politic. With the European Commission now even appointing a new Vice-President for Democracy and Demography, it can only be hoped that it will recognise that women’s hard-won rights are among the first casualties of any politicisation of demography.