By JOEL KOTKIN / Staff columnist
Summer is usually a time for light reading, and for the most part, I indulged the usual array of historical novels, science fiction as well as my passion for ancient history. But two compelling books out this year led me to more somber thoughts about the prospects for the decline and devolution of western society.
One, “Submission” by the incendiary French writer Michel Houellebecq, traces the life of a rather dissolute French literature professor as he confronts a rapidly Islamifying France. The main character, Francois, drinks heavily, sleeps with his students and focuses on the writing of the now obscure French writer, J.K. Huysmans. Detached from politics, he watches as his native country divides between Muslims and the traditional French right led by the National Front’s Marine Le Pen.
Ultimately, fear of Le Pen leads the French left into an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, handing power over to an attractive, clever Islamist politician. With all teaching posts requiring conversion to Islam, Francois in the end “submits” to Allah. Francois motives for conversion merge opportunism and attraction, including to the notion that, in an Islamic society, high prestige people like himself get to choose not only one wife, but several, including those barely past puberty.
The other declinist novel, “The Family Mandible” by Lionel Shriver, is, if anything more dystopic. The author covers a once illustrious family through the projected dismal decades from 2029 to 2047. Like the Muslim tide that overwhelms Francois’ France, the Brooklyn-based Mandibles are overwhelmed in an increasingly Latino-dominated America; due to their higher birthrate and an essentially “open border” policy, “Lats” as they call them, now dominate the political system. The president, Dante Alvarado, is himself an immigrant from Mexico, due to a constitutional amendment — initially pushed to place Arnold Schwarzenegger in the White House — that allows non-natives to assume the White House.
Collapse is from within
Some critics have lambasted author Shriver as being something of a Fox style right-wing revisionist while others have labeled Houellebecq as an “Islamophobe.”
But these books are far more nuanced than orthodox Muslims or progressives might assume. For one thing, neither book blames the newcomers for the crisis of their respective societies. The collapse, they suggest, is largely self-inflicted.
In the Mandibles’ America, the starting point lies in the loss of basic values such as thrift; chronic dependence on borrowing to a debased dollar and eventually the disastrous renunciation of our own international debts. Shriver describes her book in economic terms, chronicling “civil breakdown by degrees” as people’s savings and ability to earn money dissipates.
In Mandibles, Wall Street and the Federal Reserve, not Latinos, are to blame for the country’s descent into financial ruin. President Alvarado is forced to play a poor hand, notes one character, because “the really big mistake was made long ago. You can’t unmake them.”
The decline insolvency also parallels a decline in national identity. By 2047, Shriver notes, the Fourth of July is decidedly out of fashion.“In hipper cities like New York the holiday,” Shriver notes, “had become an embarrassment.”
In the Mandibles, it’s the members of the now impoverished upper classes who take “savage pleasure in the downfall of the United States.” The only character genuinely depressed by the collapse is Esteban, the Latino immigrant, who experiences “the decline of what he genuinely believed was the greatest nation of earth” as “a source of sorrow.”
Much the same trajectory can be seen in Houellebecq’s France. Lack of belief in Christianity and French Republican values produced a void into which mainstream Islamist ideals — not the crazy ISIS ones – were able to gradually overwhelm the very identity of France, overturning not only its Catholicism but its secular republic.
Francois does not rue this result, but is unnerved that it all happens too soon. The childless academic always thought the old system would last his lifetime, reflecting the old Louis XV maxim “apres moi, le deluge.” But now “I had a troubling thought. What if the deluge came before I died?”
Demography and Destiny
Nothing better demonstrates lack of faith in the future than low fertility rates. Increasingly childless Americans and native French simply are overwhelmed by more family-centric Latinos, Africans and Arabs. The native white proportion of the population dropped, except among the ranks of the aged.
In “The Family Mandible” working for the care of seniors, or “boomerpoops,” as they are called, is the major source of income for both younger people and even the déclassé middle aged. Generational politics, with the seniors voting in far larger numbers, results in their receiving ample benefits while more leeway is given to minorities, and immigrants, including the undocumented, who serve them. Everyone benefits, except for middle class families, and the future.
In Mandible, young people don’t have families because there’s no way to afford it. “We’re all at a standstill,” a young person laments in 2047. “There’s no trajectory. None of us will be flush enough to have kids.”
This trajectory may already be evident among today’s millennials. Birth rates have been dropping to historic lows, as young people cannot afford to buy or rent housing appropriate for raising children. Ironically, notes demographer Sami Karam, this makes the country even more dependent on immigration, if for nothing else to empty bedpans for the elderly.
With zero migration, as some nativists and greens may prefer, the U.S. will be headed to the reality already experienced in Japan, and will soon afflict Germany, Italy and also much of East Asia, particularly China. By 2047, according to Shriver, Japan ceases to exist, swallowed into the rising Chinese empire while Indonesia invades Australia. The progressive celebration of singleness and childlessness – promoted by those who wish to cram people into ever smaller spaces — has consequences that will turn ever manifest in the future.
Is there a way out from dystopia?
These, of course, are novels; in reality the future is far from hopeless. Both Houellebecq and Shriver seem somewhat ill-informed on demographic trends. In many key Muslim countries, including Iran, north Africa, Malaysia and Indonesia birthrates are dropping; and as low as our birthrates have dropped, they are much lower in Singapore, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea, countries portrayed as dominating the future in Mandible. Mexico’s birthrate is also falling towards our level.
Avoiding dystopia requires three critical turns. First, unrestricted immigration, particularly undocumented, can no longer be embraced in economies that are not producing nearly enough jobs — particularly middle class ones — for their existing population. This, as much as anything, has sparked the growth of odious figures like Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump.
At the same time, national values need to be promoted rather than belittled and ignored. You can’t expect to maintain a national identity when students are not asked to grasp even the basics of national history. No surprise then that the University of California identifies American flags or claiming that this is “the land of opportunity” as “micro-aggressions.” When Yale English majors recoil at studying Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, they are showing contempt for the very architects of the language that unites us as a people.
I do believe a healthy, regulated level of immigration is critical for the future, both here and in Europe. But it can only work if we reject multi-cultural nonsense that undermines the very culture that made these countries attractive in the first place. Diversity can work alongside a common embrace of a common culture. We should welcome newcomers to revise the evolving national script but only based on the fundamentals: the predominance of a single language, respect for the past, reverence for both the Constitution and the rule of law.
Finally, there is the question of economy. Our current course of low growth, and dependence on asset inflation, can lead only to dystopic results — plunging birthrates, alienation, lack of belief and ambitions. The French can talk about replacing GDP growth with some more ephemeral measure of “well-being” but how is that turning out? Persistent downward generational mobility propels the descent into dystopias.
Even in this most miserable of election seasons, the U.S. is still far from the ugly realities of Mandibles and even France still could escape the fate predicted in Submission. What is required, however, is not nativist reaction or surrender to the values of other cultures, but an embrace of what made our nations great, the only thing that can provide the prospect of better times for both natives and newcomers.
Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism (www.opportunityurbanism.org)