Demography is destiny?
Family, home and nation politicians gathered in Budapest to bemoan falling birth rates and rising levels of migration. Kevin Bean stands up for the political economy of the working class
The 5th Budapest Demography Summit, which took place last week, was probably not at the top of most readers’ must-see list. The bi-annual event, which brings together rightwing and conservative political leaders, intellectuals, lobbying groups and religious organisations, has been running since 2015 and seems to be going from strength to strength.
Amongst this year’s participants were host Viktor Orbán, Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni, former US vice-president Mike Pence and rightwing ‘intellectual’ Jordan Peterson.1 If that line-up did not give you a clue about the nature of the ‘demography’ under discussion, the conference’s title - ‘Family: the key to security’ - should tell us that this event is clearly located on the wilder shores of rightwing opinion and its fears that ‘the west’ is being undermined from within by demographic decline.
These fears are often linked to conspiracy theories about ‘the great replacement’ and the role of shadowy ‘globalist’ forces out to destroy the white, Christian west. Orbán has long made these themes part of his stock-in-trade, especially when directed at George Soros and other critics of his ‘illiberal liberalism’. However, we do not have to go to Budapest to find advocates of these ideas: Tory MPs like Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger, along with other attendees at this spring’s National Conservative conference in London, made similar arguments to those of Orbán and his co-thinkers.2 Although home secretary Suella Braverman’s speech in Washington this week focused on migration and was clearly positioning her for a post-election leadership bid, it too saw demographic change as a threat that the west will have to confront.3 Far from being the obsession of an eccentric minority, the politics of demography, migration and the family are now moving centre-stage.
The demographic decline that Orbán et al are so concerned about is real enough. Leave aside Japan, China and South Korea - let us take Europe. Although fertility rates vary across the continent, they have generally been falling since the 1960s and nowhere is there the necessary 2.1 rate that guarantees the mere reproduction of a given population. Thus France tops the list with a rate of 1.86, closely followed by Ireland, the Czech Republic and Sweden on 1.71, while at the bottom we have Poland on 1.44, Italy on 1.27 and Spain on 1.23.4 When combined with the numbers of babies born to foreign-born women in some states and their supposedly higher fertility rate compared to that of ‘native’ mothers, it is clear how the politics of demography can be mobilised by not only the far right, but by ‘mainstream conservatives’ as well.5
However, the explanation of this pattern has little or nothing to do with religion. France is officially secular, Ireland and Poland officially Catholic. Nor is it education levels. Benefits such as readily available creches, after‑school care, paid but compulsory time off work before and after the birth of a child - including provision to involve the father, paid leave to look after a sick child. Such measures prove to be the main factor involved in why women have more children in France and Scandinavia than in Italy and Spain.
There is a rightwing version of this though. Orbán has made the politics of the family a central issue and has sought to turn back the decline in fertility rates by a series of measures that provide tax incentives, financial support and loans to encourage women to have more children. Combined with a propaganda campaign in defence of ‘traditional family values’, and of Christian Europe against liberal attacks and the threat of ‘cultural Marxism’ and feminism, these politics have been echoed by other rightwing leaders in Italy, Poland and Slovakia.6 Even so, the impact of these changes on Hungary’s fertility rate since the introduction of these ‘family-friendly’ policies has been marginal: going from 1.2 children per woman to 1.5. Negligible and nowhere near the rate of reproduction that Orbán is seeking.7
Apart from a handful of countries, fertility rates have been falling globally since the 1960s - a trend that is clearly linked to wider social, economic and political change.8 These rates are in comparison with those of the patriarchal feudal and early capitalist family, which had very different economic and social functions compared to contemporary capitalism. The feudal family, in particular, was a unit of production and male children were at a premium as workers and an insurance for old age, when the parents were no longer able to work. The incentives to have (male) children were clear and can still be seen in those economies where agriculture remains an important part of the economy, such as Vietnam, China and India.9
Similar incentives were also at work in early capitalism, where the wages of child labour were an important part of family income: Emile Zola’s famous novel Germinal shows how this worked in the French mines in the 1860s and the ways parents fought hard to keep their wage-earning children within the economic unit of the family for as long as possible. For Marxists the struggle to limit the working day and end the abuses of child labour was a central demand in the 19th century and, in the form of the Ten-Hour Act, produced a major gain for the working class.10
Marx argued that the act was a Magna Carta for the working class, as it represented a victory for the political economy of the proletariat against that of the capitalists.11 Marxist parties supported legislation enforced by the capitalist state to limit child labour, even against those sections of workers who argued that child labour was a necessary addition to the family income and that such laws attacked workers’ living standards. This internalisation of bourgeois political economy, which reduced human beings to mere units of production, was an important issue for the working class movement and one that was successfully challenged with the growth of full-time education for children and successive limitations on working hours in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
Nowadays children cost - they are very expensive from birth till way into early adulthood. The use-value of average labour-power is far greater now than it was in the early stages of capitalism. Secondary and tertiary education is now the norm. So if the main burden for raising the next generation is carried by the parents, not society, the tendency will be for fewer and fewer children.
Only with a substantial reduction in the legally permitted working day and the full socialisation of housework and child-rearing will women be in a situation where they have children without worrying about the economic costs involved, and have children simply because they want to have children.
By contrast, the family, home and nation politicians gathered in Budapest want to turn the clock back.
www.scientificamerican.com/article/there-are-more-boys-than-girls. It should, however, be added that even in those countries the tendencies towards a fall in fertility rates have been noted too (link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s42379-022-00117-w).↩︎