Zimbabwe – The Jacaranda Revolution

Even in the worst of times, of which Zimbabwe has had its fair share of late, it’s hard not to feel hopeful during jacaranda season. As the warming sun of the southern spring draws the brilliant flaming colours into the leaves, just walking along tree-lined boulevards amid ineffable beauty can leave you feeling that a better world is still possible.

So despite all the suspicions that Zimbabwe’s ‘second independence’ won’t change a thing, spare a moment for the joy of the people. Last night, Harare looked like the country had just won the World Cup, a prospect that until last week most Zimbabweans would have probably considered only slightly more remote than their president’s peaceful departure. In a country with shortages of everything, somehow the city’s residents found enough fuel to put all its cars on the road, flashing lights, blowing horns, and bringing the city to a standstill as people danced in the streets alongside policemen and soldiers.

I know, we’re all swallowing deeply to break the bad news: these things usually end badly. And it’s true, we’ve had plenty cause for cynicism at revolutions in recent years. The Arab Spring saw generals replace generals and chaos erupt. Then, the Occupy movement it helped inspire back in the West, which arose to protest the bank bailouts and to call for a new dawn, was crushed by the police as bankers cashed their bonus cheques.

And we all know the generals and politicians behind the Zimbawean coup were not selfless crusaders. Take the hero of the moment, Emmerson Mnangagwa, known as the Crocodile. Under a heavy cloud of suspicion for having both blood on his hands and his hands in the till, he would hardly seem the type on which to hang any hopes of change.

Yet for all that, there are still reasons for cautious optimism that Zimbabwe’s uprising may do more than just swap one tyrant for another. First, things have got so bad, that just a little change will make a big difference. Get goods back into the shops, provide a currency that is stable, make foreign exchange available: measures like these are in the range of possibility, and would improve people’s lives noticeably.

Second, this was an extraordinary coup by any standard, one which gives Zimbabwe unusually favourable odds. Ponder the scenario. For years, Zimbabweans had been steeling themselves for the worst, anticipating a bloodbath, even civil war, once Robert Mugabe died – and his dying was the only way they could imagine their president ever leaving office. But instead, in the space of a few days, we’ve had an all-but-bloodless coup, the preservation of a constitution, and a formal transition. It could have easily gone off the rails and turned ugly, especially once Mugabe decided not to resign at the last moment on Sunday evening. Yet even then, everyone else stuck to the script, the generals going so far as to salute the President even as they prepared to impeach him since he was, even if only for a few more hours, still their President.

Third, assuming that Emmerson Mnangagwa does take the reins of power, the change at the top may amount to more than what football managers call a like-for-like substitution. Some Zimbabweans note that whatever his faults, as a political organiser and government minister, Mnangagwa got things done. History will reveal the extent to which this coup was his doing, and how much he merely got swept up in events. But it seems to have his fingerprints all over it, which says something, because this coup revealed exceptionally good planning and near-flawless execution. If he can run a country the way he runs a forceful transition of power, he could yet make a positive difference.

Fourth, and perhaps decisively, it is just possible that over the last few days, the country’s balance of power shifted in a meaningful way. For all Robert Mugabe’s despotism, Zimbabwe managed to preserve a surprisingly resilient civil society and opposition movement. In fact, the coup probably would have failed had it not been that the people arose to back the generals. The ruling party would have needed opposition support in parliament to impeach Mugabe. Moreover, Mugabe would have quite likely felt emboldened to hang on if he could have persuaded himself he could go over the generals’ heads. Once the streets of the country’s cities filled with protesters demanding he go, however, his position became untenable. All in all, this movement united the barracks to the street. Any future President will know the critical importance of retaining the street, because once Mugabe lost it, his fate was sealed.

In jaracanda season, Zimbabweans can feel about the future the way people in cold climates do in their spring: after a long hard winter, life is returning once more. So regardless of how realistic or not their expectations might be, let them have this celebration. Lord knows they’ve earned it.

Advertisements

The Weinstein Revolution Leaves No More Untouchables

It’s been a long time coming.

Back in the 1990s, I moonlighted as a journalist at the Jamaica Gleaner, writing a weekly foreign affairs column and sitting on the paper’s editorial advisory committee. This gave me a ringside seat at all the dramas unfolding in global politics. Late in the decade, when US President Bill Clinton was embroiled in an impeachment process over his affair with an intern, that meant we spent a lot of time talking about the sexual peccadilloes of the high and mighty.

When the Clinton scandal broke, I parted company with almost all my progressive friends. I believed, and still do, that Clinton should have either resigned, or been forced out of office by Congressional Democrats.

But mine was, to put it mildly, a minority opinion. The progressive narrative about Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky rapidly took shape: it was a private matter between consenting adults, and the only people objecting to it were prudes jealous of a middle-aged man’s prowess. Yet I had observed a pattern in Clinton’s behaviour. Seldom were the targets of his ‘affections’ women that might be remotely equal in power to him, whether he was a state attorney general or President of the union. Over and over, they tended to be women whose power next to his was all but nil, and who often came from the working class.

For that made it possible for them to be isolated and stamped out in the event they dared go public with a complaint. It was always easy to destroy their reputations and make them look like fools. The few who went public became running-gags on late-night comedy shows; the rest, no doubt, were scared into silence. ‘Drag a $100 bill through a trailer park,’ said the arch-Clintonite James Carville, deriding one of his boss’s accusers, ‘there’s no telling what you’ll find.’ As if coming from a trailer-park somehow made you a lesser person.

Which, I suspected, was the point. At some stage in the evolution of American liberalism, the sexual revolution replaced the industrial one as the acid-test for progressive values. If you objected to the old dog’s behaviour, you were behind the times. But the under-examined subtext to Clintonian liberalism was an aristocratic view of social class. Clinton’s boomer-generation replaced a concern with class oppression, with one that targeted sexual repression.

Because class, to the New Democrats he led, was so passé. In the brave new world their variety of neoliberal globalisation was creating, everyone could rise on the tide being swollen by the opportunities new technology was yielding. Lose your job in a coal-mine? Learn to code, and get rich! ‘What you earn is what you learn’ was one of Clinton’s mantras during his term of office. Silicon Valley, a vital partner to the New Democrats, was going to lead the way into this new age of endless prosperity.

The flipside of this logic, though, was that if you remained poor amid all this new opportunity, it was your own fault. If you opted to remain in some slack-jawed Appalachian hoping the mine one day re-opened, well, you got what you deserved. Those who had prospered in this new era had earned the right to travel the world, pontificating at TED conferences and hob-nobbing at Davos. Those who opted to stay behind – why, they should practically have been thankful that the great men reached out to touch them.

Lèse-majesté. That’s what it was to object to the advances of those who had demonstrated their worth. It was a subtle form of class warfare, perpetrated by the educated middle class that was to be the backbone of the New Left. Abetted by late-night comedians and liberal intellectuals, it gleefully belittled the ‘white trash’ of the working class being pulverised by the neoliberal globalisation enriching this new base of the Democratic Party.

In the wake of the Great Crash of 2008, we’re re-evaluating this neoliberal catechism. In the wake of the Weinstein revolution, meanwhile, the left is re-visiting its defence of Bill Clinton. It was never about sex, many now admit. It was always about power, its abuse, and the devastation of women’s – and, let’s not forget, some men’s – lives for the indulgence of a powerful elite.

But let not Clinton become a sacrificial lamb. I won’t be satisifed if I see some of the people who once demonised his victims stop at a ‘he was wrong’ statement, as if he can take all their sins on some cross they’re finally building for him. Let every so-called progressive who rallied to his defence also issue their own mea culpa – an apology to those he victimised, and to the pool of prospective victims his economic economic policies created. Let liberals finally say: yes, we abandoned you, we failed you, we derided you, and you have every right to despise us.

Then, and only then, let the left then rebuild its shattered relationship with those it was meant to represent.

 

Like what you read? Follow me on twitter: @jarapley

How the Mighty Robert Mugabe Fell

In the end what was so surprising was how seamless the transition was. It may be that the old man was just too tired to put up much of a fight any more. And while the younger woman would have had the energy and motivation for a good brawl, in the end she proved to be as friendless as everyone said she was.

Grace Mugabe’s ride as first-lady of Zimbabwe was always going to be a bumpy one, given that she was following the much-loved Sally, who died in the 1990s. But she made things worse for herself by abusing the power that marriage to President Robert Mugabe gave her. Her successful moves to gradually remove her foes in the government and ruling party, and replace them with loyalists, may have persuaded her she was building her own power-base. But nobody really believed that she had any power beyond what her marriage brought her.

The final straw came with the dismissal of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa. With that move, Mrs Mugabe was heading into very deep water, and the risk was high that she would get swallowed by the tide. At first, though, her bold manoeuvre seemed to work. Mr Mnangagwa went into exile, Mrs. Mugabe’s supporters lined up behind her, and life in Harare went on as usual – which is to say, it was a daily struggle for most people that left them little time to give much thought to the shenanigans of their rulers.

But Mrs. Mugabe turned out to have made one enemy too many. Once Zimbabwe’s association of war veterans came out against her, the conflict moved onto a whole new level. The war veterans have long been a key pillar of Mr. Mugabe’s support, and even he cannot rule if he antagonises them. When they indicated their repudiation of this move, why, even Bob himself couldn’t save Grace from her fate. And given that Mnangagwa declared on the very same day as the war veteran’s statement that he would be returning shortly to Zimbabwe to right the situation, it was clear that preparations were well underway, and carefully coordinated.

That gave the military the go-ahead to make the move they did. Ordinary Zimbabweans were surprised on Wednesday morning to discover that their country owned all the military hardware that turned up on Harare’s streets. At that point, things moved quickly and efficiently. When South African President Jacob Zuma, speaking on behalf of regional governments, chose not to condemn the coup, it was clear neither Bob nor Grace were going to rally support outside the country (given her recent behaviour in South Africa, it would hardly surprise anyone if Pretoria were happy to see the back of her). Equally, the Chinese, who have become increasingly central to Zimbabwe’s economic fortunes, skirted around the issue, leaving the Mugabes to their own fate.

So within hours, things were largely stitched up. With almost everyone falling into line behind the military, and no signs of resistance in the capital’s streets, a fightback was obviously not going to occur. All that remained were the formalities of officially transferring power. The military wanted to preserve some veneer of constitutionality, insisting this was not a coup but a sweep against criminals around the president (read, Grace and her cronies). If Robert plays along, this will have turned out to be one of the most thoughtfully-planned and well-executed coups in memory. But if he decides to stand his ground in any way, the transition could get messy.

Assuming everything goes well, though, the bad news is that this really doesn’t change anything. For long-suffering Zimbabweans who have seen their lifestyles demolished by desperate shortages and chronic inflation, all that has happened is a palace coup: a change of a few names on the office doors, but everything else will be business as usual.

The good news, though, is also that this really doesn’t change anything. The very fact that the transition has notionally occurred within the framework of the constitution augurs well for Zimbabwe’s future. One can only hope that when push comes to shove, Mr Mugabe decides the institutions of the state he created matter more than his family’s business interests. The fact that Mrs Mugabe won’t get dragged through the streets to her death, as many Zimbabweans would no doubt have liked to have seen, testifies to the attachment to order the country’s institutions have shown.

For despite decades of spectacular economic mismanagement and grotesque corruption, many of those institutions – its civil society, its courts, its military, its press, its educational system, its civil service – have shown some resilience. Zimbabwe will not need to start from scratch. So even while there’s probably a very long way to go before ordinary Zimbabweans will see a real improvement to their lives, the way this coup was carried out at least did not lengthen that journey.

 

Twilight of the Money Gods is “a damn good read, and an easy one, even for those who would be usually daunted any prospect of ‘A History of Economic Thought’.” From a review of my latest book in Pambazuka, and now available in bookstores!

To Boost Your Productivity, Work Less

It’s been six years now since I Ieft the tropics, and each year at this time, when the nights lengthen and the days darken, I grow homesick for the island.

Under leaden skies, in the damp cold air, the north European winter encroaches. I’m lecturing in Germany this term, in a building whose heating system has bad-hair days. An hour into my Friday-afternoon class, I and my students are wrapped in scarves and hats. Desperate for comfort, we decide to continue the conversation in a more warming environment.

A handful of us head down the Biegenstrasse to the one place guaranteed to warm a heart in Germany – an old bar. We step through the door into a thick cloud of stale smoke. A tiny room, panelled top to bottom in dark wood, and bisected by a bar that runs diagonally down to the corner – it has to, or it would block the entrance – at which sits an older gentleman. I’m told he’s there every day, silently surfing his phone while the smoke from his steady stream of cigarettes curls its way to the low ceiling. ‘He and the bartender communicate wordlessly’ my student who knows this place well says. ‘He’ll place a few coins on the counter, the bartender will emerge from the back and reach into the fridge to top up his drink.’ An hour or so after we have arrived, he bids his farewells, and life goes on.

Nothing is rushed here. And while this is a small university town, even a city like Frankfurt, which most Germans would consider fast-paced, moves languidly by the standards of global cities. And yet Germany, where nobody seems anxious to prove they’re the keenest worker in the office, has one of the world’s highest rates of labour productivity.

That’s because one way to boost your productivity is to scrap the Protestant work ethic. Recently there was a national holiday here that fell on a Tuesday.  And, since all the stores are already closed on Sundays, that left Monday as the only option for both replenishing and stocking larders. Needless to say, the supermarket was packed. The checkout queues stretched into the aisles.

Still, they moved quickly. As soon as one customer paid, the cashier would start ringing up the next one’s purchases, opening a new channel down which to slide the wares and thus leaving the previous customer to pack up. In the end, I was out in ten minutes or so. Tally it up, and a relatively small number of workers moved a lot of stock in a little time. Output per hour worked was thus high.

It’s basic logic. If I’m told to fast for a day then given an hour at the buffet, I’m gonna go full-tilt. When I’m in London, by contrast, I live a more spontaneous life. If suddenly gripped with the urge for sushi or cherry bakewells at eleven on a Sunday night, I think nothing of dashing out to the local grocer. You see, in what you might call the Anglo-Saxon model, the customer is always right. Americans can even get fundamentalist on this point. One friend of mine railed against German closing-hours, declaring ‘What right do they have to tell me I must rest on Sunday if I’m not a Christian?’

In the economic model used in the US or Britain, you raise productivity through competition: if someone can offer a better service, shoppers will go there, and the laggard goes to the wall. If that means workers lose their quiet Sundays, well, they’ll make it back with the greater range of options they’ll now enjoy.

InTwilight of the Money Gods, I trace these two differing approaches to what was essentially a nineteenth-century theological dispute at the heart of economics. Karl Marx believed that we became fully human in our creativity. At heart, we were producers. He thus enshrined the labour theory of value in his doctrine, maintaining that the value of a good was determined by the labour expended to make it.

The so called marginalists, on the other hand, who would provide the basis of what became the neoclassical school, differed. They said price was determined by the interaction of supply and demand. Thus, it was our behaviour as consumers, not producers, which gave value to what we did.

The neoclassical position, which holds that we gain pleasure in utility-maximising – a central element of which is shopping – became the moral foundation of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. Continental capitalism, however, persisted in seeing humans as being primarily producers, and so provided a raft of legislation to protect their rights as workers – including providing lots of down-time.

It’s hard to say one approach is best. Either can work, or not. Labour-productivity is high in both Germany and the US, but low in Britain and Greece (which, like Germany, restricts shopping-hours). Among themselves, economists debate the science of productivity, different schools claiming their own approach demonstrably superior to the others. But in truth, deciding which system is best comes down to the life you want to live, and what you value more – time or money.

 

Image: Marburg market place, seen from the Rathaus

 

Could the Paradise Papers Kill Tax Reform?

I get that US Republicans are desperate to secure at least one major legislative achievement before the year is out. And sure, tax-cutting is in their DNA. Still, it’s odd that they’re pushing tax reform at this time.

Amidst the rising inequality of the last few decades, the trend across Western countries is increasingly away from tax-cuts, and more towards raising taxes on the rich to fund social welfare programmes. Trump’s working-class supporters have shown less enthusiasm for tax-slashing than the Republican Party. And although Republicans maintain that almost everyone in America will enjoy some kind of reduction in taxes, early analyses of this proposal suggest that the wealthy stand to gain more than most people.

Republicans don’t consider this a problem. Because they still believe that a rising tide will lift all boats, they are willing to trust that the future economic growth that results from this fiscal stimulus will raise everyone’s incomes. They dismiss any resentment that might result from some people seeing their incomes rise less than others as the ‘politics of envy.’ Given their atomistic view of humans, they believe we all assess our well-being relative to where we were individually last year: any net gain in income will thus leave us happier.

In fact, things are a bit more complicated than that. I have written elsewhere that the view of people as rational utility-maximisers that became canonical in neo-classical economics, is actually unsupported by the research. We do, in fact, assess our well-being largely by reference to others. As I point out in my recent book, many economists have updated the theoretical literature on income and happiness to capture some of these complexities, finding that the greatest gains in contentment often come only when our income rises faster than those of our peers.

Thus, no matter how much better off these tax cuts make Americans, resentment may well grow if they see a small number of ultra-wealthy people making off with most of the gains. In the short term, the actual boost in spending power may offset or merely mask such resentment. This was the experience of the 1990s, the most recent period in American history when incomes and inequality rose simultaneously. But as we’ve seen since, once incomes stop rising, latent resentment can explode, upending politics.

So the long-term political success of this tax-reform depends on it delivering the boost to growth its backers insist it will have. But how likely is that? Not very, as I predicted in a blog post late last year. I argued then that Trumponomics might cause a nice pop to the economy over the next couple of years – arguably, the run-up in the stock market since Trump was elected has been an anticipation of that. But after that, things could turn nasty.

The other peculiar thing about this tax-cut is that it is occurring at precisely the wrong time in both the business and political cycles. You’d normally try to deliver tax-cuts in a sluggish economy, not when things are heating up. Equally, the political wisdom in the US is that Presidents should try to get the painful reforms on their agenda out of the way early, so as to reap the benefits at the next election. If my analysis is correct, though, what may well happen is that we get a couple of boom years, followed by a painful reckoning.

Now, a narrative has begun to emerge, at least on the surging American left, that depicts the Trump cabinet as a band of billionaires out to use their power to deliver themselves perks and tax-cuts. To the extent the release of the Paradise Papers reinforces that narrative, it may complicate the progress of the bill among Congressional representatives who are sensitive to it. Not only could it energise Democrats, but it could also further embolden Republicans in marginal seats: as the the New York Times has reported, they are already wary about this package.

By trying to secure fast passage, Republicans are hoping they can secure a win on tax-reform before such opposition has a chance to build. Current betting reckons they may just pull it off. But a groundswell is building, and Democrats may win support for their call to slow down the process until the Paradise Papers have been fully studied. And even if the Republicans hold fast and pull of their Christmas tax-gift, the costs of this bill will probably come back to haunt them in a few years’ time.

So I wouldn’t be surprised if this tax-reform turns out to be one of the last major efforts at tax-cutting that we see in the Western democracies for some time. Tax-cutting was de rigueur back in the neoliberal era. But in a time which is growing more sceptical of the small-government mantra, any failures to deliver long-term benefits may seal the fate of future tax-cutters. History may well record this episode as one of the last gasps of neo-liberalism.

 

Image: Cambridge, the last breaths of autumn!

Let’s Admit, We Trump-Haters Want a Coup

For eleven minutes this morning, Donald Trump was powerless – cut off from his followers by a disabled Twitter account.

That’s how coups used to start in Latin America. The army would cut the phone lines, seize the radio stations and blockade the newspapers, detaching leaders from their popular base. I heard tales of this era when I was a boy, my grandfather having served as Her Majesty’s ambassador to Venezuela in the 1950s. One story, told by my mother, remained with me with particular tenacity.

Fresh out of Oxford, she went to stay with her parents for a few months while she awaited her marriage to my father. 1950s Caracas was a city on the move, in the throes of an oil boom. Migrants were flooding in from the countryside, and from around the world, eager for opportunities. Skyscrapers and modernist architecture mushroomed as the government celebrated the country’s new-found prosperity.

But, as with most oil booms, the riches flowed unevenly. Those with the skills required in the new economy made big money, but the sector killed more jobs than it created. My mother got a glimpse of this emerging divide one day when flying above her neighbourhood in the embassy’s small, twin-prop Dove. In a city where crushing poverty was already prevalent, she saw row upon row of backyards behind stately homes, each with a pristine swimming pool, its shimmering surface broken but once a day when the man of the house returned from work.

This past Monday morning, I scrolled through the Twitter-feed that had come off the #MuellerMonday tag overnight. It read like the excited night-before-Christmas fantasies of liberals reliving their childhood, unable to sleep as they counted down the hours to the newsbreak. ‘I feel like I should leave cookies out for Mueller tonight.’ ‘Retweet if you hope Jared Kushner is woken up by a swat team at 3 AM tomorrow.’ ‘Wonder how @realDonaldTrump feels that the whole world is waiting eagerly in anticipation of his downfall to begin.’ ‘Tomorrow is the beginning of the end!’ ‘More excited for #MuellerMonday than the Super Bowl and World Series combined.’

Faced with this onslaught of progressive delight, I felt like the jaded romantic who’s still regretful at the discovery Santa Claus isn’t real (sorry, should have put a spoiler-alert in there). Look, I’ve exhausted my thesaurus trying to find words that express my disgust with the Donald: uncouth, puerile, ignorant, misogynistic, abusive – but also, unfortunately given the US constitution’s zany ways, the people’s choice.

Today in Venezuela, the scions of that privileged and complacent middle class, the same people who made so strong an impression on my mother, are living under the boot of those they once neglected. Under an autocratic and corrupt reign of populism, their lives have become a daily horror: empty shops, unsafe streets, blocked opportunities. Like so many populists, the Venezuelan regime enriches a well-connected few, talks a good line and throws enough pearls the way of its supporters to keep them from abandoning its ship. And why would they? Where else would they go? Back into the arms of a class that wants only to return to its pristine pools?

We use the same language that was used by Latin American coup plotters in my mother’s day: that Trump is a threat to national well-being, the constitution and the Western alliance. We’ll settle for any means of removing him from office. But when polls suggest that two-fifths of the population still approve of his job, to think we can just lick this problem with a surgical strike at the top overlooks the fact that even if we get rid of Trump, we’ll be stuck with Trumpism. The only way the left should be looking to eliminate that, is to eliminate the need for it.

And that brings home the uncomfortable truth: we, the middle classes of the West who rode a wave of prosperity in the global age, are that Venezuelan middle class of the 1950s. The rebellion against our happy rule was a long time in coming. Christopher Lasch wrote of the revolt of the elites in the 1990s, warning that the retreat of the middle classes into a smug, self-satisfied liberalism, one which found its home in New Labour or America’s New Democrats, was dividing society. Happy to return home each day to our metaphorical (and sometimes actual) shimmering swimming pools, we turned a blind eye to the suffering neoliberal globalisation was causing the working class: stagnant real wages, rising debt, growing hopelessness. While many of us still remember the 1990s as a golden age – Hillary Clinton all but campaigned on it – the reality for many was different. As I write in my most recent book, our gilded age was a dark one for many others.

Sorry folks, but we built this cross, and we’ll have to bear it. We must fight right-wing populism, but we must fight it in the trenches, not with a drone strike from five miles up. And unlike the ‘listening tours’ carried out by liberals who seem only to be listening to one another, we have to get out among the people we neglected so long, and really hear their stories. We won’t like everything they tell us, but that is the essence of democracy: finding a way to live with people we might not particularly like.

Getting Used to Terror

I posted this article two years ago, in the wake of a coordinated series of terrorist attacks in Paris. Re-reading it after yesterday’s attack in New York, it seems as relevant to me now as it did then. Donald Trump would probably like America to go the Japanese route, but he won’t tell his followers the truth – that to do so, they would have to give up any hope to ‘make America great again’ (by which he means, richer). The choice is far more difficult than that.

Japan does not have, and is not likely to ever have, a problem with terror. It will almost certainly never suffer an attack like France’s weekend tragedy. But is also a nation that is in inexorable economic and demographic decline. That appears to be the trade-off all Western nations face: peace or prosperity.

Like all Western societies, Japan reaped the fruit of economic prosperity and is now, for reasons I discussed in an earlier post, declining both economically and demographically. One in four Japanese citizens are older than 65, and sales of adult diapers now surpass those for babies. The impact of this demographic shift on the economy, and on the lifestyles of the working-age population, is everywhere to be seen. Its workforce shrinking, Japan’s economy has more or less ground to a halt. The rapid increases in compensation for working Japanese are now a thing of the past as austerity forces employers to cut back pay. Most recently, the government has had to begin raising taxes on employed Japanese to support its expenditure on the elderly. A generation ago, young Japanese could look forward to a lifetime of rising incomes. Today, only the elderly still feel that optimism.

In its decline, Japan leads other Western countries by a couple of decades, but we’re virtually all on the same path. Some countries, like Italy and Germany, have already begun their demographic declines. Even those whose populations are still growing healthily, like Canada, can thank immigration for this. Take newcomers out of the picture, and even Canada would be contracting.

The relative openness to foreigners of Canada, the USA or Australia mean that even as their economic growth rates slow, long-term prospects look promising, not least when compared to Japan’s. But these are countries built by generations of immigrants, who helped develop their countries’ expertise at integrating newcomers and enabling them to make homes in their adopted countries. Two years ago, after two decades away, I spent some time lecturing in Canada. I marvelled at the way my students, a mixed bag who represented the whole planet, related to one another. Veiled young Iranian girls, Ethiopians in hoodies, Jamaicans in button-down shirts and Brazilians with strong Canadian accents all hung out together, played hockey and interacted on Facebook, expressing a degree of attachment to their homeland that humbled a lapsed Canadian like me.

Yet while Canadians like to say that the world could solve its problems if everyone just became more like them, it’s not an easy thing to pull off. The country, often derided by foreigners for being boring, got that reputation because its national culture is pretty vague, subdued and indistinct. Beyond ice hockey and perhaps Tim Horton’s donuts, there’s not a lot that Canadians would say defines them. The result is that the country allows newcomers a wide berth when it comes to grafting their own practises onto a constantly-evolving national culture.

Contrast that with European countries, where rich and centuries-old cultures define life. To be Italian is not just to like pasta and speak the language, and many Danes or Dutch don’t think veiled women can really be considered nationals. I used to lecture in France, and I recall conversations with the children of North African immigrants who, despite looking, sounding and behaving French to me, would say that they would still get asked where they were ‘from’ — and Marseille wasn’t the answer their interlocutor was looking for. The suburbs of French cities are filled with vast, depressed housing estates brimming with discontented minorities who often feel they don’t get a fair hearing.

Osaka, November 2015

Osaka, November 2015

When it comes to Japanese policy menu, on the other hand, immigration is simply not an option. Aware their country is on a path of economic and demographic decline, most Japanese seem to have accepted this with equanimity. They might encourage the vast army of stay-at-home mothers to enter the work force but, aside from letting in the odd highly-skilled specialist, they don’t intend to increase immigration to boost their labour supply. To judge from the subtle racism Japanese show towards all ‘gaijin’ (foreigners) — the spaces, patronising remarks to correct the supposed ignorance of foreigners, the common lack of interest in overseas travel, the rarity with which even educated Japanese people speak or understand any foreign languages — they prefer their country to die Japanese than to rebirth itself with new inputs.

However, an obvious consequence of Japan’s consequent homogeneity is a high degree of order around shared norms, a degree of stability that remains the envy of other Western countries. Crime is very low, and a single woman can walk home late at night with little fear. Children as young as three can be seen in school canteens, serving one another first before serving oneself. At a shared meal, nobody eats the last item on the dish. Formal gestures of respect govern all interactions. Thus, in- and out-groups are not really a feature here, and there is no obvious source of discontent driving marginalised groups to rebel against societies they feel reject them.

Europe faces a choice. Does it go the Canadian route, accept more immigrants, and take the risks that go with that — either to its stability or, if it is to go the Canadian route and allow immigrants to change their societies, to its cultures? Or does it go the Japanese route, close its borders, and slide into irreversible decline? What do we love most, money or identity? Material prosperity or our cultural and spiritual endowment? That’s a tough choice, with no obvious answer.

European governments, which by and large tell their citizens they will both preserve their cultures and make them richer, are avoiding the dilemma. Until they face it, their citizens may have no choice but to get used to terror.