Thursday, November 16, 2017

The next two to three years

Election posters for the radical nationalist SRS (Srpska radikalna stranka), (Wikicommons: Micki)

A nationalist bloc of nations has come into being in eastern and central Europe—Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Austria, and Hungary. This is a new development, and most commentators in North America and Western Europe are still digesting what has happened. So they are easy prey for three misconceptions:

This is right-wing nationalism, even far right. Actually, in denouncing the erosion of the welfare state and in rejecting military intervention abroad, it has more in common with Bernie Sanders than with Margaret Thatcher. It is, in fact, a sharp break with the thinking that has dominated the right since the days of Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s.

This is a return to the belligerent nationalism of the early 20th century. Europe no longer has enough young men to sacrifice in needless wars—ironically, that's what postnational Western elites have been pushing. In the early 21st century, nationalism is about rejecting military adventurism abroad and defending what we have at home.

This is an Eastern European thing, a legacy of communism. True, in its initial stages. National identity is stronger in Eastern Europe, partly because the Iron Curtain hindered the inflow of Western culture and partly because these societies are less differentiated and more homogeneous. Because citizens share similar interests, consensus can be reached more easily and then spread elsewhere. And the new nationalist consensus has already spread west of the former Iron Curtain. 

Over the next two to three years, this consensus will spread into other small countries or regions where the elites are close to the people, where English isn't widely used, and where the culture is similar and tends to be locally produced. The next dominoes to fall will thus probably be Slovenia and Croatia to the south and Switzerland, Bavaria, and Saxony to the west. This political change will happen as much through ideological conversion of old parties as through electoral upsets by new parties.

The nationalist consensus will spread to other countries with the help of another factor: the relative weakness of the local elite and, conversely, the relative strength of public feeling that change is necessary. If we look at Europe as a whole, we can identify two zones where the elites are weak and the desire for change is correspondingly strong. One is Serbia/Macedonia/Bulgaria. The other is Italy.


Although Serbia is next to Hungary, it has less in common with that country than does Austria or Czechia. As a state within Yugoslavia, it was never part of the Warsaw Pact and only an associate member of Comecon. It was communist, yes, but it remained nonaligned during the Cold War. In addition, its religious heritage is Orthodox and not Catholic. Like much of the Orthodox world, it had once lived under Muslim rule and thus views the Islamic world differently—as a former colonizing power and not as a former victim of colonialism.

Currently, Serbia is ruled by the SNS (Srpska napredna stranka), which won 48% of the vote in the 2016 parliamentary elections. The party originated in a group that broke away from the much more radical SRS (Srpska radikalna stranka), a nationalist party that opposes European integration and globalism. Internationally, the SNS cooperates with the FPO of Austria (Freedom Party) and Yedinaya Rossiya (United Russia). 

Nonetheless, Serbia’s governing party is acting more and more like postnational Western elites. In 2015, it gave 600,000 migrants free passage through the country, partly under pressure from the EU—as the foreign minister hinted in an interview with Deutsche Welle:

DW: Serbia is one of the main countries that refugees transit on the Balkan route to the European Union. What measures has your country adopted in response?

Ivica Dacic: Up to now we had a fair and constructive approach to this issue, and for this we were praised by the entire world and commended for our behavior from the European Union, the United Nations and all world powers. I have to note that in 2015 we had 600,000 migrants pass through Serbia. (Deutsche Welle 2016)

The government is in fact seeking EU membership:

Serbia's prime minister said Wednesday [June 28, 2017] her future government's goal is membership in the European Union along with modernization of the troubled Balkan country.

Ana Brnabic told Serbian parliament that the government will lead a "balanced" foreign policy, seeking good relations with Russia, China and the U.S.

Lawmakers are expected to vote her government into office later this week. If confirmed, Brnabic will become Serbia's first ever female and openly gay prime minister.

"The time before us will show how brave we are to move boundaries," Brnabic said in her speech. "Now is the moment to make a step forward and take our society, country and economy into the 21st century."

She warned that "if we don't take that chance, we can hardly count on another one again."

When President Aleksandar Vucic nominated the U.S.- and U.K.-educated Brnabic to succeed him as prime minister earlier this month, it was seen as an attempt to calm Western concerns that Serbia was getting too chose to Russia despite its proclaimed goal of joining the EU. (Gec 2017) 

This pro-EU attitude has been adopted in the name of realism. Unemployment hovers at 20% and, despite widespread privatization, the painful transition to a market economy is showing no signs of ending. For advocates of EU membership, the solution is to be patient and to work at becoming like Western Europe. This discourse has a strong element of faith:

There is a Serbia of lies, deceptions, myths, hatred, and death. It is a rural, patriarchal, collectivistic, clerical, anti-Western and anti-modern Serbia. It is also a Serbia manipulated by cynical leaders who exploit its primitiveness and stupidity. Whenever this Serbia had its say, it brought death onto others, and misery onto itself. But, there is another Serbia, urban, modern, pacifist, cosmopolitan, liberal, democratic and European! This is our Serbia! This other Serbia is the only possible future for all of us! We will work hard together with our neighbors and foreign friends to reform Serbia and make it worthy of the European future that awaits it. (Vetta 2009)

Neighboring Bulgaria, however, has been an EU member since 2007 and a NATO member since 2004, yet there too the "transition" shows no signs of ending. The unemployment rate is lower, around 10%, but this figure excludes the large numbers of young Bulgarians who have left the country. From almost nine million in 1988, the population has fallen to a little over seven million today. Serbia is likewise losing its young people, as is most of Eastern Europe.

The transition to a Western market economy has been problematic wherever one goes beyond the Hajnal Line—this imaginary line that runs from Trieste to St. Petersburg. Individualism is weaker and kinship correspondingly stronger, with the result that nepotism and familialism prevent the market from working optimally. We in the West call this "corruption," yet most people in the world think it's normal to favor your kin, just as it's normal to favor yourself. Kith and kin are an extension of the self.

To be sure, consumerism is making Serbian culture more individualistic and hence more accommodating to the market economy, but this cultural change is still incomplete and not without adverse effects. In Eastern Europe, like elsewhere, people buy prestigious consumer goods that they don't really need and, often, don't have the means to pay for. They go heavily into debt and decide to postpone having children. With the exception of Russia and Albania, the one-child family has become the norm throughout Eastern Europe. Economic change is thus linked to a demographic change that is ultimately more serious:

Serbia has been enduring a demographic crisis since the beginning of the 1990s, with a death rate that has continuously exceeded its birth rate, and a total fertility rate of 1.43 children per mother, one of the lowest in the world. Serbia subsequently has one of the oldest populations in the world, with the average age of 42.9 years, and its population is shrinking at one of the fastest rates in the world. A fifth of all households consist of only one person, and just one-fourth of four and more persons. (Wikipedia 2017)

Many Serbs are still hoping that stronger ties with the West will solve their problems. Yet, increasingly, this seems to be a vain hope. The Western model of economic and social development may not be equally applicable to all cultural settings. Indeed, it might not be applicable anywhere in its current form, given its promotion of individualism and its rejection of enduring collective identities like the family, the ethny, and the nation. 

Faith in the Western model is giving way to disillusionment throughout Eastern Europe, and a feeling of having reached a dead end, as Viktor Orban wrote in 2011:

[...] Europe now stands at a fateful juncture. For over twenty years I have been taking part in various European counsels and conferences, and at these gatherings one thing has been consistently clear: the participants have always agreed that there is a well-worn, time-tested path down which it is both worthwhile and indeed necessary to continue plodding. But over the course of the past year and a half the mood at these gatherings has changed fundamentally. Today all of Europe is compelled to face the unpleasant fact that we have run out of well-worn paths. At most the familiar paths will lead us back to the familiar past and its mistakes, setbacks, and failures. (Orban, 2011)

In itself, disillusionment does not cause political change. One must articulate an alternative to the status quo and make it known through mainstream or alternative media. This is one thing that defenders of the status quo fear the most, such as those in Serbia:

Traditional media outlets in Serbia see themselves constantly confronted with direct or indirect pressure. That pressure ranges from direct threats against public media journalists to economic pressure applied to private media companies, especially through mechanisms such as the control of paid advertising. The situation has caused many citizens to turn to Facebook to get their news. For a large portion of society, Facebook and Twitter have become people's main source of information. "It is a reaction to government control of traditional media outlets," says Zeljko Bodrozic, from the Independent Journalists' Association of Serbia (NUNS). "Besides a few other online portals, social media outlets have become the only source for independent news information."

[...] Television outlets, as well as radio and popular daily newspapers, continue to set the tone and influence opinion. "At the same time," says Bodrozic, "social media has been 'hijacked' by the governing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). The government cannot forbid or limit internet use, but it can poison independent news sources or make them appear senseless by actively deploying internet trolls." (Deutsche Welle 2017)

Interestingly, Facebook is cooperating with Serbian authorities in this crackdown on alternative media. News sources will now have less prominence on Facebook unless they're willing to pay for placement in the main feed (Deutsche Welle 2017).

The SNS leadership has come a long way from its nationalist origins. Could this be a double game? Are they trying to get the perks that come with EU candidacy (loans, investment, visa liberalization) while having no real intention of joining? There is probably a mix of motives. Many party members have misgivings about EU membership but feel it's necessary to get Serbia back on its feet. Others are tired of being vilified in the Western media and even in Hollywood movies. For them, EU membership will be a ticket to international acceptance. Finally, others have fully internalized the worldview that prevails in the West, certainly at the U.S. and U.K. universities that the prime minister attended.

In any case, it doesn't matter what the governing party really thinks. All that matters is what it does, and that, in itself, has already caused irreparable harm.

Next week: Italy


Deutsche Welle (2016). 'In 2015 we had 600,000 migrants pass through Serbia' Date: 13/02/2016

Deutsche Welle (2017). Facebook dual feed experiment: Giving users what they want or enabling state censorship? Date: 03/11/2017

Gec, J. (2017). Serbia's next premier: EU membership, modernization priority, World Politics Review, June 28

Orban, V. (2011). The Year of European Renewal - The Prime Minister's Thoughts on the
Hungarian EU Presidency, Hungarian Review 1, 5-11.

Vetta, T. (2009). Revived nationalism versus European democracy:
Class and "identity dilemmas" in contemporary Serbia, Focaal-European Journal of Anthropology 55, 74-89

Wikipedia (2017). Serbia

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Why the dominoes fall

Election Poster for the Lega dei Ticinesi (Italian canton of Switzerland), an "isolationist, national conservative party" (Wiki). Currently, it holds 21 out of 90 seats in the Ticino legislature (Wikicommons: NAC)

My last post was on the collapse of communism in 1989, specifically why it began in Hungary and Poland and why it spread so fast throughout Eastern Europe. At the end I mused that the same two countries were once more the bad boys on the block.

History doesn't repeat itself, at least not exactly. Today, the actors are different, as is the dominant ideology, which for want of a better term I will call "globalism." The cultural context is also larger and more diverse. In 1989, the dominoes fell within a geographic space that was not only smaller but also more homogeneous socially and culturally. Even if we ignore earlier points in common (Catholic and/or Slavic heritage of most countries, largely agrarian social order until recent times), these societies all shared the historical experience of the postwar era: occupation by the Red Army, destruction of the prewar elites, imposition of a new socioeconomic model, and transnational integration into the Warsaw Pact and COMECON.

Today, the dominoes are falling within a larger and more diverse geographic space—Europe in its entirety, as well as overseas societies of European origin. People do share points in common within this space, notably a long history of Christianization and a consciousness of being "white" in relation to the rest of the world. For most, however, this commonality has become a source of ambivalence and, increasingly, shame. Furthermore, this larger geographic space is marked by differences in political and social development that dwarf those of Eastern Europe in 1989.

So what makes the dominoes fall? Beissinger (2007) called this phenomenon "modular revolutionary change" and tried to identify the processes that drive it:

I use the term "modular" in the way in which Tarrow used the term to describe the spread of collective action across groups. Modular action is action that is based in significant part on the prior successful example of others—a model being, in one of Webster's definitions, "an example for imitation or emulation."

[...] Modular phenomena based in the conscious emulation of prior successful example constitute only one form of cross-case influence; spillover effects, herding behavior, path-dependence, and reputational effects are other ways in which cases may be connected with one another.

To explain this power of example, Beissinger (2007) proposed "the elite defection model":

[...] once example gains momentum and crosses the tipping point where modular behavior accelerates across groups, a general expectation about the direction in which events are flowing demoralizes those representing established institutions, potentially promoting defections among them and encouraging bandwagoning behavior. Here, established elites entertain doubts about their own legitimacy and the future of the structures they are defending, so that a demonstration of the vulnerability of such structures in other contexts leads them to co-opt opposition demands or to seek to bail out before it becomes too late.

This bandwagon effect isn't inevitable. If the elites of one country see what is happening in another, they may try to prevent the same thing from happening in theirs, either through negative measures (harsher repression) or through positive ones (reform). Beissinger (2007) mentioned only the possibility of negative measures:

[...] established elites opposing modular change learn the critical lessons of the model from its repeated successes and failures and impose additional institutional constraints on actors to prevent the model from succeeding further. Under this model, established elites retain a belief in the future of current institutions, hold that established elites in other contexts where modular change was previously successful squandered that future as a result of foolish moves, and respond to the threat of modular change by moving aggressively to prevent such challenges, repressing them and raising the institutional constraints that they face.

There are reasons why this kind of situation causes elites to respond with negative measures rather than positive ones. First, even modest reform can spin out of control if people strongly desire change. Second, the elites themselves may fall prey to their own propaganda, particularly their demonization of the opposition. They may thus double down and strive even harder to portray opponents as wicked traitors who must be stopped at all costs.

Third, the elites don't necessarily have the same self-interests as the rest of society. This was less so in communist Eastern Europe, where social distances were relatively small, partly because of socialist ideology and partly because the prewar elites had been eliminated. In 21st century Western Europe and North America, however, the top 1% live in a very different world and accordingly have a very different view of self-interest. In particular, over the past half-century they have greatly improved their position at the expense of their fellow citizens by outsourcing work to low-wage countries and by insourcing low-wage workers for those jobs that cannot be outsourced. In short, the elites can relocate labor and money to maximize return on their investment, while the Western working class cannot so easily relocate itself.

In any case, fewer and fewer countries can offer Western working people the standard of living they once enjoyed. We can debate back and forth whether globalism is raising the living standards of the world's poor—in some countries it has and it others it hasn't. One thing however is clear. Throughout the Western world, incomes have stagnated or declined for most people—largely as a result of a shift from high-paying, largely unionized jobs in manufacturing to much lower-paying, non-unionized jobs in services, where competition with immigrants is most intense.

This point was made by Bernie Sanders in an interview with Lou Dobbs on CNN:

SANDERS: If poverty is increasing and if wages are going down, I don't know why we need millions of people to be coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages than American workers and drive wages down even lower than they are now.

DOBBS: And as we know, the principal industries which hire the bulk of illegal aliens, that is construction, landscaping ...

SANDERS: Lou, I just heard something.

DOBBS: Those are all industries in which wages are declining. I don't hear that discussed on the Senate floor by the proponents of this amnesty legislation.

SANDERS: That's right. They have no good response. I read something today that a lot of people coming into this country are coming in as lifeguards. I guess we can't find — that's right. We can't [find] American workers to work as lifeguards. And the H1B program has teachers, elementary school teachers. Well, you know.

DOBBS: And that H1B program, we got to watch Senator Ted Kennedy watch there with the sole witness being one Bill Gates, the world's richest man, telling him he wanted unlimited H1B visas, obviously uninformed to the fact that seven out of 10 visas under the H1B program goes to Indian corporations that are outsourcing those positions to American corporations in this country and that four out of five of those jobs that are supposed to be high-skilled jobs are actually category one jobs which is low skill.

SANDERS: Well, you raise a good point, in that this whole immigration guest worker program is the other side of the trade issue. On one hand you have large multinationals trying to shut down plants in the America, move to China and on the other hand you have the service industry bringing in low wage workers from abroad. The result is the same — middle class gets shrunken and wages go down. (CNN 2007)

And this is only one aspect of the economic, demographic, and political crisis that now faces people throughout the Western world, particularly those who thought they had a nation-state to defend their interests. Radical change, by its very nature, tends to do more harm than good, and the change we’re now facing dwarfs that of any previous revolution. Robespierre and Lenin didn’t attempt what the current leadership of the West is now attempting. In many respects the crisis we face is an existential one.


How many dominoes will fall? And how fast? Clearly, the process will be slower and more irregular than it was back in 1989. Compared to Eastern Europe, the Western world is much more heterogeneous culturally, politically, and historically. Its elites likewise have less in common with the average man and woman. Finally, they can rely on support from each other, most crucially from elites at the center of the Western world.

On the other hand, this same heterogeneity means that some countries have elites whose hold on power is weaker and whose legitimacy is correspondingly weaker. In such countries, repression may be harsher and yet less effective because there is so little collaboration at the grassroots level. If change is in the air, agents of repression may hesitate to act, for fear that they might later be held accountable for their actions.

So more dominoes will surely fall. For now, they'll fall where the elites are more peripheral in the Western world, where their hold on power is weaker, and where cultural affinity or shared historical experience can facilitate the bandwagon effect. In my next post, I will peer into this near future and the apparent surprises that lie in store.


Beissinger, M.R. (2007). Structure and example in modular political phenomena: The diffusion of Bulldozer/Rose/Orange/Tulip revolutions, Perspectives on Politics 5(2), 259-276.

CNN (2007). Lou Dobbs Tonight, June 21, Transcripts

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The bad boys on the block

Demonstration at Warsaw University, May 1988. The dominoes began to fall a year before the collapse that most of us remember (Wikicommons: Rafał Werbanowski)

The sky outside was pitch-black, and the windows were reverberating with the wind blowing off the St. Lawrence. In my motel room the 6 o’clock news showed a scene of festivity—crowds of people milling about the Berlin Wall with some actually on top and chipping off pieces. It all seemed ironic. Here I was doing fieldwork to understand the past and meanwhile the present was changing before my very eyes.

Yet some people had foreseen that change. In 1982, a book had made this prediction:

We should ask ourselves whether, like us, the Russians will not be affected by our new morality. Perhaps this has already happened. In that case, the consequences will be far-reaching in their starkness, as in the West. The Soviet Empire will collapse. Russia will become a democracy. That appears, today, to be unimaginable. What has become of the British Empire, more populous and vaster than the U.S.S.R? It has become confined to a people on an island (Taccoen 1982, p. 71)

In the mid-1980s I ran into a biology professor who had just come back from his native Hungary. “Communism is finished! I felt freer there than I do here!” About the same time another professor, from my department, spoke about a conference in Poland. He was surprised by the dismissive attitude toward Marxism. “They wouldn’t hear anything of it! And these were anthropologists from a socialist country!”

Unlike today, I enjoyed reading newspapers and listening to the news, but before the events of 1989 there hadn’t been much about Eastern Europe. Even Poland’s Solidarity movement had faded from public view, having been quashed by martial law. The general thinking seemed to be that nothing would change there any time soon. All forms of organized opposition had been crushed, and the population cowed. This was especially so in East Germany, where everybody was being monitored in one way or another and where the Berlin Wall was to be upgraded with the latest high tech: electronic sensors, motion detectors, acoustic sensors, and remote surveillance cameras (Rottman 2012). As for Hungary, well, it had always been the bad boy on the block. Nothing new there.

Then in May 1988 Hungary’s leader, János Kádár, resigned after 32 years of power. That same year the Hungarian parliament voted for a “democracy package”: free trade unions, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press, as well as a radical rewriting of the constitution. That event went largely unnoticed in the West, but in Eastern Europe it signaled that change was now possible. In August 1988 the Polish authorities agreed to talks with Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity. That, too, was a signal.

Everything else is history. In April 1989 Solidarity was legalized, not only as a union movement but also as a political party. In June, Solidarity candidates won almost all of the seats available to them. Then two “puppet” parties left the Communist-led coalition and teamed up with Solidarity, thus allowing a non-communist coalition to take power. Meanwhile, similar events were playing out in Hungary. In April, the electrified border fence with Austria was turned off, and border guards began removing sections the following month. In June, Imre Nagy, the leader of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, was reburied at a public ceremony attended by over 100,000. Then, people in other countries began agitating for change, in East Germany and Czechoslovakia … 

One signal led to another. Ultimately, the first signal came in March 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union. From then on, people throughout the Eastern bloc began pushing the bounds of what was politically possible, and that process started in those countries that already had a history of pushing the bounds.

The speed of change was remarkable, perhaps because of the small social distance between the elites and the mass of the population, combined with a strong sense of common national identity. Despite the repression, the dissidents had got their message across to the people, including the elites. By the late 1980s many among the latter realized that the existing system was dysfunctional and had to change for the greater good. When General Jaruzelski began talks with Solidarity, he did so out of patriotic concern for Poland’s future, and not because circumstances had forced his hand. He could have let things slide indefinitely, had he wanted. Similarly, in Hungary it was the communist leadership that piloted the transition to a non-communist society. They were Hungarians first and communists second.

I have trouble imagining our elites thinking and acting that way. The process of change will likely begin elsewhere and then spread here, through a sort of domino effect, and the first dominos to fall seem to be once again those same two countries.


Rottman, G.L. (2012). The Berlin Wall and the Intra-German Border 1961-89, Bloomsbury Publishing

Taccoen, L. (1982). L’Occident est nu, Paris: Flammarion.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Why they can and we can't

Emmanuel Macron (Wikicommons: French government)

This week, Bill 62 became law in Québec. People now have to show their faces when giving or receiving public services. And that last term is interpreted broadly. If you're riding on a bus or going to a clinic, you're using a public service. Although the words niqab and burqa appear nowhere in the legislation, the intent is to remove the most extreme forms of Islamic dress from public space.

Elsewhere in North America such a law would be unthinkable, even among conservatives. Indeed, the leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, Patrick Brown, condemned it in the strongest terms. So it is all the more surprising that this law was passed by the Liberal Party of Québec, whose electorate, membership, and campaign donors overlap considerably with those of the Liberal Party of Canada ... led by Justin Trudeau. This was undoubtedly a factor in his muted response.

So what's going on? What makes such a law possible in Québec but impossible in English Canada? One reason is language. The French language reduces the inflow of American cultural norms via books, magazines, movies, videos, TV programming—all of which condition us to think that some things are possible and others aren't.

Conversely, the French language makes Quebec much more open to the cultural norms of the Francophone world. And those norms have been increasingly hostile to niqabs and burqas. In 2011, France banned them in all public places, after passage of a similar law in Belgium the year before. Similar bans have been imposed or are being debated in francophone Africa, including some Muslim-majority countries (Chad and Senegal). There is a real fear in France and elsewhere that Islamic dress, like public prayers in the street, is part of a conscious effort by Islamists to dominate public space—to create the impression that this is their space and that "strangers" must act accordingly.

And the current French president, Emmanuel Macron? What does he think?

The burqa must be banned. I don't think it's necessary to go further. I'm for secularism. A complete ban at school and in public services, and in society a ban on some signs like the burqa that disrespect gender equality and the civility that exists between men and women in French society. (Coquaz 2017).

Secularism is there to say, "I don't want society to be submitted to a religion's hegemonic temptations." Yesterday, the Catholic religion. Today, for many of our fellow citizens, the Muslim religion. It's very important to enforce the neutrality of the public service. Religion cannot be present at school. Nonetheless, I hear few people upset when the consequences of this debate send more and more children to faith-based schools that teach them hatred of the [French] Republic, dispense teachings essentially in Arabic or, elsewhere, teach the Torah more than basic skills. (Dély 2016)

Respectable opinion in Québec tends to follow respectable opinion in France. If a goodthinker like Macron1 thinks the burqa should be banned, who's to argue?

Another factor is the social distance between the elites and the common people. It's a lot smaller in Québec, the rich and powerful being no more than one or two generations away from Jos Bleau and Johanne Bleau. So they feel a stronger sense of commonality with the average man and woman. And if they don't, they soon get told to remember who they are and where they come from. This is, incidentally, a common complaint among Québec celebrities. No matter how famous you become, you’ll always be that snotty kid who had trouble tying up his hockey skates.

So when the governing party does an about-face on a controversial issue, it's not because some policy wonk told them to do so. It's because they've been harassed by their constituents, including friends, relatives, and neighbors. In this case, there was a groundswell of feeling to get burqas off the streets. In English Canada, politicians would simply turn a deaf ear. In Québec, they tried doing that but were brought into line by public opinion.

Societally speaking, Québec is more like Israel or Eastern Europe, where the elites are less differentiated from the common people, either because the country itself is recent (Israel) or because the original elites were eradicated by socialist regimes (Eastern Europe).

As coincidence has it, this past week also saw the election of a nationalist party in Czechia, on the heels of a similar election win in Austria (October 15). There is now a large bloc of like-minded countries in central and eastern Europe: Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Austria, and Hungary. The thinking used to be that nationalists would first come to power in France. After all, they're stronger and better organized there, aren't they? Well, yes, but so are the elites. And those elites have strong links to elites elsewhere.

Some people will attribute Québec's Burqa ban to a third factor: Québec nationalism, specifically the nationalist movement that reached its peak back in the 1970s. To be honest, not much remains of that movement even within the Parti Québécois, which has become a post-national party like the SNP in Scotland. In any case, the Burqa ban is supported by 73% of people in Québec, whereas support for the Parti Québécois is only about a third of the popular vote (TVA Nouvelles 2010). This is an issue that seems to transcend traditional party loyalties.

In sum, it looks like nationalist parties have a better chance where:

- English isn't widely used

- Culture is locally produced

- Elites are more strongly linked to the local population than to elites in other countries, particularly the globalist elite based in the United States and the United Kingdom.

In other countries, nationalists may have better luck advancing their arguments outside the political process. In France, the Front National has failed to gain power but it has widened the bounds of acceptable discourse and acceptable policy, as seen in Macron's position on the burqa.


1. During the election campaign, Macron criticized another law that banned wearing of the hijab (which covers only the hair and not the face) in public primary schools, middle schools, and secondary schools. To date, he has not tried to repeal that law.


Brown, P. (2017). Neutrality is not enough. If feds won't lead Canada, and this racist law passes, ON must support a Charter challenge. October 20

Coquaz, V. (2017). Hortefeux invente une ambiguïté de Macron sur la " burqa ", Libération, May 23

Dély, R. (2016). Emmanuel Macron : " La République est ce lieu magique qui permet à des gens de vivre dans l'intensité de leur religion " Marianne, October 1

TVA Nouvelles (2010). Les Québécois contre la burqa en public, July 28

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Virtual polygyny?

Polygyny is accepted to varying degrees around the world. In some countries it is permitted by law (dark blue) or by customary law (medium blue). Or the law may permit polygyny if the marriage has been performed in another country (light blue). (Wikicommons)

In my last two posts I presented evidence that repeated exposure to porn desensitizes the male brain, eventually causing atrophy in those areas that process erotic stimuli. In addition, porn seems to influence psychosexual development differently in young European American males and young African American males.

If porn is virtual polygyny, the male brain should tolerate porn overload to the extent it has coevolved with polygyny. The threshold for desensitization would therefore be higher in cultures with generalized polygyny (20-50% of all marriages) and lower in cultures with limited polygyny (less than 10%).

The ‘virtual polygyny’ hypothesis was first put forward by Shepher and Reisman (1985):

Pornography creates a world of polygynous fantasy, in which there are always sufficient consenting females who unhesitatingly display their naked bodies, or body parts, thus signaling their preparedness for immediate sexual intercourse.

This fantasy world is very different from real life, especially where monogamy is the norm:

Of course, this fantasy world of unlimited numbers of young, beautiful, seductive females, eagerly and enthusiastically engaging in every sort of sexual and violent activity, contrasts sharply with everyday reality. (Shepher and Reisman 1985, p. 107)

It is even different from real life in polygynous cultures:

No power struggle, no competition between males for sexual access to a specific female is involved, because mass production makes the pornographic dream easily available to everyone. (Shepher and Reisman 1985, p. 108).

As a result, porn leads to desensitization and a desire for more and harder porn:

The result of fantasy-directed expectations may be a deterioration of male-female relationships, perhaps a deterioration of heterosexual comradeship and even love. Surely many males become disillusioned with their female partners' ability to arouse them. Any consistent use of pornographic magazines could also find readers thus disillusioned with their partners and their own sexual performance. The consequence for males may be, among other dysfunctions, conditional impotence. (Shepher and Reisman 1985, p. 110)

[...] habitual viewing often seems to result in a loss of arousal. We have found then, not illogically, that pornography is pushed to seek novelty: oral sex, anal penetration, sex with children, bestiality, pseudolesbianism, and sadistic sexuality. What this extension of repertoire tends to do to the male-female relationship is not difficult to imagine. (Shepher and Reisman 1985, p. 110)

[...] Arguably, as pornography use grows, male-female relationships deteriorate, aggression against women increases, sexuality is pushed towards more and more extravagant forms, more and more detached from sexuality's basic function in human life. (Shepher and Reisman 1985, p. 112)

Given that the incidence of polygyny varies considerably among human cultures, could some human populations be less vulnerable than others to porn desensitization? The two authors seem to raise this question:

Among 847 human cultures, 708 (83.4%) were found to condone polygyny, 137 (16%) monogamy, and 4 (0.47%) polyandry' (Murdock 1967). About half of the polygynous cultures permit polygyny, but actually not many males are married polygynously. The other half practices systematic polygyny.

This is a classic sample of coevolution: natural selection working on the individual favors polygyny; cultural selection working on the group favors monogamy. The most "successful" cultures, in the sense of their having the largest populations (Europe, the Americas, Japan, China, India), are monogamous, and most individuals in polygynous cultures are monogamous as well. (Shepher and Reisman 1985, p. 112)

Shepher and Reisman (1985) don't pursue this line of reasoning. One reason may have been the view, common in evolutionary psychology, that human nature has evolved very little since the Pleistocene. Because the high incidence of polygyny in sub-Saharan Africa is associated with agriculture (African hunter-gatherers have a very low incidence), and because agriculture began to develop there only some six thousand years ago (Vansina 1994), Shepher and Reisman might have concluded that the male brain never coevolved with generalized polygyny in sub-Saharan Africa. But why, then, the reference to coevolution? I suspect they simply floated this idea in the hope that someone else would pick it up. Or perhaps they had discussed this idea at greater length in their original manuscript ...

Shepherd and Reisman were writing in the 1980s, at a time when porn desensitization was probably much less common than it is today. Malamuth and Billings (1986, p. 93) reviewed the literature at that time:

Varied studies conclude that repeated exposure to erotica will, under many circumstances, result in less sexual arousal to and reduced interest in such materials. These studies include both experimental and survey research.

The first clear experimental study demonstrating habituation was conducted as part of the research of the commission [on Obscenity and Pornography] (Howard, Reifler, & Liptzin, 1971). This study found that repeated exposure of male college students to erotica for 90 min a day, 5 days a week for 5 weeks, resulted in a reduction in sexual arousal to erotic stimuli as well as reduced interest in such pornography. Following 2 months of nonexposure, however, there was a recovery in sexual arousal to levels that were not significantly different from those prior to the repeated exposure procedure [...]

Malamuth and Billings (1986) noted that this study had been criticized on the grounds that the levels of exposure were not "realistic." Today, such levels are common. According to a study of 16-year-old boys in two Swedish towns, 10% of them viewed porn every day, and about a third of these frequent users viewed porn for more than ten straight hours several times a week (Mattebo et al. 2013). In addition, young men are viewing porn for much longer than five weeks.

With the current high levels of porn consumption, more research is needed on the ‘virtual polygyny’ hypothesis, especially on its prediction that some human populations are more vulnerable than others to erotic desensitization and atrophy.


Malamuth, N.M. and V. Billings. (1986). The functions and effects of pornography: Sexual communications versus the feminist models in light of research findings, in J. Bryant and D. Zillmann (eds) Perspectives on Media Effects, Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum.

Mattebo, M., T. Tyden, E. Häggström-Nordin, K.W. Nilsson, and M. Larsson. (2013). Pornography consumption, sexual experiences, lifestyles, and self-rated health among male adolescents in Sweden, Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 34, 460-468.

Shepher, J. and J. Reisman. (1985). Pornography: A sociobiological attempt at understanding, Ethology and Sociobiology, 6, 103-114.  

Vansina, J. (1994). A slow revolution: Farming in Subequatorial Africa, Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa, 29-30(1), 15-26.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The unexplored confound

First page of an underground porn comic, c. 1930s (Wikicommons). Pornography is now much more available and better in quality.

My last post presented a German study whose findings suggest that prolonged exposure to porn atrophies those portions of the male brain that process erotic stimuli (Kühn and Gallinat 2014). On the other hand, the arrow of causality might point the other way. Perhaps a man will seek out and view more porn if he already has less of the gray matter for sexual arousal.

The jury is still out. In this debate, we should keep in mind that people have argued against porn for different reasons. Refuting one argument doesn't necessarily refute the others.

Historically, porn has been condemned for three reasons:

It incites men to commit rape and other forms of sexual abuse. This is the oldest argument and is still used.

It objectifies women and causes men to treat women with less respect. This is the feminist argument of the 1960s and 1970s.

It desensitizes men to erotic images and causes them to seek more porn and harder porn to achieve the same effect. This argument is recent.  

The first argument has always been problematic. A recent review article concludes that "[i]t has been found everywhere it was scientifically investigated that as pornography has increased in availability, sex crimes have either decreased or not increased" (Diamond 2009).

The second argument likewise seems weak. A Danish survey found that porn actually seems to improve male attitudes toward the opposite sex:

The self-perceived effects of "hardcore" pornography consumption were studied in a large representative sample of young adult Danish men and women aged 18-30. Using a survey that included the newly developed Pornography Consumption Effect Scale, we assessed participants' reports of how pornography has affected them personally in various areas, including their sexual knowledge, attitudes toward sex, attitudes toward and perception of the opposite sex, sex life, and general quality of life. Across all areas investigated, participants reported only small, if any, negative effects with men reporting slightly more negative effects than women. In contrast, moderate positive effects were generally reported by both men and women, with men reporting significantly more positive effects than women. (Hald and Malamuth 2008)

Of course, this is self-report, which often reveals not what people think but rather what people think they're supposed to think. Self-report showed that Trump was going to lose the 2016 election. In a liberal society, male respondents might think twice before saying their attitudes toward women have worsened. For this reason, it's interesting that similar results have been obtained from a sample of university students in Indonesia—a conservative, Muslim majority country with strict anti-pornography laws (Mulya and Hald 2015).

With regard to the third argument, two American studies have presented findings that seem to contradict those of the German study. In the first one, male and female participants were exposed to erotic and neutral images, and their neurological response was measured during the first second of exposure. Hypersexuals (heavy consumers of porn) showed no signs of habituation or desensitization to erotic images in relation to neutral images (Prause et al. 2015).

The other American study likewise found no signs of desensitization:

Data from a large sample of men (N = 280) across similar studies were aggregated to test the hypothesis that consuming more VSS [visual sexual stimuli] was related to erectile problems. These men answered questions about their sexual behaviors and feelings, including their consumption of VSS, and viewed sexual films in the laboratory. Those who reported viewing more VSS in their own life reported higher sexual arousal to films in the laboratory. Self-reported erectile functioning with a partner was not related to the hours of VSS viewed weekly. Finally, those who viewed VSS more also reported higher desire for both partnered sexual behaviors and solo sexual behaviors. This pattern suggests that those who view more VSS likely have a higher sexual drive and experience a stronger sexual response to standardized VSS than those who view less VSS. Sexual arousal responsivity may not be impaired by viewing more VSS at home, as it actually was related to stronger desire and sexual arousal in two of the three relationships tested. (Prause and Pfaus 2015)

Some of these findings are compatible with those of the German study. The latter study looked for long-term effects of porn consumption and found evidence of atrophy in some areas of the brain. Viewing porn in a laboratory won't produce any measurable atrophy because the time spent viewing isn't long enough (the films varied in length from 20 seconds to three minutes). The same kind of objection holds for the other American study discussed above, which found that porn consumption didn't reduce sexual arousal during the first second of exposure to an erotic image. Perhaps porn consumption makes sexual arousal less sustainable even though the initial response remains as strong as ever.

On the other hand, it's harder to dismiss the self-report data from the second American study: men who viewed more porn had a higher level of sexual desire than those who viewed less. So what gives?

Perhaps the two groups of men were different to begin with. This is plausible because the pool of participants was much more diverse in this American study than in the German study. The latter study excluded participants with psychiatric, medical, and neurological disorders or with substance abuse problems, whereas the American study had much weaker exclusion criteria. Furthermore, the German study had German participants, whereas the American study had participants who were 53.3% white, 23.1% Hispanic, 16.0% black, and 7.6% other or unknown (Kühn and Gallinat 2014; Prause and Pfaus 2015).

No one seems to have considered that ethnic/racial background might be confounded with sexual arousal or hours spent viewing porn. It's not as if this kind of confound is unlikely. Brown and L'Engle (2009) found higher porn consumption by young African Americans than by young European Americans. Ybarra and Mitchell (2005) reported that "Hispanic youth were almost three times as likely to report online seeking versus offline seeking behavior versus otherwise similar youth of non-Hispanic ethnicity (p = .02)." Price and Miller (1984) found that African Americans were also more likely than European Americans to use sexual fantasy to achieve arousal.

Just as importantly, according to a recent review article (Collins et al. 2011), erotic content in music, movies, and magazines seems to have different impacts on the development of sexual behavior in young white and black Americans:

Brown and colleagues subsequently expanded on this work by linking exposure to sexual content in a broader variety of media to intercourse initiation and advances in noncoital behavior. They surveyed 1,017 North Carolina youth when they were 12-14 years old and again two years later. Sexual content exposure in television, music, movies, and magazines predicted advancing sexual behavior, even after other variables were controlled for statistically, but only among white youth, who comprised about half of the sample. No relationship was observed among African-American teens, who made up the other half of the study sample. 

Most recently, Hennessy and colleagues analyzed web surveys of 506 Pennsylvania teens aged 14-16 years at baseline and followed them annually for a total of three surveys. They examined television, music, movies, magazines, and video games with a sexual content exposure measure. Data were analyzed using growth curves, testing whether changes in exposure to sexual media over time are correlated with changes in sexual behavior during the same period. They found that changes in exposure to sexual content were associated with changes in behavior among white teens (the r = 0.46 correlation just missed statistical significance, perhaps due to the small sample), but there was no association among African-American youth.

Whether these differences between white and black Americans are innate or learned is beside the point. These differences exist, and they should be controlled in any study with a mixed pool of participants. Otherwise, it’s no longer clear which way the arrow of causality points. In this case, the American research team found that porn consumers have a higher level of sexual desire. They concluded that porn consumption increases a man’s desire for sex. Well, perhaps. Or perhaps there is a subset of men who consume lots of porn because they have a stronger desire for sex.

In any study of this sort, the pool of participants should be as homogeneous as possible, i.e., it should be limited to people who probably shared the same potential for sexual arousal when some of them began viewing porn.


Research on the harmful effects of porn is shifting to the hypothesis that excessive consumption desensitizes the male brain. It seems, however, that this effect varies from one man to another, both within racial/ethnic groups and between them. It may be that porn desensitization is a greater problem for men whose ancestors were overwhelmingly monogamous, i.e., from Eurasia. For them, porn has created something entirely novel that their ancestors never experienced and never had to adapt to: a virtual environment where a man can have sex with as many women as he wishes. In contrast, porn may be less problematic for men with ancestors from sub-Saharan Africa, where polygyny has long been the norm (Goody 1973; Pebley and Mbugua 1989).


Brown, J.D., and K.L. L'Engle. (2009). X-rated: Sexual attitudes and behaviors associated with U.S. early adolescents' exposure to sexually explicit media, Communication Research, 36, 129-151.

Diamond, M. (2009). Pornography, public acceptance and sex related crime: a review, International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 32(5), 304-414.

Collins, R.L., S.C. Martino, and R. Shaw. (2011). Influence of New Media on adolescent sexual health: evidence and opportunities, Working Paper, Rand Health, April 2011

Dupanloup, I., L. Pereira, G. Bertorelle, F. Calafell, M.J. Prata, A. Amorim, and G. Barbujani. (2003). A recent shift from polygyny to monogamy in humans is suggested by the analysis of worldwide Y-chromosome diversity, Journal of Molecular Evolution, 57, 85-97.

Goody, J. (1973). The Character of Kinship, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hald, G.M. and N.M. Malamuth. (2008). Self-perceived effects of pornography consumption, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37(4), 614-625.

Kühn, S. and J. Gallinat. (2014). Brain structure and functional connectivity associated with pornography consumption. The brain on porn, JAMA Psychiatry, 71(7), 827-834.  

Mulya, T.W. and G.M. Hald. (2014). Self-perceived effects of pornography consumption in a sample of Indonesian students, Media Psychology, 17(1), 78-101.

Pebley, A. R., & W. Mbugua. (1989). Polygyny and Fertility in Sub-Saharan Africa. In R. J. Lesthaeghe (ed.) Reproduction and Social Organization in Sub-Saharan Africa, Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 338-364.

Prause, N. and J. Pfaus. (2015). Viewing sexual stimuli associated with greater sexual responsiveness, not erectile dysfunction, Sexual Medicine, 3(2), 90-98.

Prause, N., V.R. Steele, C. Staley, D. Sabatinelli, and G. Hajcak. (2015). Modulation of late positive potentials by sexual images in problem users and controls inconsistent with "porn addiction," Biological Psychology, 109, 192-199.

Price, J.H. and P.A. Miller. (1984). Sexual fantasies of Black and White college students, Psychological Reports, 54(3), 1007-1014.

Ybarra M. and K.J. Mitchell. (2005). Exposure to Internet pornography among children and adolescents: a national survey, CyberPsychology & Behavior, 8(5), 473-486.