Farewell Mackinder

July 22, 2022

Adam Tooze on what’s coming: A world not anchored in either Eastern or Western Eurasia, but elsewhere, and increasingly in Africa: “Asia’s return to the center of the world economy dominates the headlines. But in the grand sweep of history that is a rebalancing or restoration not a revolution.”

Reflecting on a recent book, he suggests that African demographics strongly suggests that the center of gravity for humanity in the 21st and 22nd centuries (and not just in terms of people, but ideas, energy, etc) will be in sub-Saharan Africa.  I think he’s right: In the same way that the past 500 years have been marked by the consequences of incorporation of the New World into the Eurasian world-system (an incorporation which will complicate language of Asian “re-balancing” vis-a-vis Europe, by the way), Africa’s rise will have huge and unprecedented effects for the future of the world as a whole.

Right away, you have to avoid talking about “Africa” as if it is One Thing.  It's not.  There’s like four or five (or a hundred) relevant realities there—not just the big states like Ethiopia and Egypt and Nigeria and Congo and Sudan and South Africa, but many smaller states too.  (Rwanda, Ghana, Morocco, you name it.)  And they’re all hugely different.

But what they all have in common is a negative: collectively their rise constitute really, really new facts about the world.  And the facts are really new. They are part of the large-scale changes in the globe that have been going on over the past 500 years, but which are still very hard for us to comprehend.  Here's what I mean.

For a long time, humanity was mostly seated in a narrow band of latitude, that would include China, India, the Mediterranean, and arguably Mesoamerica.  People always existed outside those latitudes, but most of humanity was densely packed into those areas.  Most of North America, South America, Africa, and Australasia weren't very populated.  (Here's a short movie about this.)  Basically, this is where most of human history seemed to be happening.

Many thinkers saw this and concluded that, more or less, the central axis of human history ran in a bow from East Eurasia through South Asia to West Eurasia.  The largest geopolitical imaginations of the past two thousand years--from Chinese imperial thinking through Roman and Byzantine thinking to Islamic to Mongolian thinking, they all imagined this to be the story of the world.  The "New World" and sub-Saharan Africa were inconsequential.  Halford Mackinder crystallized a lot of this thinking with his idea of the "Heartland" in the early 20th century.  Yes, he was imperialist, racist, colonialist--all the above; his thinking was influential to the Nazis and also the Soviets; he was also condensing a great deal of the common sense of geopolitics over the past two thousand years.

That common sense also turns out to be significantly wrong, premised on the idea that the future will be significantly like the past.  Mackinder took a long view of the past, and saw human history as it stretched back across millennia.  But he failed to grapple with the idea that the Western Hemisphere was a genuinely new geopolitical reality.  I would argue that part of the story of the twentieth century was that successive Eurasian empires failed to learn this lesson properly, and suffered defeat at the hands of the New World: Imperial Germany, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union.  To be honest, there's a chance that China, with all its insistence on "recovering its proper place" in the geopolitical order has not reckoned with how that order has changed in the past two centuries.  (Kenneth Pomeranz and others give some help here, but not enough, because their story of the "Great Divergence" remains essentially a Eurasian story, not a global one.)

Arguably the lesson of the 20th and 21st centuries is the lesson of the integration of the New World into the Old.  But now we're beginning to see evidence of another titanic change: the integration of Africa into this world.

The emergence of Africa also, as Tooze points out, complicates our already-over-complicated understanding of the “modernization process” that fifty or so years ago looked set in stone.  In this case, it especially complicates the so-called “Demographic transition” paradigm.  For it looks like Africa isn’t reducing its birthrates as quickly as birthrates elsewhere did—in Europe, in the Americas, in Asia.  Africa’s birthrates remain high, and are declining only very slowly.  As Tooze says, “All the evidence suggests that men and women in Nigeria are making different choices about fertility than men and women in Thailand, for instance.“

He’s not trying to stigmatize anyone or any groups, let alone “Africa” as a whole here.  In fact, from my point of view this is an interesting thing about sub-Saharan Africa, that there are many places there where the future is happening.  Doesn’t seem to be the case in North America or Europe, to be honest. Maybe Nigeria will be the central geopolitical actor of the 22nd century; if demographics are anything to go by--and that's a big if--it well may be.  What an exciting and new world it will be.