The most important immigration story of all: The West doesn’t share the same fate as Rome (Peter Heather, MARCH 12, 2024, UnHerd)

The process only accelerated under the newly independent governments of ex-imperial territories in the years after 1945. Many devoted considerable resources to basic education, attempting to create homegrown industrial bases to fend off expensive imports from their former masters. And this sucked people in massive numbers from continental interiors to congregate in coastal cities such as Shenzhen, São Paolo, Lagos, and Mumbai. Once there, better healthcare and a plentiful food supply added exponential population growth into the mix.

In economic terms, these import replacement strategies enjoyed only limited success, and largely failed after the oil price shocks of the Seventies. But what this astonishing flow of humanity did achieve was to put in place a ready-made labour force across different parts of the developing world for the Eighties, when Western countries lifted their long-standing capital controls. As the West deindustrialised, investment began flowing outwards to the developing world, where labour was so much cheaper, with the aim of returning Western corporations — and hence the West as a whole — to post-war levels of growth.

This worked, for a time. But over subsequent decades, Western investment has combined with the emergence of new classes of indigenous entrepreneurs to generate a global shift in the geographical location of manufactured wealth production. Since 1947, for instance, the population of Bangalore has increased from 700,000 to about 14 million, the vast majority supported by manufacturing jobs, while India’s national literacy rate has risen from about 20% to 75%. Over the same period, by contrast, London’s population has stayed more or less the same and it has ceased to be a major manufacturing centre. This second Völkerwanderung had created such a cost-effective labour force that it proved overwhelmingly logical, as globalisation gathered momentum, to relocate a huge percentage of global industrial production away from the West’s old manufacturing centres to the teeming new coastal metropoles of the developing world.

The process is irreversible, and far from complete. Public attention focuses on China and the other Bric countries, but seven of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies are now African. Kenya, for example, is still mostly famous for its tea and game reserves. But it currently enjoys an annual growth rate of over 7% and Nairobi has become a digital finance hub. And it is in examining the peripheries of the Western world’s old empires, that the comparison with Late Antiquity achieves a new resonance. Imperial systems first come into existence with the purpose of enriching the population at the imperial centre. But over the longer term, they unintentionally kickstart revolutionary processes of economic and hence socio-political change around their fringes, and eventually the emergence of new entities capable of challenging the Empire’s continued dominance.