Barbarians at the Borders

Invasion of North America

One of my favourite books is Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It has such grand themes: the collapse of the greatest civilisation of the western world and its replacement by the younger, more virile barbarians. Many readers and reviewers have noted similar themes in my book The Decline and Fall of Nokia. Equating Nokia with Rome, Apple with the Goths and Google with the Vandals might be a stretch, but the theme of great transformation remains the same. People in the high-tech industry like to call this process disruption, but it applies to much more than consumer electronics.

The period of the fall of Rome used to be referred to as the Barbarian Invasions. This brings to mind the hairy, fur-wearing, illiterate savages who destroyed the wealth and culture of a greater civilisation. While there is some truth in this, it isn’t a fair picture. Today the period of human migration coincident with the fall of Rome is more likely to be called the Migration Period.

Many of the immigrants to the Roman Empire were freely welcomed. They farmed the land, swelled the armies and even helped to govern. They wanted to be part of Rome, not to destroy it. But regardless of whether they were savage barbarians or friendly migrants, they helped to disrupt the classical civilisation.

Today’s Great Migration

Invasion of Europe

Today we are going through a similar great migration period. In 2013 almost 4 per cent of the world’s population were immigrants. Tens of thousands of people from Africa and the Middle-east are moving into Europe. People throughout central and southern America are migrating up to the United States, while Australia is the target of people from southern Asia. Similarly, we have the two narratives: the savage, destroying invaders and the peaceful, assimilating migrants.

There has long been a fear among Europeans and the descendants of Europeans about a repeat of the barbarian invasions which coincided with the fall of the Western Roman Empire. In the Eighteenth Century Edward Gibbon suggested that if it happened in his day Europe could flee to the American continents in ten thousand ships where it would ‘revive and flourish.’ Ironically, Europeans did in fact move to America, and they did revive and flourish, but they were the barbarians destroying the established Native American civilisation. It’s all a matter of perspective.

During the fall of Rome it was not uncommon for locals to feel overwhelmed by migrants. They felt ignored by the central authorities and took matters into their own hands. The same thing is happening today with local militias patrolling the Texas border on the lookout for illegal migrants. Here in Finland a group called The Soldiers of Odin patrol the streets with the stated purpose of protecting Finns from violent refugees.

Lolita and kebab


The conflicting narratives of invading barbarian and peaceful migrant continue with the same problems as in Late Antiquity. Donald Trump’s idea of a wall on the Mexican border and his plan to refuse entry to Muslims isn’t going to work. Hadrian’s Wall and the Roman persecution of different religious sects didn’t work either. On the other side of the argument the idea that an immigrant will become 100 per cent American or 100 per cent Finnish is no more realistic than saying the Huns became Romans.

The current great migration period will help disrupt and transform our current society, just as waves of migration in the past did the same thing in those eras. Instead of trying to stop it a better idea is to manage it where possible and adapt to it when management is impossible. After all, a lot of good can come out of such disruption. It’s happening whether we like it or not, so it is better to treat it as an opportunity than a threat.

The developed world has a poor birth rate, and these migrants will be needed for the future labour force. They can also enrich the culture. America loves Mexican cuisine while Finland loves Turkish. Vladimir Nabokov, one of the greatest writers in the English language, was in fact a Russian. A world without immigration would be a world without kebab and Lolita, and that would be a poor world indeed.

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