Our Patriarchal Future
I know I have a reputation for being an alarmist, but sometimes alarm is exactly the right response. It certainly is to these tables, which I saw on the Twitter feed of Indian Bronson:
Numbers don't lie. The entire world -- the West and other industrialized countries in the lead -- is heading off a demographic clip. This isn't new news, exactly, but it's news that we are collectively determined to ignore.
The first and most important task of any civilization is to produce the next generation. If it doesn't do that, it dies. Technically speaking, you don't have to be married to have children, but the overall fertility rate globally is in collapse:
The replacement rate is 2.1; the industrialized countries are below that. In fact, South Korea has the world's lowest fertility rate, at 0.8. Absent some miraculous turnaround, the population of South Korea will drop by half by the end of this century. If you're thinking, "Great, we won't be such a burden to the earth," then you need to think harder. Leaving aside the emotional and psychological devastation of people who have few cousins and extended family, there are radical economic and social effects from underpopulation. We are all going to be a lot poorer, and lonelier.
People who were never raised in an intact family may never learn how to form and maintain a family. This is the kind of knowledge that you can't really get from books. I used to wonder how it was that the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West led to the collapse of basic knowledge necessary to run a civilization -- things like how to build a roof. The Oxford historian Bryan Ward-Jones has documented the material catastrophe that befell European peoples when Rome fell. I had thought that such a fate can't happen to us, because we have all this knowledge stored in books. Yet we are experiencing mass forgetting of the most basic knowledge necessary to continue civilization: how to form stable families, and why.
Oswald Spengler said a hundred years ago that when people within a civilization stop to think whether or not they should have kids, as opposed to having them as a matter of course, then that civilization is over. We are living through that now. (And believe me, as someone who is now party to a divorce, I know that I am implicated in this.) Back in 2013, as I've mentioned in this space before, I spoke with some professors at a conservative Evangelical college, who told me their greatest concern about their students is that they would not be able to marry and form families. But why? I asked. Said one professor, "Because so few of them have seen it."
These weren't inner-city kids he was talking about. These were Midwestern Evangelicals.
My go-to book is the Harvard sociologist Carle C. Zimmerman's 1947 masterwork Family And Civilization. Zimmerman was not a religious man, but he was certain from the sociological data -- and this was back in the 1940s! -- that the West was in a phase of decline and disintegration. His book is about the way family structure affects civilizational functioning. Not all family structures are equally conducive to human flourishing -- the clannish system in more primitive societies is sub-optimal, for example -- but all societies need stable families. Zimmerman saw so many decades ago what we are now living through.
Zimmerman wrote Family and Civilization to recover that “actual, documented, historical truth.” The book stands as an extraordinary feat of research and interpretation. It sweeps across the millennia and burrows into the nature of otherwise disparate civilizations to reveal deeper and universal social traits. To guide his investigation, Zimmerman asks: “Of the total power in [a] society, how much belongs to the family? Of the total amount of control of action in [a] society, how much is left for the family?”
By analyzing these levels of family autonomy, Zimmerman identifies three basic family types:
(1) the trustee family, with extensive power rooted in extended family and clan;
(2) the atomistic family, which has virtually no power and little field of action; and
(3) the domestic family (a variant of Le Play’s “stem” family), in which a balance exists between the power of the family and that of other agencies.
He traces the dynamics as civilizations, or nations, move from one type to another. Zimmerman’s central thesis is that the “domestic family” is the system found in all civilizations at their peak of creativity and progress, for it “possesses a certain amount of mobility and freedom and still keeps up the minimum amount of familism necessary for carrying on the society.”
So-called social history has exploded as a discipline since the early 1960s, stimulated at first by the French Annales school of interpretation and then by the new feminist historiography. Thousands upon thousands of detailed studies on marriage law, family consumption patterns, premarital sex, “gay culture,” and gender power relations now exist, material that Zimmerman never saw (and some of which he probably never even could have imagined). All the same, this mass of data has done little to undermine his basic argument.
Zimmerman focuses on hard, albeit enduring truths. He affirms, for example, the virtue of early marriage: “Persons who do not start families when reasonably young often find that they are emotionally, physically, and psychologically unable to conceive, bear, and rear children at later ages.” The author emphasizes the intimate connection between voluntary and involuntary sterility, suggesting that they arise from a common mindset that rejects familism. He rejects the common argument that the widespread use of contraceptives would have the beneficial effect of eliminating human abortion. In actual practice, “the population which wishes to reduce its birth rate . . . seems to find the need for more abortions as well as more birth control.”
Indeed, the primary theme of Family and Civilization is fertility. Zimmerman underscores the three functions of familism as articulated by historic Christianity: fides, proles, and sacramentum; or “fidelity, childbearing, and indissoluble unity.” While describing at length the social value of premarital chastity, the health-giving effects of marriage, the costs of adultery, and the social devastation of divorce, Zimmerman zeros in on the birth rate. He concludes that “we see [ever] more clearly the role of proles or childbearing as the main stem of the family.” The very act of childbearing, he notes, “creates resistances to the breaking-up of the marriage.” In short, “the basis of familism is the birth rate. Societies that have numerous children have to have familism. Other societies (those with few children) do not have it.” This gives Zimmerman one easy measure of social success or decline: the marital fertility rate. A familistic society, he says, would average at least four children born per household.
As Carlson goes on to write, Zimmerman missed the Baby Boom, but the Sexual Revolution ended up accelerating his predictions. And here we are. Back in the 1940s, Zimmerman complained that most sociologists were ideologically driven by their Marxism and progressivism (which defined progress as emancipating individuals from the supposed drudgery of family), and therefore ignored the deleterious effects of these trends. It's true today as well. We can't have an honest discussion about any of this because our society today has built so much of its understanding of itself on a foundation of atomism, and radical individualism. In the future, historians will look back at the polymorphous perversity of the queer movement and marvel that a civilization poisoned itself by destroying its capacity to form families and produce the next generation.
Here's a clip from Zimmerman's book:
Again, he wrote this in 1947. Importantly, he says elsewhere in the book that the rise in divorce, homosexuality, promiscuity, and the other factors do not cause decline, but are rather symptoms of it. This is why I have always maintained that heterosexuals should not blame gays for the collapse of traditional marriage; gays are only building on what heterosexuals, via the Sexual Revolution, already accomplished in terms of radically revising the meaning of sex and marriage. Nevertheless, the more we normalize all this stuff, both hetero and homo, the faster we head towards civilizational collapse.
I read this week Matthieu Pageau's great little book The Language Of Creation: Cosmic Symbolism In Genesis. It is not a culture war book, not at all. He talks in the book, though, about how Genesis gives us a picture of how reality is constructed. I noted in particular Genesis's warning that to violate the male-female model for pairing and reproduction was to invite the dissolution of one's society. This is the message of the Bible, from thousands of years ago. You don't have to be a believing Jew or Christian to wonder if the deep wisdom embedded in these ancient myths has something vital to say to us today.
It should be said that the Sexual Revolution isn't the only factor. Japan, for example, is not a religious society, though it is a very conservative one. It does not have same-sex marriage (it's interesting to think about how the Western elites who rail against Hungary, Poland, and Russia for not accepting gay marriage have nothing to say to Japan). Yet Japanese fertility rates are among the lowest in the world. This has to do with economic factors, and the modern belief that women do not have to marry and raise children.
Back in 2009, the demographer Philip Longman published a piece in Foreign Policy, arguing that patriarchy is inevitably going to make a comeback, because it's the only way for civilizations to survive. Excerpt:
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Many childless, middle-aged people may regret the life choices that are leading to the extinction of their family lines, and yet they have no sons or daughters with whom to share their newfound wisdom. The plurality of citizens who have only one child may be able to invest lavishly in that child’s education, but a single child will only replace one parent, not both. Meanwhile, the descendants of parents who have three or more children will be hugely overrepresented in subsequent generations, and so will the values and ideas that led their parents to have large families.
One could argue that history, and particularly Western history, is full of revolts of children against parents. Couldn’t tomorrow’s Europeans, even if they are disproportionately raised in patriarchal, religiously minded households, turn out to be another generation of ’68?
The key difference is that during the post-World War II era, nearly all segments of modern societies married and had children. Some had more than others, but the disparity in family size between the religious and the secular was not so large, and childlessness was rare. Today, by contrast, childlessness is common, and even couples who have children typically have just one. Tomorrow’s children, therefore, unlike members of the postwar baby boom generation, will be for the most part descendants of a comparatively narrow and culturally conservative segment of society. To be sure, some members of the rising generation may reject their parents’ values, as always happens. But when they look around for fellow secularists and counterculturalists with whom to make common cause, they will find that most of their would-be fellow travelers were quite literally never born.
Advanced societies are growing more patriarchal, whether they like it or not. In addition to the greater fertility of conservative segments of society, the rollback of the welfare state forced by population aging and decline will give these elements an additional survival advantage, and therefore spur even higher fertility. As governments hand back functions they once appropriated from the family, notably support in old age, people will find that they need more children to insure their golden years, and they will seek to bind their children to them through inculcating traditional religious values akin to the Bible’s injunction to honor thy mother and father.
Societies that are today the most secular and the most generous with their underfunded welfare states will be the most prone to religious revivals and a rebirth of the patriarchal family. The absolute population of Europe and Japan may fall dramatically, but the remaining population will, by a process similar to survival of the fittest, be adapted to a new environment in which no one can rely on government to replace the family, and in which a patriarchal God commands family members to suppress their individualism and submit to father.
You and I might not like that, but then again, reality doesn't care about our feelings.