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Our Patriarchal Future

The collapse of family and fertility means that traditional families built around strong fathers will have an evolutionary advantage
Screen Shot 2022-10-27 at 11.39.09 AM

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:

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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.

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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.

Family scholar Allan C. Carlson writes:

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:

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.

Comments

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JON FRAZIER
JON FRAZIER
As always in these natalist panics I am constrained to remind everyone of some things

1. Humankind, both in the United States and the whole world, got by with far fewer members (an order if magnitude fewer of us, and even less) for many millennia. The world will not collapse for lack of human beings. (At the time the US was founded-- and yes, the nation was physically much smaller-- we had but three million people -- was the country "underpopulated"?)
2. Quality matters more than quantity. A family with two kids who do well in life has done a better job than one with six kids most of whom remain mired in poverty and dysfunction-- and the modern strategy has been geared to that: fewer kids on whom more resources are focused.
3. Demographics are based on two mutable numbers: the birth rate and the death rate. There is exactly zero reason to think the latter is set in stone. (Yes, there's something ominous about that)
4. The birth rate is also not set in stone. There is zero reason to think it will remain at its current low rate for the indefinite future.
5. And for the umpteenth time, Rome had been Christian for some generations when the western Empire fell. One can make a better case for, as Gibbon did, for Christianity being the reason for its fall than for its mostly mythical "moral decadence" (though, no I don't believe that either-- Rome fell due to a set of historical accidents-- rerun that history with some slight tinkering with a few things, like the climate, and we would have a very different result-- a different present too of course)
schedule 1 year ago
    Peter Pratt
    Peter Pratt
    How do you know that 2 children provides quality on 5 does not?
    Extending life means more non-productive people supported by the state. Who is going to pay for this if the birth rate declines further?
    Miscarriages are up since the jab and pregnancies have become to decline (after increasing during the lockdowns). Add in the economy and fewer children will be born.
    We have been declining as a society since before you were born. Just because you can't see it, doesn't mean it isn't happening.
    schedule 1 year ago
      JON FRAZIER
      JON FRAZIER
      Re: How do you know that 2 children provides quality on 5 does not?

      For every and any particular family? I don't. But overall, the more kids you have the less resources (parental time and attention included) you will have for each of them. I think of it like a garden: I can handle landscaping the half acre I bought and moved to this summer; five acres would be impossible.

      Re: Extending life means more non-productive people supported by the state.

      If that how you think of people-- instrumentally, they're only good for what they can do for you-- then your morality is as far removed from Christian morality as an y trans activist's. I don't consider older people useless at all. There's a reason we have such long lives-- whether you think that God or evolution (or both) are behind that fact. I also suspect that people will be working later in life (that's already starting to happen), And the holy grail will be the extension of good health later into life, also not impossible and to some extent that has happened relative to earlier ages.
      Besides, an older society is inherently more conservative (recall that the 60s-- the Baby Boomers' youth-- was easily our rowdiest and most radical time).

      I don't agree with your point that we have been declining as a society, and certainly not since before I was born (that would 1967). I'm not a devotee of the myth of progress-- but on the other side I am also not a devotee of the myth of decline. Time is randomness-- *stuff* happens and we deal with as best we can. There's no real direction up or down. Just a tantalizing fractal pattern to time-- though it will tell you any lie it can get away with. And of course it's slowly killing us all.
      schedule 1 year ago
        Zenos Alexandrovitch
        Zenos Alexandrovitch
        You claim to be Orthodox? Huh, you seem more like a liberal protestant that quantifies love in an almost monetary fashion, but to say it in your twisted language - Larger families expand the pool of familial resources for the development of children.

        But I guess you prefer a society of isolated sodomites.
        schedule 1 year ago
          JON FRAZIER
          JON FRAZIER
          No, I don't "claim" to be Orthodox. I am-- but that means a devotion to Christ and his saints (many of whom by the way were childless celibates)-- and definitely not to Donald Trump and the satanic Cult of Qanon.
          schedule 1 year ago
    Daniel Baker
    Daniel Baker
    Agreed. Not only is there exactly zero reason to believe the death rate is set in stone, but it is known not to be. Death rates, particularly for children, collapsed in the last hundred years, which is why the world population more than quintupled during that time. Given the three obvious options of 1) restoring child mortality to the horrible pre-20th century norm, 2) continuing the massive population growth of the last century until famine and epidemic force an end to it, and 3) reducing the birth rate, as Rod's statistics show is happening, the third seems obviously preferable.
    schedule 1 year ago
Michael Cole
Michael Cole
Rod. Please put aside your sentimental piety and think about what is actually good for planet earth in general and humanity in particular. You sentimentally pine for a world in which everybody marries young and raises a big family and prays to the Lord for yet another child ever time they engage in sexual relations. I believe the Bible thumpers speak of a “quiverfull”.

That is not good for the future of our species. Since we are not going to colonize Mars any time soon, we are stuck with the finite resources of planet Earth. It would be more useful if China and India and Indonesia and Africa had a fertility decline than the West, but one way or the other it is desirable for there to be less people in the world. THERE ARE TOO MANY BILLIONS OF US. However misty eyed you get when you contemplate the divine injection to “be fruitful and multiply”, your reason should tell you that we have overdid it. Faith can be a good thing and, to a certain extent, is independent of reason, but faith should never be the enemy of reason.
schedule 1 year ago
Daniel Baker
Daniel Baker
I don't dispute that our civilization is in trouble in general, and the family structure in particular is also. But I don't see the logic of blaming this on low fertility. Most of all, Rod's whole discussion ignored the elephant in the room: the massive drop in child and infant mortality that started in the 20th century due to the spread of vaccines and clean water. Big families are needed to produce the next generation when you can count on losing half of them to smallpox, whooping cough, diphtheria, polio, and the other diseases that modern medicine practically wiped out. When we removed those child-killers worldwide (a fact that the haters of Western civilization are always curiously quiet about), the world population exploded, from two billion in 1927 to 11 billion today. Obviously, we can't keep doing this. And unless we want to bring the child-killing diseases back, which I don't think anyone would want, the only rational response is to lower the birthrate. And people are doing that.

Again, I'm not denying that our civilization is in serious trouble, that educational standards are collapsing, the family structure caving in, or that there is a crisis of confidence in our institutions. All that is very definitely happening, and the consequences are bad now and will get worse. But I think it's ludicrous to argue that low birth rates are significantly contributing to these problems, or that they could be solved by continuing the unsustainable birth rates of the past century.
schedule 1 year ago
    JON FRAZIER
    JON FRAZIER
    A quibble: world population is estimated to be around 8 billion, not 11.
    schedule 1 year ago
Jonesy
Jonesy
I expect there will be a lot of elderly people being taken care of in their dotage by people who make minimum wage and there will be loneliness and regret and possibly abuse but no one will care or advocate for their plight. I’m doing the opposite with my children from what was preached to my x generation; take finding a mate seriously, get married to a good one and have many children. The family is a bulwark against the turbulent winds of change and chaos.
schedule 1 year ago
Lee Podles
Lee Podles
Those who see a decline in population as a positive do not realize that not all age cohorts will decline equally.
When a society has about a birth rate of 1 rather than the 2.1 necessary for stability, the society becomes an inverted period, with the larger, older cohorts at the top.

If 1,000,000 people have 500,000 children and they have 250,000 children, and they have 125,000children, and they have 62,5000 children, and they have 31,250 children, and they have 15, 750 children the population goes from 1,750,000 to 875,000 to 437,500 to 218,000 as each older and larger cohort dies off.

Infrastructure and pensions designed for a stable or growing population will not be able to function.

Raising several children requires skills. I came from a family of five; my wife from a family of six. We had six children. Her brother had eight children; one of his daughters alone had ten children. We are all fairly conservative Catholics. I am in the Ordinariate and her brother is in Opus Dei.

My wife’s classmates from Wellesley area astonished at the size of our families. One, an only child, said she was planning a child, but was surprised to learn that a baby eats more than three times a day! My wife had twins, and sometimes spent about 10 hours a day nursing, until she got the twins to nurse about at the same time. A big family, like other worthwhile endeavors, takes a lot of work and self-sacrifice.
Whether the small populations of conservative Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Mormons, and Amish can make up for the lower birthrate among the secularized population, is uncertain. The key is the loosely defined evangelical population and then the Hispanic immigrants. Will they become secularized and cease to reproduce?
schedule 1 year ago
    JON FRAZIER
    JON FRAZIER
    Re: Infrastructure and pensions designed for a stable or growing population will not be able to function.

    I don't know what you mean about infrastructure but we are going to have to tweak of we provide income support for the elderly. To some extent that will involve people working later in life-- and that requires a change in attitude among employers.
    schedule 1 year ago