Over recent decades a plethora of books aimed at the general reader has sought to explain the success of the West and the reasons for the gap between Western achievements and the rest of the world. These attempts are welcome, and fill a need, but many of them suffer from the handicap of, in effect, reinventing the wheel—with many of them still undecided as to whether wheels ought to be square or round. We see economists or biologists taking it upon themselves to do an anthropologist’s job, often apparently unaware that an extensive social science literature on the origins of modernity and the industrial revolution is already in existence. When anthropology is cited, it is often done in a haphazard way.
Given this situation, the publication of Emmanuel Todd’s Lineages of Modernity: A History of Humanity from the Stone Age to Homo Americanus is a welcome and overdue milestone. Todd (pictured above), a demographer and historical anthropologist at Institut National d’Études Démographiques in Paris, is a public figure in the French tradition of the engaged intellectual. In the 1970s he correctly predicted the demise of the Soviet Union, one of the first serious commentators to do so.
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As an engaged intellectual, he is taken seriously as a theorist and as a flamboyant, often embattled public figure known for contrarian stands on topics such as the assimilation of Muslim immigrants. Indeed, his stands often appear to be taken for their provocative potential—a scholarly equivalent of Dali’s anteater on a leash, or Duchamp’s urinal exhibited at an art exhibition. Taken in isolation they might seem so. But a serious perusal of Todd’s work, and particularly the volume reviewed here, will show that they proceed organically and logically from his analytical framework. Lineages of Modernity contributes to the Great Conversation on modernity by returning to the classic roots of anthropology, while incorporating much recent research in social science.
Being rooted in classic anthropology means, above all for Todd, a basic grounding in family systems analysis. One of the problems with writing a book grounded in anthropology for a general audience, as opposed to, say, an economics work, is that much of the terminology and underlying concepts of anthropology is not familiar to such audiences. If every book that touched on economic concepts needed to explain from zero concepts such as “gross domestic product” or “inflation”, or the difference between market and command economies, it would make for an uphill climb for the reader before even embarking on its specific intellectual journey.
Lineages of Modernity asks the reader to undertake exactly such an exercise, beginning with a concise tutorial on the basic idea of family systems and then embarking on a tour of the evolution of family systems through time and space, discussing the various ways that people think about who is and is not a member of their family and the implication of those differences for the ways societies have evolved.
Todd raises and answers the question, “What relevance do systems based on differential obligations of older and younger siblings have in a world where the global fertility collapse means that fewer and fewer families have multiple children at all?” His solution is the concept of “ghost” or “zombie cultures”, ones in which the family systems (or, in more contemporary terms, “anthropological structures”) continue to shape the culture and politics of the nations long after their original circumstances are gone. For instance, in secularised regions like southern France, Todd describes their cultures as “Zombie Catholicism”; similarly secularised regions of Germany and Scandinavia as “Zombie Lutheranism”, and so on. The former religion of such secularised cultural areas can still serve as an accurate predictor of political behaviour.
This pattern in fact evidenced itself well before the actual secularisation. Todd argues that a regular, predictable pattern of developments, beginning with increasing male literacy, then industrialisation followed by widespread female literacy, can be observed throughout the developed and developing world, beginning with the West but being replicated now throughout non-European cultures.
The movement from countryside to city, common to all developed cultures, disrupted the pre-existing anthropological structures. If one culture is marked by equal distribution of land to all sons, while another passes land to the first-born son and excludes the rest, what happens when most sons prefer to go to better-paying jobs in the city? And, equally important, when younger siblings are entitled to assistance from the elder, how is that to be delivered when the siblings are far away?
The answer most often was the most obvious: the state acted as the family, and fulfilled the paternal role; the citizens, that of children. Politics revolved around exactly what obedience was due and what aid was due in return—either paternalist conservatism, or social democracy, or, when the latter is thrown into (in Todd’s words) the “hysterical mode”, fascism.
The structures arising in continental Europe in the wars of the seventeenth through twentieth centuries to ensure adequate military infrastructure and manpower mobilisation were also well adapted to receive the loyal service of their subjects and to dispense the expected benefits. Although this system could produce great loyalty and diligence, a failure of the state to dispense the expected benefits (seen effectively as a social debt) would enrage the subjects and drive them to rebellion. Such societies (including Germany, Scandinavia, and southern France/northern Spain) were unequal, authoritarian, but in their own view fair, giving each their due and guaranteeing all some security.
Elsewhere, where equal distribution of land to sons prevailed, cultural emphasis dictated equality at birth, but not much redistribution subsequently. As the state mediated more and more of life, equal and meritocratic access to services such as education and the opportunities of state service were emphasised. These spheres were highly centralised and controlled to ensure equality. However, once an equal start was guaranteed, relatively little effort was put into controlling subsequent outcomes. This system prevailed in the Île-de-France, which then imposed it on the rest of France. It produced a culture that was egalitarian regarding starting conditions, but otherwise individualistic. Its politics thus focused on creating the appropriate balance between equality and liberty, a task with no final or perfect solution.
A third system arose around the North Sea. In it, land was inherited as the parents chose to give it out, except for (in England) a minority of the aristocracy where Norman primogeniture prevailed. In return there were few obligations either from parents to children, or vice versa. As a result, legal mechanisms such as trusts evolved to provide cash solutions for support independent of the state of relations between parents and children. In this society land was viewed as a commodity owned by individuals and disposed at will, rather than being obligated to be retained by the multigenerational family. Consequently, this system was readily adapted to the urbanisation of industrialisation. In insular England, the absence of a land warfare threat meant that large-scale state mechanisms for mobilisation of people or wealth did not exist. The state need not substitute for large parts of what were previously family roles. Thus, the relationship between the individual and the state remained primarily transactional, rather than emotional.
A trust mechanism meant to support ageing parents regardless of family relations worked equally well in an urban, industrialised setting as in a rural, agricultural one. The critical duties of the state in England were to provide a court system to uphold trusts, and to honour its financial instruments faithfully and precisely to serve as a reliable store of value. The diligence of Anglosphere states in paying their obligations is no coincidence.
Certain themes fell out of these family system variances. The transference of family obligations to the state in continental Europe created emotional responses to fiscal matters. Any perceived failure of the state to fulfil its parental role becomes a parental betrayal and, as benefits from the state are a type of property, a failure to fulfil them is not just a disappointment but a literal theft. A cut in benefits has the emotional impact of a burglary. Internal devaluation in such societies is problematic. It became the critical weaknesses of both the euro and global neoliberal reform projects of recent decades.
The individualist societies of the Anglosphere, in contrast, have in economic matters generally had a transactional, rather than pseudo-familial and emotional relationship with the state. Anglosphere societies are neither economically egalitarian nor economically hierarchical by principle, but rather indifferent to economic equality.
Among the ways Todd characterises societies is their position between the poles of “horizontality” and “verticality”. Horizontal societies are egalitarian, and relations are primarily between people on the same level, at least on certain planes (for example, social but not economic). Vertical societies are unequal and hierarchical, not only in practice but in theory— everybody has a social “rank”, and citizens tend to be uncomfortable until it is established who outranks whom. Anglosphere societies, since they are indifferent to equality, are mixes of horizontal and vertical relations, which can exist in uneasy disequilibrium.
Furthermore, various Anglosphere societies, due to circumstances of history and geography, have evolved different mixes of horizontality and verticality. Most significantly, England retains a certain amount of verticality, with deference historically to the aristocracy, and in modern times to its quasi-meritocratic political-intellectual establishment. America is primarily horizontal, not in terms of its income distribution, but in terms of its powerful value of social-political equality, no matter how much the realities of power may be unequal. Anglosphere societies are distinct from other developed nations, but also not identical within their own universe.
Attitudes toward welfare and benefits provide an example. As we have seen, continental European societies provide substantial financial and in-kind benefits to their citizens, seen as part of the “patrimony” equivalent to the shares of inherited land. These are seen as property and due as right; governments which, out of financial necessity or some ideological reforming impulse, try to cut such benefits have evoked furious responses up to and including armed insurrection.
England, on the other hand, long had a system of need-based, means-tested assistance to its poorer members, administered by local parishes under the post-Reformation Poor Laws. This reflected a degree of verticality in English society; poor relief was administered by the local gentry and prosperous middle classes. There has always been a strong concern about “moral hazard” in its administration. Codified in the “Speenhamland laws”, the principle governing such relief was that the sums provided must never be more than what the poorest member of the working population could earn. Even to this day welfare payments in Anglosphere nations draw vocal resentment if they exceed the minimum wage, even, or especially, if the people complaining are likely to need such assistance themselves in the near future.
Although the American colonies brought over similar poor relief arrangements, especially in New England, America had much more horizontality from the very start. This was due in large degree to the easy access to land in many situations. It was hard to maintain deference when the lower class could literally disappear in the night and by moving a bit further squat or claim their own land. The Antipodes had much the same circumstance. Even the Wakefield colonies of South Australia and New Zealand, founded explicitly upon the principle of verticality, could not sustain that hoped-for relation in the face of such temptation.
With less need for poor relief, and less verticality, welfare always had a particular stigma in America. John Steinbeck, in his leftist period, complained that the American poor tended to act like “temporarily inconvenienced millionaires”, declining to support high taxation because they judged such matters not on their situation at the moment, but where they hoped to be. When Franklin Roosevelt introduced state superannuation, he took pains to present it as a market-mimicking pension scheme, assuring recipients that pensions were earned through their contributions, ignoring its redistributions.
Todd’s schema has an impressive record as a predictor of political behaviour in the Western democracies, being used by EU economists in research in studying issues such as comparative intra-European workforce mobility. It has also been a useful interpretive lens in history, seeing European politics as a matter of shifting alliances and ideologies of the three great family-system groups, explaining both state-to-state conflict and intra-state conflict. When the big multi-national (and multi-family-system) states of Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia fell apart under stress, the lines of cleavage were most often along family-system lines despite substantial linguistic commonalities across those lines.
Going beyond Western and Central Europe, Todd classified the great bulk of Eurasian and African systems as other than the three Western European systems. Much of the human race is under the communitarian family system, in which adult members of the paternal family reside and work land in common together, under the authority of the eldest male. Unlike the stem or authoritarian family of the West, the land is the communal property of the family, and all married sons and their wives have an equal right to participate. In such family systems, daughters are married off and no longer have a formal status in the family, while brides of the brothers become part of the paternal family.
Again, Todd’s theories tend to be validated by their predictive power—areas like Tuscany (one of several “communitarian” islands in the West) have tended to support the Communist Party; authoritarian or stem-family areas tend to support socialist or Social-Democrat parties, and individualist or nuclear-family areas have tended to support the most free-market party of the day in the English-speaking world.
Beyond electoral politics, Todd’s schema has been a good predictor of global geopolitics. Revolutionary Leninist communism spread like wildfire through communitarian Russia and China, gaining converts rapidly and overwhelming seemingly entrenched opposing forces. Yet it was stopped firmly by the firebreaks of Central Europe to its west, the Islamic Turkic-speaking nations to its south, and Japan to its east. The communism imposed on Eastern Europe by Soviet arms failed to establish deep roots in any of them, particularly in Poland, whose family system was oddly like that of the Île-de-France, and East Germany, with its authoritarian stem-family system. Similarly, Islam’s original lightning-swift spread across the Middle East and North Africa was coterminous with the endogamous communitarian family, in which marriage of brothers’ children to each other was the ideal family outcome.
Thus, between the West (and especially the Anglosphere) and the communitarian communist cultures of Eurasia lies a cultural, psychological and linguistic gap that is difficult to bridge, and often leads to misunderstanding and misestimation in dealings between the two civilisations.
I am largely in agreement with Todd’s family system analysis, which underlaid the broader analysis in his America 3.0, and am sympathetic with many of the judgments in Lineages of Modernity. The principal area of divergence is in some of the detail of his treatment of developments in the US, where in my opinion the analysis is overly dependent on several sources that are primarily polemical, particularly the work of Thomas Frank. Such sources suffer from a common error of oversimplification.
This error has several components. The most basic one is the conflation of the genuine contribution of the market economists with the political programs that have broadly been called libertarian. The great contribution of the market viewpoint is its clear view of what lies beneath all proposals for state action: the reality that the “state” is a shorthand for a set of relations by which some people direct the resources and labour of other people in a designated area, a direction ultimately resting on the use or threat of the use of force.
The justifications for such relations are various, and may or may not have validity in the eyes of the people so directed. (Todd’s particular contribution has been to demonstrate how the family systems of a population correlate to which of those social relations are accepted as justified.) Whether merited or not, such relations contain various hazards, particularly those of unintended consequences.
This is a fundamental insight and remains true regardless of the current ideologies guiding state action. However, the same is not true of every policy choice made or advocated by movements identifying themselves as liberal, neoliberal or libertarian. This has been true of the two great historical waves of liberal thought, roughly grouped (following Niall Ferguson’s terminology) as Globalisation 1.0 (the classical liberal movement of the nineteenth century, and the industrialisation and global trade it presided over) and Globalisation 2.0, roughly the post-Second World War (and more deeply, post-Cold War) international trading and economic system, each with its own peculiar flaws.
Todd has noted the rise and fall of these systems, particularly with regard to the failure of advocates of globalisation in both cases to comprehend the substantial differences among the world’s cultures, and the futility of relying on a simplistic economic reductionism to homogenise the world’s political systems into a uniform liberal order overnight. However, I believe he has relied excessively on unobjective guides, particularly in the case of the US, and in presenting the problem as one of “free trade” versus “protectionism”, overly simplified the situation.
Both of the waves of globalisation came with substantial baggage unrelated to its core insight. The liberal movement behind Globalisation 1.0, for example, combined free trade with a dedication to Malthusian pessimism about overpopulation, combined with a crude version of Social Darwinism. Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens’s caricature of a liberal, expressed the marriage of these views when he exclaimed, “Let them [the poor] die then, and reduce the surplus population!” Similarly, during the Irish Great Famine, the hardest-hit areas were referred to as “the congested districts”, placing the blame on the population, presumably at fault for “overbreeding”, rather than the land tenure system or other systemic problems.
Contemporary neoliberals and libertarians, in contrast, tend to be technological progressives with faith in the ability of modern systems to cope with population growth. However, modern neoliberals have tended to be severe economic reductionists, believing that the imposition of market structures and transnational human-rights jurisdictions can transform authoritarian or communitarian cultures often far removed from modernity overnight—largely a formula for failure.
There is nothing inherently liberal or libertarian in such economic reductionism, any more than was the nineteenth-century belief in inevitable Malthusian gloom. The real limitations, or failures of Globalisation 2.0, as opposed to unanticipated problems of success, fall into two main areas. One is in the nations that attempted to implement globalisation with uneven, limited or entirely absent success, and now face some combination of chaos, stagnation and authoritarian reaction to those ills. The other, and the one that has sparked most of the globalisation debate in the last two decades in Europe and North America, has been the social and economic disruption experienced in the developed world over that period. This area is also a major focus of attention of Lineages of Modernity.
Todd’s opposition of “free trade” and “protectionism” as the central forces in the drama of the industrial decline of the West is only valid to the extent that “free trade” is understood as a shorthand or collective reference for a set of policies, only partly derived from market economics, which would better be labelled “Globalisation 2.0”. “Protectionism”, similarly, would best be understood as a shorthand for the Western European economic system that emerged between the formation of the EEC in 1956 and the fall of the Berlin Wall—market-based, but regulated; dependent on access to the US market, but not wide open to global production; and technologically progressive, but at a controlled rate that did not disrupt labour markets.
The loss of industrial protection due to the GATT and WTO processes was one of the factors that led to the relative industrial decline in the US, and to a lesser extent Western Europe. But it was only one reason of many, and probably not the predominant one. (In any event, tariffs have become in most cases secondary to “non-tariff barriers”, largely regulations that exist not to solve social problems, but primarily to benefit particular groups.) Mechanisation and automation of the workplace have been an extremely pervasive force, and one whose impact on organised blue-collar labour had begun even before the full flowering of globalisation.
The movement of production, particularly auto and other large machine production, offshore from the US to Asia, was primarily the product of corporate management fads and several disastrous court decisions under the pressure of American shareholders’ litigation. The 1970s and 1980s fad for conglomerates led to their managerial elites valuing the relationships and reliability of longstanding subcontractor trees at zero while reducing all other considerations to “lowest short-term price” (a mistake Japanese and German manufacturers generally shunned) and which proved highly vulnerable to Chinese export promotion practices.
This trend was greatly compounded by a series of court decisions made during the Clinton administration whose effect was to create a new safe harbour from shareholder litigation: “outsource from China—nothing could be cheaper”. It is not surprising that most economists have ignored or undervalued these factors, as understanding their impacts required a vantage point in the American industrial system to be properly appreciated.
In Europe, the impact of this crude economic reductionism played out differently, but just as disastrously. Its principal mechanism was the single currency. This development, with the accuracy of a precision-guided missile, singled out and destroyed the one successful adaptive feature upon which European social democracies had inadvertently stumbled. It was precisely the system of free-floating national currencies that had made their industrial relations system viable during the thirty-year boom that underlaid the reconstruction and renewal of Western Europe after the Second World War.
Todd’s work provides the key to understanding the particular folly of the single currency. The differing family systems of the various European countries and regions strongly coloured their disparate reactions to the would-be economic rationalisation that the single currency was to have enforced in Europe. Particularly, in both communitarian and stem-family (authoritarian) families, state and corporate benefits were seen as a form of patrimony. They were a form of property, and taking them away was felt as a form of literal, not metaphorical theft, and was fought both electorally and industrially, and in the end, on the streets in demonstrations and riots. Workers in the more individualist systems, particularly in the UK, had a more transactional attitude, and thus British workers and salaried employees alike were sufficiently wary to pressure their political system into staying out of the euro, despite all “expert” advice.
Family-systems-derived attitudes towards state and corporate entitlements made the sort of “internal devaluation” remedy—wage and benefit cuts in response to economic pressures—that economic reductionism recommended very difficult if not, in a democratic society, impossible. In contrast, in response to political pressure and industrial action raising such entitlements, the system of free-floating nation-state currencies responded by external devaluation, as the currency markets reacted. If, for example, Fiat workers obtained a wage rise without a corresponding increase in output the lira would fall, and although the price of a Fiat in lira might also rise, its price in dollars or sterling would remain constant, or even fall, thus preserving or expanding its market share. Of course, devaluation meant that imports would become more expensive, but many of the critical elements of the workers’ daily budget—rents and mortgages, utilities, taxes, mass transport and basic foodstuffs grown domestically—would remain constant. There was a rough social justice in that, as the price inflation would fall most heavily on luxury imports and foreign travel.
The euro exploded this system. The communitarian and authoritarian family-system states of southern Europe could no longer remedy their entitlement ratchet system through devaluation, or even inflationary money-creation, as they had in past crises. The economic reductionists had believed that they would then be forced to implement internal devaluation and cram it down the throats of the workforce and retirees. Some attempts to do so were made. They succeeded only in the case of the Baltics, fearful of Russian domination and subservient to Brussels. But in southern Europe resistance was just too strong. The result was stagnation, unemployment, business failure, emigration—especially of the unprotected young—and destabilisation of the old party systems. Harsh measures were finally forced on the south, but at a price in resentment that is now being paid.
The failures of Globalisation 2.0 highlight the divergence between two basic approaches to market economics. One approach sees all social interactions as part of the realm of economics, ruled by rational calculation and maximisation of the self-interest of the individual. This is the economic reductionism underlying Globalisation 2.0. The other approach sees economic activity as a sort of play staged in a theatre, and economists as a sort of body of theatre critics. They are capable of explaining and critiquing any play in fine detail, providing profound insights into the structure of the play, and the quality of the performance and direction. However, the critics have no understanding of the architectural and engineering factors which determined the design and construction of the theatre. But in the real world, theatre critics are aware of these limitations and do not mistake the play for the real world outside. Economic reductionists commit precisely this fallacy.
Those who understand clearly the difference between the play and the theatre must be the architects of the Globalisation 3.0 which will sooner or later arise from the ruins of its predecessor. The fundamental insights of market economics remain true within its proper realm, and stand as a caution against the fatal conceits of the would-be planners. However, Globalisation 3.0 will also take into account the deep-seated differences between the civilisations of the world, often stemming from their disparate family systems. It would certainly not grant full and unmonitored access to the global economy to a nation such as China.
It will give nation-states their due respect, and build broader co-operative structures slowly, carefully and primarily along lines of cultural commonalities. Cultural change will not be forced down the throats of ancient nations and peoples, nor will cultures be expected to remain fixed forever like flies preserved in amber. Measures such as the continued spread of literacy, and especially literacy for women, will accomplish much of what is desired over time.
Democracy itself is a valid eventual goal for Globalisation 3.0, but it cannot come merely by imposing the formal trappings of democracy—elections and parliaments and suchlike—over nations with family systems that fundamentally cause them to function differently, and less effectively, than the individualistic nations of the West. Democracy is also at risk from the tendency of the elite intelligentsia to seize administrative power in advanced developed democracies, not by abolishing democratic rule but merely by ignoring it, and telling the masses to keep voting until their vote endorses what has already been decided.
Democracy in the West stems from two quite different sources, and democratic politics is in permanent conflict between the two. One tradition developed from negotiation with financial contributors, the other with those whose claim arose from military service. The first tradition discriminated against the poor, but ultimately argued for the inclusion of women. The second tradition discriminated against women, but served to include the poor and the foreign-born, usually during or in the wake of wartime in which the excluded earned their stake with blood. Over time, both threads drove inclusion.
Because of these two traditions, there has been a long-standing force against excessive state entitlements (particularly in the Anglosphere), but also a force for “rightful” entitlements, either as patrimony or in a market-mimicking relationship. Thus any downward ratchet or “internal devaluation” will be fought furiously, even in the Anglosphere, and Globalisation 3.0 architects must find other ways of dealing with moral hazard, and indeed the bloating of budgets from political pressure.
In this light it is worth noting that Donald Trump and Boris Johnson forged powerful new coalitions by marrying the championing of the nation-state with an explicit forgoing of any downward ratchet of entitlements, a combination which promptly overturned former voting patterns and consolidated power. Similarly, the prompt resort to massive public funding to relieve the consequences of the shutdown of economic activity due to the coronavirus pandemic—in effect, viewing the shutdown as government “taking” requiring compensation—is something that might not have been done so readily in the past, again foreshadowing a Globalisation 3.0 politics.
If a different, more sensible, and better-informed Globalisation 3.0 is to emerge, it will require deep and independent thinking about human societies beyond the certainties and myths of current academia. Emmanuel Todd’s Lineages of Modernity is a prime example of such thinking, and I would unreservedly endorse it to anybody seeking to educate themselves about these issues.
James C. Bennett is a Director of the Foresight Institute in Palo Alto, California, and has been President and Chairman of the Board of Internet Transactions Transnational, Inc., since its founding in April 1997. He is the author of The Anglosphere Challenge: Why the English-Speaking Nations Will Lead the Way in the Twenty-First Century