Emmanuel Todd’s Lineages of Modernity

“Never have human groups of such a size been so rich, so old, so educated, so devoid of collective beliefs.”

Emmanuel Todd, Lineages of Modernity, p 21

I picked up from the local library Emmanuel Todd’s Lineages of Modernity: a history of humanity from the Stone Age to Homo Americanus. It is a sweeping reconception of both global history and our moment of political crisis.

Just why are the liberal globalising, universalising project of rights, commerce and borderlessness crumbling? Just why did Trump, Brexit, and the other populist, traditionalist, nationalist revolts against the liberal world order occur? Just why are we experiencing endemic and escalating conflict about culture – to the point of violence – between the rainbow guards of identity politics, the guys in MAGA hats, the quiet Australians, and the elites in politics and the media who command what free people may say. Just why has liberal democracy failed? Just why have we entered a fragmented post-democratic society?

Todd goes beyond the elevated arena of politics and looks to deep strands of culture, family and demography. He is a demographer, anthropologist and sociologist. He notoriously predicted in the 1970s the collapse of the Soviet Union on the basis of foreign trade statistics and falling birth rates. His deepest speciality is family systems, and a large part of Lineages of Modernity outlines the characteristic, distinct family structures the Anglosphere (the launching pad of globalist dreams) and other societies. These family structures generate underlying values expressed in cultural, social and political orders. It is these fundamental anthropological facts that must be examined to understand our moment of crisis, and how cultural fragmentation, not liberal globalisation, is the deepest problem our politics must respond to.

The quote at the head of this post points to major social facts – as Durkheim said, “manners of acting, thinking and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him” – that make our era distinctive.

Never have human groups been so rich. The percentage of people in the world who live in extreme poverty has fallen from over 80 per cent in 1820 to 10 per cent or less today. This rate has fallen from over 55 per cent since World War Two. The level of ordinary wealth distributed across the world has increased. This is the rise of the “global middle class” that the globalists see as a vast homogenous market for i-commerce, but, in truth, if we take Todd’s view, is the fertile soil for divergence, driven by differing values and family systems.

Never have human groups been so old. This fact is well known but little considered for its profound reorientation of our basic values and modes of living, including our ordinary experiences of family, cutlure, the inheritance of tradition, and the living together of multiple generations.

Never have human groups been so educated. Literacy rates globally exceed 90 per cent. Years of schooling and post-school education are greater than ever. There has been an enormous growth of “human capital” since 1970, with the conscious expansion of mass higher education. Even in my lifetime I can recall the rates of completing 12 years of schooling in this country increasing from about 30 per cent to an effective cap of over 80 per cent.

But there is a constraint and a paradox hidden in this growth of formal education. One constraint is a decline in the quality of education. More years of education have a different impact if that education is of lower quality. The canon has collapsed at the same time as the university has exploded. At the same time as credentials have increased in advanced societies, the rate of reading has decreased. Given the known neurological effects of intensive reading of long texts, increased education does not mean increased cognitive performance, for all the years and the costs. The mass university of the 20th century may be a less beneficial cultural phenomenon than the printing press of the 15th century.

The paradox is that growth in education levels has also led to education becoming central to new systems of social stratification. There have been decades of progressive calls for investment in education as an antidote to fixed social hierarchies and a stimulant to social mobility and economic growth. But despite mass participation, advanced societies are in a state of educational stagnation. Can we really escape the bounds of human cognition? If we flood the markets with degrees, do not degrees become less valuable?

Todd identifies that stratified education levels have now become the most efficient explanation of political cleavages. “The question of higher education,” Todd writes, is essential “to understand the new stratification of advanced societies and the disintegration of the body of citizens” (Lineages of Modernity). So, this profound change in social practice, overlayed with the deep demographic change (the social role of young people and patterns of family formation), advocated by progressives and generally seen as aligned with democracy, has undemocratic consequences.

“The destruction of educational homogeneity, which fostered egalitarian sentiment and democracy, explains, as we have seen, the emergence in advanced societies of an inegalitarian and anti-democratic subconscious. But it was the Left that desired mass education, including higher education. It is thus the Left that has unknowingly guided society towards inequality. The historical and ideological link between the Left and education undoubtedly enables us to understand why and how the inegalitarian drift of the educational system has dragged the Left along with it, transforming it into a new kind of Right, although it will never, ever admit it. And this has occurred in the three major Western democracies.”

Emmanuel Todd, Lineages of Modernity, p 249

And never have human groups been so devoid of collective beliefs. Todd identifies, contrary to the globalist hypothesis of convergence through globalisation, the divergence of advanced societies, and the collapse of the unifying cultures – grounded in family sytems, nations, religions, cultural canons – of those societies. Cultural fragmentation is at the heart of our modern political experience. I have written here about cultural fragmentation and the collapse of authority in Western democracies. There I wrote:

“One thing we have lost amidst our cultural fragmentation, and which I encounter most days in my day job as a government bureaucrat, is a civic culture of governing. Our political communities have been shattered. We are riven by identity politics and hyper-partisanship. We fight culture wars and proclaim fluid fissured identities that separate us from traditions of civil dialogue. We have lost the art of talking to strangers, and working across the aisle. Government has become a theatre of activists, spin-doctors, marketers of political brands, “social innovators” and a new mercenary class of political condottiere and consultocrats. This new class has colonised the institutions of government, and suborned once strong autonomous institutions, which through their autonomy had created traditions of value and their own esprit de corps – to the fractious, factionalised, fickle, impatient, self-absorbed purposes of this new nomenklatura.”

The Burning Archive, Cultural fragmentation and the collapse of authority in Western democracies

Todd clarifies how this fragmentation is connected to social stratification based on education, and the paradoxically anti-democratic sentiment of the new, degraded academy. Academica is “a world that thinks it is on the left but is actually organizing inequality and conformism [as seen] in the crystallization of ideological alignments in the England of Brexit and the America of Donald Trump” (Lineages of Modernity, p. 218).

Trump derangement syndrome is a reaction to this cultural conflict. The ongoing derangement of many patricians of the American republic stems from a failure to look at society as it is, and persist in a fantasy of this ideological and self-serving blindness. It is interesting to observe what Todd has said about Trump’s election victory in an interview:

Looking at the election as a historian, what happened was an expected outcome. Over the past 15 years, the quality of life of Americans has fallen and the mortality rate for whites between 45 and 54 has increased. Moreover, whites make up three-quarters of U.S. voters. The people now understand that free trade and immigration have thrown all workers around the world into global competition and that has resulted in inequality and stagnation. The voters simply chose the candidate who focused on those two issues so they acted in a very rational way.

What is odd is that everyone seems surprised by the result. The real question is why did the elite, the mass media and university scholars fail to see the reality of society. During the campaign, there was a heated exchange in lies about the candidates as individuals. However, when it came to talk about the society, it was Trump who spoke the truth. He said that things were not going well in the United States. That is true. He also said the United States was no longer respected by the world. He saw that allies were no longer following in the footsteps of the United States. In that area as well, he was speaking the truth.

Clinton reminded me of those people who said “I am Charlie” after the French weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo was attacked by terrorists. These are the people who said their own society was a wonderful one which held an extraordinary set of values. That was nothing but a religious confession totally detached from reality. With the election of Trump, the United States and the world have been brought back down to reality. It is easier to deal with various issues when one has returned to reality rather than be mired in fantasy.

INTERVIEW/ Emmanuel Todd: Trump was speaking the truth about state of U.S. society, November 2016

The fantasy persists, even until today with the hysterical responses to Trump draining the swamp, in the form of the disloyal, leaking Democrat partisans like Lt-Col Alexander Vindman in his own National Security Council, or the ill-informed, hypocritical claims of a conspiracy against justice just for stating the apparently obvious injustice of a 9 year jail sentence for a 67 year old man, Roger Stone, for lying inconsequentially to investigators pursuing the RussiaGate hoax.

The fantasies of sufferers of Trump Derangement Syndrome are commented on in Lineages of Modernity. As Todd writes: “The establishment media have portrayed Trump as vulgar, aberrant, evil or insane; the voters, suffering but rational, have expressed their desire to take America back to its foundations” (p. 241).

The new elites of our post-democratic society are opposed to democracy, and the roots of that opposition grow in the deep social facts diagnosed by Emmanuel Todd. I am not sure that a democratic revival is possible. Perhaps only a republic of virtue can be revived? Perhaps a revival is only possible through constraint of global lawlessness by some form of nationalist populism? But what is certain is that a democratic revival is only possible in a bounded polity, not in a borderless market, not in an over-extended empire, controlled by political and media oligarchs.

“A democracy is a specific people organized, for its own ends, on its own territory. This group defends its border. It is not an abstract collective, deciding for humankind in general. If we accept this historical evidence of a dark, ethnic national component in the original form of democracy, we can manage to see, and understand why the resistance to oligarchy and the democratic revival affecting Western ‘democracies’ one by one, disorganized as these are by the new educational stratification and free trade, are inevitably tinged with xenophobia. Democracy is being reborn, but against the Mexicans in America and the Poles in England.”

Emmanuel Todd, Lineages of Modernity, p. 256

Reading Lineages of Modernity has opened new paths of understanding for me. Where they take me, I am not sure; but I am convinced they help to understand the deeper cultural history of our world.

Image Source: Liberation

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