“The Return of Patriarchy“ – a classic article about demography

Today we look at “The Return of Patriarchy“, Phillip Longman of New America Foundation, Foreign Policy , 1 March 2006 — Gated.  Alternate site, free.

Summary:  “Across the globe, people are choosing to have fewer children or none at all. Governments are desperate to halt the trend, but their influence seems to stop at the bedroom door. Are some societies destined to become extinct? Hardly. It’s more likely that conservatives will inherit the Earth. Like it or not, a growing proportion of the next generation will be born into families who believe that father knows best.”

This is a fascinating and provocative article.  As with any article explaining our intimate behavior, it will be impossible for many people to accept.  As 10 year old boys close their eyes to kissing in the movies, anything but economic or rational explanations for our behavior are difficult for us to accept.

The conclusion is the weakest part of his case, imo — the “it will turn out OK in the end” fallacy, adopting the viewpoint of a 23rd century historian.  Longman has not considered other scenarios.  Even if he is broadly correct, the next cycle might be more like Islamic fundamentalists Dad knows best — not the mild buffoon-like Dad of 1950’s sitcoms.


… Patriarchy does not simply mean that men rule. Indeed, it is a particular value system that not only requires men to marry but to marry a woman of proper station. It competes with many other male visions of the good life, and for that reason alone is prone to come in cycles. Yet before it degenerates, it is a cultural regime that serves to keep birthrates high among the affluent, while also maximizing parents’ investments in their children. No advanced civilization has yet learned how to endure without it.

Through a process of cultural evolution, societies that adopted this particular social system-which involves far more than simple male domination-maximized their population and therefore their power, whereas those that didn’t were either overrun or absorbed. This cycle in human history may be obnoxious to the enlightened, but it is set to make a comeback.

… The historical relation between patriarchy, population, and power has deep implications for our own time. As the United States is discovering today in Iraq, population is still power. Smart bombs, laser-guided missiles, and unmanned drones may vastly extend the violent reach of a hegemonic power. But ultimately, it is often the number of boots on the ground that changes history. Even with a fertility rate near replacement level, the United States lacks the amount of people necessary to sustain an imperial role in the world, just as Britain lost its ability to do so after its birthrates collapsed in the early 20th century. For countries such as China, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Spain, in which one-child families are now the norm, the quality of human capital may be high, but it has literally become too rare to put at risk.

… Patriarchy may enjoy evolutionary advantages, but nothing has ensured the survival of any particular patriarchal society. One reason is that men can grow weary of patriarchy’s demands. Roman aristocrats, for example, eventually became so reluctant to accept the burdens of heading a family that Caesar Augustus felt compelled to enact steep “bachelor taxes” and otherwise punish those who remained unwed and childless. Patriarchy may have its privileges, but they may pale in comparison to the joys of bachelorhood in a luxurious society-nights spent enjoyably at banquets with friends discussing sports, war stories, or philosophy, or with alluring mistresses, flute girls, or clever courtesans.

Women, of course, also have reason to grow weary of patriarchy, particularly when men themselves are no longer upholding their patriarchal duties. Historian Suzanne Cross notes that during the decades of Rome’s civil wars, Roman women of all classes had to learn how to do without men for prolonged periods, and accordingly developed a new sense of individuality and independence. Few women in the upper classes would agree to a marriage to an abusive husband. Adultery and divorce became rampant.

Often, all that sustains the patriarchal family is the idea that its members are upholding the honor of a long and noble line. Yet, once a society grows cosmopolitan, fast-paced, and filled with new ideas, new peoples, and new luxuries, this sense of honor and connection to one’sancestors begins to fade, and with it, any sense of the necessity of reproduction. “When the ordinary thought of a highly cultivated people begins to regard ‘having children’ as a question of pro’s and con’s,” Oswald Spengler, the German historian and philosopher, once observed, “the great turning point has come.”

Yet that turning point does not necessarily mean the death of a civilization, only its transformation. Eventually, for example, the sterile, secular, noble families of imperial Rome died off, and with them, their ancestors’ idea of Rome. But what was once the Roman Empire remained populated. Only the composition of the population changed. Nearly by default, it became composed of new, highly patriarchal family units, hostile to the secular world and enjoined by faith either to go forth and multiply or join a monastery. With these changes came a feudal Europe, but not the end of Europe, nor the end of Western Civilization.

What a spectacularly poor illustration of how “things work out.”  The fall of Rome not only led to a collapse in both population and their standard of living, but also was the death of Rome’s culture.  Now it lives only in libraries and universities devoted to study of dead cultures.

Rome is one thread of western culture, along with our inheritance from Israel and the Germanic tribes.

For More Information

For more information see these archives of posts:

  1. archive of major reports about demographic change
  2. Women and gender issues

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6 thoughts on ““The Return of Patriarchy“ – a classic article about demography”

  1. Makes me wonder about Islam and Judaism. Isn’t Islam a decidedly patriarchical culture? There is not much mention of this. Strange how Islamic influences can be applied to contemporary debates. Even our economic woes, with the derided speculators being unislamic.

    Fabius Maximus replies: Deep, dark insights. Worth some thought!

  2. I enjoyed Phillip Longman’s article in Foreign Affairs about the ’empty cradle’ sufficently to purchase his book on the subject, which I found eye opening. Ben Wattenberg’s “fewer” is a nice companion book on a similar subject.

    I think that his assertion that patriarchy is in our future is possible, but its a heck of the way off in our future! If anything, current western civilization is becoming matriarchial. How are men portrayed on TV? Either as bumbling, incompetent husbands, or as savage aggressors. Men have been taught to ask before even contemplating touching a woman sexually, while there really is no countervening principle as it is assumed that no man would reject a woman’s advances. Women have been given legal tools to achieve equality if there are percieved slights, while no such tools exist for what is a dubious majority group. Among younger women, a predatory sexual mentality has arisen, with men being reduced to hanger-ons or boy toys.

    Consider our warfare – limited ground forces, drones, image guided missles, surgical strikes (instead of total war) – all in an effort to be less “messy” as opposed to victory at any cost. Clearly a feminine vs masculine viewpoint issue.

    When I seriously contemplate telling my young son, “Well, its a women’s world you know”, its a pretty clear argument that society has gone matriarchial.

    I think that western civilization’s return to patriarchy is further off than perhaps Mr. Longman was willing to admit in that article. However, I do agree that a matriarchial society is at a significant disadvantage against a patriarchial one. It may be the challenge of such a society that forces the change. However, I think that’s a long way off.

    Bringing it full circle, Phil Longman’s other work brings up some interesting questions – namely, how do we run a society and economy when we no longer have growth as a given?

    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree on all points. A dark thought is that feminism might be a demographic dark alley, in which cultures go only to be surplanted by more “vibrant” (higher fertility) ones. That is, it may be a self-correcting aberration. As they say, “Mother Nature does not give a damn.”

  3. I would add to the above intelligent comments that patriarchy and matriarchy may be secondary rather than primary or causal effects of cultural change. Feminism for example did not arrive with a vengeance from some dark oppressed layer of human history, but was called forth by economic pressures when inflation made the single breadwinner family model inadequate.

    Matriarchy in this article is apparently a code word for liberal cultural mores. It is not more convincing to blame them for the weakening of the American empire, than it is to blame television. Both are effects not causes of a deeper malaise — the inability of the dominant economic order to provide jobs and security for its citizens. Bear Sterns and the Federal Reserve are surely the most patriarchal of institutions, and look how well they have done!

    Fabius Maximus replies: There are no “unmoved movers” in social dynamics. Cause and effect are, as you note, tangled almost beyond understanding. So any work of reasonable length must oversimplify. Longman brushes aside the complexity, boldly linking two phenomena: patriarchy and fertility. The causes of fading patriarchy, its geopolitical impacts — he just hints at these, without attributing either to any single factor.

    As has been discussed before on this site, I am aware of no data linking a decline incomes, “jobs and security” to declines in fertility. The economic determinism of this theory may seen convincing, but is IMO refuted by the long-term inverse correlation within societies between income and fertility.

    Lacking strong research, we can only guess at the factors underming patriarchy. Trends in western religion and philosophy, shifting from emphais on family/nation collective responsibilities to individualism. Technology (birth control). Chaning economic patterns, as you note — allowing geographical and social mobility. It might be a long list.

  4. I agree that any sort of demographic fact is the sort of thing our society likes to stick it’s head in the sand about. Culture and biology are always the things that liberalism has had a hard time digesting. They don’t mesh well with the ideal of rational autonomy. Funny how the people who want to teach Darwin (which includes me) have the hardest time digesting him (ditto). Of course, last time we tried it was a moral disaster.

    On the topic of moral disasters, I’m curious if FM or anyone else here sees a solution in all of this. Longman keeps emphasizing that the genes don’t care, which I take it means that there’s nothing morally superior about patriarchy, it’s just better at baby-making and rearing.

    Given that, it’s hard to see what exactly we as individuals should do. Telling women they need to go back to the kitchen so that we can increase our numbers so that we’ll be able to absorb more wartime casualties doesn’t look either like it’ll work or like it’s a reasonable request. And Spengler II’s solution looks impractical as well. People become devout Christians because they think that’s the way to salvation, not because they think it will give them the mental stammina needed to crush or outbreed their rivals.

    Fabius Maximus replies: Society evolves on some deeper level, I believe, than individuals making rational decisions. That we cannot see how these things will work out means little. We are like bugs perched on a blade of grass; we know nothing about the lawn.

  5. Neither I nor any of my female friends and colleagues have any desire to stop our careers, lives or our families of choice (stress is on choice) and have our only legitimate reasons for existing be reduced to the filling the roles of domestic slave, sexual slave, and perpetual ‘breeder’ (which is what a Partriarchal system is all about). No *sane* woman would.

    It is only a certain type of male homo sapiens (I can’t quite consider them human) that desire this Partriarchal world view to re-establish itself everywhere. They desire absolute power and control on a personal, familial, and a societal level and the only way they can feel certain of that power is by continually subjugating others, with women being the perpetual ‘other’. They aren’t *sane* either. I myself think that this particular type of insane male homo sapiens probably just needs to be put down when his poisonous, insane nature reveals itself. We certainly don’t need it to continue spreading, which is what happens when you give these malignant creatures an opportunity to influence others who are not yet infected with this particular form of insanity – especially young male proto-humans whose mental and emotional development is not complete.

    A resurgent Patriarchal world view will also become a ‘demographic dark alley’ and a (literal) dead end for all of us. This world already has too many people living on it and it can’t continue to sustain them without severe ecological damage. Continued rampant growth of the human population under Patriarchal societies will eventually turn “severe ecological damage” into an uninhabitable planet and “species suicide” for all humans. It’s already done so for a lot of other species.

    1. “existing be reduced to the filling the roles of domestic slave, sexual slave, and perpetual ‘breeder’ (which is what a Partriarchal system is all about”

      I believe that’s an eggageration. A large exaggeration. I doubt many women in the 1950s or 1960s (ie, pre-feminism changes to law and custom) saw their roles in that fashion.

      “ranpant growth of population”

      Agreed. But my guess (emphasis on guess) is that a modern secular western society has a typical fertility rate far below replacement level of 2.1, unless strong cultural or governmental actions are taken to boost fertility. The author describes cultural mechanisms that might do so, a kind of Darwin-like invisible hand affecting society.

      The other path is the public policy based methods being tried in Europe. Only time will tell how well they work. Since those nations do not report data by ethnicity or religion, we cannot reliably estimate how much of their fertility results from government — and how much from immigraton from high-fertility societies.

      Interesting times ahead.

      Especially after introduction of a safe, inexpecsive male contraceptive pill. We’ve found that women do not have a strong “instictive” drive to reproduce. My guess is that we’ll find men, especially in non-patriarchial societies, have far less interest in children than women. That might prove to be the hole in Mr. Longman’s theory. Especially in society’s with high levels of inequality, in which there is neither family tradition or wealth to pass on to the next generation (de Tocqueville warned about this).

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