[Paleopsych] The Nation: The Family World System

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The Family World System


    [from the May 30, 2005 issue]

    Few topics of fundamental importance have, at first glance, generated
    so much numbing literature as the family. The appearance is unjust,
    but not incomprehensible. For the discrepancy between the vivid
    existential drama into which virtually every human being is plunged at
    birth and the generalized statistical pall of demographic surveys and
    household studies often looks irremediable: as if subjective
    experience and objective calibration have no meeting point.
    Anthropological studies of kinship remain the most technical area of
    the discipline. Images of crushing dullness have been alleviated, but
    not greatly altered, by popularizations of the past--works like The
    World We Have Lost (1965) by Peter Laslett, the doyen of Cambridge
    family reconstruction--fond albums of a time when "the whole of life
    went forward in the family, in a circle of loved, familiar faces,"
    within a "one-class society." The one outstanding contemporary
    synthesis, William Goode's World Revolution and Family Patterns
    (1963), which argued that the model of the Western conjugal family was
    likely to become universal, since it best fulfilled the needs of
    industrialization, has never acquired the standing its generosity of
    scope and spirit deserved. Family studies are certainly no desert.
    They are densely populated, but much of the terrain forms a
    featureless plain of functions and numbers stretching away to the
    horizon, broken only by clumps of sentiment.

    Over this landscape, Göran Therborn's Between Sex and Power rises like
    a majestic volcano. Throwing up a billowing column of the boldest
    ideas and arguments, while an awesome lava of evidence flows down its
    slopes, this is a great work of historical intellect and imagination.
    It is the fruit of a rare combination of gifts. Trained as a
    sociologist, Therborn is a highly conceptual thinker, allying the
    formal rigor of his discipline at its best with a command of a vast
    range of empirical data. The result is a powerful theoretical
    structure, supported by a fascinating body of evidence. But it is also
    a set of macro-narratives that compose perhaps the first true example
    we possess of a work of global history. Most writing that lays claim
    to this term, whatever other merits it may display, ventures beyond
    certain core zones of attention only selectively and patchily. In the
    case of general histories of the world, of which there are now more
    than a few, problems of sheer scale alone have dictated strict limits
    to even the finest enterprises.

    Therborn, by contrast, in focusing on just one dimension of existence,
    develops a map of human changes over time that is faithful to the
    complexity and diversity of the world in an arrestingly new way,
    omitting no corner of the planet. Not just every inhabited continent
    is included in this history; differences between nations or regions
    within each--from China and Japan to Uruguay and Colombia, north to
    south India, Gabon to Burkina Faso, Turkey to Persia, Norway to
    Portugal--are scanned with a discriminating eye. Such ecumenical
    curiosity is the antithesis of Barrington Moore's conviction that, in
    comparative history, only big countries matter. Not surprisingly, the
    challenge is the attractive product of a small country. Therborn's
    sensibility reflects his nationality: In modern times Sweden, situated
    on the northern margins of Europe, with a population about the size of
    New Jersey's, has for the most part been an inconspicuous spectator of
    world politics. But in the affairs of the family, it has more than
    once been a pace-setter. That a comparative tour de force on them
    should be written by a Swede is peculiarly appropriate.

    Surveying the world, Therborn distinguishes five major family systems:
    European (including New World and Pacific settlements), East Asian,
    sub-Saharan African, West Asian/North African and Subcontinental, with
    a further two more "interstitial" ones, Southeast Asian and Creole
    American. Although each of the major systems is the heartland of a
    distinctive religious or ethical code--Christian, Confucian, Animist,
    Muslim, Hindu--and the interstitial ones are zones of overlapping
    codes, the systems themselves form many "geocultures" in which
    elements of a common history can override contrasts of belief within
    them. This cultural backdrop lends color and texture to Between Sex
    and Power. The book's tone recalls aspects of Eric Hobsbawm, in its
    crisp judgments and dry wit. While Therborn is necessarily far more
    statistical in style, something of the same literary and anecdotal
    liveliness is present too. Amid an abundance of gripping arithmetic,
    novels and plays, memoirs and marriage ads have their place in the
    narrative. Most striking of all, in a field so dominated by social or
    merely technical registers, is the political construction Therborn
    gives to the history of the family in the twentieth century.

    What are the central propositions of the book? All traditional family
    systems, Therborn argues, have comprised three regimes: of patriarchy,
    marriage and fertility (crudely summarized--who calls the shots in the
    family, how people hitch up, how many kids result). Between Sex and
    Power sets out to trace the modern history of each. For Therborn
    patriarchy is male family power, typically invested in fathers and
    husbands, not the subordination of or discrimination against women in
    general--gender inequality being a broader phenomenon. At the
    beginning of his story, around 1900, patriarchy in this classical
    sense was a universal pattern, albeit with uneven gradations. In
    Europe, the French Revolution had failed to challenge it, issuing in
    the ferocious family clauses of the Napoleonic Code, while subsequent
    industrial capitalism--in North America as in Europe--relied no less
    on patriarchal norms as a sheet anchor of moral stability. Confucian
    and Muslim codes were far more draconian, though the "minute
    regulations" of the former set some limits to the potential for a
    "blank cheque" for male power. Arrangements were looser in much of
    sub-Saharan Africa, Creole America and Southeast Asia. Harshest of all
    was the Hindu system of North India, in a league of its own for
    repression. As Therborn notes, this is one of the very few parts of
    the world where men live longer than women, even today.

    By 2000, however, patriarchy had become "the big loser of the
    twentieth century," as Therborn puts it, yielding far more ground than
    religion or tyranny. "Probably no other social institution has been
    forced to retreat as much." This roll-back was not just an outcome of
    gradual processes of modernization, in the bland scheme of
    structural-functional sociology. It was principally the product of
    three political hammer blows. The first of these, Therborn shows, came
    in the throes of the First World War in Sweden, where full legal
    parity between husband and wife was first enacted, and then, in a more
    radical series of measures, the October Revolution dismantled the
    whole juridical apparatus of patriarchy in Russia, with a much more
    overt emphasis on sexual equality as such. Conduct, of course, was
    never the same as codification. "The legal family revolution of the
    Bolsheviks was very much ahead of Russian societal time, and Soviet
    family practices did not immediately dance to political music, however
    loud and powerful." But the shock wave in the world generated by the
    Russian example was, Therborn rightly emphasizes, enormous.

    The Second World War delivered the next great blow on the other side
    of the world, again in contrasted neighboring forms. In occupied
    Japan, General MacArthur's staff imposed a Constitution proclaiming
    "the essential equality of the sexes"--a notion, of course, that has
    still to find a place in the American Constitution--and a civil code
    based on conjugal symmetry. In liberated China, the victory of
    Communism "meant a full-scale assault on the most ancient and
    elaborate patriarchy of the world," obliterating all legal traces of
    the Confucian order.

    Finally, a third wave of emancipation was unleashed by the youth
    rebellions of the late 1960s, which segued into modern feminism. (When
    the revolt of May 1968 erupted in France, the country's High Court was
    still upholding the French husband's right to forbid his wife to move
    out, even if he was publicly maintaining a mistress.) Here the
    inauguration by the United Nations of an international Decade for
    Women in 1975 (also the ultimate outcome of a Communist initiative, on
    the part of the Finnish daughter of one of Khrushchev's Politburo
    veterans) is taken by Therborn as the turning point in a global
    discrediting of patriarchy, whose last legal redoubt in the United
    States--in Louisiana--was struck down by the Supreme Court as late as

    The rule of the father has not disappeared. In the world at large,
    West Asia, Africa and South Asia remain the principal holdouts. Islam
    itself, Therborn suggests, may be less to blame for the resilience of
    Arab patriarchy than the corruption of the secular forces once opposed
    to it, abetted by America and Israel. In India, on the other hand,
    there is no mistaking the degree of misogyny in caste and religion,
    even if the mediation of patriarchal authority by market mechanisms
    has its postmodern ambiguities. Surveying the "blatant
    instrumentalism" of the matrimonial pages of a middle-class Indian
    press, in which "more than 99 per cent of the ads vaunted
    socio-economic offers and desires," he wonders: "To what extent are
    parents the 'agents' of young people, in the same sense as any
    money-seeking athlete, musician or writer has an agent?" At the
    opposite extreme is Euro-American postpatriarchy, in which men and
    women possess equal rights but still far from equal resources--women
    enjoying on average not much more than half (55-60 percent) the income
    and wealth of men.

    In between these poles come the homelands of the Communist
    revolutions, which did so much to transform the landscape of
    patriarchy in the last century. The collapse of the Soviet bloc has
    not seen any restoration in this respect, whatever other regressions
    it may involve ("the power of fathers and husbands does not seem to
    have increased," though "that of pimps certainly has"). Therborn
    speculates that in both Russia and Eastern Europe, the original
    revolutionary gains may prove Communism's most lasting legacy. In
    China, on the other hand, there is much further to go, amid more signs
    of recidivist urges in civil society. Still, he points out, not only
    is gender inequality in wages and salaries far lower in the PRC than
    in Taiwan--by a factor of three--but patriarchy proper, as indicated
    by conjugal residence and division of labor, continues to be weaker.

    The first part of Therborn's story is thus eminently political. As he
    remarks, this is logical enough, since patriarchy is about power. His
    second part moves to sex. In questions of marriage, Europe--or, more
    precisely, Western Europe and those of its marchlands affected by
    German colonization in the Middle Ages--diverged from the rest of the
    world far earlier than in matters of patriarchy. In this zone a unique
    marital regime had already developed in pre-industrial times,
    combining late monogamy, significant numbers of unmarried people and
    Christian norms of conjugal duty, contradictorily surrounded by a
    certain penumbra of informal sex. The key result was "neo-locality,"
    or the exit of wedded couples from parental households. Everywhere
    else in the world, Therborn maintains, the rule was universal
    marriage, typically at earlier ages, as the necessary entry into
    adulthood. (He does not make it clear whether he thinks this applies
    to all pre-class societies, where such a rule might be doubted.)

    Paradoxically, although patterns of marriage might be thought to have
    varied more widely around the world than forms of patriarchy, Therborn
    has much less to say about them. Polyandry is never mentioned, the map
    of monogamy is unexplored, nor is any taxonomy of polygamy offered
    beyond a tacit distinction between elite and mass variants (the latter
    peculiar to sub-Sahara). The base line of his tale of marriage is set
    by a contrast between two deviant areas and all other arrangements.
    The first of these is the West European anomaly, with its subsequent
    overseas projections into North America and the Pacific. The second is
    the Creole, born in plantation and mining zones of the Caribbean and
    Latin America with a substantial black, mulatto or mestizo population,
    where a uniquely deregulated sexual regime developed.

    Some startling figures emerge from Therborn's comparison. If sexual
    mores in Europe first became widely relaxed in aristocratic circles of
    the eighteenth century, flouting of conventional norms reached
    epidemic proportions among the lower classes of many cities in the
    nineteenth, if only by reason of the costs of marriage. At various
    points in the latter part of the century, a third of all births in
    Paris, half in Vienna and more than two-thirds in Klagenfurt were out
    of wedlock. By 1900 such figures had fallen, and national averages of
    illegitimacy had become quite modest (Austrians still outpacing
    African-Americans, however). Matters were much wilder in the Creole
    system, readers of García Márquez will not be surprised to learn.
    "Iberian colonial America and the West Indies were the stage of the
    largest-scale assault on marriage in history." In the mid-nineteenth
    century between a third and half of the population of Bahia never tied
    the knot; in the Rio de la Plata region, extramarital births were four
    to five times the levels in Spain and Italy; around 1900 as many as
    four-fifths of sexual unions in Mexico City may have been without
    benefit of clergy.

    These were the colorful exceptions. Throughout Asia, Africa, Russia
    and most of Eastern Europe, marriage in one form or another was
    inescapable. A century later, Therborn's account suggests, much less
    has changed than in the order of patriarchy. Creole America has become
    more marital, at least in periods of relative prosperity, but remains
    the most casual about the institution. In Asia, now mostly monogamous,
    and sub-Saharan Africa, still largely polygamous, marriage continues
    to be a universal norm--with pockets of slippage only in the big
    cities of Japan, Southeast Asia and South Africa--but the age at which
    it is contracted has risen. If divorce of one kind or another has
    become nearly universal as a legal possibility, its practice is much
    more restricted--in the Hindu "cow belt," virtually zero. At the top
    end of the scale, in born-again America and post-Communist Russia, any
    wedding guest is entitled to be quizzical: Half of all marriages break
    up. But with successive attempts at conjugal bliss, the crude marriage
    rate has not fallen in the United States. Globally, it would seem, the
    predominant note is stability.

    In one zone, however, Therborn tracks a major change. After marrying
    as never before in the middle decades of the century, Western
    Europeans started to secede from altar and registry in increasing
    numbers. Sweden was once again the vanguard country, and it still
    remains well ahead of its Scandinavian neighbors, not to speak of
    lands farther south. The innovation it pioneered, from the late 1960s
    onward, was mass informal cohabitation. Thirty years later, the great
    majority of Swedish women giving birth to their first child--nearly 70
    percent--were either cohabiting or single mothers. Marriage might or
    might not follow cohabitation. What became a minority option, in one
    country after another--Britain, France, Germany--was marriage before
    it. In Catholic France and Protestant England alike, extramarital
    births jumped from 6-8 percent to 40-42 percent in the space of four

    Manifestly, the sexual revolution of the 1960s and '70s lay behind
    this spectacular transformation. Therborn notes the arrival of the
    pill and IUD as facilitating conditions, but he is more interested in
    consequences. What did it add up to? In effect, a double liberation:
    more partners and--especially for women--more pleasure. In Finland in
    the early 1970s, women had bedded an average of three men; in the
    early '90s the number had risen to six (by then the gap in erotic
    satisfaction between the sexes had closed). In Sweden the median
    number of women's lovers more than tripled during the same period, a
    much greater increase than for men. "More than anything else,"
    Therborn concludes, "this is what the sexual revolution has brought: a
    long period for pre-marital sex, and a plurality of sexual partners
    over a lifetime becoming a 'normal' phenomenon, in a statistical as
    well as in a moral sense."

    How far does the United States conform to the emergent European
    pattern? Only in part, as its different religious and political
    complexion would lead one to expect. Europeans will be astonished to
    learn that in 2000 about a fifth of American 18- to 24-year-olds
    claimed to be virgins on their wedding day. Only 6 percent of American
    couples cohabited. More than 70 percent of mothers at first birth are
    married. On the other hand, the United States has nearly twice as many
    teenage births per cohort as the highest country in the EU and an
    extramarital birthrate higher than that of the Netherlands. Without
    going much into race or region, Therborn describes the American system
    as "dualist." But from the evidence he provides, it might be thought
    that electoral divisions are reflected in sexual contrasts, blue and
    red in the boudoir too.

    In the last part of Between Sex and Power, Therborn moves to
    fertility. Here the conundrum is the "demographic transition"--the
    standard term for the shift from a regime of low growth, combining
    lots of children and many early deaths, to one of high growth,
    combining many children but fewer deaths, and then back to another one
    of low growth, this time with both fewer deaths and fewer children.
    There is no mystery about the way medical advances and better diets
    led to falling rates of mortality in nineteenth-century Europe and
    eventually reached most of the world, to similar effect, in the second
    half of the twentieth century. The big question is why birthrates
    fell, first in Europe and North America between the 1880s and 1930s,
    and then for the majority of the human race from the mid-1970s onward,
    in two uncannily similar waves. In each case, "a process rapidly
    cutting through and across state boundaries, levels of
    industrialization, urbanization and levels of income, across
    religions, ideologies and family systems" slashed fertility rates by
    30-40 percent in three decades. Today, the average family has no more
    than two to three children throughout most of the former Third World.

    What explains these gigantic changes? The first nations to experience
    a significant fall in fertility were France and the United States, by
    1830--generations in advance of all others. What they had in common,
    Therborn suggests, was their popular revolutions, which had given
    ordinary people a sense of self-mastery. Once the benefits of smaller
    families became clear in these societies, neolocality allowed couples
    to make their own decisions to improve their lives before any modern
    means of contraception were available. Fifty years later, perhaps
    triggered initially by the onset of a world recession, mass birth
    control began to roll through Europe, eventually sweeping all the way
    from Portugal to Russia. This time, Therborn's hypothesis runs, it was
    a combination of radical socialist and secular movements popularizing
    the idea of family planning, together with the spread of literacy,
    that brought lower fertility as part of an increasingly self-conscious
    culture of modernity. This was birth control from below.

    In the Third World, by contrast, contraception--now an easy
    technology--was typically propagated or imposed from above, by
    political fiat of the state. China's one-child policy has been the
    most dramatic, if extreme, example. Once lower birthrates became a
    general goal of governments committed to modernization, family systems
    then determined the order in which societies entered the new regime:
    East Asia in the lead, North India and black Africa far in the rear
    guard. Here too it was a sense of mastery, of human ability to command
    nature--not always bureaucratic in origin, since the better-off
    societies of Latin America moved more spontaneously in the same
    direction--that powered the change. The consequences of that change,
    of which we can still see only the beginnings, are enormous. Without
    it, the earth would now have some 2 billion more inhabitants.

    In Europe and Japan, meanwhile, fertility has dropped no less
    dramatically, falling below net reproduction rates. This collapse in
    the birthrate, from which the United States is saved essentially by
    immigration, promises rapid aging of these nations in the short run
    and, if unchecked, virtual extinction of them in the long run. There
    is now a growing literature of public alarm about this prospect, what
    the French historian Pierre Chaunu denounces as a "White Death"
    threatening the Old World. Therborn eschews it. Negative rates of
    reproduction in these rich, socially advanced societies do not
    correspond in his view to any birth strike by women but rather to
    their desire to have two to three children and careers that are the
    equal of men's, which the existing social order does not yet allow
    them to do. In denying themselves the offspring they want, European
    parents are "moving against themselves," not with the grain of any
    deeper cultural change.

    Between Sex and Power ends with four principal conclusions. The
    different family systems of the world reveal little internal logic of
    change. They have been recast from the outside, and the history of
    their transformations has been neither unilinear nor evolutionary but
    rather determined by a series of unevenly timed international
    conjunctures of a decidedly political character. The result has not
    been one of convergence, other than in a general decline of
    patriarchy, due more to wars and revolutions than to any "feminist
    world spirit." In the South, the differential timing of changes in
    fertility continues to shift the distribution of global population
    further toward the subcontinent and Africa and away from Europe, Japan
    and Russia. In the North, European marriage has altered its forms but
    is proving supple and creative in adapting to a new range of desires:
    Conventional jeremiads notwithstanding, it is in good shape.
    Predictions? Serenely declined. "The best bet for the future is on the
    inexhaustible innovative capacity of humankind, which eventually
    surpasses all social science."

    In due course, an army of specialists will gather round Between Sex
    and Power, like so many expert sports fans, to pore over its
    multitudinous argument. What can a layman say, beyond the magnitude of
    its achievement? Tentatively, perhaps only this. In the architectonic
    of the book, there is something of a gap between the notion of a
    family system and the triad of patriarchy, marriage and fertility that
    follows it. In effect, the way these three interconnect to form the
    structure of any family system goes unstated in the separate treatment
    accorded each. But if we consider the trio as an abstract combination,
    it would seem that logically--as the order in which Therborn proceeds
    to them itself suggests--patriarchy must command the other two as the
    "dominant," since it will typically lay down the rules of marriage and
    set the norms of reproduction. There is, in other words, a hierarchy
    of determinations built into any family system.

    This has a bearing on Therborn's conclusions. His final emphasis
    falls, unhesitatingly, on the divergence between major family systems
    today. After stressing continuing worldwide dissimilarities between
    fertility and marital regimes, he concedes that "the patriarchal
    outcome is somewhat different." His own evidence suggests that this
    way of putting it is an understatement. For what his data show is a
    powerful process of convergence, far from complete in extent but
    unequivocal in direction. But if the variegated forms of patriarchy
    are what historically determined the main parameters of marriage and
    reproduction, wouldn't any ongoing decline of them across family
    systems toward a common juridical zero point imply that birthrates and
    marriage customs are eventually likely to converge, in significant
    measure, at their own pace too? That seems, at any rate, a possible
    deduction sidestepped by Therborn, but which his story of fertility
    appears to bear out. For what is clear from his account is that the
    astonishing fall in birthrates in most of the underdeveloped world has
    been the product of a historic collapse in patriarchal authority, as
    its powers of life and death have been transferred to the state, which
    now determines how many are born and how many survive.

    What, then, of marriage? Here, certainly, contrasts remain greatest.
    In speaking of "the core of romantic freedom and commitment in the
    modern European (and New World) family system," Therborn implies this
    remains specific to the West. But while the caste system or Sharia law
    plainly preclude extempore love, does it show no signs of spreading,
    as ideal or realization, in the big cities of East Asia or Latin
    America? The imagination of urban Japan, he shows, is already
    half-seized with it. Not, of course, that the decline of marriage in
    Western Europe, with the advent of mass cohabitation, has so far been
    replicated anywhere else. But here a different sort of question might
    be asked. Is it really the case that the negative rates of
    reproduction that have accompanied this pattern are as unwished-for as
    Therborn suggests? He relies on the discrepancy between surveys in
    which women explain how many children they expect and those they
    actually have. But this could just mean that in practice their desire
    for children proved weaker than for a well-paid job, a satisfying
    career or more than one lover at a time. Voters in the West regularly
    say they want better schools and healthcare, and in principle expect
    to pay for them, and commentators on the left often pin high hopes on
    such declarations. But once such citizens get to the polling booth
    they tend to stick to lower taxes. The same kind of self-deception
    could apply to children. If so, it would be difficult to say European
    marriage was in such good shape, since there would be no stopping
    place in sight for its plunge of society into an actuarial abyss.

    Therborn resists such thoughts. Although Between Sex and Power pays
    handsome homage to the role of Communism in the dismantling of
    patriarchy in the twentieth century, it displays no specially Marxist
    view of the family. Engels would not have shared the author's
    satisfaction that marriage is flourishing, however ductile the forms
    it has adopted. In expressing his attachment to them, Therborn speaks
    with the humane voice of a level-headed Swedish reformism that he
    understandably admires, without having ever altogether subscribed to
    it. In looking on the bright side of the EU marital regime, he is also
    consistent with the case he has made in the past for its welfare
    states, which have survived in much better condition than its critics
    or mourners believe. It is in the same spirit, one might say, that he
    insists on the persistent divergence of family systems across the
    world. Uniformity is the one condition every part of the political
    spectrum deplores. The most unflinching neoliberals invariably explain
    that universal free markets are the best of all guardians of
    diversity. Social democrats reassure their followers that the
    capitalism to which they must adjust is becoming steadily more
    various. Traditional conservatives expatiate on the irreducible
    multiplicity of faiths and civilizations. Homogeneity has no friends,
    at least since the French Hegelian philosopher Alexandre Kojève
    prepared the end of history for Francis Fukuyama. But when any claim
    becomes too choral, a flicker of doubt is indicated. It scarcely
    affects the magnificence of this book. In it, you can find the largest
    changes in human relations of modern times.

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