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14 July, 2013

Emmanuel Todd's Theory of Modernity

In my review of Michael Lotus and James Bennett's America 3.0 I stated that French anthropologist Emmanuel Todd (whose work is cited extensively in said work) "is the most under-rated "big idea" thinker in the field of world history."

Craig Willy's most recent blog post explains why:

"Emmanuel Todd’s L’invention de l’Europe: A critical summary"
Craig Willy. craigjwilly.info 7 July 2013.

Mr. Willy's post is not something one skims through. It is 9,000 words long and chock full of all sorts of data, tables, and maps. Because L'invention de l'Europe has not been translated into English I am grateful for this level of detail.

What is this book about?
"I came, last, to his L’invention de l’Europe, which is in principle not a polemic, but rather a dispassionate book of historical anthropology and demography which is Todd’s academic magnum opus.

I say “in principle” because one is tempted to ask: What the hell is this book anyway? Over 650 pages of text, statistics, graphs, maps and bibliography on the history of Western Europe? A comprehensive look at the correlations between family structures, modernization and ideology in Western Europe? An “Introductory Illustrated Atlas of Western European Socio-Political History”? I’ve already lost you. Who cares? 
No, L’invention de l’Europe is actually about what is almost undoubtedly the most important historical development of all time: the rise of modernity since 1500, also known as the “Great Divergence” or the “European miracle.” It was European civilization, and its various extra-European and notably North American offshoots, which invented “modernity,” which sparked that fire of science and “rationality” which now dominates virtually the entire globe. Europe, as Todd notes on the first page, was “the midwife simultaneously of modernity and death.” (p.13) 
We have modernity: science, mass production, mass destruction, mass consumption, mass literacy, mass and instant telecommunication, long-life (sanitation, health, contraception), godlessness, ideology (including “totalitarianism,” “democracy,” “rule of law,” and “freedom of thought”…), and so on."

So how does Todd approach this bug-bear that haunts all aspiring world historians, the rise of the West?


"Todd attempts to systematically correlate:
  • Family systems and agrarian systems
  • Modernization phases (literacy, industrialization, dechristianization, contraception)
  • Ideology (nationalism, socialism, religious conservatism (Christianisme réactionnelle))
The correlations, though subject to interpretation, are highly interesting. In particular, he presents an extremely powerful interpretation for the rise of ideologies in the modern age."

Willy describes this interpretation well:


"But one is left with an important question: What is the content of the ideologies which resonate with the masses once they cease to be illiterate peasants? Why does this differ by country and region? Todd has an elegant and powerful answer: political ideologies in the modern age are projections of a people’s unconscious premodern family values. 
Here there is a hole in my knowledge and that of the typical layman. I knew nothing of family systems before reading Todd. But family systems exist and are incredibly diverse across human societies. Let us take two extremely divergent examples. 
So, whereas the liberal-individualism of the Anglo-nations is well-known, it has also been known since the work of Peter Laslett that England has not had extended families, but rather “nuclear” families, since the Middle Ages. Contrary to what is sometimes thought, the individualistic English family is not a modern invention, the Industrial Revolution brutally breaking the “organic” extended family, but a reflection of a deep individualist tendency in English society with centuries-old roots. 
Compare this with the traditional Japanese family. There is neither individualism nor equality. A single son inherits the bulk of property and in particular “family headship,” having authority over collateral family branches (i.e. his brothers’ households). Multiple
generations of couples can live in the same household as an extended family under the authority of the eldest patriarch. 
These family structures contain deep-seated, conscious and unconscious, implicit and explicit, values and norms about an individual’s rights, responsibilities and place in the social universe. These family values and assumptions have “massive,” in the sense of existence-defining, implications. The Englishman is a “free” individual who upon adulthood leaves his parents and his responsible for himself. The Japanese is an “integrated” individual who upon adulthood remains closely bound with his family in a hierarchical system of solidarity and obedience. 

 
For Todd, and this seems eminently plausible and intuitive, these families values are then projected, more or less crudely rationalized, as the country’s political ideologies once it enters the modern age. People’s fantasies of their “ideal politics” are just a projection of what they unconsciously consider “normal” according to their family values. In this case these would be Anglo-liberalism vs. Japanese nationalism. Philosophers can think up the most elegant and intricate justifications for their political systems, but ultimately, their ideologies only freely succeed when they resonate with the values, conscious or not, of a people."

As said before: the most underrated big-idea thinker in world history. And this is really just the tip of the ice berg--a few paragraphs to grab your interest. If you take Todd's theories seriously this essay will provides enough food for thought to munch on for weeks. 

Put aside twenty minutes of your day and read the whole thing

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