A great deal longer ago than I now enjoy remembering, I rashly promised the authors of America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century – Why America’s Greatest Days Are Yet to Come, James C. Bennett and Michael Lotus, that I would, very soon, write something here about this book. But this is not a regular book review. I have an agenda of my own to plug with regard to America 3.0, which is, in two words: Emmanuel Todd.
I have greatly admired Emmanuel Todd, the French anthropologist and historian, ever since, in a 1980s remainder shop, I first encountered English translations of two of his most important books, the English titles of which are The Explanation of Ideology and The Causes of Progress, my copies of these two books being among my most treasured possessions. America 3.0 is in no small measure the book that it is because Bennett and Lotus have also acquainted themselves with Emmanuel Todd’s style of thinking, and have applied it to America. And the most interesting fact about America 3.0, from where I sit, is that its publication may prove to be some sort of breakthrough for Emmanuel Todd in the place that James Bennett himself has dubbed the Anglosphere. My hope concerning America 3.0 is not so much that what it says about America will captivate lots of Americans, although I’d be very happy if it did, but that it may, because its authors based it partly on a foundation constructed for them by Emmanuel Todd, help to spark what I think is a long overdue debate throughout the Anglosphere, a far grander debate than a merely American discussion about America. This debate will encompass the entirety of Emmanuel Todd’s grand narrative, and will concern the entire world.
The historian Alan MacFarlane, author of, among other books, one called The Origins of English Individualism, whose work is aligned with that of Emmanuel Todd, is one of the few historians writing in English to have given Todd the time of day. The authors of America 3.0 tell me that in an email to them, MacFarlane said that Todd is “roughly right” in what he says. Which sounds like rather faint praise. But when you realise that what MacFarlane reckons Todd to be “roughly right” about is one of the most confidently reductionist, yet original and interesting, and above all persuasive explanations of the entire process of political and economic modernisation that has been accomplished and is still being accomplished by our relentlessly formidable and complicated and belligerent and inventive species, everywhere on earth during the last five centuries and more, and for at least the next several decades, then you begin to see where my admiration for Emmanuel Todd is coming from. Many very capable and admirable historians score eight, nine or even ten out of ten for their life’s work. Compared to them, I would give Todd about eight hundred out of a thousand and counting. The man is operating at a different level of explanatory reach to all other historians I have ever read, or have ever read about or heard of. Yes indeed, as MacFarlane’s comment illuminates, Todd has, over the years, got quite a few of the details of his grand narrative somewhat wrong, in fact he probably gets far more things wrong than most good historians ever get right. But what he does get right … well, it is an epic story, and furthermore, a story that I now believe, with MacFarlane, to be “roughly right”.
So, what has Emmanuel Todd been saying?
Because Todd’s work has been largely ignored in the Anglosphere, answering this question is not easy, unless you are, unlike me, able to read French. However, a while ago, I did a series of postings at my personal blog which summarise, mostly in Todd’s words and with a few of mine added, the basic Todd theory, as presented in The Explanation of Ideology and in The Causes of Progress.
Click on these blog postings to read them. Their titles are:
Emmanuel Todd (1): Anthropology explains ideology
Emmanuel Todd (2): The eight family systems
Emmanuel Todd (3): Quotes from The Explanation of Ideology
Emmanuel Todd (4): From ideology to economic progress
In the Foreword to The Causes of Progress (reproduced in full in posting (4) above) Todd summarises the argument that he had earlier presented in The Explanation of Ideology:
The question posed in The Explanation of Ideology concerned the spread of modern ideologies across the globe. I set out to explain why communism has come to dominate certain regions, liberalism others, and social democracy yet others; likewise to explain the predominance, elsewhere, of the Catholic Right, or of ideologies that from the European point of view are unclassifiable, such as Muslim fundamentalism, Buddhist socialism or the Indian caste system. In The Explanation of Ideology the analysis of relationships between parents and their children – authoritarian or liberal – and of relationships between brothers – egalitarian or inegalitarian – led to a typology of family types which geographically coincided fairly closely with the mapped distribution of adherence to the great ideologies.
Todd’s grand narrative is of the inexorable spread of literacy, igniting a succession of political revolutions whose particular ideological character is determined (“The” Explanation of Ideology!) by the “family type” in that place, like a fire spreading through an industrial area containing many different fireworks factories. All the resulting explosions have in common that there are caused by the same fire. But, the particular nature of each conflagration is determined by the distinct sort of fireworks contained in each factory. All political revolutions of this sort are the same, in that they are all sparked by the place arriving at the point where a substantial proportion of the young men in the place are literate, for the first time in that place’s history. Yet such revolutions are distinct, in that they each get their ideological flavour from the particular family type of that particular place. All revolutions try to spread their message to the entire world. Most achieve enough early success to be optimistic about eventual world domination, but then the world mysteriously (unless you know your Todd) shrugs off their message. This, for Todd, is the explanation of ideology.
When Todd speaks of literacy what he has in mind is that sort of basic ability to organise and influence that you just won’t be able to manage if you can’t keep any sort of written track of what you say and what you do and what you even think, or worse, even understand the written instructions or messages or ideas of others. Once your part of the world is doing this stuff in a big way, then it can be taken for granted that a smaller number of educational stars will get far cleverer than just basically literate, and that this will likewise have profound consequences. But for Todd, the first few steps of literacy are the steps that matter. What counts is the power to self-organise and to be organised, and to think in the beginnings of a systematic way and in a way that causes your knowledge of and opinions about the world to accumulate rather than merely to consist of a few primitive and unchanging mental recipes. When large numbers of people acquire that sort of power, that is the difference that makes all the difference.
After a period of bitter conflict, an ideological and political settlement of some sort is somehow contrived. At which point literacy then works its more peaceful magic, in the form of dramatic economic lift-off. Economic modernity arrives. In Todd world, it is not so much that literacy causes economic development; it would be truer to say that, for Todd, literacy is economic development, provided only that political mayhem ceases from interrupting or suppressing it.
The above verbiage, and links to further verbiage, supply enough clues to enable anyone reading this and wanting to dig deeper to understand the rough outlines of Todd’s grand narrative. I just want to emphasise one further point in particular, which is that you also have to understand what is meant by “family type” or “family system” or “family structure”. This does not mean the particular family circumstances that particular individuals happen to have grown up in. Suppose that, like me, you never got married, or that you lost your husband at an early age, through death or maybe because of a divorce, or that you spent your entire life without a wife, living with your divorced father and obeying his every whim, or deviating in some other way from the familial assumptions and aspirations and statistical norms of our culture that you and I both share, that does not, for Todd’s purposes, matter. What matters is not the detail of how you or I happen to be living out our particular lives, or the detail of how our particular families lived and live, the ones that raised us and the ones that we may be raising ourselves. What matters are the general, shared cultural standards concerning what the “ideal” (a favourite Todd word) family is like, that we have been raised to believe in. Such beliefs and habits are not the same everywhere, and this explains why different ideologies have prevailed in different parts of the world.
I was especially impressed by The Explanation of Ideology. Having been a sociology student, I was used to being offered collective – often collectivist – explanations for events, events that were at least as easily explained, and often much more so, by looking at the particular incentives faced by individuals, rather than merely at “social pressures” and “norms” and “culture”. I accordingly reacted against sociology by turning instead towards economics (especially economics of the Austrian sort), to find out how the world really worked. The last thing I expected was that I would, several years later and by then a convinced libertarian, encounter a grand social theory of the world, which did not boil down to mere personal incentives and yet which nevertheless told a hugely important story very persuasively, and which was hence able not only to make sense of the past and the present but also to predict the future. But, here it was.
To foresee and understand dramas of all kinds, all over the world, what the Toddist must do is to track the rise of literacy in this or that place, particularly noting when a literacy surge among young men is happening or is about to happen, and also do some studying of the anthropology that those young men have been subjected to, and he is then able to foresee and to understand with remarkable clarity what is happening or is about to happen, and what its particular ideological flavour will be. He can foresee and understand both the timing and the nature of those fireworks factory explosions as they happen, and before they happen. Toddism does not merely make sense of the past. It also makes sense of the present, and predicts and has predicted the future.
The first Todd prediction I remember being especially struck by concerned, of all places, Nicaragua. During the mid-1980s, as you may or may not recall, Communist-hating Reaganites feared and Communist-supporting anti-Reaganites hoped that Nicaragua would go Communist. It will not, said Emmanuel Todd, with the characteristic hauteur of the French intellectual instructing confused Americans. I, Emmanuel Todd, tell you this. Why not? Wrong family system. (Guess the one and only place in North, Central or South America which does have the correct family structure for Communism. No prizes for guessing correctly.)
On a larger scale, Todd made sense of the hurricane of economic development that was, then as now, taking place in Asia, and, just as significantly, of the absence of any similarly dramatic development then happening in Africa. Simple. Asian literacy was ready for economic lift-off, while African literacy was not. The Africans were then, said Todd, embarking on or were deep into the ideological turmoil phase. African economic development would stall for a while, he said. But as the political chaos started to calm down, economic lift-off would would then cut in amongst the wreckage, just when most other commentators had despaired of such a thing ever happening. So Todd prophesied a quarter of a century ago, and so it is now proving.
I admired and continue to admire Todd’s grand narrative for, as I have already said, the simplest of all reasons. Simply, I think it is, roughly, true. He thinks he spots a cause and effect correlation between the world’s various family systems and the world’s various ideologies, and I entirely agree with him. After that, economic lift-off follows, and although I quibble much more (and hope to be saying more here in later postings) about the details of that process, I “roughly” agree about that too. I think that insofar as there is a single, simple story to be told about how the entire world has entered modernity, this story, with all kinds of added detail to confirm or modify or refine it, is the story. Anyone trying to tell this story without any nods towards any of the sorts of ideas that Todd expounds is simply not getting it right, not painting the full and true picture.
Oddly enough, for many years, the one supposedly successful prophecy that Todd made, which the tiny number of Anglos who do ever mention Todd have gone on about endlessly, was Todd’s supposed prediction that the USSR would collapse. But this claim of a clairvoyant prediction is based, so far as I can tell with my limited French, on a misunderstanding of the nature of the Russian collapse that Todd actually predicted. What he said was that Russia was heading for very bad times, and he has been proved right. He did not predict that, some time around, I don’t know, January 1991, the Bolshevik flags would all be taken down and replaced by other flags. He was concerned with what was about to happen to Russians, rather than to their politicians. But, the fall of the USSR happened, and ever since then, mentioners-in-passing of Todd have said that he predicted this. In short, I think Todd got lucky with that one.
But yet, not really so lucky, because, you see, his prophecy of Russian collapse is not a central implication of his grand theory. The arrival of Communism in Russia, yes. This was a classic family-system-determined, mass-literacy-provoked ideological upheaval. But Russia’s subsequent fall from grace is a rather less definite result of Todd’s kind of thinking. Yet, infuriatingly, whenever I have found some reference to Todd on the English bit of the internet, I have generally encountered someone saying that Todd (a) said that the USSR would fall just when it did fall, and (b) has said nothing else of any interest whatsoever, the (b) bit being merely implied by omission rather than spelled out.
But now, two writers have broken from this tiny little pack of Anglospheric Emmanuel Todd mentioner/dismissers, namely James Bennett and Michael Lotus. On page 72 of America 3.0, they write:
Notably, Todd correctly predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union years in advance, …
And this time, before the sentence in which they allude to this successful but lucky speculation, Bennett and Lotus move on at once to the important stuff that Emmanuel Todd has really spent his life writing and researching about:
… and his explanation of politics in terms of family structure matches the historical facts almost uncannily well.
Indeed it does. Finally, the Anglosphere, a fragment of it anyway, doffs its hat to Emmanuel Todd, and notices the truly important and truly convincing things that he has been saying for the last several decades.
But then, Bennett and Lotus immediately narrow their focus, and leave me stranded on the back of my tangent, so to speak:
His analysis of Anglo-American family life and its consequences deserves an attentive hearing.
Very true. But so does what Todd says about life everywhere else in the world deserve an attentive hearing. Bennett and Lotus, however, offer only incidental encouragement to any general project of taking Emmanuel Todd, all of him, seriously.
It is clear to me, a rabid Todd fan, that Todd’s thinking saturates America 3.0. All this book’s talk about the particularities of American family life, and about how these particularities differ profoundly from how family life is lived and experienced in other parts of the world, is pure Todd. Todd is acknowledged in a few pages of the bibliographical essay at the end of American 3.0, in the pages concerning “The American Family” (pp. 280-284. But while they do quote a chunk of Todd there, in the main body of their book Bennett and Lotus instead quote an earlier French pre-Toddian, so to speak, Frederic le Play:
The unstable family constitutes that regime in which young men submit the least to the influences derived from tradition. The young adults leave their parental firesides so soon as they gain any confidence in themselves. They think themselves in no wise bound to preserve the memories or customs of their ancestors and only hand down such usages as are strictly indispensable to the preservation of the race. With such habits fully established the unstable family is seldom met with except among people living in a barbarous and degraded condition …. The children are but little affected by parental influences often less so than those of savages. The adults marry outside of their family circle and they no longer connect their future views with the fireside or workshop of their parents … Under this system labor exhibits an instability in the extreme.
He really doesn’t like us, does he? But Le Play then, and you can almost hear those Gallic teeth grinding, adds this:
True it is however that this regime frequently leads to rapid improvements in methods and even to the the commercial prosperity of manufactories.
That latter point being the basis of how Bennett and Lotus explain the past economic successes of Americas 1.0 (agrarian individualism) and 2.0 (the era of big government and big business), and now exude optimism about America 3.0 (the more entrepreneurial America that they see getting into its stride now). This is the kind of thing, together with all sorts of other related things like the Common Law, and England having been and America now being relatively peaceful and hence abnormally prosperous places, and both England and American containing an abundance of intermediate institutions in that hinterland between family and government, that cause Bennett and Lotus to proclaim that, in the words of the second half of their subtitle, “America’s Greatest Days Are Yet to Come”.
Bennett and Lotus might have emphasised why they believe Todd to be right about America, by writing at greater length about how they think he is right about the entire world, as they clearly do. But had they done that, they would have written a double-decker book, so to speak, and run the risk that everyone who noticed the book would concentrate on what was from their point of view only the lower deck. Rather than people reading and discussing their book about America, Bennett and Lotus might instead have been dragged into a whole separate debate about whether this opinionated French guy that nobody else has heard of is right about the world, as opposed to whether Bennett and Lotus (merely assisted by Todd, and by many other earlier observers of Anglospherical exceptionalness) are right about America.
There is also the matter of the availability in English, by which I mean the non-availability in English, of Emmanuel Todd’s most important writings. There are a couple of Todd books that you can easily obtain, but when it comes to his most important writings, the stuff that expounds his grand theory, the picture is at best very patchy. Perhaps you were wondering, when I enthused in paragraph two about those two key early Todd books, The Explanation of Ideology and The Causes of Progress, why I supplied no Amazon links. Well, here are a couple of links. Explanation of Ideology: hardcover, out of print, lowest price (when I last looked) for a second hand copy (one of only a very few available): $40.15. Says fellow Todd fan Joseph Martin:
An amazing book that is, unfortunately, very difficult to find.
As for The Causes of Progress, there is only this, priced at $74.48. Before showing me that, Amazon asked:
Did you mean: emmanuel todd the cases of progress?
That just about sums up how familiar the Anglosphere now is with this, as I believe, great historian and historical theorist.
The news about two other Todd books is better, in the sense that English readers can at least get hold of them easily enough.
Sadly, of the books by Todd that I have read, After The Empire is, I think, by some distance the least impressive. Many Amazon reviewers liked it, as Amazon reviewers tend to like whatever they review, and because anyone who prophecies decline and disappointment for America will find approving readers throughout the Anglosphere, and in particular in America. But just like Todd’s much less lengthy pronouncement about the old USSR, his pessimism about present day America was not a prediction that his best and most basic thinking automatically spits out. It is a mere opinion, based on things like America being too much in debt, and having a particularly foolhardy foreign policy at the time when Todd was writing this book, about a decade ago. To be fair to Todd, he did smell financial trouble in America several years before this trouble became obvious to all, but he displays little understanding of why it was happening, and nor did he grasp that this was a problem that afflicted the entire world rather than America in particular. America has been mass-literate for several centuries now, and the further Todd strays in his speculations from that moment when mass literacy first strikes, the less persuasive, in my opinion, he tends to be. It’s a while since I read After The Empire, but to me it read more like shriek of rage from Todd, caused by him being ignored by American academia and by American policy makers, than as any serious attempt to understand what America is all about.
The tiny flurry of reaction from Anglospherical anti-American doomsters seems to have taken place in a quite separate intellectual compartent, where little reference is made to any of Todd’s other and far grander and more coherent theorisings. So, next to that tiny clump of people who say that Todd predicted the doom of the USSR and nothing else, there is now another slightly bigger clump of people who have said of Todd that his hatred of America is very wise, so hurrah for him, but again, nothing is said about why Emmanuel Todd really is very wise.
Bennett and Lotus, whose whole thesis is that America has a far brighter future ahead of it than Todd (at any rate the Todd of After The Empire), and the many other prophets of American doom have argued over the years, ignore After The Empire. Indeed, this book may well have ended any chance that Bennett and Lotus would give Todd more than a brief mention, in their heavily Todd-influenced book about America. Had Bennett and Lotus tried to hard-sell Emmanuel Todd to America, then the kind of Americans who have recently been reading America 3.0 would immediately have taken a look at After The Empire, and they would not have liked it. Those Americans who did like After The Empire, on the other hand, are – very approximately speaking – partisan supporters of what is left of America 2.0, and would be put off by America 3.0 just as soon as they understood, from the cover blurb, what that title means.
A much better window into Emmanuel Todd’s grand theorisings is the book he has co-authored with Youssef Courbage, entitled A Convergence of Civilizations, which is about the Muslim world. This book contains a hugely significant argument, which, unlike Todd’s prophecies concerning Russia and America, is derived directly from Todd’s grand theory. The message of A Convergence of Civilizations can be summarised as follows: relax everybody, it’s all going to calm down. This message, this time an unfashionably optimistic one, is accompanied by a torrent of statistics about literacy and fertility. What all the numbers in A Convergence of Civilizations are there to prove is that Toddism applies to the Muslim world exactly as Todd has always predicted, but their significance might well have been lost on general readers, had any significant number of general readers actually read the book.
And alas, A Convergence of Civilizations contains more anti-American bile. It begins, for instance, with some dismissive swipes at unnamed writers who have written much more pessimistically than Todd and Courbage, about Islam and about its present and future relationship to the West, and to America. In particular, Todd and Courbage insult Samuel Huntington by not even mentioning his name, which is an odd omission when you consider that Todd and Courbage’s title reminds us of Huntington’s core thesis. If treated with a modicum of respect instead of being casually dismissed, Huntingdon – certainly Huntingdon fans – might already have become Todd allies, as they might yet despite everything. Todd’s core thesis perfectly explains the very clash of civilisations that Huntingdon and others like him have observed. And Huntington is no more in favour of the clash of civilisations that he describes than Todd and Courbage are, but you wouldn’t know this from Todd and Courbage.
It’s as if, having tried enraged ranting and nothing else (After The Empire), Todd has switched to only occasional ranting, with a ton of numbers added, to see if that would get the desired response from the Anglosphere, i.e. any damn response at all. But again: nothing, other than from a few obscure bloggers like me.
And now, from a couple of actual published-on-paper authors. It would surely disappoint Bennett and Lotus if them helping to put Emmanuel Todd on the map of Anglospheric intellectual discourse proved in the long run to be the most significant thing about their book, but it would more than suffice for me.
There is a great deal more I could have said, both about Emmanuel Todd and about America 3.0, both of which are fascinating subjects. There is, indeed, a great deal more that I have said, but which remains in a more or less incoherent state on my hard disc. But this is a blog posting, not another book. I hope that further postings on both subjects from me will follow here, but I am not good at keeping actual promises to write any particular piece of writing, as the hideously delayed nature of this posting illustrates only too well. So, I would prefer just to hope that future thoughts along these and related lines may follow here, whenever they do, but actually to promise nothing.