On the Anthropological Roots of Modern Conflicts

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Excerpts from Emmanuel Todd

[NEW! check out our new Emmanuel Todd page with updated content]

[translated from the French by Sunthar Visuvalingam

compiled and maintained by Joseph Martin]

These translations from Emmanuel Todd’s monumental work spanning several volumes on the anthropological determinants, on family structure in particular, of the variety of socio-political orientations (authority, equality, hierarchy, segregation, assimilation, liberty, etc.), and especially insofar as they influence attitudes towards other (immigrant and host) communities, are excerpted and compiled by Joseph Martin from my intermittent posts to the Abhinavagupta forum starting from Oct 7, 2002. It was, in fact, Joe who not only first brought Todd to our attention (25 Sep 2002) but also emphasized the importance of his insights for the looming conflict of civilizations. I recognized the name on the title of his newly released After the Empire and learned, to my surprise, that our anthropologist was also a critic of contemporary (not just French) politics. I had completed the book by the time of Todd’s book-signing talk at the nearby Presses Universitaires de France on Oct 9, 2002, and was able to engage him on the Indian/USA parallel/contrast.

The excerpts do not follow the chronological order of these posts because the translations were done in the context of my own reflections on some of the fundamental conceptual assumptions and ideological commitments reflected in Todd’s theses that I consider to be of central importance to contemporary discussions of the ‘politics acculturation’ (though I myself find the ‘family-structure’ approach to be, like psychoanalysis, too reductionist…). The (serendipitous and meandering) logic of these posts was often determined by immediate developments such as response to a recent talk by a scholar (starting with one by Todd himself at the above-mentioned book-signing ceremony, a query posted by someone on the Internet, or the opening provided by an ongoing debate (even somewhere else). To read the posts (subject heads provided) that comment (at least obliquely) on these extracts, click the message number. If you find discrepancies with the excerpt in the corresponding post, it simply means that in the meantime the translation here has been corrected / improved.

[* Message numbers at the top of each text block refer to the message index of the Abhinavagupta Yahoo! Group; [page numbers] enclosed in square brackets refer to the pagination of Todd’s book or article. Where several dispersed extracts have been translated in the same post, the message has been split up (and repeated) so that the passages follow the page sequence of the source book. Note that in order to access the original message via the link you must belong to the Abhinavagupta Group. Each text will be followed with a short note specifying which book or article the translation is from. Occasional comments by Sunthar within each translation are also in square brackets.

The first two messages below are an exception to the above rules. The first message is not a translation but an excerpt of a biographical note by André Larané, which is perhaps the best way to begin. The next message is an edited version of Joseph Martin’s first mention of Emmanuel Todd at the Abhinavagupta Group and it contains a brief description of an earlier work which was translated into English (The Explanation of Ideology, 1989) but this translation is extremely difficult to find.]

Message 422 (Oct 13, 2002)

André Larané, Emmanuel Todd [a biographical note], 22 August 2002

Family History

Approaching the age of fifty, Emmanuel Todd still cuts the figure of an adolescent [I can vouch for this... - SV] but he has already laid the groundwork for a dense and original (life-) work. Grandson of the poet Paul Nizan and son of the celebrated journalist Olivier Todd, the historian situates himself in the intellectual lineage of Montesquieu, Tocqueville and Raymond Aron in offering a global approach to societies.

In the course of his works, he has slowly brought to maturity an original reflection, solidly constructed, based on an encyclopedic culture and an intellectual freedom closer to the Anglo-Saxon tradition than to the French university tradition.

A short-lived political engagement

At the start of the 90’s, while people were getting worked up in France around the question of immigration and of the extreme right, Emmanuel Todd entered the debate by drawing the lessons from his earlier researches in a remarkable essay, The Fate of Immigrants (Seuil, 1994). By rising above the polemics on the ground, he showed the fundamental differences that distinguish the French, the Germans and the Anglo-Saxons in their relation to the foreigner. He was able to draw encouraging predictions on the issue of the process of integrating recent immigrants in France.

 Discovered by the public at large, Emmanuel Todd tried to take part in the political debate on the eve of the presidential elections of 1995. In an analysis before the Saint-Simon Foundation, he anticipated the victory of Jacques Chirac by showing the existence of a popular anti-Maastrich vote that the Gaullist candidate had known how to co-opt. Commentators who were ignorant till then even of his (first) name hastened to make of Emmanuel Todd a dyed-in-the-wool Chirac supporter. Obvious error. Everything separates the go-getting and extroverted politician from the thinker anxious to dig deeper and inclined towards a perpetual calling into question.

In the following European elections, Todd voted through bravado for the communist list although he had completely broken off from this party since adolescence. He would animate the March-Bloch Foundation beside Philippe Cohen, editor-in-chief of Marianne, and engage in the debate over the euro with judicious analyses in Marianne, Le Monde, etc. He treated himself also to an essay on economy, The Economic Illusion (Gallimard, 1998), where he would denounce the bankruptcy of the ruling class and would call upon it to return to the idea of the nation. “The dissolution of collective beliefs transforms men into political and sociological dwarfs. (...) Before Chirac, the populace still believed, for the majority, in the competence of its rulers. Since the sudden about-turn of 26th October 1995, and its endorsement by the elites, the grassroots citizens know that the system is no longer serious,” he then wrote.

Ill at ease before a camera or microphone [I can vouch for this also... - SV], Emmanuel Todd has never had much luck in his public engagements. So, when the Haider affair broke out, with the entry of the leader of the Austrian extreme-right into the governmental coalition, the historian broke off without hesitating from the Marc-Bloch Foundation (which is nowadays moribund and bereft of its name). “I did not accept the sovereignist discourse of my friends, who considered in the name of their right to choose their own government that there was nothing to complain about the choice of the Austrians,” he explains.

Today, in the serenity of his office, the historian turns his back on the froth and foam of current affairs and focuses once more on the history of societies over the long-term. Extending his earliest anthropological analyses on family structures, he is preparing a major treatise that would condense the fruit of several decades of research on the margin of prevailing fashions and currents. “I am shuffling 600 familial groups from all the continents and my horizon extends from 3000 years B.C. to the year 1500 of our era!” say he with a smile. He thus walks with a measured tread towards the summit of a career started a quarter of century ago.

Historian outside the beaten tracks

After studies at the Institute for Political Sciences [in Paris] and a doctorate in history from Cambridge University, the young Todd attracted the attention of the small Parisian world with an explosive essay entitled The final collapse: essay on the decomposition of the Soviet sphere—appreciate the pun—(Robert Laffont). In 1976, while the socialist left was fencing with the French Communist Party and the youth were denouncing U.S. imperialism to their heart’s content, he dared to announce the imminent failure of the Soviet system. Following on the heels of the Sovietist, Alain Besançon, he underlined the uncertainty hanging over the official statistics and developed the analysis of some factors of social malaise such as the tendentious rise of the infant mortality rate, sure sign of a major collapse.

But the French public turned away from his work as from Alain Besançon’s Short Treatise on Sovietology, despite the premonitory virtues of one and the other... The historian Hélène Carrère d’Encausse would receive in 1978 all the credit for having anticipated the dissolution of the USSR with her essay: The Empire Shatters despite an enormous misinterpretation that makes her attribute the final fall of the Soviet empire to the high birth-rate of the Muslim populations of Soviet Asia (the future would reveal that the dissolution would come instead from the Baltic populations with a low birth-rate but a strong political consciousness).

Emmanuel Todd pursued his work with an atypical essay on the European bourgeoisie before 1914 and the mental origins of the Great War and of totalitarianism: The Fool and the Proletariat (Robert Laffont, 1979). In the manner of the sociologist Emile Durkheim, he reveals the anguish that tormented the bourgeoisie of this epoch, in France and in Germany or in Russia. He thus showed that the suicide rate among the upper classes was higher than among the lower classes although the latter had objectively greater reasons for despair. His anglophilia shows through already in discovering the good mental health of the United Kingdom. “I maintain, against the economists, that England remains solid, that France is no longer fragile, and that Germany remains always the most uncertain country of Europe,” he wrote in 1979.

In the 1980s, Emmanuel Todd enjoys a post at the National Institute for Demographic Studies (INED) that allows him to undertake heavy-weight research into the role of familial structures in social phenomena and ideological systems. From these researches that derive from Frédéric Le Play, a forgotten scholar of the XIXth century, Emmanuel Todd has already drawn a series of very robust essays, The Third Planet, The Infancy of the World, The New France, The Invention of Europe (Seuil). In the course of these works, he has popularized and refined concepts such as stem family and nuclear family.

These concepts have enabled him, as we have seen, to interpret as a historian the current migratory phenomena. The next developments promise to be just as enlightening.

Message 391 (from Joseph Martin – Sep 25, 2002)

We are in the habit of thinking of the various contemporary conflicts in ideological, economic or linguistic terms. According to historian Emmanuel Todd there is also an anthropological aspect to the problem.

His book, The Explanation of Ideology came out in the late eighties and discusses, in an amazing way, the anthropological base, or bases, of culture. The author, like, anthropologists in general, is interested in (or focused on) the 3 categories, (perhaps it is better to say 3 sets of rules) that generate the several possible human families and how these families underlay our sophisticated ideologies. Some of the categories/rules are:

1) Household: Is the household a nuclear family or an extended family? If it is extended, do all brothers (and their wives) stay in the household or just the ‘chosen’ son, usually the eldest? What is the degree of authority of the father? This authority is determined by, on the one hand, whether or not the sons, or a son, live at home, and, on the other hand, whether or not the inheritance is equally divided.

2) Is the inheritance divided equally among sons, or given to the chosen brother, or are there no rules (anything goes) in the inheritance of family property?

3) Marriage rules: Exogamy, no first cousin marriages, or endogamy, first cousin marriages permitted between the children of brothers or first cousin marriages permitted between the children of a brother and sister.

We assume that there is no culture that favors first cousin marriage between the children of sisters because that violates the rule of male domination—no sisterly solidarity. Thus the three ways of choosing a marriage partner is for the parents to choose, the children (the 2 getting married) to choose, and for the anonymous system of endogamy to choose. In this last one knows pretty much from childhood either the cousin that one will marry, or the pool of cousins from which the future spouse will emerge.

By the above criteria there are several human families. I give, several examples below:

A) Egalitarian Nuclear Family: Nuclear—grown married sons live on their own, the inheritance is divided equally, and exogamy is practiced. This would include most of the French (France and former colonies) and the Spanish (Hispanic) world.

B) Absolute Nuclear Family: grown married sons live on their own, the inheritance is NOT (necessarily) divided equally but any which way the parents please, and exogamy is also practiced. This is most of the English (AUS, GB, US) speaking world.

C) Authoritarian: One (chosen) married son can live at home. He gets the inheritance, and this family type is again exogamous. The parents choose the marriage partner—at least (?) for the chosen son. This group is composed of several unrelated ethnic and/or linguistic groups including German, Jewish, Basque, Irish, Japanese, Gypsies. The father, in this family, is very powerful.

D) Exogamous Community: All married sons can live at home, and the inheritance is equally divided. And, once again, the Father is very powerful. This is Russia, China, Vietnam and others that I also can’t recall.

The above is not meant by any means to be exhaustive. The Arabs are missing. They are endogamous— preferring marriages between the children of brothers. The (?) inheritance is egalitarian—divided equally among the sons. The household is extended. India (South India?) is also endogamous. The preferred marriage is between the children of brothers and sisters. The household is again extended. 

In this book Todd was trying to argue that ideological formations are (partially?) determined by family structure—not (only?) economics or linguistics So, for instance, by looking at the Authoritarian family we see people that are not easily assimilated because they have no sense of equality thanks to the favoring of the chosen son and inegalitarian inheritance rules. Therefore they do not become (fanatical) devotees of universal movements like communism and resist assimilation into other groups.

The Basque and the Irish are separatists. The Basque speak a different language than their oppressors, the Irish not even that anymore. But still the Irish insist on their difference from the English. The Germans and Japanese, in the Second World War, were united by their contempt for universal egalitarian theory, whether liberal or communist. That may have been all that united them. The Jews and Gypsies are also famous for their refusal to assimilate. The Jews have their religion for an excuse—the Gypsies, besides being Gypsies, don’t seem to have any distinguishing ideology at all.

Joseph Martin

Message 1865 (from Joseph Martin – Dec 26, 2003 / May 26, 2004)

On the Anthropological Roots of Modern Conflicts - Emmanuel Todd

From: Joseph Martin 
Sent: Friday, December 26, 2003 7:26 PM
To: Sunthar Visuvalingam
Subject: My first pass at the Emmanuel Todd digest - might be preferable to order the messages in order of page numbers of book(s)


I have something about Todd and anthropology that might interest you. There is an author, Jack Goody, who has argued (in "The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe") that the family structure of the West is an artifact of a rather (anthropologically speaking) recent intervention. He says that the Catholic Church (back when it was Universal) around the year 300 changed the marriage laws (of its followers) from a near endogamy to exogamy.

When the Empire became Christian and/or (in the West) collapsed this became the only law. This exogamy (ultimately) derives from the German tribes that increasingly dominated the late empire. They were fiercely exogamous. One wonders if this action by the early Church explains the later split in Universalist Monotheism between Islam and Christianity. The split was simply another chapter in the argument between the endogamous South and the exogamous North. Have I mentioned all this to you before?

The point I am making is not that anthropological structures are the bedrock of human history. Everything moves, everything is an artifact; everything is a result of prior processes. Nietzsche ends BGE saying that humans only discover laws that no longer, or soon won't apply. Our insights are always dead and dying things. The explanatory value of family structures, so powerful for the present and past, will recede with the future. Not that in the future we will be free of the control of unseen structures – oh God! On the contrary! We are making the new unseen structures (Anthropological, Economic, Linguistic, Political, Technological, Theological) that will control us tomorrow – I say we are making them today.


Joseph Martin

After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order

European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism

Columbia University Press (February 2004)

Now that After the Empire has not only been translated but has also received reviews (see left frame) from the Anglophone international press, I won't be offering any more independent translations of extracts.

Après l’Empire : essai sur la décomposition du système américain  (Paris: Gallimard, September 2002)

Message 404 (Oct 7, 2002)

After the Empire: essay on the decomposition of the American system - "Reviewing the Bush Doctrine"

The United States is becoming a problem for the world. We were rather accustomed to seeing in it a solution. Guarantor of  political freedom and economic order for half a century, it appears more and more to be a factor of international disorder, maintaining, wherever it can, uncertainty and conflict. It demands of the whole planet that we recognize that certain states of secondary importance constitute an “axis of evil” that should be fought and annihilated: [p.9] How can one be surprised at the new attitude of distrust and fear that seizes, one after another, all those who establish their external politics on a reassuring axiom: the sole superpower is above all responsible? [p.10] The September 11 attack has fascinated psychiatrists: the revelation of American fragility has destabilized more or less everywhere not only adults but also their children. A veritable psychological crisis had then laid bare the mental architecture of the planet of which America, the sole but legitimate superpower, constituted an as it were unconscious capstone. Pro- and anti-Americans were like children, deprived of the authority they needed, whether to submit or to fight it. In short, the attack of 11 September had revealed the voluntary nature of our servitude. Joseph Nye’s soft power theory was magnificently verified: America reigned not only or even mainly through arms but through the prestige of its values, its institutions and its culture. Three months latter... [pp. 12-13]

Message 450 (Nov 24, 2002)

Hacking our way to freedom with generous American funding - a self-subverting global hegemony?

Iran, another obsessive target, is a strategically important country but clearly engaged in an internal and external process of appeasement. The American government, however, stigmatizes it as a full-fledged member of this axis of evil. The United States has provoked China by bombing its embassy in Belgrade during the war in Kosovo, by stuffing with easily detectable microphones a Boeing intended for its leaders. Between three public embraces and two accords on nuclear disarmament, they have even provoked Russia by sponsoring broadcasts in the Chechen language through the intermediary of Radio Free Europe, by sending military advisers to Georgia, by establishing permanent bases in the former Soviet Central Asia, facing the Russian army. Finally, the theoretical peak of this militarist feverishness: the Pentagon leaks documents that contemplate nuclear strikes on non-nuclear countries. The government in Washington thus applies a classic strategic model that is however inept for a nation of continental stature, the “strategy of the madman,” that recommends appearing to eventual adversaries as irresponsible to intimidate them all the more. [...] Russia, China and Iran, three nations whose absolute priority is economic development, have only one strategic preoccupation left: to resist American provocations, to do nothing; better, in a reversal that would have seemed inconceivable ten years ago, to fight for the stability and order of the world.  [pp.9-10]

Message 411 (Oct 9, 2002)

Why the American 'leadership' misjudges the world: because their culture is evolving backwards and becoming corrupt?

The comparison with the two ancient empires, Athens and Rome, imposes itself on anyone who wants to use history to bolster a reflection on the American system. The first example pleases admirers of the United States, the second the anti-Americans. A favorable attitude to the United States in general leads one to choose Athens as the reference. [Note that the founders of revolutionary America, themselves, preferred Rome because they abhorred Greek slavery - SV] One will then emphasize that, in the case of the United States, the establishment of a sphere of political domination exceeding the national framework did not result from a Roman-style military conquest.

For Rome, territorial expansion constituted the very meaning of history. The genetic code of the city seemed to include the principle of expansion through armed might. Everything else--internal political life, economy, art--was secondary. Athens, on the contrary, was at the origin a city of merchants and artisans, birthplace of tragedy, philosophy and democracy. Its military destiny was imposed on it by Persian aggression, which led it to take, with Sparta, the lead of the resisting Greek cities. After the first defeat of Persia, Sparta, the landed city, withdrew from the struggle, whereas Athens, the naval power, pursued it by organizing the league of Delos, a confederation of cities. The most powerful furnished ships, the weakest money. In this way was first established a sphere of Athenian influence under a sort of democratic leadership.

Originally an essentially naval power like Athens, the United States, isolationist until Pearl Harbor, can hardly be accused of congenital militarism and territorial imperialism after the manner of Rome. The constitution of NATO was wholly desired by the European allies of the United States. A parallel between the Atlantic Alliance and the league of Delos is hence not at all incongruous, with the Soviet Union playing in the fable the role of menacing Persia.

However, this optimist and liberal vision of the Atlantic Alliance can only seduce those who have forgotten the rest of Athenian history. Most of the allied cities preferred to discharge themselves of their military obligations by paying Athens a tribute, the phoros, rather than furnishing vessels and crew. The directing city ended up seizing the common treasure held in the island of Delos and used it to finance, not only the bringing back to order of the recalcitrant cities of the league nut also the construction of the cities of the Acropolis. The example is imperfect, or too perfect: it could lead the Europeans--and why not the Japanese?--to a “realist” meditation on their own military behavior.

Athens was finally beaten by Sparta, transformed by the force of things into the defender of Greek liberties. [pp.75-76]

Emmanuel Todd, “The imperial dimension”

The American rhetoric of the “empire of evil,” of the “axis of evil,” of any other diabolical manifestation on earth makes us smile or scream--depending on the moment and the temperament of each--through its evident ineptitude. It should nevertheless be taken seriously, but decoded. It expresses objectively an American obsession with evil, denounced outside, but which really comes from within the United States. The menace of evil is in fact everywhere: giving up of equality, ascent of an irresponsible plutocracy, life on credit of consumers and the whole country, increasingly frequent application of capital punishment, return of the racial obsession. Without forgetting the disturbing affair of the anthrax attacks, probably carried out by crazy out-of-control members of the secret services. God is decidedly not blessing America these days. It denounces evil everywhere, but because it is itself taking an evil turn. This regression can make us realize what it is that we are in the process of losing: the America of the years 1950-1965, country of mass democracy, freedom of speech, expansion of social rights, struggle for civic rights, was the empire of good.

What is called American unilateralism, the resounding expression in international politics of differentialism, should not however be considered within the framework of this essay from an essentially moral angle. The fundamental cause, as we have just seen, is the regression of the egalitarian and universalist feeling in the United States itself. The fundamental consequence is the loss for the United States of an ideological resource indispensable to empires. Deprived of a homogeneous perception of humanity and of peoples, America cannot reign over a too vast and diverse world. The feeling of justice is an arm that she no longer possesses. The immediate post-war period--the years 1950-1965--thus represented a sort of apogee of universalism in American history. Like the imperial Roman universalism, that of triumphant America was then modest and generous.

The Romans knew to recognize the philosophical, mathematical, literary and artistic superiority of Greece; the Roman aristocracy Hellenized itself, the military victor assimilating on many levels the superior culture of the conquered country. Rome ended up moreover by submitting to several, eventually to a single, of the eastern religions. The United States, during its authentically imperial epoch, was curious and respectful of the external world. They observed and analyzed with sympathy the diversity of societies in the world, through political science, anthropology, literature and cinema. True universalism retains the best of all the worlds. The force of the victor enables the fusion of cultures. That epoch which combined, in the United States, economic and military power, intellectual and cultural tolerance, seems very far away. The weakened and unproductive America of the year 2000 is no longer tolerant. It pretends to incarnate an exclusive human ideal, to possess the key to every economic success, to produce the only cinema conceivable. This recent pretension to social and cultural hegemony, this process of narcissistic expansion is only one sign among others of the dramatic decline of real economic and military power, as also of American universalism. Incapable of dominating the world, it denies its autonomous existence and the diversity of its societies. [pp.142-43]

“The retreat of universalism: an empire cannot be differentialist”

Message 408 (Oct 8, 2002)

Anglo-Saxon feminism & contempt for the Arab world: an anthropological base for the current conflict?

Increasingly intolerant of the diversity of the world [just read the political tracts that pass off as ‘Indology’...  SV], America  spontaneously identifies the Arab world as antagonist. The opposition here is of a visceral, primitive, anthropological type. It goes far beyond the religious opposition used by Huntington to establish the Muslim world as exterior to the western sphere. For the anthropologist accustomed to working on social manners, the Anglo-Saxon and Arab system are in absolute opposition.

The American family is nuclear, individualist and ensures an elevated position for the woman. The Arab family is extended, patrilineal and places the woman in a maximal situation of dependence. Marriage between cousins is particularly taboo in the Anglo-Saxon world; preferred in the Arab world. America, whose feminism has become in the course of the years increasingly dogmatic and aggressive, and whose tolerance for the effective diversity of the world is falling endlessly, was in a sense programmed to enter into conflict with the Arab world, or more generally with that part of the Muslim world whose familial structures resemble that of the Arab world, what we may call the ‘arabo-muslim’ world. Such a a definition would includes Pakistan, Iran, Turkey partly, but not Indonesia and Malaysia and the Islamized peoples of the African facade on the Indian Ocean where the status of woman is high.

The clash between America and the arabo-muslim world thus presents the unpleasant appearance of an anthropological conflict, an irrational confrontation between values that are by definition indemonstrable. It is somewhat disturbing to see such a dimension become a structuring factor in international relations. After September 11, this cultural conflict has taken on a buffoonish and again theatrical character. On the one side, America, country of the castrating women, who previous president had to appear before a commission in order to prove that he had not slept with a trainee; on the other side, Ben Laden, a polygamous terrorist with his innumerable half-brothers and half-sisters. The Muslim world does not need American advice to evolve in the domain of [not just sexual - SV] mores.


Message 411 (Oct 9, 2002)

Why the American 'leadership' misjudges the world: because their culture is evolving backwards and becoming corrupt?

Beyond all the apparent motivations of the United States--indignation at the status of Arab women, importance of petrol--the choice of the Muslim world as a privileged target and pretext for American theatrical militarism, whose real objective is to illustrate in the cheapest fashion the “strategic omnipotence” of the United States, also results, quite simply, from the weakness of the Arab world. It is by nature the sacrificial lamb. Huntington notes--it’s not too clear whether with regret or satisfaction--that Muslim civilization has no central dominant state, no “core state” in his terminology. In the arabo-muslim sphere there is in fact no state that is powerful by way of population, industry and military capacity. Neither Egypt, nor Saudi Arabia, nor Pakistan, nor Iraq, nor Iran have the material and human means for a real resistance. Israel has moreover administered on several occasions the demonstration of the current military incapacity of the Arab countries, whose level of state development and organization seems incompatible for now with the emergence of efficacious military apparatus.

The region is thus an ideal field of demonstration for the United States, that can carry off ‘victories’ there whose facility evokes that of a video game. The defeat in Vietnam has been perfectly interiorized by the American military establishment, which knows the incapacity of its own troops on the ground and never ceases to recall--whether it’s the lapse of a general confounding Afghanistan with Vietnam or the evident fear of engaging troops on the ground--that the only type of war possible for the United States is against a weak adversary without anti-aircraft defenses. There is moreover no doubt that in targeting a weak adversary, by choosing asymmetry, the American army is resuming a certain military tradition, associated with differentialism, that of the Indian wars. [pp.165-66]

“Confront the strong, or attack the weak? a short term solution: attack the weak”

Message 410 (Oct 8, 2002)

Conflict of civilization between Europe and United States: the cultural emancipation of India?

Huntington’s most enormous error is probably when he seeks to restrict the sphere of American domination to what he calls the West. Seeking to window-dress American aggressivity as civilization, he targets the Muslim world, Confucian China and orthodox Russia but postulates the existence of a “western sphere” whose nature is uncertain, even with respect to his own criteria. This Western bazaar melds Catholics and Protestants within a single cultural religious system. This fusion is shocking for those who have worked on the opposition of theologies and rituals, or more simply on the bloody struggles between believers of the two religions in the XVIth and XVIIth centuries. Leaving aside Huntington’s unfaithfulness to his own variable, namely religion, it is especially almost too easy to demonstrate a latent opposition between Europe and America starting from this same criterion [religion], this time used correctly and applied to the present. America is stuffed with religious phraseology, half its inhabitants claim to attend church on the week-end, and a quarter do so in fact. Europe, for its part, is an agnostic space where religious practice tends towards zero. But the European Union better applies the biblical commandment of “Thou shalt not kill!” Capital punishment has been abolished and the homicide rate is very low, close to 1 for 100,000 inhabitants per year. The execution of the [many falsely or wrongly - SV] condemned is a routine fact in the United States where the murder rate, after a slight decrease, remains between 6 and 7 per 100,000 inhabitants. [...] The universe of cultural differences between Europeans and Americans is almost infinite, but an anthropologist owes it to himself [herself? - SV] to mention the status of the American woman, castrating and menacing, as disquieting to European males as the omnipotence of the Arab male to European women.

We need to evoke especially what is most profound, most ancient in the divergence between American and European conceptions: the very process itself of the constitution of societies, a level of analysis where social mores can hardly be distinguished any more from the economy and to which the concept of civilization is more adequate.

European societies were born from the labor of generations of miserable peasants. They have suffered for centuries from the warring habits of their ruling classes. They have discovered wealth and peace only of late. One could say as much of Japan and most of the countries of the Old World. All these societies conserve, in a sort of genetic code, an instinctive understanding of the notion of economic equilibrium. At the level of practical morality, they still associate the notions of work and of reward, on the level of accounting those of production and consumption.

American society is, on the contrary, the recent product of a very successful colonial experiment that has not been tested by time: it has developed over three centuries through the importation, on a soil endowed with immense mineral resources, agriculturally very productive because virgin, of an already literate population. America has probably not understood that its success derives from a process of exploitation and expenditure without compensation of wealth that it has not created.

The just understanding that the Europeans, Japanese or no matter which other people of Eurasia have of the need for ecological equilibrium or an equilibrium of the trade balance is the product of a long peasant history. Since the Middle Ages, Europeans, Japanese, Chinese and Indians, for example, have had to fight against the exhaustion of the soil and acknowledge as a matter of fact the scarcity of natural resources. In the United States, a population freed from their past discovered a nature that was apparently inexhaustible. Economy ceased to be the discipline that studied the optimal allocation of rare resources, to become the religion of a dynamism that is not interested in the notion of equilibrium. The refusal of the Kyoto protocol by the United States, just like the O’Neill doctrine on the benign character of the commercial deficit is partly the result of a cultural tradition. America has always developed by exhausting its soil, wasting its petrol, an in seeking outside itself the men that it needed for work. [pp.202-04]

 “The emancipation of Europe: conflict of civilization between Europe and United States

Message 404 (Oct 7, 2002)

After the Empire: essay on the decomposition of the American system - "Reviewing the Bush Doctrine"

A single menace of global disequilibrium weighs upon the planet today: America itself, which from protector has become predator. Just when its political and military utility ceases to be evident, it perceives that it can no longer do without the goods produced by the planet. [p.221] This demonstrative militarism, supposed to prove the technomilitary incapacity of all the other actors of the world, has ended up disquieting the real powers that are Europe, Japan and Russia, and pushes them henceforth to draw closer together. [p.223] The control of the Persian Gulf or Central Asian oilfields is presented as the rational objective of American action within the sphere of weak countries. It’s rational only in appearance because American dependence is henceforth universal, and not simply with regard to oil. [p.224] Unfettered free exchange that accentuates the movement towards inequality in income, will result instead in a triumph of the oligarchic principle. American control of the system would engender a phenomenon whose beginning could be observed between 1995 and 2000, the transformation of the American people into an imperial plebs nourished with the industrial goods of the whole planet. [p.227] America is not a superpower. At this stage, it can terrorize only weak nations. As far as really global confrontations are concerned, it is at the mercy of an entente between Europeans, Russians and Japanese. The latter have the theoretical possibility of strangling it. As for America, it cannot live off its own economic activity alone, which needs subsidies to maintain its level of consumption: at the stage and rhythm of the current cruising speed, 1.2 billion dollars per day. It’s America that should fear, if it becomes too disruptive, an embargo. [p.228] But the net result is easy to foresee: a regulatory pole would appear in Eurasia, closer to the center of gravity of the world, and a drying up of the material, monetary and migratory flow that today nourishes America may be envisaged. The United States would then have to live like other nations, by balancing their external accounts, a constraint that would imply a 15 to 20% drop in the effective standard of life of their population. This evaluation takes into account the fact that only imported and exported goods have an international value. The majority of goods and services currently taken into account in the American GNP have no value in the international markets and are in fact heavily over-estimated. [pp.229-30] No country in the XXth century has succeeded in increasing its power through war, or even by merely augmenting its armed forces. France, Germany, Japan, Russia have lost immensely at this game. The United States emerged as victors of the XXth century because they knew, over a very long period, to refuse to implicate themselves in the military conflicts of the Old World. Let us follow the example of this first America, that which had succeeded. Let us dare to become strong by refusing militarism and accepting to focus on the internal economic and social problems of our societies. Let present-day America exhaust, if it so desires, whatever remains of its energy in its “fight against terrorism,” an ersatz struggle to maintain a hegemony that no longer exists. If they insist on wanting to demonstrate their omnipotence, they will only end up demonstrating to the world their powerlessness [pp.232-33].

The Diversity of the World: Family Structures and Modernity

La diversité du monde : structures familiales et modernité (Seuil, March 1999)

Message 439 (Nov 2, 2002)

Politics of Friendship: (Jewish) family structures versus idealized polity (Emmanuel Todd & Jacques Derrida on 'communitas')

The vision of history proposed by the two books, bound here into one, provoked, at the time of their publication in 1983 [La Troisième Planète = The Explanation of Ideology] and 1984 [L’Enfance du Monde], a rather lively polemics. The explanation of the ideological fragmentation of the world, then the unequal rhythms of its cultural development, in terms of the diversity of peasant familial structures, was not received with unanimous favor. The idea that communism, Nazism, Anglo-Saxon liberalism, the egalitarian individualism of the French Revolution, or Islamic integralism, could be merely the repackaging, during the epoch of literacy, of the values contained since centuries within anthropological systems inherited from the founding time--values of liberty or authority, equality or inequality, exogamy or endogamy--provoked contradictory reactions. The hypothesis, vigorously backed by Pierre Chanu, viewed with sympathy by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Henri Mendras, or Jean-François Revel, encountered from the the political scientists, and even more from the anthropologists, a spectacular hostility... [p.7] Like psychoanalysis, to which it is so close through its recourse to the notion of the unconscious, the anthropological model could lead to a more reasonable and useful conception of human liberty. For Freud, the knowledge of the unconscious determinations of the individual should not lead to a subjection to irrational mechanisms. In its optimist version, psychoanalysis evokes the possibility of radical emancipation, in its pragmatic version it is satisfied with a better management of the psychic conflict that amounts nevertheless to a gain in liberty. The anthropological hypothesis adds to classical psychoanalysis, that postulated a single system of interpersonal relations, the notion of a diversity of familial structures, alone capable of explaining the diversity of ideological temperaments. But it is always a question of understanding a determination in order to escape from it and to march towards more of a freedom that can never be absolute. [pp,13-14] - Preface to new combined edition.

The Fate of Immigrants: Assimilation and Segregation in the Western democracies

Le destin des immigrés :assimilation et ségrégation dans les démocraties occidentales  (Paris: Seuil 1994)

Message 480 (Dec 9, 2002)

Multiculturalism, caste, universalism and the survival of communal diversity: a belated Indian Thanksgiving?

"The right to difference as a factor of anomy," False Consciousness

There is only one logically satisfying solution to the problem of the inversion of conscious American values: between 1650 and 1776, the a priori metaphysical certainty of human difference fixes itself progressively on the non-European populations, on the Indians and the Blacks [author’s emphasis]. This fixation on the Indian or Black difference facilitates the effacing of the difference between white Englishmen and the birth of a partial egalitarian ideology. One may speak of a process of externalizing difference. This solution is, truly speaking, suggested by the Declaration of Independence itself, which, after having affirmed the equality of men, defines the Indians as “merciless savages”, implicitly considering the notions of White and Man as interchangeable. Such an approach makes it possible to understand the pioneering role of Virginians such as George Mason or Thomas Jefferson in the production of the egalitarian ideology. During this period, Virginia owns 40 percent of all the black slaves of the United States and the sentiment of white equality is particularly strong there. In the chapter of Democracy in America devoted to the emergence of the dogma of popular sovereignty in the United States, Tocqueville marvels at the fact that the most aristocratic States of the South have given the signal for the democratization. “In this way -- a singular phenomenon -- the democratic impulse is seen to be most irresistible in the States where the aristocracy had the most roots. The state of Maryland, which had been founded by the great landowners, was the first to proclaim the universal vote and to introduce into the whole of its government the most democratic forms.” This driving role does not come from a perverse passion of the aristocracy to destroy their own legitimacy but from the fact that the plantation economy, that ensures their existence, presupposes the presence of an important black population, whose physical difference stimulates the sentiment of white equality. [p.48]

“The Declaration of Independence and the democratic paradox,” Differentialism and Democracy in America

Message 503 (Dec 22, 2002)

Democracy, race and politics: is there an American caste-system?

Americans of every hue who fight for the extension to the Blacks of civic rights affirm in an explicit and absolute manner the equality of men and the homogeneity of the human species. Their first important success is no doubt, in June 1941, president Roosevelt’s decree forbidding racial discrimination in the military industries and in the Federal administration. [...] Supported by the majority opinion of the country, the federal government is ready to impose political and educational desegregation on the South, including resort to the army. [...] A series of opinion polls allows us to track, over a long period, the progress of the anti-segregationist doctrine among white Americans. In 1942, only 32% among them thought that Blacks and Whites should frequent the same schools; in 1982 90% of them accepted the principle of school integration. In 1942, 46% of Whites disapproved of segregation in public transportation; in 1970, 88%. In 1963, only 38% of white Americans disapproved of laws forbidding interracial marriage; in 1987, 73%. White opinion also rejects henceforth the notion of a right to maintain Blacks in specific residential zones: at 59% in 1972, 78% in 1989. At the conscious level, the progress of universalism seems irresistible. [pp.84-86]

“The Democratic Consciousness in action: 1940-1990,” Chapter 4 - The Segregation of Blacks in the United States

These polls capture the conscious stratum of American attitudes. If we return from the variables of opinion to the variables of behavior, we see that the segregationist obsession is still just as active. The arrival of Blacks in white residential zones and schools continues to provoke the flight of these same white individuals who affirm, through their responses to opinion polls, the principle of the equality of men of different physical appearance. The ghettos persist or are reconstituted in the center of large cities. The public school system, henceforth open to Blacks, collapses, the children of middle class whites being sheltered from racial mixing in private schools. White and black children are not to meet, as neighbors or as classmates. Through this absence of familiarity maintained in practice, the adolescents will become strangers, incapable of inter-marrying. The neighborhood, the school and marriage are by nature anthropological variables whose combination defines the field of concrete interpersonal relations of the individual. The permanence of the ghettos, the refusal by American whites of an effective school desegregation, the stability of racial endogamy suggest a dragging out of the American differentialist model at the level of the anthropological system. The unconscious speaks, this unconscious that does not believe in the equality of men and in the unity of the human species. Between 1940 and 1990, American society offers us the astonishing spectacle of a collective mental dissociation, of a conflict between the conscious and the collective unconscious. For a just appreciation of the intensity of the conflict, it should be realized that both of the adversaries--the conscious and the unconscious--are strong. The struggle for civil rights was not an alibi, but a really dramatic moment in American history, involving a general restructuring of the legislative apparatus and the use of the federal army. Radical techniques of social reform were conceived. Obligatory busing was to shuffle the school populations, by using buses to transfer some black children to neighboring white school districts. Never really accepted by the white populations, it was nevertheless desired by the judicial authorities and applied by the executive power. Similarly, affirmative action, favoring Blacks in order to reduce their handicap in the professional domain or in higher education, though never wholly approved by the majority of the population, was largely practiced in the public sector, then in the private enterprises working for the federal government, and finally beyond that in a good part of the purely private sector. A more determined conscious effort by a society to eliminate its mechanics of racial separation cannot be imagined. The mobilization of the American democratic consciousness was massive and costly. The counter-mobilization of the differentialist unconscious was no less so. The maintenance of a separation on the ground was not an easy operation for the white populations. Van de Berghe touches a sociologically fundamental point when he qualifies racial segregation as a time-consuming monomania. The quantity of individual and social energy absorbed by the mechanics of separating the two fundamental racial categories is prodigious. We have to imagine millions of white families ready to move at any time if some black families settle in their quarter, and ready to withdraw their children from the public school system despite the financial costs of such a choice. The sum of these millions of familial decisions leads to the implosion of American cities, with their centers abandoned to ghettoized black populations. This operation, carried out at the scale of a nation-continent, deserves a global analysis of the econometric type. American differentialism is a mental structure [castes of mind? - SV], but capable of producing spectacular macrosocial effects. [pp. 86-87]

“The Reaction of the Differentialist Unconscious,” Chapter 4 - The Segregation of Blacks in the United States

Message 480 (Dec 9, 2002)

Multiculturalism, caste, universalism and the survival of communal diversity: a belated Indian Thanksgiving?

"The right to difference as a factor of anomy," False Consciousness

With multiculturalism, America completes a vast ideological cycle leading from the religious differentialism of the 17th-century to the ethnic differentialism of the 20th. The Protestants were interested in the difference between the chosen and the damned. The multiculturalists are attached to the difference between whites and blacks, Anglos and Hispanics, men and women, Jews and Christians, Italians and Scots, homosexuals and heterosexuals. The first American differentialism was based on a dichotomous classification, the most recent multiplies criteria whose combination produces an infinitely fragmented image, kaleidoscopic according to some, of American society. This image is an ideological illusion because at the level of objective behavior, elementary human relations -- neighborhood, education, marriage -- reveal the persistent existence of only two groups: whites and blacks, the chosen and the damned. The incapacity of American society to transcend, despite its efforts, its own racial categories demonstrates the power of anthropological determination. The values of liberty and nonequality that structure the original family are not destroyed or even modified through the cultural, economic and social development of the United States. Between 1940 and 1990, the foremost postindustrial society is unable to transform Blacks into men like others. In the age of the computer there remains a primitive anthropological matrix that defines the nature of a human group of 250 million inhabitants in the same way that they defined that of some communities founded by the English emigrants of the 17th-century.

The existence of a primitive matrix also explains the unshakable character of an idea of liberty, capable of escaping all the challenges, all the crises of the 20th century, economic, social or political. But no conscious effort, moral or logical, is able to kill the belief in human difference. The brothers are not the symmetrical representations of a single essence: men thus cannot be equal. We arrive here at one of the limits of American liberty. The citizens of the United States enjoy an amazing political, economic and social liberty. But they are not free to arrive at an egalitarian and universalist consciousness. They are prisoners of an anthropological determination that escapes them. [pp. 106-07]

“The limits of liberty,” The Multiculturalist Illusion

Message 445 (Nov 19, 2002)

Learned Jews and illiterate Gypsies - transmission of (musical) knowledge in (Hindu) traditional culture

Stem-based and endogamous, obsessed with genealogical continuity, the traditional Jewish family structure seems to have been made to ensure the perpetuation of the group. Jewish differentialism does not however function in a vacuum, that is to say only for the self-glorification of a people without any specific characteristic other than its ethnocentrism, in the manner of the Basque differentialism. Jewish particularism serves as a support to the first among the monotheistic religions. It is for the defense of a faith and a religious culture that this human group accepted its minority situation and allowed itself to be enclosed by Christian Europe within ghettos. A central element of Jewish culture allows us to understand simultaneously the refusal to convert that persisted till the middle of the XVIIIth century, and the subsequent acceptance of assimilation across the whole of Western Europe. Judaism distinguishes itself clearly from medieval Christianity through its respect for the book and for knowledge, through its will to make the totality of the chosen people participate in this knowledge.

“Every Israelite is obligated to the duty to study the Law, whether he is poor or rich, whether he has the body intact or diminished by infirmities, whether he is in the flower of his years or deprived of his energy through great age. Even when plunged in misery, subsisting only through charity or begging from door to door, even if married and burdened with children, he has the duty to set aside time both by day and by night for the study of the Law” (Maimonides). [...]

The obsession with education is thus one of the strengths of traditional Judaism. But this strength becomes a weakness when, following the Protestant Reformation, Western Europe takes off culturally. During the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries, mass literacy ends up reaching all the peasant populations situated between the Oder and the Loire. Right from the XVIIth century. the towns of Germany, Holland, England, France and Northern Italy witness the expansion of a scientific revolution that, based on a qualitative leap in mathematical expression, reveals some of the fundamental laws organizing the universe. In the XVIIIth century, the ideology of the Enlightenment, by affirming the idea of a necessary progress of humanity, makes the take off a conscious process. Western Europe becomes the very expression of modernity. It is then that, in stages, the resistance of the Jewish community to assimilation ceases. Judaism respects intelligence too much to refuse integrating with a Europe that marches towards knowledge. Conversely, wherever society does not westernize itself fast enough and the cultural advance of the Jewish communities persists, the assimilation to the surrounding environment is rejected, even when the attitude of the host society is not fundamentally anti-Semitic. [pp.235-36]

Choosing to separate, choosing to assimilate [pp. 235-38], The Emancipation of the Jews

The case of the Gypsies, nomads in Europe since the 14th century, victims like the Jews of the Nazi attempt at extermination, provides a counter-example that makes it possible to verify the importance of the ‘literacy’ factor in the resistance or non-resistance to assimilation. The Gypsies, close to the Jews in some anthropological aspects, have resisted assimilation for a somewhat longer time, which does not mean eternally, because, starting from the forties, a rupture of their ethnic endogamy may be observed in France. It remains that the gypsy people would have finally surrendered later than the Jewish people to the seduction of Western modernity. Now, within the essentially differentialist Gypsy anthropological substance may be identified an element of resistance towards modernity that has no equivalent in traditional Judaism. At the familial level, the parallelism between Jewish and Gypsy culture is striking. The gypsy family also represents a supple variety of stem structure: it combines a strong solidarity of generations, an attenuated primogeniture and a system of arranged and precocious marriage. The new couple settles down by preference in the husband’s camping ground. Marriage between cousins is frequent. [...] This lineage family structure, bereft of egalitarian values, favorable to the turning back of the group upon itself, is perfectly adapted to the ideal of continuity. On this point, no difference from Judaism. But beyond its attachment to nomadism and to the ideal of economic resourcefulness that, together, leads to specialization in petty unstable occupations, the gypsy culture is not the carrier of any particular message, of any original religious belief. The permanence of some traces of an ancient religious substrate does not prevent the Gypsies from adhering at the formal level to the dominant religion of wherever they may be. This religious opposition between Gypsies and Jews leads to the essential difference: it would not do to say that gypsy, unlike Jewish, culture does not valorize writing and knowledge, because, on the contrary, one may detect here a valorization of illiteracy as protecting group cohesion. The refusal of writing contributes towards the rejection of the external world. Gypsy culture thus finally appears to be like a negative image of Jewish culture: similar on the familial level, the two groups diverge absolutely through their attitudes towards the book, whether religious or profane. This opposition explains why the the Western take-off has represented for Judaism, but not for the gypsy way of life, a cultural challenge that has been impossible to get around. Indifferent to abstract knowledge, Gypsy culture has not really been menaced by the scientific revolution and the ideology of the Enlightenment. It would need the acceleration of the technical progress of the XXth century for the gypsy difference to disappear. Opening then to everyone the possibility of a great geographical mobility, by suddenly withdrawing from the culture of nomadism all its specificity, the automobile, at this stage, would not leave it any chance of survival.  But in the case of Jewish culture, anchored in an ideal of knowledge, the ideology of the Enlightenment and the reality of the European cultural take-off were enough for the resistance to assimilation to cease.

The Gypsy Counter-Example [pp. 238-40], The Emancipation of the Jews

Message 480 (Dec 9, 2002)

Multiculturalism, caste, universalism and the survival of communal diversity: a belated Indian Thanksgiving?

What the differentialist wave has succeeded in doing is to extinguish the expression by the French elite of the Universalist ideology that would have allowed to describe, structure and facilitate the process of assimilation in course. The disappearance of the Jacobin theory transforms the assimilation of immigrants and the destruction of their anthropological systems into a ‘savage’ process. From 1789 to 1960, the Jacobin ideology had posed a rule of the game for populations entering into the French system, clearly expressing the rights and duties resulting from an assimilation of the individualistic egalitarian type. It presented the adherence to French culture as desirable and necessary. This ideology, at the same time generous and explicitly repressive, had no qualms about ridiculing the Breton archaisms or stigmatizing the strong criminality of Italian immigrants. But it had the merit of coinciding very exactly with the behavior of the host populations, who are effectively ready to recognize the immigrants as French, as soon as they accepted, in addition to the French language, the few values defining a minimal common ground, exogamy and equivalence of the sexes in particular. Beyond this demand, the Jacobin mono-culturalism reveals itself to be, like American multiculturalism, a myth of inversion. Whereas the United States pulverizes cultures and homogenizes its society, the one and indivisible French Republic excels in the practice of accepting differences in mores and values. [p.381]

"The right to difference as a factor of anomy," False Consciousness