Emmanuel Todd (1): Anthropology explains ideology

What causes the different peoples of the world to think and feel so differently about such things as religion and politics? Despite inventions like the telephone, high speed modern transport by rail and air, and now the latest such miracle in the form of the internet, people in different parts of the world still seem defiantly different from one another. And their differences, instead of being ironed out by modern communications technology, are instead made all the more visible and scandalous to all who concern themselves about such things. Why?

Why, historically, do political and religious ideologies often start by spreading with the speed and completeness of a medieval plague? But why do they then, with equal suddenness, mysteriously cease their expansions?

Why do the world’s different peoples, in addition to quarrelling with one another, seem so very varied in their responses to the opportunities and agonies of economic development? What is economic development?

I now believe that the best clutch of answers to these questions (and to many other related questions both historical and contemporary) has been supplied by the French historian and anthropologist Emmanuel Todd, who was born in 1951.

I have not read all of Todd’s books, because my French is not good enough. But I have read, and I own in treasured English translations, the two that appear to be the most important. These are: La Troisième Planète: Structures Familiales et Systèmes Idéologiques, published in 1983, published in English, in 1985, as The Explanation of Ideology: Family Structures and Social Systems; and L’Enfance du Monde: Structure Familiale et Développement, published in 1984, published in English in 1987, as The Causes of Progress: Culture, Authority and Change.

The first of these books is probably the most striking one, and in this posting, I will concentrate on – in the amazingly confident title which Todd or someone chose for the English edition of La Troisième Planète – the explanation of ideology. The explanation.

I will now attempt an approximate summary of Todd’s explanation of ideology.

The peoples of the world are different in their ideological orientations because they have different “family structures”. The world’s different ideologies and ideological tendencies (communism, Islam, social democracy, Anglo-Saxon liberalism, the Indian caste system, and so on) are projections onto the public stage of ideas first learned within the family.

In the family one acquires beliefs about such things as the nature of and proper scope of parental authority, the appropriate degree of equality or lack of it in the relations between men and women, and between older brothers and younger brothers, the proper way to get married and have children in one’s turn, the appropriate relationship between one’s family and other families, and so on.

These ideas are handed down from generation to generation, and do not change from one century to the next, or even from one millennium to the next. Family structure, for Emmanuel Todd, is the independent variable. It causes other things. It is not itself caused. It simply is.

“Family structure” does not mean the particular circumstances of particular families. Family structure is the belief set that all those raised in a particular anthropological setting hold in common about the proper nature of family life. Some particular parents divorce or die young while others do not. Some have many children while others have few or none. Some children marry, earlier or later, and have children of their own, others not, and so on. Todd does not trace any connections from the particular family history of an individual or of a group of individuals to their subsequent behaviour and attitudes. It is what members of the same anthropological group all agree to be the proper nature of the family, and of the various privileges and obligations associated with it, that matters. He is concerned with the ideal family, so to speak.

In different family systems, the same events will be experienced differently, with a different degree of shame or triumph, or even absolutely differently. Divorce happens, but is usually (not always) experienced as a problem. A married sister may, or may not, retain links with her original family. Cousins or nieces may be encouraged to marry cousins or uncles, or fiercely forbidden to. Incest may be taboo (or not). Brothers may be equal, or unequal. Fathers may control their grown-up sons until death do them part, or not. Mothers may be powerful matriarchs, or little more than girls. And so on. All of this varies from place to place in the world, and it is these local agreements and global disagreements that Todd is concerned with.

What triggers history’s great eruptions of ideological and religious enthusiasm is mass literacy. When a majority of the young men can read and write for the first time, that is to say at a time when a majority of their fathers could not, then there is always an ideological upsurge. Hence the German Reformation, the English Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, Islamic fundamentalism, the Tamil Tigers, and so on and so on and so on. Each of these eruptions into ideological modernity takes its particular and quite distinct form from the family structure that dominates in the place where it happens.

Rising literacy is easy to see coming. Anthropology is easily studied. Therefore both the timing and the nature of such ideological eruptions can be easily predicted. Todd has an impressive record of such successful predictions. (I recall Todd’s very confident announcement that Nicaragua would not turn communist, at a time when it was widely predicted that it was about to.)

So much, for now, for the explanation of ideology.

In The Causes of Progress Todd turns to other less explosive and destructive but equally important effects of mass literacy. Mass literacy, in a very basic sense, is economic development. When a population becomes literate, it gets rich. Not immediately, because it takes time to get rich, and it especially takes time to get rich if the ideological eruptions triggered earlier by mass literacy are particularly destructive.

Mass literacy among women also has profound effects upon fertility, which tends to oscillate wildly during the modernisation process. Fertility first surges, then plummets.

Further Emmanuel Todd postings here will, I hope and intend, go into more detail. In my next posting, for instance, I intend to itemise all the world’s various family structures, and which ideologies they correspond to.

I also hope to speculate about and in due course (this is a blog after all) to find out about why Todd’s theories have had so little impact in the English speaking world, despite appearing to have extreme relevance to many contemporary debates and concerns, about such things as Islamic terrorism. Is it because they are simply wrong? I don’t now think so, but I do think that Todd is often wrong (at the very least extremely contentious) about many matters incidental to his most important ideas, which has surely not helped.

Worse, from the point of view of anyone else who is interested in ideological matters being willing to spread his ideas, Todd appears to reduce all ideologists to mere sock puppets for their inner anthropologically programmed urges.

But that is all to come. For now, that will have to suffice.

My Emmanuel Todd blogging journey has now begun.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

Two faces of Horatio Nelson and the excellence of Findlay Dunachie

This recollection about Nelson is fascinating:

He entered at once into conversation with me, if I can call it conversation, for it was all on his side, and all about himself, and, really, in a style as to surprise and almost disgust me. I suppose something I happened to say may have made him guess that I was somebody, and he went out of the room for a moment, I have no doubt to ask the office-keeper who I was, for when he came back he was altogether a different man, both in manner and matter. All I had thought was a charlatan style had vanished, and he talked of the state of this country and of the aspect and probabilities of affairs on the Continent with a good sense, and a knowledge of subjects both at home and abroad, that surprised me equally and more agreeably than the first part of our interview had done; in fact he talked like an officer and a statesman. The Secretary of State kept us long waiting, and certainly, for the last half or three quarters of an hour I don’t know that I ever had a conversation that interested me more. Now if the Secretary of State had been punctual & admitted Lord Nelson in the first quarter of an hour, I should have had the same impression of a light and trivial character that other people have had, but luckily I saw enough to be satisfied that he was really a very superior man; but certainly a more sudden and complete metamorphosis I never saw.

That is Lord Castlereagh remembering the great man. [Correction: It was the future Duke of Wellington. Thanks Natalie – see comment.]

Was there ever a more prefect example of image projection, the nature of which is illuminated dazzlingly, by at first being done wrongly? Whoops! Wrong performance for this bloke! So, leave the stage. Then, re-enter, performing quite differently.

We are not talking “image” and “reality” here. Just two different images and two different realities.

I do not criticise Nelson for his obvious emphasis on image-mongering. On the contrary, it is all part of what an excellent commander he was. I feel exactly the same about another hero of mine, Montgomery, who was similarly devoted to cultivating his own fame.

For me the crucial thing is that the men being lead in battle preferred it this way. Better a self-promoter than a cypher whom you never see. Central to great leadership is understanding and controlling the effect you have on other people.

Findlay Dunachie supplies the above quote in a Samizdata review of books about Nelson, Collingwood, Trafalgar, etc., which is outstanding, as several commenters have pointed out.

Over the last few months and years, the usually quite long review articles by Findlay Dunachie have been, I would say, just about the classiest things at Samzidata. He is not listed there as a “principle contributor”. He is merely a “contributor”. But as far as quality is concerned he has been and is a principle, no doubt about it.

For technical reasons it is not now possible to link to individual author archives on Samizdata, but if you look at everything in the category of book reviews, you will find most of Findlay’s stuff, and not a lot else.

I also particularly recommend this 1996 Libertarian Alliance Historical Note, entitled The Success of the Industrial Revolution and the Failure of Political Revolutions: How Britain Got Lucky.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog


I am listening to a Radio 3 show about Pierre Boulez, in case anything is said by him or about him which will make me despise this man somewhat less than I do. So far, nothing.

Boulez was not really a composer at all, more one of those many French wordspinner charlatans who have flourished mostly in academia. The only difference is that Boulez illustrates his wordspinnings with noises, rather than by just letting the words confuse for themselves.

I admire Daniel Barenboim greatly, and he greatly admires Boulez. But there my admiration for Barenboim stops. Barenboim does not admire Shostakovich. Ditto. The trouble, for Barenboim, is that Shostakovich scores are not complicated. Exactly! Shostakovich manages to say a great deal with very little. Boulez does the opposite, saying very little with great municipal rubbish heaps of noises and printed squiggles to go with them. Barenboim loves all that complication. Sadly, there is very little music there.

What music there is there is a kind of post-Debussian, post-Ravelian waterfall – flutes, bells, glissandi, washes of string sound. Very French. Boulez’s musical impulses, such as they were, seem to have had little connection with his musical theories, which might explain why the music dried up.

He has been a pretty good conductor, especially, I find, of Wagner. Boulez was “clear, cool, dispassionate” (the words of an American musician) as a conductor. Since Wagner provided all the heat and passion you could possibly want, this made his Wagner rather good, to my ear. Sometimes his Mahler is good too, for the same reason. But sometimes, he drains the life entirely out of Mahler, and turns conducting into mere arm-flapping and time-beating..

What is coming across very strongly is that Boulez does have presence, force of personality, a steely look in his eye – as well as great charm, which he can switch on like the house lights in a theatre. You do not forget him. He is like a great general or a great politician. Sadly, he uses this genuine talent mostly in the service of foolishness, and to get lots of other people’s money to pay for these foolishnesses. He has presided over the creation of many publicly funded buildings. These are (says the presenter) a tribute to his “winning combination of ruthlessness and charm”.

Roger Scruton is involved in this programme, and he is the one who is talking the most sense. “My feeling is that the place of Boulez in the history of music is a very marginal one.” “A brilliant dead end.”

“Mocking Boulez is so very easy to do”, says the presenter. How true. He is no harder to laugh at that any other unconscious, non-intentional clown. If he is a great general, he is one of those great generals who was great, until it came to fighting his most important battle. Which he lost.

The musicians like Boulez and admire Boulez. That’s now being explained. Maybe the truth is simpler, that Boulez is just another of those failed-composers successful-conductors who dominated the classical music scene throughout the last century. Every one of those big names – Klemperer, Walter, Kubelik, and the rest of them – turn out to have had absurd and pointless symphonies and piano sonatas in their bottom drawers, before they gave in to the inevitable, and conducted great music instead of composing ungreat stuff. And the failed effort to compose more musical greatness did seem to make them all much better conductors. They recognised greatness when they heard it, and were able to put it across. Some of these great conductors did make it as composers. Mahler, Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten spring to mind. Some did not bother to master conducting, because the composing went so well. Shostakovich. But Boulez’s composing was a mess, and he too switched to performing stuff by others. He just made a bit more of a fuss of his music than did Klemperer, Walter, etc. He was that most tragic of figures, an incompetent maker of things, but a brilliant seller of them, thereby publicising his failure far more cruelly. (Karl Marx springs to mind. He marketed Capital brilliantly, before he had written it, and after he had written it and knew it to be tosh. But it is still tosh. Marx’s failure has been hideously public.)

But, don’t let me stop you enjoying Boulez’s creations, if you do enjoy them. He isn’t nearly as bad as Karl Marx. He never did that much harm. And whereas with Karl Marx, the way it sounded only served to publicise evil nonsense and make it stick all over the twentieth century, Boulez was merely … Boulez.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

Douglas Jardine and Spike Milligan

I see that BBC4 TV is showing a programme about the late Spike Milligan tonight. In fact I have just started watching it. So far it has been a parade of dreary Milligan relatives who I do not want to know about.

It so happens that I was having Spike Milligan thoughts myself today, without any such TV provocation.

My Milliganic thoughts were prompted by a little piece they did during the lunch interval of the C4 TV coverage of the Ashes Test Match (England 229-4 after a rain interrupted first day) about the notorious Bodyline Tour of 1932, the one where England bowled short and nasty balls at Don Bradman.

In particular, they showed some clips of the notorious England captain on that tour, Douglas Jardine, pictured on the right. Jardine had a long, thin face, and a mouth which, like Milligan’s, did not go all that far sideways. Jardine also had a way of talking that combined pomposity, slowness (as if talking to a foreigner), and fear of the camera, which you could see in his darting and nervous eyes. I swear Milligan must have watched this, because many of his upper class twit routines were just like this. Voice, manner, nuances, everything. Maybe all posh people talked like that on camera in those days, but it wouldn’t surprise me a bit to learn that Mlligan paid particular attention to Jardine.

See also the two further – extremely Milliganic – pictures of Jardine at the other end the above link.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog

Giving the blogs what they want

I have just posted a bit on Samizdata about the failure of “Khubilai” Khan to conquer Japan. His entire invasion fleet sank in a typhoon, in what was apparently the greatest naval disaster ever.

This posting was originally submitted for publication at the Globalization Institute Blog, but it was rejected for being off message. It would, said GI boss Alex Singleton, stick out like a sore thumb. So what’s not global about a Mongolian battle fleet sinking, on the other side of the world, and being on the telly in one of those documentaries with actors who don’t say anything so the voice over can be in any language? As we used to say in a Restoration comedy I once acted in at Essex University: Pshaw.

This posting is not me trying to start a campaign, or anything foolish like that. Alex is paying me for GI Blog postings and as far as I am concerned he is entitled to reject what I send, no matter how irrational and wrong-headed his explanation or with no explanation at all. I believe in blogger sovereignty. So instead, I quickly did another piece about child labour.

I am now being paid to contribute, once a week, to four blogs. There’s the GI blog, and the ASI blog, and two of the CNE blogs. (See also the list on your left.) Last Sunday some people said to me: What do you do? By which I took them to mean: What do you get paid to do? And for the first time in my life I said: I’m a writer.

Originally posted at Brian Micklethwait’s Old Blog