Emmanuel Todd’s After the Empire, which was a bestseller in France, is a somewhat worrying tract. Not that its message that the United States faces an inevitable decline, dragged down by economic profligacy and imperial overstretch, is particularly new or shocking.
No, what is disturbing about this book is less its chronicling of American dysfunction than its insight into the slightly unhinged mindset of one member of the French intellectual elite (Todd is a researcher at the French National Institute for Demographic Studies).Todd does have some credibility to attack. His La Chute finale (The Final Fall, 1979) predicted the end of the Soviet Union* by analysing demographic statistics that indicated rising levels of infant mortality–a leading indicator of societal decline.
His latest screed does have some statistical backbone–tables charting burgeoning U.S. trade deficits and concomitant levels of foreign investment in America. However, behind the sober display of figures lies a frankly loony argument.The leftish reader may be inclined to nod her head in agreement when Todd argues that recent U.S. military adventures represent “theatrical micromilitarism,” in which weak, minor nations are defeated in swift displays of imperial might. (The nightmarish situation in Iraq is beginning to undermine such a strategy, if it existed.)
Likewise, although Todd’s attempt to yoke the U.S.’s intimations of empire with the financing of its trade deficit is somewhat vague at least it remains within the bounds of rationality. (Todd seems to argue that by creating an unstable world, the U.S. sets itself up as the only safe harbour for the cautious investor. Whether Japanese or Chinese central bankers buying U.S. Treasury bonds by the truckload share this perspective is another matter.)
However, it’s when Todd starts to use his recent interest in kinship relationships to widen the debate that he seems to lose the plot.
OK (deep breath), Todd argues that the traditional pre-modern family structure will shape society as it makes the turbulent transition to modernity. So, for example, the Russian family structure, which featured a powerful father and lacked the features of primogeniture (thus placing brothers on an equal footing), is responsible for Soviet Communism: “The single part, the centralized economy, and most of all the KGB all reproduced at the level of the Russian state the totalitarian role of the traditional peasant family”C
ome on! This is the purest anti-materialist claptrap! What about the inherited structure of Tsardom (which directed almost all significant economic activity as well as supervised a police state), the legacy of serfdom, and (maybe most importantly) the ruthlessness of the Bolsheviks? Surely all that matters a bit more than the fact the Russian daddies tend to be domineering. (Todd, disappointingly, doesn’t argue that Israel (not his favourite nation) has been moulded by the pressure of that most famous family figure, the Jewish mother).
But it’s when Todd applies his addled theory to Anglo-Saxon societies (a somewhat generalized Gallic term for any country, including America, in which English is the principal language) that he moves from the merely outlandish to the fantasical.More tomorrow…
*In contrast, I think the CIA prophesised the collapse of the USSR sometime around 1990.