Emmanuel Todd Prophesies the Defeat of the West

French demographer Emmanuel Todd’s new book argues that secularization has left Western societies weak and divided. But his account of the US and Europe’s secular nihilism is deeply reductive, leaving no space for forward-looking political change.

French anthropologist, historian, and demographer Emmanuel Todd in 2014. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Western admirers of Vladimir Putin’s Russia are a strangely assorted bunch, with each finding quite different things to like about it. Tucker Carlson raves about the living standards. He returned from a recent journey to Moscow enthusing over the spotless Metro system and the cheap supermarkets. The Putin-understanders of the German far right see in him a fellow champion of ethnonationalism. The French demographer, sociologist, and all-around provocateur Emmanuel Todd is cooler and higher minded in his praise: he is drawn to Putin’s mastery of geopolitics.

Todd’s latest book argues that Western powers are locked in a doomed effort to prop up Ukraine in its war with Russia. While it has sold well in France, it has also earned some scornful reviews. Le Monde dismissed him as a false prophet and a copyist of “the Kremlin’s propaganda.” La Défaite de L’Occident (The Defeat of the West) is undoubtedly soft on Putin. Yet it abounds in imaginative and occasionally shrewd explanations for the fears and jealousies which rack Western states. Its appearance is an opportunity to take the measure of a thinker at once systematic and mercurial, a cynic but also a moralist whose one consistent aversion is to self-satisfaction.

Family Fortunes

Todd’s dual identity as a demographer and firebrand is unusual. In a brilliant recent study, the historian Jacob Collins makes sense of it by placing him in what he calls an “anthropological turn” in French intellectual life, which began in the 1970s. The events of 1968 had shaken a narrow and repressive establishment but had not brought about a socialist nirvana. The Communist Party’s vote in national and presidential elections slumped and union membership tailed off. The oil shock of 1973 dampened economic growth and cast doubt on the Left’s assumption that the aim of politics was to share out an expanding affluence. These reverses encouraged some youngish intellectuals — who were not themselves anthropologists but read a lot of their work — to reground their understanding of politics and citizenship in the systematic study of human nature. Although Todd is the grandson of Paul Nizan, a celebrated Communist writer, and a youthful member of the French Communist Party, he soon shed a Marxist understanding of politics as the epiphenomena of class struggle and sought alternative models in the anthropological study of history. Perhaps it helped that he is also related to Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Todd ended up at Trinity College, Cambridge, where Peter Laslett supervised his doctoral study of peasant communities in preindustrial Europe. This was an important detour. Todd might seem in manner to be the model of a Left Bank intellectual who is viscerally opposed to “les Anglo-Saxons.” David Frum, the Bush staffer turned hack, once devoted a think tank blog post to sneering at Todd’s exquisite hair and reflexive skepticism about American power. Yet his thinking owed much more to Laslett’s wistful empiricism than to the antifoundational French Thought which once alarmed North American conservatives.

In his celebrated book, The World We Have Lost (1964), Laslett had argued that the key to past societies was less their economies than their distinctive family structures. Contrary to what Marxists claimed, it was not capitalism that had ripped apart the fabric of English life by subordinating it to market forces. In this telling, preindustrial England was already capitalist — what mattered was that its unit of production was the household of a nuclear family and its servants. Before the coming of factories, there were no faceless masses, few lonely people, and no social classes to speak of. Labor was intimate, rather than alienated, which did not make it any less exacting than modern work, merely different in kind. England’s patriarchal politics had followed its family structure: they reserved power to the tiny proportion of gentlemen whose horizons stretched beyond the villages in which they lived.

Laslett’s thesis reinforced Todd’s sympathy with the nineteenth-century French sociologists who had already found in the family a means of explaining the comparative political stability and economic vitality of European societies. In a series of voluminously documented books, Todd went on to chart elaborate homologies between political ideologies and family structures across not just Europe but the world. The republican triad of liberty, equality, and fraternity oscillated according to the relationships between fathers, sons, and siblings. Freedom flourished in societies such as England and the United States where most families were nuclear: children escaped from the authority of their parents and formed households of their own. Germany or Japan, where children had lived under the thumb of their parents in “stem families,” tended towards authoritarianism. The French Revolution had drawn its egalitarian inspiration from the Paris region, where families had divided up inheritances between siblings. Communitarian ideologies did best in societies such as Russia, where families had lived in large agricultural communes.

The Discrete Charms of Demography

France’s national institute for demographic study, which soon hired Todd to undertake such work, was a globally minded but thoroughly centrist body. When its founder Alfred Sauvy coined the term “the Third World,” he evoked the insurgent “Third Estate” whose demands had triggered the French Revolution. Yet the point of studying developing countries was to identify structures which could assist their integration into the global market. The institute also sought to benefit the domestic economy by determining the rate at which economic migrants should be admitted to France.

Todd recognized that his charts and maps could become a platform for prophetic interventions in public life. He made his name even before his arrival at the institute with his 1976 book, La Chute Finale (The Final Fall). This work marshaled stray but alarming indications of the Soviet world’s demographic problems — such as rising infant mortality and falling fertility, despite an absence of economic growth — to predict its collapse. Profile writers to this day mention it as an example of his prescience, even though the trends he identified no longer seem grave or permanent enough to explain the meltdown of the Eastern bloc.

After his lucky essay in Sovietology, Todd became better known as an analyst of France, who celebrated what he saw as the Hexagon’s uniquely complex weave of family systems and thus of ideologies. He regarded such diversity as positive, not least because it would militate against a nativist rejection of the North African economic migrants whose presence in France became a much-discussed phenomenon in the ’80s and ’90s. Yet by the time he published Après la Démocratie (After Democracy) in 2008, he was fretting about social divides which threatened the coherence of the republic and the viability of its democracy. One of these was education. Todd had always regarded the spread of universal literacy as an engine of democratization and a potent solvent of prejudices and inequalities, especially between the sexes. But he came to lament the later twentieth-century expansion of higher education, which in France and other Western countries was introducing a rift between the 40 percent or so of citizens who had benefited from it and all the rest. Globalization exacerbated this divide, because people with higher education sided with the wealthy elite in the misguided hope of sharing in its gains.

Religion, however, was the prime agent of division. In 2015, Todd’s interest in it generated his most incendiary intervention in debates about France’s democracy. After terrorists in Paris killed the staff of the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine and four Jewish shoppers and staff in the Hyper Cacher supermarket, mass marches took place throughout France. These proclaimed the unity and secularity of the republic and the right to freedom of speech — up to and including the blasphemous cartoons of Muhammad published by Charlie Hebdo. Several months later, Todd caused great offense by publishing Qui est Charlie? (Who is Charlie?), which interpreted the marches as the symptom of a “religious crisis.” He argued that they were dominated by the professional classes, by regions peripheral to the egalitarian core of France where more authoritarian family structures lingered, and — crucially — by former Catholics.

“Zombie Catholics”

Todd’s earlier work had always stressed the importance of religious divisions but put them second to his cartographies of the family. He viewed family structures as foundational to all ideologies, including religion. He noted that regions with authoritarian and inegalitarian family structures were under the sway of the Virgin Mary, whereas the Parisian region had long ago cast off the Church in favor of Marianne, the incarnation of republican liberty and reason. However, religious practice had collapsed since the 1960s, even in traditionally faithful regions. How then could Catholicism be a factor in the Charlie marches?

Todd’s answer was that even people who had abandoned their faith might still perpetuate its reactionary attitudes. Arguing that a religion can shape minds in its absence may seem a bit of a stretch, but the Charlie marchers skewed old and had been thoroughly socialized in the faith they abandoned. Todd called them “zombie Catholics.” His weakness for a zinging phrase makes them sound ghastlier than he perhaps intended, because he actually regarded the residual commitment of Catholic regions to social solidarity as an advantage in the age of neoliberal competition. The overrepresentation of the zombies in the Charlie marches exposed their hollowness: they were more concerned with maintaining France’s distribution of social power than with defending universal rights and freedoms.

If Catholicism’s implosion left the “zombies” relatively unscathed, French secularists did not fare anywhere near as well. Todd — an atheist himself — once believed that the French had coped with the death of God rather well. Life no longer had any meaning, but it carried on decently and comfortably enough. Yet it had now become clear to him that the “flying buttresses” of the Catholic Church had propped up atheism all along by giving it something to oppose.

Secularization bereaved well-educated and well-off secularists. Missing the thrill of metaphysical combat, they cast around for a new enemy to unite them. They found it in Islam — the religion of a marginalized minority in France, but one they now professed to see as a threat to Western civilization. Although the French critics of Charlie were right to allege that many of the correlations it drew between the marches and the past geography of religious allegiance and family structure were sloppy and lacking in causal power, its warnings about the rise and social anchorage of “Islamophobia” stand vindicated today — and not merely for France. In countries such as Britain, the conviction that Islam and Muslims pose a threat to Western societies differs from crasser forms of xenophobia in being a pathology of anxious elites, one spouted by newspaper columnists as often as it shouted by street brawlers.

Who’s Afraid of Russia?

“Russophobia” performs the same function in The Defeat of the West as “Islamophobia” did in Charlie. When this book gets translated into English, it will startle many readers with its fond portrait of Russia as the very model of a sovereign nation state. Casting an eye over its vital signs, Todd argues that the country compares favorably to the United States: its level of infant mortality is markedly lower and — if you subject the figures to judicious tweaking — it apparently trains more engineers, a distinctively French, almost Bonapartist criterion for a state’s success. Yes, Russia is a very authoritarian democracy, but there is no need to be too exercised about that: it has just the kind of polity you would expect its patriarchal and communitarian family patterns to generate. The important thing for him is that Russia is a “conservative” power largely content to live within its borders. It nurses no grand designs and its aging and stagnating population affords no demographic basis for expansion: Russia is not “interesting” in the “eyes of a geopolitician.”

Todd uses all the tools in his kit to cast Russia’s adversary as a “failed state.” Ukraine is a mess of different family types — what counts as laudable diversity in France becomes fragile artificiality here. Since the Orange Revolution of 2004, the rural West has tried to impose its peasant tongue on the urbanized and industrialized East, which naturally prefers the Russian language of science and high culture. Todd even takes Ukraine’s thriving trade in surrogate pregnancies as a sign of its imminent collapse, arguing that it shows a plummeting estimate of human life. Putin’s invasion becomes a preemptive strike to protect Russian speakers against the aggressive pawns of Washington. If the “suicidal” determination of the Ukrainians to subjugate the Crimea and the Donbass brought on the war, their “nihilism” has perpetuated it: conflict gives a rationale to their “levitating state,” which only Western subsidies keep aloft.

Todd’s Putin — an “intelligent” reader of world affairs, who gives “highly structured” speeches and outsmarts triflers like Emmanuel Macron with his “excellent” timing — bears little resemblance to the rambling spinner of historical fables who recently sat down with Tucker Carlson. Todd’s book gets more interesting when it moves from defending Russia’s war to asking why so many states came to see it as an existential matter for the West. It rightly criticizes the magical thinking which urged that sanctions would quickly collapse Russia’s war effort, or hoped that non-Western and nonaligned powers could be persuaded to enforce them. Even the United States does not have a sufficient industrial base to supply the Ukrainians with the tanks and shells that they would have needed to roll back Russian forces. So why the passion for this war?

Toward Point Zero

Once again Todd casts the West’s search for its enemies as the sign of a religious crisis. This time though, he points not to zombie Catholicism but to the implosion of Protestantism in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavian countries, who have been Ukraine’s cheerleaders in Europe. Writing for a French readership which imagines that its secular and republican model of state formation is normative, he emphasizes that states such as the United States and Great Britain had derived a sense of nationhood from the Bible long before the Bastille fell.

As a “good student” of Max Weber, he then adds the argument that their prosperity initially derived from Protestant habits of self-regulation and industry. No wonder, then, that their gradual but irreversible secularization is proving socially corrosive and politically destabilizing. Initially, this process strengthened democracy by producing a generation or two of “zombie Protestants,” who redirected their religious zeal toward the creation of welfare states. Even zombies, however, cannot live forever. “Phantasmal” Protestantism has given way to “point zero,” sweeping away what Todd wistfully regards as America’s once-benevolent WASP elite. It has been replaced by gangs of Washington insiders, whose only bond is their addiction to military grandstanding and the rentier profits of empire. Todd makes moralizing use of demographic data to suggest that dechristianization is sickening Protestant societies, as their godly industriousness degenerates into mere greed. The contrast between svelte Frenchmen and obese Americans suggests that the latter’s self-control has disappeared along with their God.

Weber would not have set so much store on waistlines. The breezy crudity with which Todd discusses Christianity blunts his insistence on its importance. For instance, his choice of gay marriage and the acceptance of transgender people as indicators of its passing is strangely arbitrary (not to mention echoing Russian diatribes against Western decadence). The emphasis on dechristianization is also inconsistent: he does not explain why it has not shaken Russia — where Orthodoxy is just as much in suspension — to the same extent.

All the same, Todd is surely right that societies flounder without the kind of public doctrine that churches once provided. It allows him to give a particularly shrewd account of the United Kingdom. He sees its Lilliputian bellicosity as a desperate attempt to revive its vanished standing as an elect nation. Although an inveterate enemy of the single currency and the neoliberal European Union, Todd is unimpressed by Brexit, which he presents as a symptom of a fraying Britishness, rather than a revival of it. Its leaders have fled this disarray by posturing as defenders of the West, even though decades of deindustrialization have so sapped its military that they cannot even emulate the French and make themselves “hated in Africa.” Boris Johnson embraced and armed Volodymyr Zelensky with an alacrity that surprised even the Americans.

From Ukraine to Gaza

While The Defeat of the West is less scientific and more anecdotal than Todd’s earlier books, it remains thoroughly “anthropological” in its insistence on the power of a political unconscious. To understand the decisions of individual politicians, one should consider the unseen and deep-seated structures that influence them. The risk of such an approach is that the analyst will find in the unconscious whatever they find amusing or convenient to put there. Todd’s book contains too many examples of such whimsy to mention. Let one example stand for many: he speculates that Antony Blinken’s Jewish roots in antisemitic Ukraine might be motivating him to keep it embroiled in a ruinous war as a “just punishment” for persecuting his ancestors. Todd’s references to his own Jewish ancestry hardly excuse such conspiratorial flourishes.

Todd has often essentialized and overdetermined the world as he finds it, a tendency evident in The Defeat of the West. His admittedly gripping portrait of America and Europe’s post-Christian nihilism is so overwhelming that it leaves little space for solutions. Only the Germans inspire him with some hope. Although Todd has always classed Germany as an authoritarian society and disliked its efforts to foist economic austerity on the European Union, he loathes American power more. He has long hoped that Germany might shed its status as an “inert” nation and team up with the Russians to break NATO’s hold over Europe, which has allowed America to “robotize” its political and economic elites. Todd impatiently anticipates Ukraine’s defeat primarily because it might reopen the opportunity for such an alliance, which seems neither a very plausible nor inviting prospect.

Whatever the outcome of the war in Ukraine, it seems unlikely to vindicate Todd’s fading reputation as a prophet. For all their confused values and stuttering economies, European societies remain stronger and wealthier than his gloomy prognostications or his loaded comparisons with Russia allow. Perhaps the “nihilism” and the “narcissism” which characterize their politics are in the eye of the beholder. By contrast, the war in Gaza, which began just as Todd wrote the coda to his book, is vindicating some of its wilder flourishes. The unconditional support of America’s elderly political elite for Israel’s invasion does indeed suggest they are in the grip of a psychic crisis which finds expression in a “need for violence.” The “childish simplicity” with which President Biden likened Israel to Ukraine as beleaguered bastions of freedom show how quickly Western values can become discredited by their addled defenders. The “irrational” commitment of America’s military materiel to the destruction of Gaza’s cities — which met with the protracted, if uneasy, acquiescence of its European allies and the mainstream media — suggests that all is not well with the West.