Population and patriarchy
I wrote this post originally in May 2021 prompted by a NY Times story about global population decline. It’s two years later now and in today’s NY Times (Sept. 18, 2023) there’s another feature on the same subject. This new article takes a much longer view, and what it sees is global population peaking around 2085 at 10 billion and then dramatically falling off to less than 2 billion 300 years (or 10 generations) in the future. But there’s nothing new in this article about the reasons for this eventual decline. “The main reason that birthrates are low is simple: People today want smaller families than people did in the past. That’s true in different cultures and economies around the world. It’s what both women and men report in surveys.” It then adds: “Humanity is building a better, freer world with more opportunities for everyone, especially for women.” There’s a bit of truth here but it’s delivered with a dose of establishment propaganda (“a better, freer world” - really??!). The bit of truth is that women do have more opportunities than they did in earlier times. And that relates directly to the subject of this post: how viable is the notion of patriarchy in a world where women can decide to have fewer children or none at all? As I’m also at pains to argue in this post, calling out patriarchy as a largely vacuous concept is not the same as denying the ongoing oppression of women.
Saturday's New York Times (May 22, 2021) had a feature story about a looming global phenomenon: the decline in world population. Japan has been undergoing such a decline for decades but until now it was considered an outlier. Apparently the reverse is true and it turns out that Japan is really a trendsetter. In China it's estimated that by the end of this century the population could be cut in half. The latest US census showed its first decline in generations. Even countries with traditionally high birth rates, like India and Mexico, are nearing an average family size of 2.1, and of course when that number goes below 2 then parents are not producing enough children to replace themselves. There are exceptions to this trend, countries like Nigeria, but they are increasingly just that - exceptions. The last century saw an exponential growth of global population, from 1 to 6 billion, but it may be that this century will see a dramatic reversal of those numbers. In Japan nowadays adult diapers outsell baby diapers.
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At the risk of gross oversimplification, I'm going to mention two key factors behind this trend. The first is the economy: a declining birth rate is a massive vote of non-confidence in capitalism. Having children has become prohibitively expensive. Much more could be said about this but I won't because it's the second factor I want to focus on.
Which is: that it is women who are driving this decline. They are choosing to have children later in life, often when they are in their 30s, and also choosing to have fewer of them. Of course this second factor can't be separated from the first but they're far from being identical. Imagine for a moment that we have eliminated capitalism: do we seriously expect that women are going to go back to having 5 or 6 children? Quite the contrary, the end of capitalism would free women, as it would men, to live their lives to the fullest of their potential, and I very much doubt that most women would conceive of that potential purely in terms of their biological function as wombs. Confirming this doubt is the correlation already evident between rising levels of education among girls and falling rates of pregnancy, which is to say that the more women know the less interested they are in being repeatedly pregnant.
Of the many issues this raises, I'm going to focus on one. It seems to me that the fact that women around the world are choosing to have an ever smaller number of children undermines a pillar of modern feminism: the existence of patriarchy. I've long found this notion dubious (even though I consider myself a feminist as well as a socialist), and in light of this new demographic trend, it seems totally untenable.
My view of the matter is this: there can be no patriarchy without the extended family and the feudal and semi-feudal peasant economies that went with such families. This of course also includes the aristocratic elites parasitic off those economies. Modern urbanized capitalism eroded and eventually destroyed those economies. It also thereby destroyed the extended family and replaced it with the nuclear family - and even that is now fragmenting and falling apart. If patriarchy were still a reality, then women would still be functioning as baby machines because in a peasant economy you need children to help work the land. In an urbanized economy the opposite is true: children are just an expense, economically speaking. Of course there is more to patriarchy than bare economics: a whole tradition of social and sexual relations are generated from that base. But once the latter is gone, those traditions become rootless. That doesn't mean they automatically disappear but it does mean they become steadily less robust and far more open to being challenged, ignored, discredited, made fun of etc. And this is what has happened in the previous century and particularly since the Sixties: a wholesale revision of gender stereotypes.
Margaret Atwood's patriarchal dystopia The Handmaid's Tale has been hugely popular, but that strikes me as a negative confirmation of my basic point, since Atwood has to imagine a vast social and political counterrevolution as the premise of this new patriarchy, and along with that a wholesale enslavement of women as baby machines. In traditional patriarchy, women didn't consider having babies as enslavement, they considered it to be their natural (or god-given, which amounted to the same thing) destiny.
If, as I am claiming, patriarchy doesn't exist (or is an ever fainter relic of a bygone era), then this raises a serious problem. Because the oppression of women persists. Overwhelmingly, gendered violence is of men against women. Overwhelmingly it is girls and women who are the victims of rape, abuse, assault, harassment etc. etc. So, if this isn't coming from patriarchy, where is it coming from?
My answer to the question would be this: capitalism destroyed the traditional patriarchal family but replaced it with social, sexual and family relations that are characterized above all by one thing - atomization. And women are biologically at a disadvantage when dealing with social atomization because they are the ones that have the children.
Let me elaborate on this point. Capitalism is great at destroying traditional social relationships, clearing away all the encrusted customs and beliefs left over from centuries of feudal societies: "All that is solid melts into air," as Marx famously said. But capitalism is very bad at replacing those customs and beliefs. Its notions of freedom are mostly negative rather than positive, mostly about constraints (what you aren't allowed to do to others and vice versa) rather than aspirations (what you should want to do). That creates a huge vacuum in people's lives - and in that vacuum, zombie ideas fester.
Gender stereotypes are such ideas, as is religion: they are relics of patriarchy that go on existing even though patriarchy itself is defunct. While such stereotypes have been widely discredited in recent decades and are now considered inane and laughable, they persist because the alternatives to them are makeshift and confusing (and because capitalism is incapable of revitalizing family life and, with that, gender relationships). Such stereotypes operate in much the same way that (as Slavoj Zizek describes) ideology typically functions in late capitalism: no one expects you to believe in anything any longer, you know the system is rigged and social norms are hypocritical but you behave 'as if' that isn't the case. You know that being 'feminine' or 'masculine' is a performance, but you behave 'as if' it's what you really are.
(A further thought about zombie ideas, this time religion, where patriarchal notions are deeply entrenched, from god the father to traditional family roles. To the extent that religion exerts political power, this can lead to setbacks for women’s rights, as in last year’s overturning of abortion rights by the US Supreme Court. And yet the number of abortions in America has gone up since that ruling, with women travelling to states where the procedure is still legal or accessing abortion pills. Which is a giant fuck you to the courts and political and religious demagogues, and also a measure of how tenuous a hold these zombie ideas have over how people really live their lives.)
That's one side of it but there's another feature of bourgeois ideology that plays a crucial role. Capitalism offers life on the condition of a perpetual scramble for existence, and in such a world vulnerability is a bad thing. Morally speaking we can disapprove of this but morality doesn't pay the rent. And this brings me back to my previous point: biology makes women more vulnerable than men. This isn't biology as destiny because the context is crucial: it's only in class societies that this biological difference becomes calcified into contempt. And there is another piece of the puzzle connected to this: the widespread feeling of impotence that results from economic oppression. When most people have no control over their livelihoods, and consequently over their survival, it's not hard to see how this can turn into a propensity for imposing control over those more vulnerable than you are.
There are many other facets to this problem, from how we raise children to how we become the sexual beings that we are with the desires that we have. At the bottom of this, as of so much else, is the nature of love (and the place of love in nature, to borrow a title from the philosopher Jonathan Lear). It's a problem that doesn't afford easy answers. Patriarchy is precisely that - an easy answer ... and a wrong one.
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