Friday , April 19 2024
"You must have children, lots of children, because I say so. I am father. That will stop 'national decline'."

The Patriarchy Comes Out of the Closet

There’s a fascinating insight into the mindset of the patriarchy, or at least of one of its defenders, in Foreign Policy this month. Phillip Longman’s argument in a nutshell is that only the rule of the fathers will ensure that large numbers of children are born. Therefore we must have a full on, father-knows-best-and-rules-all (probably with a heavy leather belt), patriarchy.

Throughout the broad sweep of human history, there are many examples of people, or classes of people, who chose to avoid the costs of parenthood. Indeed, falling fertility is a recurring tendency of human civilization. Why then did humans not become extinct long ago? The short answer is patriarchy.

Patriarchy does not simply mean that men rule. Indeed, it is a particular value system that not only requires men to marry but to marry a woman of proper station. It competes with many other male visions of the good life, and for that reason alone is prone to come in cycles.

The fallacies are obvious. One is that Earth can continue to support an infinitely increasing population, until, presumably, each person has just enough space to stand. That’s so obviously ridiculous — when the world’s ecosystems are already showing severe signs of collapse — that it hardly requires a response.

But let’s for a moment follow his social Darwinism, and consider the claim that societies that outbreed other societies will eventually come to rule them, which seems thus far to have done India and China little good. What has finally started to lift them is education, training, investment in people — things that are only possible with relatively small families. For what is needed today is clearly a skilled, educated workforce.

That leaves me thinking about what the fundamentalists are doing to America, for here is only an, apparently, respectable, intellectual face of the rabid anti-abortionist, anti-women’s rights, anti-anyone-except-their-own-rights campaigners. They are trying to take control of women’s bodies (and minds) and turn them into Stepford wives. And they think that will produce some sort of Fifties Brady Bunch idyll.

But what is it going to do to the economics of America? If you force women (and men) not to have sex outside marriage (for fear of pregnancy, if nothing else, having restricted and often ended access to birth control) they will, inevitably, marry young. And that will stop them getting education, stop them participating to their full capacity in the workplace, in short cost them vast amounts of money. To consider a British study:

A 24-year-old mid-skilled woman giving birth would, she found, earn a staggering £560,000 less at today’s prices over her lifetime than a childless counterpart. Giving birth at 28 would only cost £165,000.

Now of course that is a loss to the individual woman, but it is also a loss to society. This isn’t the 1950s. To compete economically, to maintain a “developed” lifestyle, you need a highly educated, flexible workforce operating to its full intellectual and creative potential. If you greatly restrict the contribution of half of them — and as we know from the Third World, when you restrict the education of women you tend to cut the educational attainment of their children — you are going to be very ill-equipped to compete.

The American “red” states, where the fundamentalists wield real power, might be sending themselves back to the Fifties in more ways than one. They might in effect be, by choice, “under-developing” themselves, taking themselves back to poverty and “Third World” economic status. Wonder what the right-wing extreme capitalist types with whom they are politically aligned would make of that?

Longman manages to provide no evidence for his claim that sheer numbers are important, beyond suggesting that America’s problems in Iraq come because it hasn’t got enough people for the military. (Not that they don’t want to join the military because it suddenly looks like a lousy career option, to be fighting an unwinnable, unpopular war.) Although he does manage to drag the fall of the Roman Empire, always a conservative classic, even though it undermines his own argument: “What was once the Roman Empire remained populated. Only the composition of the population changed.”

But, Longman claims, since children always turned out like their parents (how then did we get to such a “parlous” state of affairs?) the patriarchy is going to win anyway, so everything’s all right, since every citizen will soon believe in a “patriarchal God [who] commands family members to suppress their individualism and submit to father.”

One of the other (many) faults in his argument? Oh, yes, that the West is not still a patriarchy — a place ruled by men. Funnily enough, women are still astonishingly thin on the ground in positions of real power in governments, in businesses, in pretty well anywhere at all. The only states that might have a reasonable claim to have grown beyond patriarchy are the Scandinavian countries. And they — with excellent parental pay and conditions, childcare etc. — are the states getting closest to replacement rates of reproduction.

Perhaps the answer is not to grow the patriarchy, but to genuinely get rid of it, if you do in fact want to encourage women to have children?

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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