Released seventy years ago, renowned 20th century sociologist Carle Zimmerman’s book Family and Civilization studied and anticipated the breakdown of the Western family as we know it. Written before the explosion of no-fault divorce, proliferation of same-sex relationships, and the disastrous Roe v. Wade decision, his work already painted a grim look at the future of Western family development. While many of us on the Right attribute the disintegration of family bonds to the neo-Marxist ideologies that have permeated our culture, in addition to the radicalized individualism put forward by the Enlightenment, Zimmerman points out the general cycle that Western familism existed in pretty much the same format long before the early-Modern thinkers ever came to the scene.
Zimmerman begins his book with an analysis of the various forms of familism, which refers to the structure of family units in any given society. He asserts three main forms of familism: the trustee family, the domestic family, and the atomistic family. Trustee families are characterized as clannish and large, with their own set of jurisdictional law and strong hierarchies of power and authority. Domestic families, dominant during much of the Middle Ages and Renaissance period, were less reliant upon extended family networks and codes of internal law, having more respect for an authoritative central governing body that existed independent of the family itself: the state. The atomistic family, however, is an even further weakening of the family, in which divorce is common, pluralism as to what “family” is defined as is rampant, and the structure of the family is viewed from the individual subjective preferences of the people involved rather than as a cohesive unit of social stability. Each of these categorizations is analyzed in greater detail at the end of his book, with a fairly lengthy chapter dedicated to each.
From here, Zimmerman looks at the history of familism from the Greek times up into the contemporary culture of the 1940s. Trustee familism, connected closely to the pre-statist tribal societies, formed the bedrock of ancient Greek development. The advent of the state, with a codified set of laws and courts, began to remove some of the centralized power that trustee familism embodied. As the state grew in power and dominance, the family structure yielded more and more of its authority over to the governmental apparatus. After a while, the shift from trustee to domestic systems, and then finally to atomistic systems culminated in the disintegration of the empire and the invasion of stronger, foreign peoples with more stable familistic systems. This pattern is in no way unique to the Greek civilization, either—Zimmerman shows how this was repeated within the context of Rome, the post-Roman Middle Ages, and into today. As civilizations grow in power and decadence, the family begins to disintegrate; as the family disintegrates, societies with stronger family systems (usually of the trustee sort) invade and replace the atomistic peoples who find themselves unable or unwilling to defend their way of life.
What’s surprising about Zimmerman’s material isn’t really his thesis, but how detailed and exhaustively compiled his information is. The first half of his book is dedicated to a comprehensive look at the progressive variation familistic systems over the course of about fifteen hundred years, with special attention paid to the nineteenth century destruction of domestic family values and the rise of modern atomism. He claims that several cycles of this trustee barbarianism – domestic growth – atomistic collapse – repeat pattern have happened, each with varying degrees of collapse and reversion to trustee barbarianism. As Western civilization has grown in size and in population, pockets of each have often sprung up only to either reform into the domestic model or be conquered by other local tribes who operate under a trustee model. The prevailing civilizational attitude, however, across the West has been pushing more and more towards atomization, especially as communication lines have shortened and countries have been drawn closer together. Zimmerman points out that there is “one difference worth reporting between the Roman and Greek times and ours,” which is that “the circulation of ideas and customs is far more rapid than it was in Greece and in Rome” (171). The noticeable pattern of worsening debauchery as a result of the atomization decay is, he believes, a result of this more integrated and larger quasi-union of the Western ethos. He cites the dramatic upswings in venereal diseases in the late Roman empire, as well as the comparative upswing in the same problems during the Renaissance period. Alongside the presence of new sexually transmitted diseases came the importation and invention of alternative sexual practices for a growing hedonistic intellectual class. The parallels to today are self-evident.
On the subject of the intellectual class, Zimmerman points out that the cultural leaders and academic researchers of any society generally are not part of the familistic trends of their time. If they have children at all, their families tend to be small. What comments they offer on families, as well as any laws they help to pass, are usually presented from a position foreign to the typical values of the familism that society operates under at the time. How to raise children, the subjects of marriage and divorce, legislation of family bonds or activities, etc., are studied and critiqued most often by people who either hold differing viewpoints of the prevailing familism altogether, or otherwise those that are not active participants in family to begin with.
What Zimmerman makes clear, both in his writing and in the time in which he wrote, is this: civilization is rooted in whatever the people of that civilization believe the family consists of. Trustee familism and atomistic familism cannot exist in the same culture at the same time; those that practice the latter will always be eclipsed and conquered by the former. Between these two extremes rests the domestic family, a powerhouse of stability that can exist alongside the existence of a governmental authority without being so diminished as to rely upon that government for existence and sustenance. And yet, no civilization ever manages to maintain the domestic structure for very long. The state will eventually grow in stature and legislative authority as to subsume familistic responsibilities, and the family will inevitably retreat further and further until only the loose collection of individual desires remain. It is never a question of if this process will occur—only of when.
So we get to the modern era. Zimmerman, having published this work in 1947, obviously makes no comment on the disintegration of familism in the present age. But what he does have to say regarding his own period, the interwar years and the immediate post-War culture of America, remains illuminating:
“The family seems unimportant [in atomistic periods] and the whole culture takes on an individualistic coloration. The advertisements, the radio the movies, housing construction, leasing of apartments, jobs—everything is individualized. For instance, when a family situation is pictured in the advertisements of our modern newspapers, seldom are more than one or two children included in the picture. The advertisers depicted and appeal to the fashionably small family. “Child” has been substituted for ‘children’; the large family has again, as in the time of Gellius, become amusing. Radio characters are portrayed as having one or two children. In the motion pictures, the family seems to be motivated by little more than self-love. Houses are built for the small, almost childless couple and can hardly be expanded for increased families. Landlords do not want to take tenants with children and refuse to do so unless circumstances force. Dining rooms are reduced in size and more and more of the space is taken up by living rooms, where the differences in age, sex, and interest of the family members soon conflict with each other. Children’s clothing, theoretically cheaper to produce than adults’, becomes more expensive than adult clothing. Children’s toys are cheaply made; they seldom last through the interest period of one child, much less several. A civilization that can make automobiles to stand the test of being driven over cliffs does not produce a child’s tricycle that can be properly oiled. The childless couple, or the couple with at the most one or two children, can migrate freely from job to job. The woman is freed to advance the interests of her husband by playing an important role in business or bureaucratic politics. Baby carriages cost more than lawn mowers. The entire system is unfamilistic.” (193)
Now imagine had Zimmerman lived to see the present time, post-Obergefell v. Hodges, post-Roe v. Wade, post-gender binary, etcetera. How would the excerpt above change? Advertisements today now show zero children, or only one, rarely two. Often they don’t even show a family, but a pair of cohabitating individuals or, more often than not, a single woman or a single man. Large families are unheard of. Small families are encouraged more as means of describing the parents involved; children are viewed as expensive accoutrements that are noisy, stinky, and generally unpleasant when they aren’t sleeping or making absurd politically-correct statements in front of a camera for propaganda. Two men raising a child is supposed to be viewed in absolute moral equivalence as if they were both the child’s parents, as if a child is intended to have two fathers and no mother at all. Men and women are having difficulty even leaving their parents’ houses by the age of 25, much less finding a marriage partner and having kids at the ages of their peak fertility. Many, when asked, have no interest in having kids in the first place. Many, when asked, don’t even want to get married, even if they’re already in a long-term cohabitating relationship with their boyfriend or girlfriend. Familism, it is safe to say, has atomized well beyond anything Zimmerman could have thought possible back in 1947. We are beyond now even what Roman law had attempted to legislate before it bred itself into irrelevancy during the decline.
But, as Zimmerman notes, what prevented the complete destitution of Western culture during the Roman collapse was Christianity. “The Christian idea,” he writes, “was that the social system of the Romans could be recreated and saved by the development” of the more stable form of familism, the domestic system. Christianity posited that
“Within the family there were no such things as ‘others,’ because they conceived a lifelong unity of husband and wife, parent and child as furnishing a family personality with common aims and interests. Between these domestic units they conceived ‘all men as neighbors’ and the maxim ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ But the Christian movement developed too late in the scene for it to attain the necessary control to restore the Roman Empire.” (55)
In Rome’s case, the rise of atomism was too devastating a social force for attempts by the post-Patristic Christian church to restore family values. When the barbarians overtook the Empire, their pre-domestic trustee systems were accepted within a generation by necessity; the alternative was either complete ostracization from the new order or the sword. The church compromised and allowed the trustee system to be domesticated over a period of centuries using the Christian metaphysic and its moral framework. That was a wiser deal—and one better aided by the wisdom of scripture—than to try fighting the barbarians head-on and end up going the way of Rome.
Despite the cycle of systems that Zimmerman documents, he is very clear on one point regarding the domestic family: “the chief causal agent in the change” from a domestic system to the atomistic one, he says “was largely external to the family. The domestic family exists at either its upper or lower range until external conditions make its survival impossible” (237). This explains why empires are able to last for such a long time oscillating only mildly between trustee and atomized systems. For so long as the culture is not infiltrated by anti-familistic ideologies, and for so long as active purveyors of anti-familism remain rare exceptions rather than norms or even tolerated dissenters among the intellectual elite, domestic families remain the stable bedrock of civilization. Once that rug has been pulled out from beneath us, however, once civilization humors the ever-present anti-family rhetoric of extremists and madmen, and once distinctly anti-family ideologies become accepted as valid and equally-plausible alternatives to the domestic system, the entire framework of civilization begins to disintegrate until the only alternative left is either reversion to trustee barbarism or invasion by those who never left trustee barbarism in the first place. In the West, with the civilization-questioning that third-world immigration now undertakes, the latter seems more likely than it ever has in recent memory.
Throughout the book, Zimmerman makes note of how the study of familism has been subsumed by the dogma of atomism. Familism, like all fields of sociology, he claims, should be the study of the family unimpeded by agenda, and yet all too often, sociologists poison their own work with the present atomistic agenda by denigrating the domestic structure. The domestic familism of the past would not have been so easily conquered had it not been for several hundred years of continual attack by intellectual elites and cultural leaders. As the study of the family is attacked, any hope for rehabilitating what’s left of the domestic system in the West becomes increasingly remote. If anything, Zimmerman’s thesis has been validated by the last three generations of women’s liberation, abortions on demand, and legitimization of alternative family structures. Atomization of the family unit is nearly complete, as evidenced by what’s left of the family in the common rhetoric among the urban commoner on either coast. That’s a problem greater than any one sociologist or politician or theologian to solve. At this point, we’re in for the next ride and shift in familism, whatever shape that may take.