The impact of World War II that dominates the postwar era to this day is embodied in its twin revelations about human violence, epitomized by Auschwitz and Hiroshima: we can no longer use violence to settle ultimate questions of power, and we can no longer tolerate the legally enforced dominance of one group, however defined, over another. The reluctance to accord privilege has led us to the threshold of gay marriage; the fear of all-out violence ties our hands on every battlefield. The most salient fact of American history in the sixty years since Nagasaki is that the United States has not won a definitive military victory: not in Korea, surely not in Vietnam; not in the first Gulf War, where we forbore to defeat Saddam as we had defeated Hitler, nor in the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that persist in the aftermath of conventional military victories. Sixty years after we defeated Nazi Germany, a majority of Americans are convinced that we are incapable of securing the metropolitan area of Baghdad.
But if the US has not won, the rest of the modern industrial “West,” with the partial exception of a few English-speaking countries, has scarcely fought at all. The West’s current crisis of confidence carries with it the non-negligible possibility of a new Dark Age, with the productive First World swallowed up by a resentful and unproductive traditional society. Such writers as Mark Steyn and Shelby Steele have provided astute characterizations of the crisis as a product of what the latter explicitly calls White Guilt. A social order, whether tribe or civilization, that denies its own firstness, cannot defend itself. Europe, by its failure to do so, is engaged in a process of self-extinction; never before have societies voluntarily declined to reproduce themselves. I agree with Steyn that this implicit decision to self-destruct trumps all other social characteristics, obliging us to regard the modern dominance of individual rights over collective responsibilities with a critical eye. Whether explicitly, as in Judaism and Islam, or implicitly, as in Christianity, morality is always contingent on ethics. A model of moral behavior that leads its society to perish is a contradiction in terms.
The possibility of this confusion is inherent in the foundation of morality in the originary event: at the origin, the critical issue is to defer (masculine) violence, not to promote reproduction. The community that first embodies the “moral model” of reciprocal exchange faces synchronic self-destruction, not diachronic extinction. But the originary exchange of signs can be preserved only by being renewed, and the continual re-embodiment of the timeless sign requires the prolongation of the community in time, a process theorized by Marcel Mauss in his unassuming epoch-making essay on The Gift.
The failure of European society to give its citizens an incentive to reproduce it for future generations gives us an insight into that most sterile of dialogues de sourds, the “religious question.” At a time when ostensibly sophisticated thinkers devote thick tomes to Voltairean diatribes against “the God delusion,” the evidently non-fortuitous correlation between secularization and falling birthrates–another phenomenon well-observed by Steyn–deserves a more profound analysis than the crude Darwinism of evolutionary psychology. The weakness of explaining religious belief–or any other cultural phenomenon–by its value in enhancing “reproductive fitness” is that such explanation is inevitably post hoc. Even if we stipulate that believing God wants us to “be fruitful and multiply” suffices to make us fruitful multipliers, this tells us nothing about the origin or nature of this “belief” or its connection with originary humanity and language, nor even why religious texts attribute this command to God. Religion, like language, is an archetype of the “useful” human institution whose origin cannot be explained by its “usefulness” to the community it founds.
Instead, beginning from the premise that the sacred as the imagined subsistent center of the scene of representation is the transcendental basis of the “timelessness” of words and other representations, we must examine the connection between faith in the sacred in its various forms and bearing children to populate the next generation. The common element is that of duration; just as the timelessness of the sign emerges within a worldly context, so we must reproduce this context both in the large and in the small in order to preserve the worldly correlative that alone sustains the sign’s transcendentality. In traditional Maussian exchange, it is the delay or deferral between gift and return gift that testifies to the trans-temporal nature of the social bond. The “exchange of women” follows the originary model extended in time; like all “Maussian” exchanges it creates a rough state of equilibrium, as exemplified by the patterns of cross-cousin marriages described by Lévi-Strauss. This exchange is the most critical form of the gift because it assures the community’s survival by extending interpersonal reciprocity beyond its current population. The only way to return the gift of a bride is in the next generation, by a parallel gift made possible by the prior “gift-production” of children. This process is contingent on the society’s affirmation of its duty to maintain itself as the unique bearer of the originary revelation by perpetuating the signs through which it consecrates it.
The modern market system, which trusts the “invisible hand” of market forces to organize its exchanges, substitutes the reciprocity of the transaction for the long-term equilibria created by Maussian gift-giving. Yet the intergenerational exchange that keeps societies alive can be figured only in Maussian terms; we no longer “exchange women,” but the production of children is a “gift” to the larger society that these children themselves will eventually reciprocate. The demographic breakdown of contemporary Europe illustrates what happens when moral reciprocity is confined to transactions and the collective, transtemporal nature of the model is forgotten. Mauss himself was a good social democrat who saw the modern welfare state as the implementation of “Maussian” solidarity in the modern world–the answer to Durkheim’s fear that modern society with its weakening religious bonds was descending into anomie. But however effectively the modern industrial state provides a “safety net” to replace the communal solidarity of traditional society, when this provision becomes the community’s sole reason for being in the eyes of its members, the social contract is no longer a Maussian circulation of obligations but a delayed transaction, and one’s own “gifts” to it (i.e., taxes) are equivalent to insurance payments.
In traditional society the reproduction of the larger community is facilitated by intergenerational exchange within the family as an economic unit; the parents provide for their children who will in turn provide for their parents. The welfare state that frees young people of responsibility for their parents erodes the incentive to have children whose own care in old age will no longer be either necessary or available. (Remember all those elderly people who died in the European heat wave of 2003 while their children were away on their five-week vacations?) As market society evolves, the production of children is increasingly an economic burden with no compensating factors. Children contribute ever less to family income and exploit their parents ever longer; no small number spend their entire “productive” lives in their parents’ home living off their parents’ income. Women have a strong incentive to liberate themselves from child-rearing in order to pursue careers or simply enjoy more free time, and the situation of men is only marginally different. No doubt children provide their parents with “the joys of parenthood” and a little help in old age, not to speak of grandchildren. These values are certainly worth something, but as the recent history of most of Europe shows, not enough to generate more than 1.5 children per woman.
The supplément that makes the difference in the United States–most spectacularly in Mormon Utah–is religion. What is important about religious legends and doctrines is that they be shared as an affirmation of community. If all but the doctrinaire atheists of the “God delusion” forbear to deny the divine provenance of the Torah, the Koran, or the Book of Mormon, it is not simply out of a fearful or charitable desire not to offend; our intuition tells us that these writings deserve to be called sacred because they create and sustain communities, not only preserving them from violence in the present but motivating their members to maintain them beyond their own lifetimes. This supplementary incentive to reproduction is the diachronic facet of religion’s reinforcement of Durkheimian “solidarity,” which tends to be understood in purely synchronic terms.
It is a principle of GA that immortality is characteristic of signs, not people, but the immortality of the sign, whether or not we understand it as guaranteed by a prior (religious) transcendence, encourages us as its sole worldly bearers to incarnate and reincarnate it in the temporal world. The looming prospect of the disappearance of the great cultures of Europe suggests to us that the proper anthropological understanding of reincarnation is as a model of reproduction. What is sacred is what preserves the immortality of the sign, both synchronically through its circulation and diachronically through its generational renewal.
This analysis suggests a means by which these aging cultures can renew themselves rather than (as Steyn predicts) breaking down in ethno-religious strife and/or giving way by mid-century to a second Muslim conquest: demographic recovery through the revival of European Christianity. This is not to say that “Islam is the enemy.” But Islam, for better or for worse, remains deeply connected to traditional society. That is the secret of its higher birthrate, as well as of what modern eyes see as oppression of women and tolerance of barbarous forms of violence. The only way to reconcile European Muslims with modernity is by demonstrating to them that European market society is indeed a viable human project–as a society that disdains to reproduce itself is not.
One need not be entirely pessimistic in this regard. Emerging generations cannot fail to see the bankruptcy of the postwar social-insurance state, both as a demographic entity and as a spiritual one. Nor need this renewed Christianity take the form of fundamentalist literalism. The anthropological understanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition that derives from the work of René Girard gives religious faith an ever-clearer unity with fundamental anthropology. Convergence of faith and self-knowledge would make the choice between secularization and fanaticism increasingly irrelevant. The future of European Christianity may well look surprisingly like Generative Anthropology.