2.IV: Modern Culture

The Beatles were a prominent symbol of consumerism, Pax Civilia, and youth culture. Published by major corporate labels, they were popular worldwide and were featured in the first live global TV broadcast.

What is “modern” about today’s life, and how did it get that way?  There is more to it than smart phones and social networks.  The inventions of the industrial revolution, from factories to television, made the world radically different than it had ever been.  Most people now live in multicultural cities and have jobs that did not exist 300 years ago.  We define ourselves less by church-centered communities and more by national identity and pop culture, and even a growing global sense of humanity.  Even the nuclear family has changed, becoming smaller but more fragmented.  All these seeds of modernity were planted here in Chapter 2.

A.  Universal Human Rights

B.  Birth Control

C.  Consumerism and Multi-National Corporations

D.  The Industrial Family

E.  Citations

A.  Universal Human Rights

The Enlightenment was predicated on the axioms that life, liberty, and property are natural and inalienable rights, that all persons are created equal, and that government derives its authority from the consent of the governed.  In 1700, this was nothing but idealistic theory.  It took centuries of hard work to change the world and make human rights a reality.  The general pattern was abolition followed by suffrage and then civil rights.

18th century Euro-Americans faced a moral quandary.  They had inherited an economic system grounded on physical slave labor, contradicting their own new ideas about liberty.  Abolitionism as a persistent movement originated with American Quakers in the 1770s.  Abolitionists believed not only that slavery was immoral, but that it would eventually bring God’s punishment. 1 From that time onward, abolitionist sentiment and anti-slavery laws swept the globe.

Classically, suffrage or the right to vote was limited to a narrow class of men who met minimum wealth qualifications.  Some nations had ethnically proportional parliaments while others disenfranchised minorities altogether.  The US, New Zealand, and Finland were early suffrage leaders.  The 15th Amendment of 1870 opened the vote to American men of all races.  The worldwide women’s suffrage movement began shortly afterward, and suffrage for all economic classes was a major theme in the 20th century.  Rights to hold office grew in parallel with voting rights.  Suffrage was fundamental to all other civil rights, because new voters now had a say in shaping their own societies.

The UN’s seminal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) was the first affirmation of individual rights to life, liberty, and property for every single human being.  The UN does not enforce these rights per se, but collaborates with each state to monitor its own human rights record. 2 Each government is essentially its own watchdog, which has led to clear regional differences in human rights environments.  Communist and Moslem governments have traditionally been less protective of civil and political rights.  The US, especially the Republican party, has been slow to recognize certain economic rights such as the right to health care or freedom from poverty. 3

There are some notable conflicts between individual rights and national self-determination, with the latter tending to prevail.  Since no nation is obliged to protect the rights of foreigners, citizens who are persecuted by their own government don’t always get much help.  There is also a direct clash between individuals’ freedom of movement and national rights to control immigration.  This was revealed immediately after WWII when millions of Jewish refugees tried to flee to Israel, still a British protectorate.  Britain enforced strict quotas and turned away refugees en masse, escalating an already-tense crisis.

The 1960s were a rich time for civil rights.  The black American movement was a prominent theme of the decade.  It was not just about suffrage, but dignity and equality – the rights of blacks to partake in society alongside whites.  The Civil Rights Acts of 1957 – 1965 made the US much more racially integrated.  This mostly non-violent groundswell was inspired by India’s campaign for independence, and in turn it was the model for subsequent civil rights movements by Hispanics and other minorities throughout the world.  At the same time, women’s lib was a second wave of feminism.  Women’s lib was also concerned with dignity and economic equality, especially opportunities in schools and the workplace.

By the 1980s, the developed countries were much more integrated than just decades earlier, with diverse multicultural cities and women in high positions.  From our 21st century vantage, universal human rights seem only logical.  But no civil rights movement was easily won.  For every demographic with something to gain, there was another demographic afraid of loss.  Only afterward do we appreciate the value of diversity and equal opportunity.

B.  Birth Control

Reliable birth control is one of the quietest but most impactful revolutions of the last few centuries.  It is also one of the most fascinating themes, a thread that runs through public health, women’s rights, family dynamics, and even geopolitics and evolution.

Strictly speaking, birth control has a long history going back to ancient times.  Early contraceptive methods were not particularly easy or effective, leaving abortion as a common form of birth control. 4 Contraception was not at the forefront of people’s minds anyway.  Large families were helpful for farm work, and high birth rates helped counteract high child mortality rates.

Of course, social evolution could only lead to pro-fertility values.  Governments usually encouraged large populations for tax or national defense.  The Catholic Church decreed birth control immoral, “justified” only with the circular argument that sex was only for procreation.  In some US states, even married couples could not legally buy birth control for a century.

By 1800, though, overpopulation was becoming a concern.  Economists, most famously Thomas Malthus, warned that if birth rates didn’t slow down, higher death rates would be forced on Europe through starvation, disease, and war.  Malthus’s pessimistic predictions did not come immediately true due to unforeseen industrial advances.  This made some skeptics dismiss him out of hand.  Though Malthus may have misidentified the critical century or continent, his point is irrefutable: exponential growth cannot continue forever.  At some point, population will have to level off.

Feminists took up the issue for a completely different reason.  Many wives felt powerless over their reproductive timelines, and felt that their role in life was limited by the demands of motherhood.  The common counterargument was that women should stay single or celibate until ready to have children. 5 But with few career options before the world wars, women still depended on marriage for economic security.  With sexually assertive husbands (and some women even privately admitted to sex drives of their own 6 ) they became pregnant regularly.  This in turn made it harder for housewives to earn income.   Controlling this cycle is now recognized as a straightforward human rights issue:  a couple should be entitled to have sex whenever they want and to have children when they are ready. 7

Mass-produced contraceptives were available by the 1840s.  They were effective, they sold well, and they resulted in drastically smaller families. 8 “The pill” of 1960 made birth control even simpler and less intrusive.  A woman’s choices of when and how many children to have were now in her own hands.  Meanwhile, activists lobbied for education, legalization, and universal access to birth control.  By 1972, even unmarried American women could legally use it. 9

Couples’ access to birth control is heavily dependent on governmental policy. 10 Population concerns were taken more seriously after WWII, when newly developing nations took control of their own economies with the help of international aid.  Rapid population growth could seriously offset the gains of investment. 11 National governments enacted policies to reduce birth rates.  They provided birth control devices, clinics, and education.  The World Bank accelerated the process with loans for population programs. 12 The private sector has also helped, especially in more developed nations.  The result has been profound; the world’s fertility rate has already been cut in half since 1960! 13 Even so, the population is still growing.

One of the conditions of evolutionary equilibrium is “random mating”.  Since some regions or cultures have higher birth rates than others, the human species is not in equilibrium; it is evolving toward the more fecund populations.  Since the Industrial Revolution, global population has become proportionally less Western / Christian and more African, Asian, and Moslem, a trend that is projected to continue. 14  This is opposite the flow of wealth, so the net effect remains to be seen.

C.  Consumerism and Multi-National Corporations

The Industrial Revolution was spurred by consumer demand.  Ordinary Britons loved the textiles coming to them from the Far East.  Industrial textile factories at home in England allowed them to buy similar fabrics for lower prices.  This created an enormous profit incentive for factory owners – the economic spark that set off the revolution.

The major trade corporations of the colonial era, the East Indies Companies and so forth, were by and large state-sponsored monopolies.  As industry advanced domestically, there was need for a growing number of diverse corporations for railroads, mining, manufacture, and more.  This was too large a task for government, so private businesses met the demand.  In order to attract employment and tax revenues, cities and states competed against each other for privately-owned corporations.  This kind of competition is sometimes called a “race to the bottom” because industry is most attracted to the least regulated jurisdictions.  In the 19th century, it became increasingly easy for businesses to register as corporations.


As early as 1800, London’s traditional markets were giving way to high-end retail shops for mass-produced goods. Posh settings like this glassware shop were now held out to ordinary commoners, the new “consumer class”.

A critical change was legislation offering limited liability15 This capped a shareholder’s risk at the amount of his investment; he was not liable for the corporation’s debts beyond the amount he had put in.  The practical effect was a flood of capital as corporations became more appealing to investors.  The US led the way in limited liability, 1 and its corporations grew largest and most quickly.  National chain stores displaced many local shops.

Corporations are like children of the state.  A corporation owes its very life to legislation allowing its existence, yet it takes on a life of its own that, like a teenager, becomes increasingly difficult for the state to control.  Industries become major lobbyists and therefore wield great political influence.  Governments wrestle with encouraging the growth of industries while preventing monopolies.  Economically, some corporations have grown to the size of small countries! 16 To further complicate matters, multi-national corporations (MNCs) extend beyond the jurisdiction of any one government.  MNCs can be so large as to create global problems such as pollution, climate change, and financial crises.  In these arenas, it is becoming more imperative to find global regulatory solutions.

MNCs can greatly enrich their owners and managers, but they make money only if consumers buy their products.  The theory that household demands drive the market is consumer sovereignty17 Consumers say, “I’m hungry; feed me!  I’m bored; entertain me!”  Corporations come running to offer restaurants and electronic devices.  Consumers are not particularly organized but can occasionally sway corporate practices with boycotts.  Long-term consumer trends such as health-consciousness or discriminating taste have more impact on corporate behavior.  Meanwhile, corporations have become experts at making their products appealing.  Advertisements are everywhere, and people define themselves largely by their brand preferences.

In the ways just described, modern society became dominated by households, corporations, and governments, in a three-way cycle of checks and balances.  Consumerism was strongly associated with the “West”, which culturally included some Asian nations like Japan and South Korea.  Eastern cultures saw consumerism as a degrading influence, an overvaluation of greed.  Moslem cultures still idealized the medieval “church and state” duopoly. 18  In the USSR and China (at least before 1990) where the only major power player was the Communist Party, goods were utilitarian and displays were generic. 19 There was also a minority strain of anti-consumerism in the West, though it was more of a romantic ideal than an economic force.

Private corporations have played a critical part in the Pax Civilia in multiple ways.  They have provided stable jobs and household needs, helping a large middle class stay comfortable and healthy.  Corporations have helped strengthen the sense of transnational and global identity.  The popular culture of movies, music, and food are imported across borders everywhere.  Airlines take travelers and business people to distant lands.  It has been observed half-jokingly that there have been virtually no wars between countries that both had McDonalds. 20  Multi-national corporations are a new outlet for men of unlimited ambition.  If a Caesar or Khan had lived in the 20th century, he would have had the option to make his fortune running a corporation rather than conquering nations.  It is vital that in today’s democracies, politicians are paid fixed salaries, and their wealth is legally separated from the state treasury.  With much greater opportunities in the business world, there are not many compelling incentives for a man to make his fortune in politics.

D.  The Industrial Family

The radical changes of the last few centuries have had a huge impact on the lives of ordinary people.  Three hundred years ago, 99% of our ancestors were peasants or perhaps local guild workers.  They lived in small villages revolving around a church, minor king, or landlord.  All members of the family were home working together most of the time.

A major prevailing trend has been dissociation of the family, as individual family members have found distinct lives away from home.  This has ironically been spurred by prosperity.  Early in the industrial era, families moved to cities and fathers found work outside of the home at factories or offices.  Public education took children away from home into schools.  In the mid-20th century, a much larger share of mothers left home to work too.  A family is no longer properly a sociological “unit” with one purpose or goal.  Parenthood and career often require great sacrifices of one another.  A husband’s career may be out of step with his wife’s.  This individualism was a root cause of widespread divorce in the 20th century, especially after a large number of women became financially independent. 21 Divorce has been legally enabled and multiplied by “no-fault” divorce laws. 22

The proportion of marriages that fail has been so high for so long that it clearly represents a breakdown, a mismatch between ancient traditions and modern realities.  The change occurred so suddenly that no universally acceptable model has yet risen to accommodate both parenthood and flexible individualism.  It is a confusing period of time for couples, children, and singles alike.

A household is no longer a self-contained economic unit.  Most material needs are now provided by large corporations in an increasingly man-made environment.  In the middle class, most parents also rely on external firms to work for a salary.  Rather than being tied to their land, families are mobile enough to follow job opportunities.  This has made cities demographically diverse, as families from far and wide converged on areas with strong industry.

One consequence of diversity was cultural pluralism.  Different ethnicities often had to find a way to coexist in cities.  Since it was impossible for all legal, moral, and linguistic traditions to predominate, they became absorbed into the secular authority of the state.  Church was one such cultural tradition that became a decreasingly central part of urban family life, with an especially profound decline in the 1960s. 23

Another long-term effect of generational segregation was the development of youth culture.  Singlehood became an important phase of life, and a distinctly modern lifestyle, when young adults earned their own money and spent years between childhood and marriage.  The identification of youth as a distinct demographic became exaggerated in the corporate era.  The teenage market was targeted and almost defined by particular products and services – cars, cigarettes, clothes, music, restaurants, and more.

The dark side of youth culture is street gangs.  Alienated adolescents have banded together for centuries, especially after cities swelled with poor job seekers in the 1800s. 24 Gangs have been identified with drug use and trafficking increasingly since the 1960s. 25 Many of today’s most popular illicit drugs date to the 18th – 20th centuries, including opiates, cocaine, and amphetamines. 26 Though none of these drugs are as deadly as alcohol or tobacco, they have been a major scourge on the modern world, especially in conjunction with poverty.

On the plus side, industrialization has lifted millions of families out of poverty into a broad middle class.  Good health and birth control have led to smaller families and longer lives.  Everyday life is healthy, peaceful and comfortable for more people now than ever before.

Return to Chapter 2

Continue to Section 2.V: Summary and Conclusions

E.  Citations

  1. Benezet, Anthony, A Caution and a Warning to Great Britain and her Colonies, 1766, p.9; Ottabah Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery,1787, p.25 (both cited in http://www.jubilee-centre.org/the-abolition-of-the-slave-trade-christian-conscience-and-political-action-by-john-coffey/ )
  2. Donnelly, Jack, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, 3rd edition, Cornell University Press, 2013, ISBN 0801477700, ebook version, pp. 31 ff, “National Implementation of International Human Rights”.
  3. Donnelly, Jack, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, 3rd edition, Cornell University Press, 2013, ISBN 0801477700, ebook version, p. 31.
  4. Libor Stloukal, “Understanding the ‘Abortion Culture’ in Central and Eastern Europe,” in From Abortion to Contraception: A Resource to Public Policies and Reproductive Behavior in Central and Eastern Europe from 1917 to the Present, ed. Henry P. David, ISBN 0313305870
  5. Gordon, Linda (2002). The moral property of women: a history of birth control politics in America. University of Illinois Press. p. 24. ISBN 978-0-252-02764-2  (accessed 12/21/15)
  6. Mosher, Clelia, “Woman’s Physical Freedom” survey, 1892 – 1912, as quoted in Platoni, Kara, “The Sex Scholar”, Stanford Magazine, March – April, 2010, http://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=29954 (accessed 12/21/15)
  7. United Nations, Final Act of the International Conference on Human Rights, Teheran, 1968, A/CONF.32/41, Sales # E.68.XIV.2, http://legal.un.org/avl/pdf/ha/fatchr/Final_Act_of_TehranConf.pdf (accessed 12/24/15), Proclamation 16 (re the right to determine the number and spacing of children).  “Privacy” was recognized as a human right in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as was the right to marry and raise a family.  These rights in tandem imply sex as a human right at least between married couples.  The sexual rights of unmarried couples and same-sex couples are still evolving.
  8. The number of births per white American woman dropped from 7 in 1800 to 3.5 in 1900. Gibbs, Nancy, Love, Sex, Freedom and the Paradox of the Pill:  A Brief History of Birth Control, Kindle Edition, Location 81.
  9. Eisenstadt v. Baird, 45 US 438 (1972), https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/405/438/ (accessed 12/21/15)
  10. UN Secretariat, Population Division, “Fertility, Contraception and Population Policies”, 4/25/03, ESA/P/WP.182, http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/contraception2003/Web-final-text.PDF p. 1 (accessed 12/24/15)
  11. Coale, Ansley J. and Hoover, E.M. (1958). Population Growth and Economic Development in Low-Income Countries, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  12. Sai, Fred and Chester, Lauren, “The Role of the World Bank in Shaping Third World Population Policy”, Population Policy: Contemporary Issues, Praeger, 1990, p. 3, http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/1990/11/01/000009265_3960930033843/Rendered/PDF/multi0page.pdf (accessed 12/24/15) 
  13. World Bank data accessible on Google, http://www.google.com/publicdata/explore?ds=d5bncppjof8f9_&ctype=l&strail=false&bcs=d&nselm=h&met_y=sp_dyn_tfrt_in&scale_y=lin&ind_y=false&rdim=region&ifdim=region&tdim=true&hl=en_US&dl=en_US&ind=false&icfg#!ctype=l&strail=false&bcs=d&nselm=h&met_y=sp_dyn_tfrt_in&scale_y=lin&ind_y=false&rdim=region&ifdim=region&tdim=true&tstart=-284659200000&tend=1387872000000&hl=en_US&dl=en_US&ind=false (accessed 12/24/15)
  14. Pew Research Center, “Projected Annual Growth Rate of Country Populations, 2010 – 2050”, 3/26/15, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/pf_15-04-02_projectionsoverview_worldgrowthrate640px/ (accessed 12/24/15)
  15. A major theme of Micklethwait, John and Wooldridge, Adrian, The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea, Modern Library, 2003, eISBN 978-1-588-36090-8
  16. Trivett, Vincent, “25 US Mega Corporations: Where they rank if they were countries”, Business Insider, 6/27/2011, http://www.businessinsider.com/25-corporations-bigger-tan-countries-2011-6?op=1 (accessed 10/10/15)
  17. Hutt, William Henry (March 1940). “The Concept of Consumers’ Sovereignty”. The Economic Journal (Wiley) 50 (197): 66–77. doi:10.2307/2225739 (accessed 1/27/16)
  18. For just a couple of examples found easily online, see the blog entries http://khaleafa.com/islam-and-consumerism/ and http://productivemuslim.com/zuhd-an-anti-dote-to-consumerism-culture/ (both accessed 1/28/16).
  19. See http://www.dazeddigital.com/photography/article/23685/1/shopping-and-the-soviet-union (accessed 1/28/16).
  20. Friedman, Thomas, The Lexus and the Olive Tree:  Understanding Globalization, Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1999, 0-374-19203-0.
  21. Cherlin, Andrew J., The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today, Vintage, 2010, 978-0307386380, http://www.amazon.com/Marriage-Go-Round-State-Marriage-Family-America/dp/0307386384/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1453101477&sr=8-1&keywords=Cherlin+marriage+go+round
  22. Parkman, Allen M., Good Intentions Gone Awry: No-Fault Divorce and the American Family, Rowman & Littlefield, 2000, ISBN 978-0847698691
  23. McLeod, Hugh, The Religious Crisis of the 1960s, Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 978-0-19-9582020-0
  24. US Department of Justice, “History of Youth Gangs”, Juvenile Justice Bulletin, August 1998, http://www.ojjdp.gov/jjbulletin/9808/history.html (accessed 12/29/15)
  25. Wilkinson, Deanna and Fagan, Jeffrey, “The role of firearms in violence ‘scripts’: The dynamics of gun events among adolescent males”, Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 59 no. 1, Winter 1996, p. 55, http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=4312&context=lcp cited by Howell and Decker, “The Youth Gangs, Drugs, and Violence Connection”, Juvenile Justice Bulletin, January 1999, p. 2, https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/93920.pdf (both accessed 12/29/15)  
  26. PBS, “A social history of America’s most popular drugs”, Frontline, 2014(?), http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/drugs/buyers/socialhistory.html (accessed 12/29/15)
Please Like or Share!

Facebook comments preferred; negative anonymous comments will not display. Please read this page / post fully before commenting, thanks!

Powered by Facebook Comments