2.V: Modern Culture

The Beatles were a prominent symbol of consumerism, Pax Republica, 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 ever before.  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, pop culture, and a growing global sense of humanity.  Even the nuclear family has changed, becoming smaller but more fragmented.  All these signs of modernity were evident by the mid-20th century.

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 have little recourse.  The UN recognizes an individual’s right to leave any country and seek asylum elsewhere, 4 but individual countries set their own immigration policies.

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.  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 proclaimed birth control as evil, a decree justified only with the circular argument that sex must be procreative. 5 In some US states, even married couples could not legally buy birth control between the 1870s and 1970s.

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 has 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. 6 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 7 ) 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. 8

Mass-produced contraceptives were available by the 1840s.  They were effective, they sold well, and they resulted in drastically smaller families. 9 “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. 10

Couples’ access to birth control is heavily dependent on governmental policy. 11 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. 12 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. 13 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! 14

One of the conditions of evolutionary equilibrium is “random mating”. 15 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. 16


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, a growing number of diverse corporations were needed 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 revenue, 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 to register a corporation.

consumerism-glassware-pellatt-green074523

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 liability17 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 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! 18 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 sovereignty19 Consumers say, “I’m hungry; feed me!  I’m bored; entertain me!”  Corporations come running to offer restaurants and electronic devices.  Meanwhile, corporations have become experts at making their products appealing.  Advertisements are everywhere, and people define themselves largely by their brand preferences.  In these ways, modern capitalist culture is now defined by consumers, large corporations, and governments, in a three-way cycle of checks and balances.

Private corporations have played a critical role in the Pax Republica.  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, food, and fashion is 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  MNCs 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 legitimate incentives for a man to seek his fortune in politics.


D.  The Industrial Family

Three hundred years ago, 95% of our ancestors were peasants or perhaps local guild workers.  21 They lived in small villages revolving around a church, minor king, or landlord.  The family was the socio-economic unit of its community.  Family members spent most of their time working together at home to produce their own food, clothes, and shelter.  The community was a network of families that exchanged goods and services as well as brides and grooms.

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 and work into schools.  In the 20th century, a much larger share of mothers left home to work too.  The industrial family is no longer an economic or sociological “unit” with one purpose or goal.  It should be no surprise that husbands, wives, parents and children now have diverging individual interests.  For example, parenthood and livelihood now often require great sacrifices of one another.  A husband’s career may be out of step with his wife’s.  Early tension between individualism and marriage was evidenced in 19th century “bachelor culture”. 22

Meanwhile, the countervailing social pressures keeping families together for the sake of the community were weakened.  Multiple communities mingled together in cities.  Since it was impossible for all legal, economic, and moral 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 Young adults now selected their own mates at school, work, or shifting circles of friends.  With this disintegration of socioeconomic bonds, both within and between families, the very environment in which families evolved started to disappear.

These social forces erupted in a “divorce revolution” 24 in the 1960s.  The timing was due largely to two post-war factors.  First, with unprecedented prosperity, middle-class husbands and wives no longer “needed” each other economically.  Second, the birth control pill created a perceived separation between sex, pregnancy, and marriage. 25 Divorce has been legally enabled by “no-fault” divorce laws. 26

The most common modern alternatives to traditional marriage are pre-marital cohabitation, single-person households, and single parenthood, all increasingly prevalent since the 1960s.  Modern “alternative” lifestyles are highly controversial, mostly due to the psychological impact of divorce or single parenthood on children.  Children of alternative families are at greater socioeconomic risk than children of traditional families, though most children in non-traditional families grow up without serious problems. 27 Almost 40% of pregnancies are still unplanned. 28

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. 29 Gangs have been identified with drug use and trafficking increasingly since the 1960s. 30 Many of today’s most popular illicit drugs date to the 18th – 20th centuries, including opiates, cocaine, and amphetamines. 31 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.  Everyday life became healthy, peaceful, and comfortable for most families only after 1800.

Return to Chapter 2

Back to Section 2.IV:  The World Wars

Continue to Section 2.VI: Summary and Conclusions


E.  Citations

  1. Anthony Benezet, A Caution and a Warning to Great Britain and her Colonies (1766) pp.9-10, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/A_caution_and_warning_to_Great_Britain_and_Her_Colonies_in_a_short_representation_of_the_calamitous_state_of_the_enslaved_negroes_in_the_British_Dominions (accessed and saved 4/29/19).
  2. Jack Donnelly, “6.A: National Implementation of International Human Rights”, Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice, 3rd edition, Cornell University Press (Kindle ebook, 2013) pp. 32-33.
  3. Donnelly, Universal Human Rights at 31.
  4. United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights Articles 13 and 14, https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/ (accessed and saved 4/29/19).
  5. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition (1997).  Paragraph 2370 is the most relevant to birth control, and its full context is “The Love of Husband and Wife”, paragraphs 2360 – 2379.  English version at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P86.HTM (accessed and saved 4/29/19). 
  6. Malthus called this “moral restraint” in An Essay on the Principle of Population, 2nd edition (1803). 
  7. Clelia Duel Mosher, “Study of the Physiology and Hygiene of Marriage”, 1892 – 1912, unpublished, https://purl.stanford.edu/sr010vc5273 (accessed and saved 4/14/19). Summarized by Kara Platoni in “The Sex Scholar”, Stanford Magazine, March – April, 2010, http://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=29954 (accessed and saved 12/21/15).
  8. 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 and saved 12/24/15), p. 4.  Proclamation 16 recognizes parents’ 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 and same-sex couples are still evolving. 
  9. Nancy Gibbs, Love, Sex, Freedom and the Paradox of the Pill:  A Brief History of Birth Control, Adams Media (Kindle Edition, 2010), Location 81.
  10. Eisenstadt v. Baird, 45 US 438 (1972), https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/405/438/ (accessed and saved 4/14/19).
  11. 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 and saved 4/14/19).
  12. Ansley Coale and Edgar Hoover, Population Growth and Economic Development in Low-Income Countries, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ, 1958).  Summarized by David Horlacher, “Coale-Hoover Growth Model”, Middlebury College (2014), http://sites.middlebury.edu/econ0428/coale-hoover-growth-model/ (accessed and saved 4/14/19).
  13. Fred Sai and Lauren Chester, “The Role of the World Bank in Shaping Third World Population Policy”, Population Policy: Contemporary Issues, Praeger, 1990, pp. 3-5, http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/1990/11/01/000009265_3960930033843/Rendered/PDF/multi0page.pdf (accessed and saved 4/14/19).
  14. 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 and graph saved 4/14/19).
  15. Godfrey Hardy, “Mendelian proportions in a mixed population”, Science, N.S. Vol. XXVIII: 49-50 (letter to the editor) (4/05/1908), http://www.esp.org/foundations/genetics/classical/hardy.pdf (accessed and saved 4/14/19).
  16. 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 4/14/19).
  17. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea, Modern Library (Kindle Edition, 2003).  Limited liability is a major theme throughout this book.
  18. Vincent Trivett, “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 and saved 4/29/19).
  19. William Henry Hutt,  “The Concept of Consumers’ Sovereignty”, The Economic Journal (Wiley) 50 (197): 66–77 (March, 1940), https://www.jstor.org/stable/2225739 (accessed and 1st page saved 4/29/19).
  20. Thomas Friedman, “Foreign Affairs Big Mac I” (12/08/1996) and “Big Mac II” (12/11/1996), New York Timeshttps://www.nytimes.com/1996/12/08/opinion/foreign-affairs-big-mac-i.html and https://www.nytimes.com/1996/12/11/opinion/big-mac-ii.html (both accessed and saved 4/28/19).
  21. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “Urbanization”, Our World in Data (Sep. 2018) https://ourworldindata.org/urbanization , particularly the graph entitled “Urbanization over the past 500 years” (accessed and graph saved 5/31/19).
  22. John Tosh, “Part Three:  Domesticity Under Strain, c. 1870 – 1900”, A Man’s Place:  Masculinity and the Middle-Class Home in Victorian England, Yale University Press (New Haven, 2007), pp. 145 – 194.
  23. Hugh McLeod, The Religious Crisis of the 1960s, Oxford University Press, 2007.
  24. Phrase apparently coined by Lenore J. Weitzman, The Divorce Revolution:  The Unexpected Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America, Free Press (1985).
  25. Robert T. Michael, “Two Papers on the Recent Rise in U.S. Divorce Rates”, Center for Economic Analysis of Human Behavior and Social Institutions” (1977), https://www.nber.org/papers/w0202.pdf (accessed and saved 4/28/19).
  26. Allen M. Parkman, Good Intentions Gone Awry: No-Fault Divorce and the American Family, Rowman & Littlefield (2000).
  27. Mary Parke, “Are Married Parents Really Better For Children?  What Research Says about the Effects of Family Structure on Child Well-Being”, Center for Law and Social Policy (Washington, DC, May, 2003), https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED476114 (accessed and saved 4/28/19).
  28. http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/archive/Sharing-Responsibility.pdf , p. 42.  (accessed and saved 4/28/19).
  29. James C. Howell, “Youth Gangs: An Overview”, Juvenile Justice Bulletin, August 1998, p. 2 http://www.ojjdp.gov/jjbulletin/9808/history.html (accessed and saved 4/29/19).
  30. James C. Howell and Scott H. Decker, “The Youth Gangs, Drugs, and Violence Connection”, Juvenile Justice Bulletin, January 1999, p. 2, https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/93920.pdf (accessed and saved 4/29/19).
  31. PBS, “A social history of America’s most popular drugs”, Frontline, c. 2014, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/drugs/buyers/socialhistory.html (accessed and saved 4/29/19).
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