November 7th 2015

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Machines getting too clever for our good

CANBERRA OBSERVED Labor on the offensive against all argument

EDITORIAL El Niño caps tragic results of water deregulation

LIFE ISSUES Altruistic surrogacy leads to baby trafficking

CLIMATE CHANGE U.S., EU have hot air in store for climate gabfest

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Best marriage research backs Church's teaching

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Symptoms of a civilisation in crisis

THE DRUGS DEBATE An introduction to navigating the "ice" age

RELIGION IN RUSSIA Soloviev and the great vision for religious unity

PUBLIC POLICY Asia-Pacific conference sees through drug push

CINEMA Martian botanist left to cultivate his garden: The Martian

BOOK REVIEW Progress in the dock

BOOK REVIEW ASIO in the early years


Bishops being prosecuted for supporting man+woman marriage Here is what you can do

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Symptoms of a civilisation in crisis

by Kevin Andrews

News Weekly, November 7, 2015

Kevin Andrews MP gave the 2015 Warrane Lecture on October 7, 2015. Mr Andrews has been the member for Menzies since 1991 and was a minister in the Howard government, and was, until the recent leadership spill, Minister for Defence in the Abbott government. This is an edited version of his speech. The entire speech may be read on Mr Andrews’ own website at It is used here with permission.


Pitirim Sorokin

In the introduction to my book, Maybe “I do”: Modern Marriage and the Pursuit of Happiness, I wrote:

“The greatest threat facing the Western world is not climate change or global warming. It is not the financial crisis. Nor is it the threat of radical Islam. The greatest threat is within. It is the steady but continuing breakdown of the essential structures of civil society – marriage, family and community.”

In just three years, the words I penned appear to be being borne out. The globe has not warmed for almost two decades. The financial crisis has passed, although some of the consequences remain. Radical Islam can be defeated, provided its opponents have the will to implement an appropriate strategy. But the breakdown of civil society continues apace, and few policymakers seem to be aware of the causes or consequences, let alone equipped to tackle it.

In Maybe ‘I do’, I outlined a series of changes in family patterns throughout the industrialised world over the past four decades that indicate a decline in marriage and a weakening of family life. It is not my intention to rehearse the discussion here, other than briefly to outline the trends. In summary:

• Fewer people are marrying.

• Those couples who marry do so at an older age and increasingly to a person from their own socio-economic background.

• Pre-marital cohabitation has become ubiquitous.

• Cohabitation as a substitute for marriage is increasing, but it is less stable than marriage.

• Separation and divorce have risen dramatically.

• The number of children involved in separation and divorce has continued to grow since the early 1970s.

• The rates of remarriage have fallen over the past 30 years.

• Families are having fewer children.

• The proportion of children born out of wedlock has increased dramatically.

• The proportion of single-parent families has increased markedly.

Besides these direct trends, families increasingly have both parents in the paid workforce; and, in most nations, the population is rapidly ageing.

As thousands of studies now indicate, these trends have had many negative economic, health and social consequences for adults and children, and have had a huge impact on society more generally.

In my book I concluded: “How we preserve marriage – against the cultural and the economic pressures that threaten to overwhelm it – as the foundation of healthy family life, the protective institution for children, the crucible of the free market, and the essential condition for democracy, will determine the health and longevity of the critical institutions of the Western liberal experiment. The future of individuals, families, communities and nations is tied to the outcome.”

In defending this view, I will draw, in particular, on the works of the great Russian-American sociologist, Pitirim Sorokin, whose writings from the 1920s through to the 1960s deserve renewed attention.

Sorokin is hardly known now, even in the many places that pass as schools of sociology. Yet, he remains a giant among the students of civilisation and social change.

Born in 1889 in the Komi region of northern Russia, Sorokin emigrated to the United States, where he became a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, and then at Harvard University, where he was appointed the founding chairman of the inaugural Department of Sociology in 1930.

In his 1956 book, The American Sex Revolution, Sorokin noted the radical change in sexual mores and practices that had emerged in the 20th century, noting the trend towards easier divorce, juvenile delinquency, depression and mental disorders.

His concerns had been confirmed by the consequences of the great social experiment during the 1920s in his native Soviet Russia when the Leninists set out to destroy “bourgeois” marriage and family.

He observed: “During the first stages of the Revolution, its leaders deliberately attempted to destroy marriage and the family. Free love was glorified by the official ‘glass of water’ theory: if a person is thirsty, so went the Party line, it is immaterial what glass he uses when satisfying his thirst; it is equally unimportant how he satisfies his sex hunger. The legal distinction between marriage and casual sexual intercourse was abolished. The communist law spoke only of ‘contracts’ between males and females for the satisfaction of their desires either for an indefinite or a definite period – a year, a month, a week, or even a single night.”

The Soviet nation quickly descended into the social chaos of widespread divorce, fatherless families, abandoned children and juvenile delinquency, leading the authorities to reverse their policies by the end of the 1920s.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan noted a similar situation among African-American families in the 1960s: “From the wild Irish slums of the 19th-century Eastern seaboard, to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows a large number of men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationships to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future – that community asks for and gets chaos.”

Fiercely rejected at the time, these observations are now seen as a critical element of the war on poverty.

Sorokin also predicted – correctly – that the changed pattern of relationship mores would result in a significant decline in the birth rate, which is true of all Western countries – and most others – today. Pre-dating the medical, pharmacological and surgical advances of the past few decades, Sorokin predicted that the combination of low birth rates and increased longevity would result in stationary and, subsequently, depopulating societies. This, he said, would be economically, technologically and militarily disastrous.

“Whatever may be the virtues of age, they cannot compensate for the vitality, vigour, courage, daring, elasticity, and creativity of the young. A nation largely composed of middle-aged or elderly people enfeebles itself physically, mentally and socially, and moves towards the end of its creative mission and leadership.”

Family instability and an ageing population have real economic costs for nations. They reduce economic growth, a fact that most Western nations are yet to realise.

Western civilisation is founded on European Christendom. A distinct European culture, embracing elements of earlier cultures and civilisations emerged over many centuries. For the past few centuries, it has been the predominant civilisation on the globe, but a millennium ago, other civilisations were predominant.

There is no simple definition of Western civilisation: it embraces many elements, but primary among them are the Christian religious and ethical base (which includes both the Judeo and Hellenic strands), and a legal system that evolved from the previous Roman civilisation.

The stability of family relationships centred on marriage as the basis of the community; the rise of the city, commerce and trade; and the embrace of technology for both industrial and military purposes, drove this growing civilisation to greater prosperity and dominance.

How do we measure the state of a civilisation, apart from retrospectively after its demise? And what is the state of Western civilisation today?

Pitirim Sorokin’s decades of study of the history, the economies, the administration, indeed, the art and social life, of all known civilisations led him to conclude that there are two cultural super systems. These he described as the “Ideational culture”  and the “Sensate culture”.

These are two different ways of understanding and interacting with the world: “[For the sensate] reality is that which can be perceived by the organs of sense; it does not see anything beyond the sensate being of the milieu.

“Those who possess this sort of mentality try to adapt themselves to those conditions which appear to the sense organs, or more exactly to the exterior receptors of the nervous system. “[The Ideational] perceive and apprehend the same sensate phenomena in a very different way. For them, they are mere appearance, a dream, or an illusion. True reality is not to be found here; it is something beyond, hidden by the appearance, different from this material and sensate veil which conceals it.”

He acknowledges that neither culture has existed in its pure form, that there is always a mixture of the two, in their various stages of development, but one will tend to predominate in a civilisation for long periods of time.

“Each has its own mentality, its own system of truth and knowledge, its own philosophy and Weltanschauung; its own type of religion and standards of ‘holiness’; its own system of right and wrong; its own forms of art and literature; its own mores, laws, code of conduct; its own predominant forms of social relationships; its own economic and political organisation; and finally its own type of human personality, with a peculiar mentality and conduct.”

Moreover, the dominant culture influences the outlook and mentality of all who live within it: “The mentality of every person is a microcosm that reflects the cultural macrocosm of his social surroundings.”

Sorokin’s studies of civilisations, especially ancient Greece, the Roman, and the modern Western civilisations, led him to the conclusion that civilisations move through a pattern over centuries from an Ideational culture to a position that integrates both the original Ideational and the Sensate, before the Sensate dominates.

For Western civilisation, Sorokin charac­terises the periods as, first, Ideational from roughly the fifth to the 12th centuries AD, and, second, integrated from the 11th to the 16th centuries, during which time scholars such as Thomas Aquinas drew together the truths of reason, science and faith, just as Plato and Aristotle had in ancient Greece. Thereafter the sensory began to dominate as the Sensate culture moved through various stages until today.

Sorokin acknowledges that great economic, scientific and technological progress occurs in Sensate culture, but it has the tendency to become overripe, narcissistic and decadent, leading to stagnation and eventual replacement.

He viewed the history of 20th-century Europe with its two great wars and revolutions as a manifestation of the dying Sensate culture of the West. Unless it reclaims an integrated balance, he argued, its creative vigour and cohesiveness will be lost in a fog of self-absorption, hedonism and egoism.

In such a society, the values of truth, love, beauty … even fatherhood and motherhood cannot continue to function, he argued, even though in its virile stages, the sensate system contributed to the values of science and technology, the fine arts, and to a lesser extent, philosophy and ethics.

The social science of the past few decades indicates that the evidence of family and community dysfunction upon which Sorokin made his judgement over half a century ago has only accumulated and grown. There is no social science indicator, of which I am aware, that points in the other direction. Liberals and conservatives alike (in the American understanding) now generally agree on the data, even if they disagree on the solutions.

It is difficult therefore, to conclude that Sorokin was mistaken. Indeed, there are a series of reasons to suggest that it is easier, more convenient, and less troublesome to ignore warnings than to act upon them.

First, we have a tendency to downplay social problems. Let me illustrate. During the financial crisis that swept the world in 2008-09, many remained sceptical about the downturn.

Many public officials, business leaders, and commentators asserted that the situation would right itself, that it was only a blip in the ever-upward march of prosperity. Even when some banks began to get into difficulty, officials continued to proclaim the events as a minor correction in an otherwise positive trajectory.

As I reflected on this refusal to face the reality of a rapidly deteriorating situation, I wondered why the reluctance. In part it was the optimism born of years of prosperity. In part it was an attempt to cultivate public confidence in the financial system. And in part it was political spin from public officials faced with an economic disaster.

But another factor was also at work. It was disbelief that the world’s financial structure could so rapidly disintegrate. How could one of the pillars of the world economy crumble so easily? Only when the stark reality of the collapse was evident did many begin to comprehend what had happened.

As I reflected upon the reaction to the events, it struck me that a similar process can occur with civilisations. There is a belief in their immutability and immortality. From time to time an event occurs which horrifies us, but it soon passes and life goes on. Two boys, not yet in their teens, brutally torture and kill a younger child. A teenager goes on a murderous rampage through a school. A financial adviser defrauds clients of their life savings.

The event gains widespread media attention. Religious and community leaders react in shock. Politicians call for tough action. A few days or weeks later the event is almost forgotten. A year or two later, when a similar event occurs, it receives less attention by the media. We become inured to the previously shocking behaviour.

We seem to become acclimatised to ever increasing coarseness. Reports of bashings, public drunkenness, and anti-social behaviour proliferate. Road rage is a new phenomenon. Crass banality is beamed from our television screens every day. Crude language, once considered the mark of bad manners, is now broadcast to the world. Daniel Patrick Moynihan described this process as “defining deviancy down”.

Second, we prefer the status quo to the challenges involved in embracing the uncertainty of change. As Machiavelli observed, those who benefit from the existing order will defend it, while those who advocate change have difficulty in attracting support.

Third, when we concentrate on the other, we run the risk of missing changes in our own society.

Even as we protested against the military occupations of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, recoiled at the horrors of Solzhenitsyn’s gulag, condemned the atrocities of the “evil empire”, prayed for the success of Solidarity in Poland, and cheered the destruction of the Berlin Wall, implicitly and explicitly, we moulded our perception that communism was the manifestation of evil, and that all change in the West represented true human progress.

Yet our culture was also changing. Increasingly rights – established as a bulwark against totalitarianism, notably the right to life and freedom from oppression – were claimed without consideration of corresponding duties and obligations. Over time, personal interest and convenience have become a dominant public ethic.

In Maybe ‘I do’, I suggested a series of policy initiatives that would help to strengthen marriage and family. Without repeating them, let me mention three matters that will indicate an understanding of the issues I have discussed, and a willingness to consider solutions.

Birth rates

First, it is essential that nations retain replacement, or close to replacement, levels of births if they are to thrive. As I demonstrated in Maybe ‘I do’, it becomes almost impossible to increase the birth rate once it falls below a certain level, which I estimate to be about 1.5 births per woman. Lower birth rates result, over time, in depopulation, constrained economic growth, and falling living standards. This may take a few decades to occur, but it is inevitable.


Second, families should be better recognised in the taxation system. Before the 1996 election, the then opposition considered a range of tax policies that would support families, including income-tax splitting, a system that operates in several other countries. Due to the cost involved – then estimated to be about $7-8 billion – and the dire state of the Commonwealth finances, it was not adopted.

However, the new Howard govern­ment did raise tax-free thresholds for families with children, an initiative that was intended to be a step towards income splitting, allowing further increases in the thresholds as the nation’s finances improved.

This approach was subsequently replaced by the Family Tax Benefits scheme. Although designed to achieve the same outcome, the new benefits were perceived by both government and the community as welfare, and treated accordingly. Instead of allowing families to retain more of their income in recognition of the responsibilities for and costs of raising children, government provided handouts, which have eventually been treated as another payment that can be cut if necessary.

There is a need to re-examine the way in which the taxation and welfare system supports the family, as my colleague, Senator Matt Canavan, has advocated recently.

Relationship support

Third, I believe it is important to continue to provide support for couples wishing to raise a family.

For adults, marriage and cohabitation offer many of the same benefits. Yet non-marital cohabitation is far less stable than marriage and, largely for that reason, the two partnership forms do not provide equally favourable environments for raising children.

The most recent World Family Map shows that the greater the prevalence of marriage among reproductive-age adults, the more likely children are to live with two parents. The greater the prevalence of cohabitation, in contrast, the more likely children are to live with one parent or no parents.

It is incumbent upon mainstream political parties to represent mainstream families and to defend mainstream values. This is increasingly a challenge in Australia today. These are just a few of the practical measures that I believe are important if the trend of family breakdown is to be reversed.

But how are the corrosive trends of social disorder in the West to be countered, especially when a common moral language seems to have escaped our grasp, and the political virtue of toleration turned on its head?

At a time when opinion passes as news; assertion as fact; entertainment as analysis; 140 often emotive charac­ters as compelling argument; and the popular media reinforces the sensate; it is challenging not to conclude that the task is impossible. But it is not. As Václav Havel said, the only struggle that is lost is the one we have given up on.

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