Against Communities, Against Families

I wonder if you’ve ever read Ewan Morrison‘s novel Swung (spoiler coming) about a dissatisfied couple who look for self-realisation and good times by joining the orgy scene. After a series of chaotic and sordid encounters with total strangers they realise that swinging doesn’t do it for them and that all the things they were searching for they could find in their own relationship. The story ends with the couple expecting a baby.

This book came to mind over the weekend when there was some debate on Facebook about National Marriage Week. This is an idea from the Centre for Social Justice, the National Government’s wonkery arm, and the reasoning is that marriage promotes social stability so we should support it with tax breaks. On the face of it, this is mad. You wouldn’t think conservatives would legislate on matters of the heart. Government doesn’t get much bigger than this.

Yet it’s not as silly as it sounds, certainly compared to most CSJ ideas. I’m sure IDS is right to say that ‘we do a disservice to society if we ignore the evidence which shows that stable families tend to be associated with better outcomes for children. And there are few more powerful tools for promoting stability than the institution of marriage.’ And as a romantic I love the idea of having a big party essentially to say: ‘I love this woman, forever.’ IDS concentrates on welfare and anti-social behaviour rather than passion and romance but it’s a start, maybe. Personally I would like to see Dave and Gideon set an example by getting a civil partnership, for the duration of National Marriage Week, in a public ceremony.

And yet getting married and raising children costs money, and there is no way the DWP is going to free up enough welfare cash to allow people the time they need to build solid and lasting relationships with their partners and children. Most people I know are not on the property ladder and cannot afford to have a child on the salaries they’re on. Responding to a critique by Suzanne Moore, Morrison picked up on this: ‘You might be interested to know that separation, divorce and singledom are growth markets. Capitalism is done with the family.’ The National Government is schizophrenic on this as on so many other things. Its minister promotes the family as an ideal, but its doctrinaire freemarket policies and attacks on the welfare state make it almost impossible to start and support a family.
The liberal-creative convention goes – from Adam Curtis to Douglas Coupland – that the revolutions of ’68 led to an aggressive individualist capitalism which in turn has destroyed community and connection. Generations are condemned to float in a white haze of isolated consumerism. Feminists and leftwingers used to fight for sexual freedom. Now they have reacted to the Atomised thesis by emphasising stability, family and community over independence and the pursuit of pleasure. Morrison sums it up: ‘The left wing critique of marriage is obsolete, out-dated. It should be on the agenda of every progressive thinker to uphold and strengthen all connections between people.’ Today’s feminists aren’t interested in female liberty and are as likely as the Daily Shriek to tell young women that the best possible thing they can do is find a man and produce children.

I’ve discussed this thesis a million times, and it’s wrong. The big problem is overcrowding, not isolation. The housing crisis has left countless families crammed into tiny ALMO properties and professionals living in HMOs well into middle age. I think of doors opening and closing, people running up and down stairs, long indistinct joyless conversations. People aren’t isolated from each other: they are squeezed and pummelled together in a miserable solidarity. Communitarians never seem to understand that people want silence and solitude and space.

The journalist and writer Lillys Miles raised the point that there is a dark side to the couple and the family that communitarians ignore. You can be alone and not lonely – and lonely and not alone. The IDS speech is a lament on family breakdown, but is family breakdown always a bad thing? Lillys points out that divorce has risen because divorce is easier and more socially acceptable. Before the right to divorce, women could end up wasting years and decades of their lives under the cosh of bullying and abusive husbands. The rise in divorce is the sign of a healthy and free society, not a nation in decline.

For centuries there has been a sentimental conspiracy of silence about the suffering and exploitation within the family unit. It’s worth going back to a speech by Labour peer Professor Anthony Giddens:

We should have no truck with those who say that our aim in family policy should be a return to the traditional family, by which I mean the family up until the threshold of the 1950s. That traditional family might have had virtues — indeed it did — but it also had a serious set of downsides. It was based on the dominance of men over women. Women were the chattels of men in English law until well into the 20th century, the last residue of which, so far as I know, is the law about the impossibility of rape in marriage. I believe that it was repealed as late as the 1960s. The traditional family also did not admit the rights of children. Historians and social scientists have uncovered just how big the dark side of the experience of childhood in the traditional family was, again right into the 20th and to some extent the 21st century. Levels of sexual and physical abuse of children were much higher than anyone conceived possible until intensive research on this topic revealed them a few years ago. Finally, the traditional family set a double standard in which married women were supposed to be pure and other women were regarded as fallen. In the mean time, men could get on with their philandering. So we certainly should not hold up the traditional family as a model for the past. At the minimum, we should be cautious about the idea that the family is breaking down and as a consequence the wider structures of our society are threatened.

We think of the family as an escape from the chaos and despair of the single life: and sometimes we find out the hard way that it’s not.

The idea that you cannot be happy and fulfilled while single is just fantasy. I think that people portray swingers as decrepit and ridiculous mainly because they don’t like to feel they’re missing out on something. My final thought is that love doesn’t last forever. All that lasts is the need to be loved and the desire to love.

Update: Steve Hilton just messaged me re my idea that David Cameron and George Osborne should get married for the duration of National Marriage Week. Very keen but concerns about how it would play with the backbenchers. Apparently if Gideon not up for it, Nick Clegg definitely is.


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