Why I Don’t Talk About The Nuclear Family – Part Words

a.k.a. “Why I’m not so eager to dance on the grave of the nuclear family”

(Second Part of this post)

I tend to remain quiet on topics I know very little about but I make exceptions with the ones I can give a different spin to. And this is one of those topics.

The Traditional Nuclear Family™ is falling apart. We all know that. The Conservative Right goes ballistic over this and puts the blame squarely at the feet of women, more precisely, women’s liberation. The so-called progressives/leftists/feminists respond to this attack with some variation of “Thank god the Traditional Nuclear Family is going! About bloody time!”.
I, however, am not so eager to dance on the grave of the nuclear family. Why? Because I don’t see anything stepping in to replace it

It is very clear to “people who know” like sociologists that there simply must be something that organizes people around each other. It’s basic human nature and it stems from the fact that we are “social” beings. This is the argument in favour of the nuclear family which you hear from those well meaning people from the Right (they exist, I haves seen them).

But if it’s not the Evol Feminism™ that is murdering the families, then what is?

Feminism is not the cause behind the demise of the patriarchal nuclear family. If that were the case, feminists would be pushing forward something to replace it with, some other kind of family arrangement. Matriarchy? Matrilineality? Matricentricity? Matrifocality? Goddess knows. One thing is clear, though. We are not short of ideas. Or models.

But the fact that there’s nothing in sight to take the place of the nuclear family should be enough evidence that it’s not a direct action of the people involved. The fact that it’s causing a helluva lot of pain should provide the final argument to the ones who remain unconvinced. Every heterosexual couple that decides to get married does so convinced that they will be able to make it work. And yet. How many of those couples who gets a divorce wishes they hadn’t have to? And among those who do not, how many wishes they could have spared the collateral damage to those who are affected by the divorce, namely children, extended family and friends? It’s clear to me that the nuclear family is crumbling despite people’s intentions, not as a result of them.

I’d say that either someone or something is invested in killing the traditional nuclear family. Alternatively, its death could be a consequence of a much bigger someone or something. I’d go for the second first and the first second; in that order. I blame the status quo. The politico-economic system. Capitalism. And all that encompasses it.
I think the nuclear family as we think of it today was useful for the system some time ago. Now it’s become an obstacle to something much bigger. Which is why it’s quietly but steadily falling apart. Because the bigger thing cannot be stopped. And if the nuclear family happens to be on its way, then too bad.

Now I make no grand claims to know why the nuclear family is disappearing before our eyes. I have some vague ideas, but nothing more. What I can see is the advantages that this has for the status quo. Having a society made up of unconnected individuals is the best recipe for dealing with potential uprisings. If people cannot get together out of love for each other, what chance do they have of getting together for some common “cause” that could, perhaps, be realized 500 years after they pass away? Worse still, if people do not get close enough to talk to each other, how can they ever find out what their commonalities are? Even worse still, if people never know that they have anything in common with others, why would they ever care about others in the first place?

And if people cannot find things in common with other people, they will never develop bonds between them, which will guarantee that they will never find what they common miseries are, which in turn will guarantee that they never get together to fight the cause of those common miseries.

Neat plan, ah?

Of course my little analysis has been clear for ages to those superb feminists with huge brains one never hears about. Claudia von Werlhof, who is clearly one of them, summarizes it nicely in “Capitalist Patriarchy and The Negation of Matriarchy”.

“In patriarchal societies we can always find vestiges of former matriarchal societies-matriarchy as “second culture” (Genth 1996)-left over or newly re-organized after the patriarchs had started to deny the reality and quality of matriarchal society (Werlhof 2004b). This matriarchy as second culture can be observed everywhere, for example, in mother-child AND OTHER LOVE -relationships, and in gift giving generally (Vaughan 1997).

It contradicts the patriarchal order, but also helps it to exist, because a society without any matriarchal relations could simply not survive. Therefore, patriarchies are always somehow “mixed” societies, whether to a higher or lower degree, and they are hiding this fact as much as they can-for obvious reasons. But today it is clear that patriarchy is trying to complete its negation of matriarchy in order to replace it WITH ITSELF, A “PURE” PATRIARCHY, as much as possible. This destruction and the fading away of the second culture in patriarchy, and of much of the still existing gift paradigm within it, is one of the main reasons for the depth of the crisis of contemporary civilization.”

Where I disagree with her is in the assertion that “patriarchy is trying to complete its negation of matriarchy”. That doesn’t seem to fit with the victories of feminism which, though modest, have indeed taken place and are relatively recent. I think patriarchy is going stronger in some areas, those which are “behind the crisis of contemporary civilization”, and is going weaker in others, those where women have gained some ground. I know; it’s not a very positive way to see it.

Still, if we want humanity to survive (though not, perhaps, civilization), we should be aware that some kind of family or group arrangement is necessary, both to our survival and to overturn the system that is doing us, and the planet, in.
We need to get the message across that yes, we do need families but they don’t need to be the traditional, patriarchal, nuclear type that we are used to.

And no, this is not an easy message to get across. Like pretty much every aspect of human nature, family has been co-opted by the dominant discourse. So when you say “family” people understand “patriarchal nuclear family with the man as breadwinner and the woman as house slave”; much like when one says “morality” and people understand “list of rules from the bible used by nasty prudes to make sex a sin”.
But it’s not an impossible task. And rest assure that those superb feminists with huge brains one never hears about have many ideas. And models.

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1 Response so far »

  1. 1

    Alderson Warm-Fork said,

    This post is really interesting and the topic is one I’ve thought a lot about. If you’re interested, my take is as follows:

    Firstly, I’m not sure how true it is that nothing is replacing the TPNF – it depends on what counts as a replacement. The mass media and the interventionist state have expanded to a great extent as the family has receded, and often perform many of the same roles: providing for people in need, socialising people into gender roles, and violence (the state has acquired a monopoly of violence by removing step-by-step the rights of violence that existed in the family – wife-beating, child-beating, marital rape, etc).

    But of course insofar as this ‘mass society’ is decisively different from any kind of family (in that, e.g. there are no specific inividuals tied to you for your whole life) this does mean that nothing very similar is replacing it. On the other hand, it seems that the sort of healthier and freer ‘family’ that feminists might desire would probably be half-way between traditional ‘family-ness’ and modern ‘mass-society-ness’, e.g. in being much more fluid and potentially including relationships to a greater number of people.

    Secondly, as to why this happening, I’d question the idea that capitalism (or as in your quote, patriarchy – which I take it here is meant as including capitalism as a form?) is benefited by, or actively responsible for, the dissolution of the family. You say that “Having a society made up of unconnected individuals is the best recipe for dealing with potential uprisings.” I would suggest that in fact, a society of individuals who are, in the relevant sense, ‘unconnected’, is the best recipe for encouraging uprisings.

    We can see this in the male public sphere in the way that urbanised proletarians are potentially more powerful and more prone to effective revolt than dispersed peasants – because the peasants are ‘connected’ to their land, their neighbours, and their lords so tightly that they’re actually separated from the other peasants and unable to connect with them in all the ways that you talk about.

    Similarly, to quote de Beauvoir, another of those really smart feminists (writing about the historical situation of women, i.e. primarily about women-in-the-family):

    “women lack concrete means for organising themselves into a unit which can stand face to face with the correlative unit. They have no past, no history, no religion of their own…They are not even promiscuously herded together in the way that creates community feeling among the American Negroes, the ghetto Jews, the workers of Saint-Denis, or the factory hands of Renault. They live dispersed among the males, attached through residence, housework, economic condition, and social standing to certain men – fathers or husbands – more firmly than they are to other women.”

    You speak of a situation where “people cannot get together out of love for each other…do not get close enough to talk to each other…never know that they have anything in common with others”. For women *as women*, this situation is precisely what the family functions to produce.

    So I’m actually quite optimistic about the long-term effects of the demise of the TPNF (perhaps not to the point of dancing). To me it looks exactly like the way that capitalism ‘produced its own gravediffers’ by bringing labourers together and allowing them to become class-conscious. By destroying the TPNF, ‘modern patriarchy’ brings women together in a way that allows them to become class-conscious. And in doing so it lays the groundwork for its own destruction.


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