Sully’s Rosetinted View of Traditional Familial Norms
I am not anti-family values. I do not think that “what a family consists of” can be endlessly reconfigured without consequence. There are causes and effects, particular familial institutions and outcomes associated with them.
But I do view the family with a lot of skepticism. At least one important reason why is that the institution and the relations which result from it are not obviously necessary, or superior, when considering a vast array of criteria. Economically, emotionally, and socially, it is not at all clear what a “proper” or at least “preferable” family should consist of. And as a pattern of populational clumping, the “family” is not a construction other living beings, including animals, but even specifically mammals, seem to adopt across the board.
Then there is the community as a series of families. Having already adopted certain familiar groupings as the most basic social unit, it’s not surprising that notions of community should then share many of the same qualities in common with it.
For Andrew Sullivan, an often overlooked problem with capitalism is how it disintegrates the integrity of these social structures, weakening bonds between between individuals in a family, and families in a community. Just so you know before I cut into most of his romanticizing analysis, I am extremely sympathetic to this view. I not only mostly agree with what it observes, but I’m also partial to thinking it is bad as well.
Unfortunately, to the degree that liberal democracy and free market capitalism fit well together, and rely on one another (a highly suspect proposition, certainly), Sullivan would like to throw out the latter without seeking to preserve the former. Read between the lines, and it sounds like he’s pining for the days of Downton Abbey.
“The turbulence of a growing wealth-creating free market disrupts traditional ways of life like no other. Even in a culture like ours used to relying from its very origins on entrepreneurial spirit, the dislocations are manifold.”
What are the dislocations? Sullivan continues,
“People have to move; their choices of partners for love and sex multiply; families disaggregate on their own virtual devices; grandparents are assigned to assisted living; second marriages are as familiar as first ones; and whole industries – and all the learned skills that went with them – can just disappear overnight (I think of my own profession as a journalist, but it is one of countless).”
Read another way, people can move, choices are increasing, the arbitrary necessity of family is disintegrating, and thanks to new technology one is not necessarily condemned to the same ideology, preferences, and beliefs of their parents or town. Grandparents are not dependent on their children, unworkable marriages are not unseverable, and whole industries and the skills which pertain to them are constantly reinventing themselves–leading to more material security and freedom then ever before in human history.
These are the upshots which Sullivan categorically ignores. Yes, of course capitalism can look like a parasitically futile endeavour if you only focus on the negatives aspects, on how it changes things, on the loss of yesterday and the forced promise of tomorrow. But what Sullivan can’t do is offer a revitalized regime that keeps social progress and individual liberty intact for post-capitalism.
“Capitalism is in this sense anti-conservative. It is a disruptive, culturally revolutionary force through human society. It has changed the world in three centuries more than at any time in the two hundred millennia that humans have lived on the earth. This must leave – and has surely left – victims behind.”
And then this stunning explanation: “Which is why the welfare state emerged.”
To hear Sullivan tell it, everyone was being taken care of just fine by Lord Grantham until nasty technological revolutions broke up the estate, and the hope of greater prosperity fueled civil unrest which demanded more economic and political rights from the government.
Like so many conservative romantics, it’s as if poverty didn’t really come into being until capitalism dismantled prior social arrangements. Nevermind how indigent and hopeless the Buckets were–at least they all got to sleep in the same room, under the same roof, eating cabbage soup together!
Sullivan tells a story of capitalism that doesn’t just posit the pity charity of neoliberalism, but presumes it. Rather than the welfare state as a problematic tool for spreading around the wealth brought by capitalism, Sullivan pretends that the welfare state was an after thought in light of newly created impoverishment.
There are two overly simplistic narratives about economic relations in the last century. One is that market capitalism helped dramatically increase economic productivity, and as such there was plenty left over both for labor to demand more rights and greater wages, and for social programs to develop to ramp up the projects churches and poor houses were all too under-resourced to fully address. The other is that ripped from their families and homes, forced into big bad urban cities, and to mingle along side immigrants and second-class citizens, capitalism broke down family values, civic duty, and social generosity until something had to be done by the government to try and fix all the relations that capitalism had shattered.
Neither is entirely right, nor entirely wrong. Sullivan’s inability to even recognize the inadequacy of the picture his own romantic conservatism paints is astounding though.
Then he points to an important issue,
“In other words, it is precisely capitalism’s post-1980s triumph that has helped create the social dependency so many conservatives bemoan today. And this time, there is even a sense that whole industries are disappearing faster than ever before – not simply because of outsourcing but because of technology itself, tearing through old ways of life like acid through iron.”
Without presenting any evidence, or even subsidiary claims to bolster his initial point, Sullivan posits the fundamental problem as a loss of jobs. If only those factory jobs of the 50s, 60s, and early 70s still existed! Then a strong middle class could still be toiling away inside a dank warehouse and have enough money, and enough traditional notions about the world, to purchase the newspapers and magazines my peers and I, as professional journalists, used to write for.
I’m being quite unfair by now, but it is Sullivan who originally points to the disruption in his own profession as an example of how industries are being turned inside out as capitalism rages forward. This parody is indicative of a true lack of imagination which I think runs throughout Sullivan’s pining. Unable to comprehend the true dullness of an atomized blue-collar work week, he writes longingly of what came before the last three decades, even though he, as a creative intellectual, was decidedly not a part of those economic relations.
In the final part of his post Sullivan goes full-blown apocalypse,
“And in my bleaker moments, I wonder whether humankind will come to see this great capitalist leap forward as a huge error in human history – the moment we undid ourselves and our very environment, reaching untold material wealth as well as building societies in which loneliness, dislocation, displacement and radical insecurity cannot but increase.”
I will be the first to grant the bleakness of the early 21st century. It is not, however, the kind of bleakness he is apparently talking about. My bleakness comes not from the thought that our economic systems have broken society beyond repair, but the thought that while its economic system has grown more complex, society has not continued to grow in its egalitarianism and sophistication to match it. The answer might not be Randian capitalism, as the conservative nativists to Sullivan’s right believe it to be, but it’s not a return to rigid social roles and arbitrary familial relations either.
I was born into a loving family. I have a great relationship with my parents and siblings. It could have been very different. How cruel to make someone’s material well being and social contentment so completely dependent on utter chance. There are positive elements to the community I was raised in, but many negative ones as well. I wouldn’t for a minute wish to be inextricably tied to it, or believe that if the rest of my neighbors simply got off their tablets, took their parents out of the retirement home, and worked in more stable industries, I all of the sudden would.
I don’t like the forty hour work week I’m bounded by, and the material consumption that permeates our culture, or how it wreaks havoc on the environment. But I also don’t long for a time when I could have simply toiled away on Lord Grantham’s estate while he and his family pissed away what the rest of us worked for. I don’t long for a time when the most common means of communion was through a cultish patriarchy in a house of religious idolatry. And having the least among us rely on the government for subsistence is not ideal, but it’s a start, and certainly preferable to leaving those individuals to the much less well-resourced mercy of communities they didn’t choose to live in, made up of families they didn’t pick to be born into.