Welcome back to the Agora–a weekly column where I, Co-Editor-In-Chief Stephen Dames, present arguments from antiquity in order to advance our modern discourse. In keeping with NGP’s cross-partisan mentality, over the past five weeks I have presented two or more different arguments around one classically inspired topic. However, this week I decided to change it up and present to you a longer, more in-depth argument around a topic, and the week after next (next week I’ll be on standardized testing hiatus), I will present a longer, more in-depth, rebuttal. Without further ado, here is this week’s issue of “The Agora.”
Should We Abolish the Nuclear Family?
It is thought that there is nothing more basic or fundamental to our existence in this world than the existence of the family. They are the people who gave us life, as well as the basic levels of security and sustenance which we rely on in our infancy. Family is the building block on which we build our lives–or at least we think it is. The familial system is one that goes almost completely unchallenged in modern discourse while serving as the cornerstone for every aspect of our life. This piece will show why the traditional family has failed our society and it will present a viable alternative in the form of total surrogacy along with the re-institution of the idea of communal kinship. I believe we e must challenge the classic familial philosophy as it has led us down an unequal, dangerous and increasingly authoritarian path as a society.
The modern nuclear family is an entity whose power is fundamentally authoritarian, whose actions create unequal ends, and yet is vital to society at large. It is in the family unit where a child is made into an adult, and where a person’s personality forms. According to Christopher Lasch writing in the New York Review of Books, “As the chief agency of ‘socialization,’ the family reproduces cultural patterns in the individual. It not only imparts ethical norms, providing the child with his first instruction in the prevailing social rules, it profoundly shapes his character, in ways of which he is not even aware. The family instills modes of thought and action that become habitual. Because of its enormous emotional influence, it colors all of a child’s subsequent experience.” What Lasch is trying to impart is that the family is a deeply ingrained part of a child’s development both emotionally and socially, so knowing this, how can an institution so vital to children’s futures go unexamined in our society?
Understanding this, it is necessary and it is proper for us to give this institution a full vetting, and for us to look at why this system came to be, and why we still have it. Just to start with, it is an alarming fact that this is not an institution that has even stood the test of time–in fact, it is a relatively new phenomenon. David Brooks writing for The Atlantic tells us this by saying that “we’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options.” This source shows us that even without radical alternatives, the nuclear family has been transformed before. Later on, in the piece Brooks shows us why it is important for it to be transformed again: “The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.” By removing the large interconnected “clans” that existed before the modern “nuclear” family, our society took away the safety net which many poorer children had, all for the sake of “independence” and “modernity.”
The nuclear family is a system where we have pushed farther and farther apart from our wider communities and made to rely on ourselves and on the capitalistic system in which we live more and more. By pushing us away from our wider communities, the nuclear family has also destroyed the homes of those who are not on the top of the economic ladder. Single-parent households are becoming ever more common, and family instability is only growing. These facts are not just painful but they also serve as economic barriers since family instability and a lack of a wider community traps individuals in poverty.
Instead of advocating for small familial units that disadvantage poorer communities who relied on large burden-sharing measures, we should go a step further and envision a future in which all children are cared for in a responsible and ethical way through full surrogacy and communal “kinship.” Tearing down and replacing the system of the family is in some ways more radical than any other change you could impart on a society. This piece has already posited how the modern family disadvantages the working-poor, and it has shown how this familial unit is also, by definition, authoritarian. Establishing the failings of the current system is a vital precursor to presenting any sort of alternative
Madeline Lane-McKinley, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books (while discussing the recent publication of Sophie Lewis’s book Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family) lays a possible alternative to the nuclear family: “In this framing of feminism against family, Full Surrogacy Now understands the work of “baby-making” precisely as work, ultimately asking of the possibility for all baby-making to be reimagined, through revolutionary comradeship, as surrogacy.” She also writes that “[F]ull surrogacy” is a queer communist speculative future: “We are the makers of one another,” she writes, “And we could learn collectively to act like it. It is those truths that I wish to call real surrogacy, full surrogacy.” The idea of complete surrogacy is inherently radical but does offer a set of advantages that could radically alter the future of children who have been left behind by the current system. Full surrogacy would build a world of interdependence where a child’s genetics do not determine their future, but instead their ambition, intelligence, and wit.
Communal love may sound like some hipster’s dream, but the communal love which children feel in a society where love isn’t just prioritized for a person’s “inner circle” is certainly something to strive for, and when given to a child, it can alter their life. This system is by definition more equal and gives children the equal opportunity and equal care. Large communities sharing the load of raising children would not just be more equal but would also be more effective as individuals would not have to do 100% of their child-rearing by themselves, but would instead rely on those in the community for help and advice. By bringing in those who know how to take care of certain aspects of a child, the community can more effectively raise a child. Writing in Jacobin about this theory, Nivedita Majumdar says that Lewis “approvingly cites Shulamith Firestone’s model of communal child-rearing in which you have multiple adults who sign on as a child’s caretakers, and who have the option of opting out if they wish; and so too, does the child. She endorses it on the expectation that it fosters “an understanding that it is not nature but love, in all its contingency, that is the real source of the stability to which all children have a right.” He also writes earlier in the piece that “[t]here’s good reason to strive for a social model in which people can lean on, and have the support of, kith and kin, friends and neighbors, so that children have a rich social environment and, even more importantly, parents have support in their responsibilities to their children. In this sense, a “village” is a much better model than an isolated nuclear family.” This communal burden-sharing is a radical and insightful idea which is a model for how we must approach the future if we wish to solve the myriad of problems that plague the modern family.
Our families are usually among the most important individuals in our lives. We love them, pray for them, feed them, and sometimes hate them, but they are nonetheless crucial figures in our existence. What we must realize, however, is that this system is keeping us, hostage, prioritizing our “happiness” over the basic well-being of vast numbers of people. We are being held hostage in a fundamentally authoritarian system that prioritizes the happiness of the few over the wellbeing of the many. Rather than accept this reality we must bravely step out and embrace a system that looks radically different to transform the way we live. Full surrogacy could give us power over our relationships, help those in need recover from a vicious cycle of poverty (caused by family), and allow for the creation of communal love which seeks to set us all free.
In the next segment of this interesting debate (to be published two weeks from now), I will be making the case for the “traditional” nuclear family, and the necessity of the familial unit.