Friday, February 12, 2010

Family values

Every debate has its blind spots and the one about community in peak oil circles is no exception. It is fascinating to see how little discussion there is about what is, after all, the most basic community in all human society : family. There are, of course, good reasons for that. Few among us have any sympathy for the family values crowd, a species unfortunately every bit as widespread and nefarious on this side of the Atlantic as on the other one and we certainly don't want to be put in the same basket as they. This is, however, unfortunate, for, no matter how polluted it is by religious non-issues, the family question and its evolution is of the foremost importance if we want to make sense of the post-peak world.

Contrary to what common wisdom says, traditional families are quite diversified. In fact, aside from the fact children are reared by at least one of their biological parents and that normal people are not supposed to sleep with their sisters or mothers – the key word being “normal”, something Pharaos and Incas obviously were not - there is, in that matter as in many other, no universal model. In many cultures, the main masculine figure in the family is not the father but the maternal uncle, for instance. One – the Mosuo of south China – does not have any concept of marriage. As she comes of age, a girl is given a private room were she can invite “partners”. While most women have only one at any given time, they can change partner as often as they want without any further formality and nothing prevents them from having several lovers at the same time.

The Mosuo live in extended families, but those only include the maternal line. Biological fathers, even though they are generally known, are not members of the family and play little part in the education of their children. Those are reared by their mother, their aunts, their uncles and, of course by the matriarch, who is the real head of any Mosuo family. This system is quite recent, and was created and ruthlessly enforced by a now gone nobility which wanted to make sure commoners could not marry up. This however does not keep to be every bit as functional as the western nuclear family – itself a recent phenomenon – fundamentalists and lacanian psychoanalysts are so fond of.

What is almost universal, however, is the public, socially integrated nature of the family. No matter how weird its form, the family is almost everywhere an economic and political unit. As Cristopher Lasch pointed out, the idea of the family being a private place removed from the economic world is a fairly recent innovation. It appeared in Victorian England, among the upper class, and slowly spread outward and downward during the last two centuries until it became the norm at least in the developed world.

It is no coincidence that this idea appeared in the cradle of the industrial revolution. In the preindustrial world, families could hardly afford to keep one of their members idle. It was only after industrialization has created enough surplus that families were progressively removed from the economic sphere. It was a long process, marked by the generalization of mandatory schooling, the gradual emergence of childhood as a distinct part of life or the replacement of family workshops by factories. It was completed only after WWII when domestic economy became marginalized. It was not always a bad thing – generalized education certainly wasn't – but it certainly did not lead to an improved self-reliance.

This retreat from the productive world showed, of course, in the law, as family became, legally speaking less and less a social and economic institution and more and more a private association of private individuals. The last step in France was the creation of the PACS, a kind of civil union, aimed at homosexuals, but open to heterosexuals. It is steadily gaining ground in the general population and is probably bound to replace marriage at some point of the future. Unlike marriage, however, the PACS is a contract. It is far less protective and can be dissolved far more easily. The financial solidarity between the partners is limited to the goods they have specifically bought together and of course, there is no alimony.

This evolution has been made possible, however, only by industrialization and the ready availability of highly concentrated energy sources. They have enabled our society to build the layers of social complexity – corporations, state bureaucracies, logistic and education networks – the economic and social functions of family were basically outsourced to. As fossil fuels dwindle away, there will be less and less resource to support this complexity and it will progressively fade away.

Families will then be bound to assume again the social and economic role which was theirs in preindustrial times. In a way, this has already begun, as relatively well-off parents often helps, at least here, their struggling children, and this very effective solidarity has been a major factor in cushioning the effects of the crisis. As an ever greater part of the population slides into poverty and state and corporate services shrink the role of families in keeping the society together, materially as well as morally, will increase correspondingly.

This will be a slow process, of course, and it is likely to be restricted to the struggling middle classes at first, the rich clinging to the private haven model almost to the bitter end. There is no reason why the end result should be identical to the preindustrial extended family and gay marriage – or some variation of the PACS – and divorce could – and should – definitely be a part of the equation. Those existed in the past even if they were not common. Divorce was a recognized – and effective – right for women in early Islam and there definitely were same-sex unions in China and Rome, not to speak of the long established “third sex” tradition in the Pacific.

What definitely won't be a part of the equation is the Victorian idea of the family as a private place, only dedicated to marital – and sometimes parental – love, and without any responsibility toward the community. As one of the building blocks of any community, it will have to become fully integrated into it, with all the limitations this implies. This means, for instance, that its dissolution, even though it must remain possible, will have to be more carefully considered than in today's society, not because divorce is wrong, but because the break up of an household will have far reaching consequences for the community it is a part of.

But now, being an ecologist is about understanding limitations.


  1. In the U.S., many still consider the community of believers in the church to be the equivalent of a large extended family, especially in smaller congregations not fallen victim to the growth model and 'megachurch' anonymity. The congregation can be a place of healing and reconciliation for those considered outcasts and loners in society; a home or family where there is no biological family.

  2. This process is well under way in post-communist societies (many of which did not pick up the private family at the first place). Marriage is more common in middle classes as outside of them and stress on schooling and grooming of children is a more essential characteristic of local middle class that their monetized position (the communist distorsion of underrating typical middle class professions still bearing impact many spheres).
    Maybe not surprisingly, the recent catholic encyclica "Caritas in Veritate" has many similar points.

  3. Anonymous, the Church here is dying. Priests are few and old and those who still believe rarely attend the mass. Yet I don't feel it was a kind of extended family, even when it did thrive. It certainly helped to cement local community, but it wasn't a production unit, for instance. This does not mean t had no role but it was a different role, which will probably taken over by another institution.

    Medved, quite true. The eastern countries were "put into the fridge" by communism, so old solidarities live on there, at least in some sections of the society. As for the encyclic... As I said, the Church s dying here

  4. Damien, Anonymous had not in his mind the Roman catholic church but growing evangelical/pentecostal communities specific for either USA or postcommunist countries.

  5. . . .communist distortion of underrating middle class professions? Isn't that a rather subjective interpretation of value and productive capabilities?

    As for the church, it's in the same position in Ireland but not yet entirely dead. It should be in another decade. The question is what will replace it? It fulfilled social and cultural functions as well as a place for ethics of a sort to be comtemplated. In its absence all that has sought to fill the void is an ideology of non-ideology - a sort of cultural and social void it seems. If there is any sort of cultural/social identity filling the void, it seems to be a type of Consumer Darwinian vision. At the individual (possibly family) level those who can command greater consumption habits are inherently thought to be more valuable in society. Handy for producers who mostly reside in the East bar the production of luxury goods.

  6. Anonymous, indeed. Those churches are pretty marginal here, except among gypsies, but they basically play the same role as the catholic church did here.

    tgmac, communist societies had a rather weird social structure. they claimed to value workers, yet despised them. The real middle class was intermediate party management, while profession we associate with middle class - teachers for instance - were undervalued. Of course, this varied with time and all countries had not the same social structure.

    The demise of the Church is a bit more advanced here than in Ireland, but you obviously follow the same path. It is a product of a general drift toward an individualist society made possible by fossil fuel. Expect this to play in reverse as they fade away and community becomes again a matter of survival. Of course, the church won't come back, but some other religious institution will emerge to fill the vacuum. Wich one is anyone's guess at this point.

  7. Ah, but Damien, here's the rub. Is it also possible that too many "professional" people over value themselves? Sure, we may choose to make standards of comparison, such as hard work, talent and ability. Do we ignore luck, closed clubs and the simple ability to speak well at the right cocktail parties in determining the over-arching measurement of achievement or value? Do will automatically assume that these professionals deserve more of the diminishing resource allocation pie because others are unlucky, compartively socially inept and unable or unwilling to overcome the invisible barriers to what we call success?

    How is such a "mindset" clarified and measured against a back drop of decreasing resource allocation? While we may not be experiencing the overt appearance of resource depeletion yet, imo we are witnessing the affects of the phenomenon through the erosion of so-called middle class stratums in many Western countries. The reply by many governments has been to perpetuate a new myth called the knowledge economy, or some such thing. The implications are to split the wheat from the chaff, or talent from hoi poloi. In Ireland, the government has set up a system through laws to encourage what I call elitist structures to ensure more than adequate resource allocation go to the "talent" while using emmigration once again as a release valve for the non-talented.

    Surely, human resources are the one levelling factor that should be used to make transitions smoother. Instead, we choose to fragment, alienate and perpetuate division between those who are deemed worthy to receive and those who are not. (And we needn't mention bank bail-out and so on. The general themes is already evident in Ireland and the UK.)

    I hope this doesn't come across as Bolshie. Rather, I'm just interested and want to see how other people, especially from mainland Europe, see the world.