Yesterday my attention was referred to an article in the Atlantic called The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake, by David Brooks, in response to a social media question about Marxism, BLM, and their mission goal to disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement. I’m brand new to Marxism (I just know that none of the disastrous trial examples of the past were “real Marxism” so we should def keep trying) so I’m having to understand everything from scratch. The connection between Marxism as an economic system and an overhaul of how we think about family was not obvious to me, because I had default-assumed an economic system’s anticipated effect on families would be the factor rendering it more or less desirable, not the other way around. In other words, I thought one was the cart (proposed economic system) and the other was the horse (advantage to families), but I had it backwards, and that’s what this article is about.
So, the article is very long, well-written, and earnest, which I was able to glean from unfortunately a fairly quick skim, touching down harder here and there. It’s fire camp — I’m usually multitasking in one way or another. Immediate reactions: for my preferences, I give the content an A+ and the rhetorical spin an F-. I’ll talk about the very good content, but just to end the suspense on the spin, for me it comes down this this: every story can be framed as a victim narrative or a victor narrative, and this one skewed heavily towards the former, as you can imagine. My preferences lean, especially these days, heavily towards the latter.
Content: basically the article shined a spotlight on how the American family concept has changed over time, and contextualized those changes economically, socially, politically, and emotionally. Pre-industrial revolution, the American family was almost like a company, with everyone involved in whatever activity kept everyone fed, for instance farming. I’m assuming this would have been the heyday for the phenomenon of the family band! The article failed to mention how fucking hard family bands can shred versus other kinds of bands but I’ll forgive that. I think some part of me has always wished I grew up in the [wherever] with an extended family and a bunch of instruments made out of corncobs, mousetraps, and old suitcases or whatever, and nothing but time to shred. But maybe not my IRL extended family — like, a fantasy version of an extended family. Or, I’d really want to cherry pick the extended family members in this scenario. Which of course I wouldn’t be able to, definitionally. It’s an alarming notion, at its core.
In this concept, extended family and multigenerational living was the norm, children had lots of other children and adults besides their parents to help socialize them, and each given individual benefitted from having this built-in support network, economically and emotionally. On the other hand, it wasn’t very possible to “spin-off”, as they say in Community, my favorite comedy. (The autistic character Abed interprets reality through the lens of film tropes, and so when one actress, in reality, doesn’t return for season five or whatever, instead of just creating a contextually appropriate reason within the world of the show — “Shirley transferred to a new school” or something — the writers have Abed referring to Shirley’s absence as her “spinning off”, and in fact supply ridiculous little trailers for the new spin off series, which doesn’t exist — it’s really just that the actress chose not to come back). I’m going to assume people still spun off all the time, to join the circus or the rodeo or the military, but this article presented the family (sprawling) entity as being one with quite a bit of gravitational pull.
Then, following the Industrial Revolution, the more streamlined nuclear family became the new operative concept, with people moving to cities for work, forming primary romantic partnerships, and producing 2.5 children or 11.5 children, whatever it was then, generally in close connection with other nuclear families. In this scenario, and extending through the fifties, women primarily stayed home, men primarily worked outside the home, and neighborhoods provided the fabric of social life external to but including the core family unit itself.
I’ll mention, my dad was born in 1943 and grew up poor on a (nuclear) family farm in Oklahoma, but within easy driving distance of extended family farms, and so was quite close with his cousins as well as his siblings, and those strong friendships continue to this day. So that was kind of a hybrid?, I suppose, relative to the article’s framing. My mother was born in 1945 and grew up rich-ish in North Carolina in a strongly self-identified nuclear family unit, and I don’t remember her talking much about cousins, aunts or uncles. My mother saw relationships as mostly onerous, period, and tried to get out from under them whenever possible (whether above, beside, or below her on the family tree schematic), so that’s a story less about family and more about a complicated series of factors most easily described as…mental illness of an existential variety?…and therefore not germane to this blog.
The social and sexual revolution of the sixties, characterized by its focus on individual preferences, followed by women’s dramatic new level of participation in the workforce of the eighties and attendant spike in divorce rates was the next big thing, effectively interrupting the nuclear family unit as it had functioned thus far, enmeshed in a larger social fabric as it had been.
Here’s where economic schisms became most apparent. In the old family farm model, the poorer sprawling family bands might play instruments made of corncobs, while the richer sprawling family bands played instruments made of golden corncobs (I’m just being silly, please read the article if you’re inclined), and the money thing wasn’t in itself as much of a stressor on people’s primary relationships, according to the Atlantic. And in functioning, interconnected nuclear family times, same thing sort of.
But when the wheels started to come off that reasonably-interconnected tapestry of functioning nuclear family units, nothing alternatively functional rushed in to fill the void. Yes, women had more autonomy, but they also had to work jobs and raise children solo. Children experienced the trauma of divorce, and became bystanders to their mother’s serial partnerships, that whole scene. Men just don’t do well, as a gender, when un-anchored by family; we all know that. Elder-orphans tended to orbit their golden years alone, while grown children increasingly churned, unable or unwilling to take them in.
People who managed to experience, sustain, and advance functioning nuclear family paradigms, amidst this changing landscape, experienced a sharp advantage over those who did not manage it — and the managing of it seemed connected to finances, unsurprisingly. Which is the cart and which the horse, now? The article didn’t come right out and say, “poor people can’t family” but…nearly. To me it seems obvious now that birth control, of one form or another (the old fashioned way or the new fashioned way lol) becomes central to the discussion, but the article breezed past that question in favor of examining the various ways richer people were able to essentially buy those services previously afforded by the extended family clan — childcare, therapy, life coaching, etc. — while poorer people remained left to their own diminishing devices.
Conservatives, the article criticized, emit mostly their traditional lament regarding family values and the erosion of the nuclear family, incognizant of the reasons this becomes increasingly unworkable; while liberals fear to comment at all, and have little to offer when they do, as any social arrangement mustn’t step on the toes of individual lifestyle determination. Loneliness was offered as one primary form of collateral damage, here, further substantiated through noting that people who immigrate from the African continent report finding the US a lonely place. I agree Americans and humanity at large suffer from an epidemic of loneliness right now, which we can examine from all different angles, but personally I’m not interested in what people from the African continent think of our social arrangements here, because I’m almost certain I would break out into an introverted rash were I to emigrate to Africa. Living nuts to butts isn’t my idea of a good time. Nordic people probably think we’re too involved in each others’ lives; it’s all relative.
Speaking of that, the article mentioned that countries with lower GDP’s correlate with higher rates of cohabitation — 13.8 people per household, in the case of some country whose name I forget and probably don’t want to live in — while higher GDP’s correlate with lower rates of cohabitation; 2.7 per household in the case of one of the Nordic countries, predictably. The article stretched its hand out real far to grab at a passing golden ring, at this point, soft-balling in that the market demands loneliness, at which I rolled my eyes. I don’t think that’s helpful or true. The narrative recovered by acknowledging that one of the the first things people do, when they can afford it, is buy themselves some privacy, which is what I’m talkin’ about.
I was really curious where the article would take itself, and had to bulldoze through a scintillating array of facts and figures and data and studies about how fucked poor people are, to arrive at, finally, the rise of the intentional community, or forged families. Here, single mothers band together in domestic alliances, ex-cons live in halfway houses and work in community thrift stores, real estate developers partner with social visionaries to provide housing concepts that accommodate these shifts in collective reality.
Strictly personally, now, I had a bit of an lol moment because I’m 100% involved in the creation of an intentional community at this very moment, which ironically involves my remaining nuclear family members, my boyfriend, and our little bugaboos. We are all jointly moving to Hawaii this fall, preferably before the election, in order to live together in the deafening, COVID-driven absence of reasons not to live together. I happen to adore my nuclear family and would choose them as an intentional community even if we weren’t related, so that’s a double bonus.
Relative to the BLM page’s statement of intent to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement”, which caused me to ask the question this article was offered in response to in the first place, I guess the best-case manifestation of that mission is to say, look: if we can’t fix what’s broken, in the form of the eroded nuclear family, then let’s just build something else; that something else being intentional communities. That’s fine, on the surface, and I don’t see that it requires policy level heroics — when one source of water in the desert dries up, animals generally figure out that they need a new water source, and this isn’t much different. Does society expect us to form nuclear family units in order to be accepted as legitimate adults and afforded a reasonable array of opportunities? Maybe, I don’t know — if so, fuck ‘em. Society also expects us to constantly eat the bodies of dead animals and drink the breast milk of another species, so clearly they’re not the experts on shit making sense.
My brother and I bought a house together in 2003 that we still own, and everyone thought that was weird, but we didn’t let it stop us. That was a good call, and it’s served us well, and I think it’s appropriate to differentiate between what society ambiently expects, which is always farcical to some degree, versus actual oppression.
For me, there’s an elephant in the room here, and that elephant is parenting. Everything else is negotiable, in my mind. We can live in blood clans, identity clans, shared interest clans — I don’t recall anyone ever stopping us from being able to do that, here in America. We can live in connected nuclear families, disconnected nuclear families, mixed families, un-romantic but amicably arranged co-parenting families, all that.
What we don’t get to do is reproduce willy-nilly with absolutely no plan or consequence. How many accidental pregnancies does it take to clue into that sequence of events and activities which may lead to another? I don’t see how that’s rich people’s fault, the market’s fault, the system’s fault, your tax bracket’s fault, anyone’s fault or responsibility but the individual’s, outside of some dystopian, non-consensual breeding plantation, straight from the pen of Margaret Atwood. You can’t go to the pound and adopt a dog, over and over, with no means to care for it, but people do that too. We can policy ourselves to the moon but nothing works without the element of self-governance; people taking responsibility for their own actions. I know I sound like such a conservative Debbie Downer right now but if the buck doesn’t stop there, where the hell is it supposed to stop?
I know lots of people who had, or caused, unplanned pregnancies, and you know what they did? They triaged everything, everything about their lives, in order to show up for that new and massive responsibility, whether they were 23 or 43 at the time. I’ve never been of the mind that kids have to have this perfect JC Penney catalogue life, in order to turn out okay. My Mormon cousin rode herd on her kids so hard they never saw the light of day — you could be banned from the damn family reunion for mentioning a movie or music video that wasn’t sanitized — and amazingly, those kids turned out okay. We were raised in a series of school buses, tents, underground bunkers, single wide trailer houses, and assigned low income housing, and we turned out okay. Kids get raised on sailboats and homeschooled and turn out okay. Kids go to public school with two working parents and turn out okay. Kids go to public school with one working parent, and no other parent around, and turn out okay.
And let’s just get one thing straight: the wealthier segment of the population has no monopoly on kids turning out okay, thanks to the opioid addiction. Welfare mom, no dad, growing up on the streets? You’re probably fucked up. Rich parents, nice community, internet connection straight to the porn box when you’re ten years old, alcohol at twelve, hard drugs at fourteen? Congratulations, you’re fucked up too.
The Atlantic article seemed to almost imply that a functioning nuclear family construct is the prerogative of the wealthy, and not about a conscious set of commitments and intentions equally available to everyone — or on the flip side of that coin, equally unavailable to everyone. I think it’s one thing to draw attention to the ins and outs of the psychosocial terrain and the fact that money acts as a lubricant and a buffer, which it obviously does; but another to suggest that people who get married and stay married, and have kids and raise kids, are simply products of the momentum of their economic class and not, in many cases, individuals digging real fuckin deep into their souls. Should those of us who have been unable or unwilling to form our own nuclear families feel bad? Of course not. But feeing okay about what we’re living and denigrating what someone else is living needs to not be the same thing.
I’m not saying BLM is doing this denigrating — we’ll see how their narrative evolves, as the focus becomes less about torching cop cars and looting small businesses and independently operated franchises, and spraying them with “KILL NAZI PIGS” graffiti, in every Democratically governed major city, and more on the increasingly sophisticated elements of their perspective, as it unfolds over time. I know that when I first went vegan, I felt upset about the scope and degree of industrialized animal abuse normalized in our society, and it took me a couple years and of course an election cycle to mature out of my molotov cocktail phase and into my realization that I could just buy different groceries and start a blog. Luckily I had a good set of principles guiding my evolution, understanding as I did that you solve problems by burning shit to the ground, opening fire on automobiles driven by people trying to get to work, accidentally hitting my own guys because part of rejecting the tyrannical patriarchy of 2A rights is not understanding how to use a gun safely in the first place, but going ahead with it because I have the emotional development of a toddler who badly needs a nap, and the legal prerogatives of an adult, in a nation that protects my right to protest, which is exactly what I’m protesting, and I want to make sure that no one who disagrees with me remains physically safe because I don’t feel physically safe, and indeed I’m not, because I and my fellow protestors represent a greater danger to ourselves, as we triumphantly topple statues down upon one another, than any external threat we’ve so far identified. Meanwhile, what everyone is actually dying of, is heart disease.
This is what I mean about a victim narrative versus a victor narrative. The data contains plenty of ammo for both, either, or something else entirely. Here’s victim narrative manufacturing 101: cherry pick a phenomenon, trend, or observation from the infinite maelstrom of available options, and then rise up really hard against that. Identify it as the problem standing between you and your wellbeing, band together with other people similarly convinced, hold your breath and refuse to be happy until that thing is eradicated, root and stem, from everyone’s experience, not just your own, whether they agree with you or not. Assume that the entirety of human history has been dedicated to the overt advancement of this form of oppression, and is not in fact a confabulated jalopy of intelligences no greater than your own and with far fewer resources, facing far greater challenges, hopping from one survival strategy to the next in a mostly haphazard way. Make it about you, and make it really really hopeless, and get really really angry. Feel that any faction of society unconsciously expecting anything different from you than what you’re accustomed to offering is a form of violence, and not simply the status quo of collective thought forms doing what they do best, which is swirling around in a mostly confused and internally conflicting but slowly evolving manner. Feel that the nuclear family paradigm is simply the latest form of colonization, and has everything to do with assets and nothing to do with steadfastness. Assume that all dominance hierarchies are based on nepotism and tyranny and (obviously) patriarchy.
Here’s victor narrative manufacturing 101: say to yourself, I’m figuring this out. I’m doing okay. I’m certain a lot of people appreciate me just the way I am. If there’s any comparison to be made, it’s between my own worst days and my own best days, and I can see that I’m doing better and better as I get the lay of the land. I think everyone’s a little confused about how to be, how to live, and when I talk to them I can see that we’re all on the same journey, really. We have more in common than you’d think. I like talking to people who have things I want, and getting their advice. When I meet people who don’t have things I want, I like talking to them too, and seeing if there’s any help I can offer, something I know about that they don’t. I give help easily and I receive help easily — we’re all in this together. I know I have something unique and powerful to offer this world, and I know that I’m most aligned with it when I’m doing things that make me happy. I like to experiment, to try on different types of thought and see what feels best, what serves me most. I embrace the challenge of loving people, not because they’re easy to love but because I think love is a strong enough force, inside me, that it can find expression anyway. I can find a loving response in a variety of circumstances, even tough circumstances, and I think that’s what this video game is all about. Even when I can’t find a loving response, that’s okay, I let myself off the hook. We always get another try. When one train leaves the station, another one comes. There’s no rush or pressure, here. Honestly, I like figuring this out. I like sifting and sorting from the tapestry of available examples what works best for me, what makes me feel happiest and most satisfied.
Etcetera and so forth — I could go on, as you can probably tell.
So, should we disrupt the nuclear family requirement in favor of a new model, in my opinion? Newsflash: you’re way off in the weeds already if you’re looking to society to help you live a meaningful life. That’s like driving forward through traffic while staring into your rearview mirror. “Society” is nothing more and nothing less than the manifested aggregate of our collective thinking and believing thus far. I think people for whom the nuclear family construct is not working should flow their energy towards intentional communities. I think people for whom the nuclear family construct is working can, and should, feel proud of that. I don’t think there’s any need to invalidate one in favor of the other. It’s really no one’s business, and wherever we’re at, the world is full of likeminded individuals to align with and enjoy. Wasting your time with un-likeminded individuals is like holding your breath in a room full of fresh air — WHY.
Final thought: let’s take the idea of the victim vs. the victor narrative out of this family context, for a moment, since it’s so emotionally charged, and re-situate ourselves in something a little more tame. So: electricity, music, and digital advances.
The original instruments were all acoustic; the original vocal style was, you know, opera (controlled yelling) or in other parts of the world, Tibetan throat singing or some shit. Stuff you do because microphones don’t exist, in other words. I wasn’t there, but I’ve heard that in the guitar world, at least, there was a lot of pushback on the emergence of the electric guitar. People felt the entire instrument was being ruined, its proud history trashed, its future denied. Well, it didn’t get ruined. Everyone still loves and respects those more traditional forms of guitar music, and meanwhile the electric guitar has become not only entirely non-controversial, but much beloved of music lovers the world over.
The next big step in this evolution, following hundreds of thousands of baby steps in the form of analog combos of amps, pickups, pedals, whammy bars, and strings, AND THEN a sequence of replica baby steps in the form of digital effects combos of amps, pickups, pedals, whammy bars, and strings, is the realization that any instrument can become a “synthesizer”, able to sound like any other instrument, thanks to digital effects. The instrument itself emerges, finally, as what it most truly is: a creative interface. So depending on what you know how to play, you can “synthesize” masterfully with a digital guitar, a digital fiddle, a digital flute, even digital drum kits, although those remain mostly percussive, of course. And then the signal out can be manipulated almost infinitely again — same with vocals — and all of this is, indeed, an explosion of nearly asphyxiating complexity, but is it the end of music? Was the music sky falling, at any point? No. Individual musicians chose to die on that hill, I’m sure. I don’t know this for a fact, but I do know for a fact that classical guitarists will get into fist fights in parking lots over rest strokes or free strokes, so I’m sure someone, somewhere, did a hunger strike about diabolical electric guitars.
The dust never really settles, because this embodiment project really is about the expansion of consciousness, not the contraction of consciousness; but you can see, right, that music didn’t die? Family doesn’t die either. We’re not here to all do things the same way, we’re not here to agree on how to do things, but we’re also not here to blame others for how they choose to do things when we choose differently. You play your instrument, I’ll play mine. It’s all okay — even if you’re forming a nuclear family intentional community in Hawaii :)