Families under Siege: A Left Defense of the Nuclear Family

Why the Left needs to get comfortable using government to secure the nuclear family.

It’s not obvious that nuclear families are institutions of freedom, but I’ll make the case starting with families in general, then draw a narrower focus on the particularly virtues of the nuclear family, and finish with why the institution deserves massive political support.

There is a kind of freedom that is only available in family relations. It’s a freedom tied to knowing that the other person is, and is recognized by society as, inextricably part of you, regardless of the person’s immediate choices in the matter. This kind of freedom needs to be restricted because there are other kinds of freedom, e.g., legal freedom, that depend on you knowing that the other person is, and is recognized by society as, other than you. For family freedom, you want to be able to seamlessly get a joint bank account with your spouse, but for legal freedom, you don’t want to have to go to jail if your spouse steals a car. Two different freedoms. Two different structures of interaction.

Since family relations offer a particular mode of freedom that is distinct from civil freedom, legal freedom, and political freedom, and the blessings of liberty vouchsafed by the US Constitution include all modes of freedom, family freedom should not be conceived as a luxury good for those who can afford it; rather, the freedom of family relations is properly a matter of right. Everyone should be able to participate in and fulfill their family responsibilities, regardless of their access to wealth, just as everyone should be able to sustain themselves as property owners, legal subjects and citizens, regardless of their wealth. In a well-ordered world, the extraordinary costs of fulfilling family responsibilities would be considered as unseemly as a poll tax.

This all shakes out in the way our distinct modes of freedom have to be modified to accommodate each other, e.g., our civil and political institutions need to be modified to accommodate participation in families, just as families need to be modified to accommodate our participating in civil society, politics, property ownership, and legal contestation.

Much of political justice is a matter of setting the parameters for how distinct spheres of non-political freedom, e.g., property, civil, legal, family, etc., enable the mutual expression of each other, and political freedom itself is tied to establishing the conditions wherein people can be recognized as equals as they hash out the parameters that govern the differentiated expressions of non-political freedom.

Since justice is going to be a matter in making sure that each person has the opportunity to realize the different varieties of freedom, if people are restricted from participating in family relations, an injustice has been done. Yet the Left is bad about conceiving the family as an institution of justice that needs to be protected through the power of the state.

There are reasons for this. The Left emerged from a liberalism that is itself a reaction to the over-determination family relationships had placed on social life, where an overwhelming number of social and political opportunities were determined by family relations. However, the Left has surrendered the family, and a great many other institutions of freedom, including religious institutions, over to conservatives, and this ceding of meaningful, legitimate institutions of freedom is bad for both how we consider freedom in the family, and also, this retreat from family politics has allowed conservatives to smuggle in noxious civil and political programs that are required to accommodate their rather robust conception of family right.

In the absence of a concrete Left family politics, a substantive conception of family right that upholds progressive civil and political institutions, all of your neat Left policies will be taken down by the testimony of some crying White lady, babe in arms, saying that your Lefty program tramples on her rights as a mother, or some dude in a Make America Great Again hat standing on his rights as a father. Since freedom is realized through differentiated, mutually enforcing institutions of freedom, the Left cannot ignore the family any more than doctor can ignore the liver.

What’s so good about the nuclear family? It’s an emancipation from the authority of the extended family. Knee-jerk progressives like to trash the nuclear family, but the alternative is taking orders from the unaccountable and uncontestable authority of meemaw and the in-laws for the rest of your life, in a rendition of Thanksgiving dinner that never, ever ends. I know 60 year-old White people whose 85 year-old parents still govern their lives.

If you want the family to be an institution of freedom where intimate members organize their lives as they see fit, the family has to be emancipated from the immediate authority of extended family. But there is a hard limit to the extent you can do that when your extended family is your only other resource for emergency childcare and cash.

What is the downside of the nuclear family? The labor and responsibility for sustaining the family now falls upon the slim shoulders of the nuclear group involved. When grandma is not doing the dishes and you can’t hit up grandpa for money for junior’s soccer league, the project of sustaining a functional household becomes an unmanageable ball of work and responsibility. We’ve emancipated people from the governance structures of extended family, without accounting for the diffusion of labor and responsibility those structures provided.

Settler colonialism solved this problem by infusing the nuclear family with gender ideologies that licensed exploitation: women were loaded down with household labor and men were charged with the final responsibility for provision and protection, but in both cases, this vision of the nuclear family and gender ideology incentivized the extraction of labor and resources from a racialized other.

A clear example of this in action is how in Greenville, SC., the city council forced Black women to work because during World War I, a critical number of Black women were receiving pensions from their husbands who were fighting abroad, and the Black women decided to quit their jobs working as maids for White women.

The viability of the White nuclear family depended on discounted Black labor inside of that house, and the Southern economy that supported White nuclear family depended on the husband exploiting the racial hierarchy to secure provisioning outside of the house.

The problem with nuclear family politics is that there is excess work and responsibility, and we’ve gendered away the problem, shunting the housework to women and the responsibility for provisioning to men, turning family justice issues into gender justice issues. However, this gendering of family justice has confused us about the programs required to address the overwhelming labor and responsibility injustices at hand.

Why can’t the nuclear family be held together by networks of friends in anarchist communities? Remember that one of the virtues of family relations is that they are stable and involuntary, not a matter of caprice or choice. Friendships in a free society, however, are voluntary, and the work involved and responsibilities shouldered for family relations are necessary but not glamorous nor do they secure a surplus profit. Yet you need a secure, accountable infrastructure for non-profit, unglamorous work of household maintenance. You need the government.

In this three minute clip, you’ll see how France address this through public daycare and state sponsored nannies.

If you don’t want to watch the three minute clip, here is an article going over the same territory.

Families are notoriously difficult to provide for, which is a gendered responsibility that leads to men either abjectly failing, or engaging in exploitative practices and crime. A Federal Job Guarantee addresses the family responsibility for provision and protection. Families are notoriously difficult to clean and sustain, which is a gendered responsibility that leads to women either abjectly failing, or engaging in exploitative practices to mitigate the burden. Universal Childcare and subsidized domestic workers addresses the family responsibility to address uncreative household labor. None of this. Not the division of labor nor the division of risk and responsibility has to be gendered.

If the problem is the conservative, settler colonial culture where men are responsible for provision and protection and women are responsible for cleaning and childcare, then you are talking about an unjust family burden. A Federal Job Guarantee and state sponsored childcare and domestic workers addresses both issues much more equitably and efficiently than simply dividing the risk, responsibility and work equally among the genders of the family members involved. But if you lose the family as a unit of justice and institution of freedom and allow the tension to devolve and be recast as merely gender strife, the Left will never arrive at a satisfactory political solution.

Throw a little bit of cash on top, e.g., a $900 per child per month stipend, and you have an argument for a nuclear family. And if you get rid of the excess responsibility and labor, families can realize themselves as they should: a nuclear group emancipated from natural hierarchies and factors, deciding how to organize their intimate life, without the undo external coercion of extended family, financial pressures, or mess.