I’ve been thinking a lot recently about a question someone posed in response to an essay on relations between the sexes. I must apologise for having forgotten the source, but the gist was “This is all very interesting but what do you think we should do?”
Recently a brilliant Cambridge postgrad in her early twenties approached me for advice on a personal dilemma. We walked across autumn countryside for two hours, and talked about many things. In the course of that conversation, she asked me how I thought we should start rebuilding relations between the sexes in the rubble of hyper-liberalism.
Three points emerged, all of which I’ll write about in due course, and all of which address the question: “what in fact should we do?”The first is this: it’s time to abolish Big Romance.
One of my central contentions is that while some liberalisation has benefited some women, especially bourgeois women in the developed world, radical social liquefaction across the board is catastrophically bad for women – and especially those of us who are mothers. Interdependence is a defining feature of motherhood, from gestation onward. Family life is the archetypal template for those ways in which, as humans, we thrive when we belong to one another.
Another central question for me is how we start rebuilding after liquid modernity. In particular, as I argued at Natcon, how we do so in a way that isn’t just stuffing women back into some imaginary ‘trad’ box, or seeking the ultimate victory of one sex over the other. In my view the central institution for surviving and rebuilding after liquid modernity has to be marriage. But for this to work under today’s conditions we have to revise what we understand marriage to mean.
I argued here that the ‘angel by the hearth’ ideal of private womanhood emerged as a byproduct of industrialisation, and that women in fact lost agency in some respects in the transition from productive agrarian households to bourgeois industrial ones. I’ve also argued that the romantic ideal of marriage emerged alongside that model of ‘private womanhood’.
That is, women lost economic agency in family life and, in response, the aspiration emerged that we should be prized both as the higher moral part of the relationship, but also as individuals in an intimate relationship. These two things together form the core of Big Romance: the idea that it’s fine for women to be economically dependent, because we’re loved, cherished, protected, and indispensable to thriving family life.
Where that worked, in the industrial era, it worked well enough. But over time, things changed again. Contraception eliminated the need for sexual continence outside marriage, and radically reduced the need for women to grant sexual access only to men who are absolutely trusted. Women’s entry into a high-tech workplace where physical strength is largely irrelevant eliminated the need for sharply divided sex roles that leave us economically dependent.
Against that backdrop it came to seem for a while that we might no longer even really need families full stop. Instead, we could order things to suit ourselves, whether as polycules, self-inseminating economically-independent single mothers or whatever, while welfare states picked up any casualties.
But without even getting into the debate about how workable this level of freedom ever was in a stable and prosperous world, what about the one we’re facing now? For material conditions have changed radically. As we slide further into a 21st century that’s so far seen economic crashes, geopolitical instability, climate change, supply chain disruption and pandemic, it’s far from clear that this level of radical individualism will be at all workable for very much longer.
In that context we need to think about how to re-solidify liquid social relations. And at the smallest possible scale, this means reclaiming marriage as the central unit for solidarity between the sexes. This might seem a very qualified way of making a feminist case for marriage – but inasmuch as my argument isn’t for female supremacy but for the sexes learning to live with one another, an institution that convenes radical interpersonal solidarity in the long-term interests of both sexes and of our children is a no-brainer.
It’s also a foundational unit of post-capitalist organising. A marriage – and the family unit it creates – offers a route out of the logic of the market that pushes all of us to treat all relationships as transactions. And it’s only by resisting the logic of the market that we can start to re-solidify human relations for life in common.
On a more practical level, it’s also my contention that an ecologically sustainable future, and one that’s better geared toward balancing family and economic life, will incline toward households ordered more like the 1450s than the 1950s. As we emerge into the digital era, for many families, there’s no longer a need to maintain the stark industrial-era split between home and work. It’s now feasible for many to aspire to productive mixed-economy households, in which both partners are partly or wholly home-based and work collaboratively on the common tasks of the household, whether money-earning, food production or childcare and housekeeping. And in such a setting roles can be negotiated to suit the particular setting.
In practice all of this necessitates thinking very differently about marriage. Centrally, it means we have to be less romantic about what marriages are for. I don’t mean by this that we should all acquire our spouses by mail order and expect cold and loveless lives together. It’s a shift in emphasis: romance and affection are great but – crucially – they’re a byproduct of a thriving marriage, not its chief objective. It’s perfectly possible to have a thriving, stable, long-term prosocial marriage that’s a bit ‘meh’ in romance terms.
If you work with or near your spouse every day, Big Romance makes much less sense. Loyalty and solidarity come first. Every marriage has rough patches, but there are still jobs to be done. Life is long, and rough patches can take years to work through but still find their way back out into affection, respect and intimacy. And meanwhile you can get a long way on stoicism and loyalty.
This is of course not to claim anyone should tolerate boundless cruelty, violence or emotional abuse for the sake of social stability. But it seems unlikely that every single one of the 42% or so of UK marriages that end in divorce did so on the basis of such extremes. And it’s far from clear that, especially where there are children involved, exiting a marriage that was just ‘meh’ is self-evidently superior to sticking with it.
Especially when we all have the option to be economically independent, and the whole culture valorises self-actualisation over duty, the pressure is strong to treat a rough patch as a reason to exit your commitments and lapse back into atomised individualism. And the most human-scale way to resist an ideology that coaxes all of us toward total social liquefaction is mutual loyalty in the long-term interests of life in common.
But these days I meet many younger people – some very early twenties – who are pushing back hard against the advice they receive from parents about deferring marriage and kids. Doing so might have made sense from the point of view of Big Romance: surely you must spend time finding yourself, and wait till you meet The One? But in a world where absolutely everything is unstable, from geopolitics to money and even the climate, far-sighted younger millennials and Gen Z are turning instead toward interpersonal stability. It’s perhaps the smallest possible scale of Doomer Optimism: “even if the world goes mad, we’ll still have each other”.
The twentieth century grew used to thinking about marriage as a vector for self-fulfilment. The twenty-first needs to re-imagine marriage as the enabling condition for radical solidarity between the sexes. Doing so is an act of resistance to overwhelming economic, cultural and political pressure to be lone atoms in a market.
Households formed on this model can work together both economically and socially on the common business of living, whether that’s agricultural, artisanal, knowledge-based or a mix of all these. And this is an infinitely better setting in which to be a mother than the exploitative, medicated, disembodied, sexually libertine excesses of bio-libertarian hyper-modernity.
In other words: it’s an essential precondition for the sustainable survival of human societies. Our biggest obstacle is an obsolete mindset that deprecates all duties beyond than personal fulfilment, and views an intimate relationship as vector for self-development or ego gratification rather than an enabling condition for solidarity. It’s time to abolish Big Romance.