April 10, 2005

By default, family issues have fallen to conservatives who defend "the traditional family" (which really means the early modern family, with a husband who goes out to work in a factory or office and a wife who stays home). The conservatives strike a chord because they do not try to deny the damage done by the decline of the family during the past few decades, but they cannot get at the root of the problem because they believe in economic growth.

For example, Ronald Reagan once praised women who stay home with their children by saying, "Unlike Sweden, ... the mothers of America have managed to avoid becoming just so many more cogs in the wheels of commerce" - unconsciously implying that American men are just cogs in the wheels of commerce, probably the strongest criticism of the modern economy that any American president has made since Jefferson. Yet Reagan also boasted that his economic policies had created enough jobs to give America the highest "employment ratio" of any country in the world. Apparently, he did not know that a higher employment ratio means more working mothers.

Some "New Democrats" and Communitarians moved toward conservative positions on family issues, but they consider themselves middle of the road, and the more militant left criticizes them for not being progressive enough.

Yet a genuinely radical approach to family issues would say that we should go further than the conservatives. The fact that parents no longer have time for their children is the worst possible indictment of the modern economy - the thing that makes average Americans wish that they could spend less time working, even if it means living on less money. Rather than demanding more day care and schooling to help fit families into the economy, the left should be demanding changes in the growth economy that make it work for families - policies that let people consume less and work less so they have more time for their children and their own interests.

During the 1980s, as the left retreated to older ideas about social issues, the right took over the issue of empowerment. The New Left of the 1960s wanted to break up bureaucracies and give people control over decisions that affect their lives, but now the left just demands more bureaucratic social services. Again, the right has tapped into the discontent with modern society by criticizing big government, but it cannot criticize modern society effectively because it believes in market economics and growth. The right spends some of its time criticizing big government for stifling ordinary people, and it spends most of its time saying that we should unleash the private sector - which helps big corporations to stifle ordinary people.

Whenever conservatives criticize modernization, they come up with the same distorted response. They are nostalgic about old-fashioned small towns and neighborhoods, but they will not stop the freeways and shopping malls that are destroying towns and neighborhoods all over the country. They want to preserve families and individual self-reliance, but they promote the growth of a consumer economy that leaves people with no time for their families and that takes over most responsibilities of individuals.

-Charles Siegel, "From Progressive to Preservationist" (excerpt)


I've been reading up on homesteading, the "back to the land" movement(s), the '60s/'70s Whole Earth Catalog/CoEvolution Quarterly gestalt. Very fruitful googling. One of the search results was the Siegel article quoted above (a modified version of his 1995 New Perspectives Quarterly piece "Toward an Appropriate Politics"). It's a great indictment of 20th century politics from all sides. He attacks everything and everyone from the socialist utopians who believed that development, modernization, and New Deal programs would bring power to the people, to the hardnosed '50s bureaucrats who turned those progressive ideals against the working-class by razing their neighborhoods to make room for freeways and skyscrapers, to the conservatism of well-meaning liberals who want government programs to fund and guide society's every move even though it ultimately means that the government will get to decide what children learn and whether they pray in school and what doctors we're allowed to see and what treatments we'll be allowed to pursue, to the ironic "self-sufficiency" standpoint of the repubs (which would be all well and good if their REAL m.o. wasn't to sell their soul to the company store, and so on and so forth) (you've seen a few Michael Moore movies; figure it out).

Actually, the Whole Earth hippies make out pretty good here. That's all the convincing I need; I'm off to build a house out of muddy leaves and twigs (haha, knowing my luck it'll be just over the county line from some gun-totin' separatist Freemen).

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