Open and Closed Families

Colin Ward

(originally appeared in the book "Anarchy In Action", 1973, by Colin Ward, pp 74 - 78)

In choosing a partner we try both to retain the relationships we have enjoyed in childhood, and to recoup ourselves for fantasies which have been denied us. Mate-selection accordingly becomes for many an attempt to cast a particular part in a fantasy production of their own, and since both parties have the same intention but rarely quite the same fantasies, the result may well be a duel of rival producers. There are men, as Stanley Spencer said of himself, who need two complementary wives, and women who need two complementary husbands, or at least two complementary love objects. If we insist first that this is immoral or 'unfaithful', and second that should it occur there is an obligation on each love-object to insist on exclusive rights, we merely add unnecessary difficulties to a problem which might have presented none, or at least presented fewer, if anyone were permitted to solve it in their own way. - Alex Comfort, Sex in Society

One essentially anarchist revolution that has advanced enormously in our own day is the sexual revolution. It is anarchist precisely because it involves denying the authority of the regulations laid down by the state and by various religious enterprises over the activities of the individual. And we can claim that it has advanced, not because of the 'breakdown' of the family that moralists (quite erroneously) see all around them, but because in Western society more and more people have decided to conduct their sexual lives as they see best. Those who have prophesied dreadful consequences as a result of the greater sexual freedom which the young assert - unwanted babies, venereal disease and so on - are usually the very same people who seek the fulfilment of their prophesies by opposing the free availability to the young of contraception and the removal of the stigma and mystification that surround venereal disease.

The official code on sexual matters was bequeathed to the state by the Christian Church, and has been harder and harder to justify with the decline of the beliefs on which it was based. Anarchists, from Emma Goldman to Alex Comfort, have observed the connection between political and sexual repression and, although those who think sexual liberation is necessarily going to lead to political and economic liberation are probably optimistic, it certainly makes people happier. That there is no immutable basis for sexual codes can be seen from the wide varieties in accepted behaviour and in legislation on sexual matters at different penbds and in different countries. Male homosexuality became a 'problem' only because it was the subject of legislation. Female homosexuality was no problem because its existence was ignored by (male) legislators. The legal anomalies are sometimes hilarious: 'Who can explain just why anal intercourse is legal in Scotland between male and female, but illegal between male and male? Why is anal intercourse illegal in England between male and female, yet okay between males if both are over 21?"

The more the law is tinkered with in the effort to make it more rational the more absurdities are revealed, Does this mean that there are no rational codes for sexual behaviour? Of course not: they simply get buried in the irrationalities or devalued through association with irrelevant prohibitions. Alex Comfort, who sees sex as 'the healthiest and most important human sport' suggests that 'the actual content of sexual behaviour probably changes much less between cultures than the individual's capacity to enjoy it without guilt'. He enunciated two moral injunctions or commandments on sexual behaviour: 'Thou shalt not exploit another person's feelings,' and 'Thou shalt under no circumstances cause the birth of an unwanted child.' His reference to 'commandments' led Professor Maurice Carstairs to tease him with the question why, as an anarchist, Comfort was prescribing rules? - to which he replied that a philosophy of freedom demanded higher standards of personal responsibility than a belief in authority. The lack of ordinary prudence and chivalry which could often be observed in adolescent behaviour today was, he suggested, precisely the result of prescribing a code of chastity which did not make sense instead of principles which are 'immediately intelligible and acceptable to any sensible youngster'.

You certainly don't have to be an anarchist to see the modem nuclear family as a straitjacket answer to the functional needs of home-making and child-rearing which imposes intolerable strains on many of the people trapped in it. Edmund Leach remarked that 'far from being the basis of the good society, the family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all our discontents'. David Cooper called it 'the ultimate and most lethal gas chamber in our society', and Jacquetta Hawkes said that 'it is a form making fearful demands on the human beings caught up in it; heavily weighted for loneliness, excessive demands, strain and failure. Obviously it suits some of us as the best working arrangement but our society makes no provision for the others, whose numbers you can assess by asking yourself the question: 'How many happy families do I know?'

Consider the case of John Citizen. On the strength of a few happy evenings in the discotheque, he and Mary make a contract with the state and/or some religious enterprise to live together for life and are given a licence to copulate. Assuming that they surmount the problems of finding somewhere to live and raise a fitmily, look at them a few years later. He, struggling home from work each day, sees himself caught in a trap. She feels the same, the lonely single-handed housewife, chained to the sink and the nappy-bucket. And the kids too, increasingly as the years go by, fed trapped. Why can't Mum and Dad just leave us alone? There is no need to go on with the sap because you know it all backward.

In terms of the happiness and fulfilment of the individuals involved, the modern family is an improvement on its nineteenth-century predecessor or on the various institutional alternatives dreamed up by authoritarian utopians and we might very well argue that today there is nothing to prevent people from living however they like but, in fact, everything about our society, from the advertisements on television to the laws of inheritance, is based on the assumption of the tight little consumer unit of the nuclear family. Housing is in obvious example: municipal housing makes no provision for non-standard units and in the private sector no loans or mortgages are available for communes.

The rich can avoid the trap by the simple expedient of paying other people to run their households and rear their children. But for the ordinary family the system makes demands which very many people cannot meet. We accept it because it is universal. Indeed the only examples that Dr Leach could cite where children 'grow up in larger, more relaxed domestic groups centred on the community rather than on mother's kitchen' were the Israeli kibbutz or the Chinese commune, so ubiquitous has the pattern become. But changes are coming: the women's liberation movement is one reminder that the price of the nuclear family is the subjugation of women. The communes or joint households that some young people are setting up are no doubt partly a reflection of the need to share inflated rents but are much more a reaction against what they see as the stultifying rigid nature of the small family unit.

The mystique of biological parenthood results in some couples living in desperate unhappiness because of their infertility while others have children who are neglected and unwanted. It also gives rise to the conunon situation of parents clinging to their children because they have sunk so much of their emotional capital in them while the children desperately want to get away from their possessive love. 'A secure home', writes John Hartwell, 'often means a stifling atmosphere where human relationships are turned into a parody and where sips of creativity are crushed as evidence of deviancy.' We am very far from the kind of community in which children could choose which of the local parent-figures they would like to attach themselves to but a number of interesting suggestions are in the air, all aiming at loosening family ties in the interests of both parents and children. There is the idea of Paul and Jean Ritter of a neighbourhood 'children's house' serving twenty-five to forty farnilies, there is Paul Goodman's notion of a Youth House on the analogy of this institution in some 'primitive cultures, and there is Toddy Gold's suggested Multiple Family Housing Unit. These ideas are not based on any rejection of our responsibility towards the young; they involve sharing this responsibility throughout the community and accepting the principle that, as Kropotkin put it, all children are our children. They also imply giving children themselves responsibilities not only for themselves but to the community, which is exactly what our family structure fails to do.

Personal needs and aspirations vary so greatly that it is as fatuous to suggest stereotyped alternatives as it is to recommend universal conformity to the existing pattern. At one end of the scale is the warping of the child by the accident of parenthood, either by possessiveness or by the perpetuation of a family syndrome of inadequacy and incompetence. At the other end is the emotional stultification of the child through a lack of personal attachments in institutional child care. We all know conventional households permeated with casual affection where domestic chores and responsibilities are shared, while we can readily imagine a communal household in which the women were drudges collectively instead of individually and in which a child who was not very attractive or assertive was not so much left alone as neglected. More important than the structure of the family are the expectations that people have of their roles in it. The domestic tyrant of the Victorian family was able to exercise his tyranny only because the others were prepared to put up with it.

There is an old slogan among progressive educators, Have'em, Love'em and Leave'em Alone. This again is not urging neglect, but it does emphasise that half the personal miseries and frustrations of adolescents and of the adults they become are due to the insidious pressures on the individual to do what other people think is appropriate for him. At the same time the continual extension of the processes of formal education delays even further the granting of real responsibility to the young. Any teacher in further education will tell you of the difference between sixteen-year-olds who are at work and attend part-time vocational courses and those of the same age who are still in full-time education. In those benighted countries where young children are still allowed to work you notice not only the element of exploitation but also the maturity that goes with undertaking functional responsibilities in the real world.

The young are caught in a tender trap: the age of puberty and the age of marriage (since our society does not readily permit experimental alternatives yet) go down while, at the same time, acceptance into the adult world is continually deferred - despite the lowering of the formal age of majority. No wonder many adults appear to be cast in a mould of immaturity. In family life we have not yet developed a genuinely permissive society but simply one in which it is difficult to grow up. On the other hand, the fact that for a minority of young people - a minority which is increasing - the stereotypes of sexual behaviour and sexual roles which confined and oppressed their elders for centuries have simply become irrelevant, will certainly be seen in the future as one of the positive achievements of our age.