John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Thu, 2 May 1996 07:54:53 +0900

There was some question a few days back about the proposition
that emphasis on the nuclear family reflects the growing power of
the state in modern societies. I dimmly recall someone asking
where the idea had come from. Here is Michael Gardiner
discussing Martin Buber in "Alterity and Ethics: A Dialogical
Perspective," Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 13, No. 22, p 128:

"Following such classical anarchist thinkers as Kroppotkin and
Proudhon, Buber asserts that the inherently aliented and
repressive political powers of the state must be replaced by the
'social principle', meaning free, voluntaristic relations between
individuals based on principles of solidarity and equality. The
state tolerates atomized individuals but not free associations; left
unchecked, the 'political surplus' monopolized by the state
eventually leads to a 'pulverized, structureless society'. The
predominance of bureaucratic structures -- Weber's 'iron cage' --
can only lead to a social sclerosis that stifles interpersonal
dialogue, whereas the ubiquitous market encourages the
reduction of all qualitative relations to purely quantitative ones,
which leads to the commodification and devaltuation of social

There is, of course, much that is problematic and deserves
discussion here: Fors example,

(1) The perception of the State as an 'iron cage' filled with
atomized individuals and opposed to free associations between
them is not only a vivid image--the State as prison, think of the
prison flics you've seen--it is also a leading motif in current
American right-wing ideologies espoused by the likes of Ayn
Rand, Newt Gingrich and the Michigan Militias. [For an
alternative view I recommend James Carville's _We're right.
They're wrong_.]

(2) To see the extended or nuclear family as a free association
based on "principles of solidarity and equality" is attractive. Meyer
Fortes made a similar idea "the axiom of amity" a centerpiece in
his later work on kinship systems. The "family," then, is
composed of those who share resources --prototypically food
cooked at the same fire-- freely and are morally bound to come to
each other's aid, without calculating risk and compensation. It is,
here, precisely that the penetration of the market and
commodification of relations can be said to erode the principles
on which "family" is based. When everything comes down to
who owes who what, "family" in this ideal sense, has indeed

(3) There is, of course, the other, darker side to "family." The
internal relations of dominance: parent over child, man over
woman. The idea that the family is a "free association" is a
wonderful ideal but may be a lousy description of reality in a
world where, to quote the old ironic proverb, "We get to choose
our friends. The Devil gives us our relatives."

Just some thoughts to chew on.

John McCreery
May 2, 1996