Many conservatives tend to assume that economic outcomes in capitalist economies are “natural.” Yet there is nothing less natural than severing the connection between economic growth and family formation. For millennia, human beings have viewed children as an asset, not a cost, for the simple reason that children provided additional labor and looked after their parents in old age. It is only in the last century that this link has been severed.
We now have a system that forces would-be parents to think of their children as a cost and not an asset. Yet these children are quite literally the most valuable asset that any country could possibly possess. Without children, a society withers and dies while its economy is converted into something resembling a chaotic nursing home, where a shrinking workforce slaves away to service a growing pool of retirees (as the specter of forced euthanasia lurks in the background).
Matt Feeney’s Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age is a fascinating and provocative book that, in my judgment anyway, cries out for a sequel.
Before I go any further I should say that I’ve known Matt for years – we used to be co-conspirators at The American Scene – and we’ve corresponded occasionally since then, though not recently.
If there is any one idea that conservatives are thought to share, it’s the belief that a healthy society needs healthy mediating institutions. This is the burden of Yuval Levin’s recent book A Time to Build, and Yuval (also a friend) makes this argument about as well as it can be made. We do not flourish either as individuals or as a society when there is nothing to mediate between the atomized individual and the massive power of the modern nation-state. That’s why it’s always, though especially now, “a time to build” those mediating institutions that collectively are known as “civil society.”
The really brilliant thing about Matt’s book — written by someone who, like me, possesses a conservative disposition but might not be issued a card by the people who authorize “card-carrying conservatives” — is its claim that in some areas of contemporary American life the mediating institutions are not too weak but rather too strong. And what he demonstrates with great acuity is the consistency with which those institutions, from youth soccer organizations to college admissions committees, have conscripted the “little platoon” of the family to serve their needs — indeed, to get families to compete with one another to serve those institutions’ needs:
What happens, though, when citizens direct their suspicion not at a coercive government but at their peers, with whom they find or feel themselves, as parents and families, in competition? I join a chorus of scholars and writers in observing that such a competitive mood abides among parents today. Less noticed is how such competition creates new forms of subservience and conformity among families. In this environment, the intermediate bodies of civil society, cornerstone of the conservative theory of republican liberty, sometimes become demanding bosses, taskmasters, and gatekeepers in the enterprise of winning advantage for our children in a system of zero-sum competition.
As a result,
Under these conditions, the anxious and competitive citizen-parent looks to certain “voluntary associations,” certain institutions within “civil society,” not as bulwarks against coercive government but as ways to gain advantage over other families, exclusive paths to better futures. From boutique preschools to competitive sports clubs to selective colleges and universities, desirable institutions become bidding objects for future-worried and status-conscious families.
Thus, “the era of intensive parenting is defined by the rise of a sort of hybrid entity, an institutional cyborg that is part organization and part family.”
Matt is not by any means opposed to these mediating institutions as such — there’s a wonderful section on how he learned, through walking his kids to school every day and then hanging out for a while with teachers and other parents, how a school really can be the locus of genuine community — but looks with a gimlet eye, a Foucauldian gimlet eye, on the ways that, right now, in this country, a few such institutions form, sustain and disseminate their power over families.
He’s scathing about college admissions, especially the turn towards “holistic” admissions processes which serve to transform mid-level administrators into eager shapers of souls. He mentions a Vice Provost at Emory who laments the imperfection of his knowledge of the inner lives of applicants, and continues:
If you recall that, twenty or thirty years ago, admissions departments weren’t even mentioning authenticity, were not treating the therapeutic search for true voices and true selves as the goal of their investigations, and if you devote a moment’s thought to the absurdity of this search, you will be tempted to laugh at Vice Provost Latting’s hysterical protest against imperfect knowledge. But, laughable as this and other admissions testimony is, on its merits, I would like to present a good reason not to laugh. Setting up a yearslong, quasi-therapeutic process in which you goad young people to lay bare their vulnerable selves to you, when this process is actually a high-value transaction in which you use your massive leverage to mold those selves to your liking, is actually a terrible thing to do.
Yes, it is. And I am glad to hear someone say it so bluntly.
In his conclusion, Matt admits his reluctance to give advice to parents in such a coercive and panoptic environment, and that’s perfectly understandable. In any case, the primary function of the the primary purpose of the book is diagnostic: he wants to show us the specific ways in which these various mediating institutions co-opt families, and even in some cases make the families hosts to which they are the parasites. I don’t think that the book would have held together as well if it had tried to include parenting advice in the midst of everything else. But it is obvious that Matt has thought quite a lot about what it means to be a responsible parent in our time – he has a great riff on why he’s okay with the fact that his oldest daughter is the only person in her class who doesn’t have a smartphone – and I would really like to hear more from him about how he conceives of the positive responsibilities of being a parent, the dispositions and actions which strengthen that little platoon. I don’t think he needs to do this in a pop-psychology self-help way; Matt is by training a philosopher and I think philosophical reflection on this topic, so essential to human flourishing, would be welcome from him.
But the book provides a great service simply by teasing out the ways in which families are not served by but rather are made to serve these parasitic institutions — and the ways in which we are manipulated to do so ever more intensely by our felt need to compete with other families. As we are always told, the first step is acknowledging that you have a problem.
I have written before about the experience I had growing up in the same house as my paternal grandparents. When I was very young, I had an inchoate sense that my mother and father and sister and I were living in Gran and Grandma’s house. But later, after my father got out of prison and after Gran was forced into retirement after a horrific automobile accident, the terms and conditions seemed gradually to shift, and I started to feel that the house was somehow now our house and Gran and Grandma were living with us. But in fact all along we were just a family living together, and never at any point was this an odd thing. It was common enough in our social class — working class, lower-lower-middle class — in those days that I don’t think either of my parents were ever the least bit ashamed of it, though surely they were at times frustrated by it.
These days, though, there can be great shame associated with living in extended families, because of the peculiar sense of independence that so many of us have. Young adults don’t feel independent unless and until they are living away from their parents; and as for the parents, as they age they dread the loss of independence that would accompany having to move in with their children.
There is at least the chance that the current crisis will change those feelings. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of Americans are going to lose their jobs in the coming months. Not all of them will have homes to go to — “homes” in the Robert Frost sense of a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in — but those who do will have a chance to revisit our assumptions about the necessity, indeed the very value, of independence. And that may not be an altogether bad thing.
The sexual ethic on offer in our own era should make Catholics particularly skeptical. That ethic regards celibacy as unrealistic while offering porn and sex robots to ease frustrations created by its failure to pair men and women off. It pities Catholic priests as repressed and miserable (some are; in general they are not) even as its own cultural order seeds a vast social experiment in growing old alone. It disdains large families while it fails to reproduce itself. It treats any acknowledgment of male-female differences as reactionary while constructing an architecture of sexual identities whose complexities would daunt a medieval schoolman.
From the Economist, “An entrepreneur brings professional grieving to eastern Congo”:
Deborah Nzigere, a 65-year-old Congolese woman, is nervous when she sits down for her job interview. Her hands are clasped tightly together, her words are slow and deliberate; she is blinking too much. “What inspired you to pursue this career?” asks one of the two people on the interview panel. Her answer is garbled, she mentions money. When asked to give a demonstration, she giggles awkwardly and leaves the room. She comes back in crying.
“Bettina,” she howls and throws herself to the ground. “Bettina, Bettina, why did you leave us?” She thumps the floor with a flattened palm, her body convulses with sobs as she moans and wails. The interviewer’s eyes fill with tears. Mrs Nzigire has got the job.
Through Papa, college-age young people can sign up to help seniors by going to the store, doing housework or just hanging out. For these “pals,” Papa works on the same gig-economy model as Uber or Postmates. Ten hours a week of Papa service is covered for members of Humana ’s Medicare Advantage insurance who are in a pilot program in and near Tampa.
Ms. Sumkin’s Papa pals take her on trips to the store since she can no longer drive, and they also help combat her loneliness. Ms. Sumkin says that, aside from occasional visits with her children and grandchildren, her only regular human contact is a bi-weekly stretching class and time with those insurer-provided friends. “They’re all very nice and, you know, I’ll converse with them and find out what they’re doing and studying and so forth,” she says. “It’s for me a very important service.”
C. S. Lewis, from “Membership”:
The very word membership is of Christian origin, but it has been taken over by the world and emptied of all meaning. In any book on logic you may see the expression “members of a class.” It must be most emphatically stated that the items of particulars included in a homogeneous class are almost the reverse of what St. Paul meant by members. By members he meant what we should call organs, things essentially different from, and complementary to, one another, things differing not only in structure and function but also in dignity. Thus, in a club, the committee as a whole and the servants as a whole may both properly be regarded as “members”; what we should call the members of the club are merely units. A row of identically dressed and identically trained soldiers set side by side, or a number of citizens listed as voters in a constituency are not members of anything in the Pauline sense. I am afraid that when we describe a man as “a member of the Church” we usually mean nothing Pauline; we mean only that he is a unit – that he is one more specimen of some kind of things as X and Y and Z. How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units of a homogeneous class. They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself. The mother is not simply a different person from the daughter; she is a different kind of person. The grown-up brother is not simply one unit in the class children; he is a separate estate of the realm. The father and grandfather are almost as different as the cat and the dog. If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure. Its unity is a unity of unlikes, almost of incomensurables.