Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sex and Nostalgia

The usual hit on conservatives is that we are impossibly nostalgic for a past that never was, of perfect marriages in spotless suburbs: mom and dad and three children.  Anyway, it was never as spotless as the nostalgists pretend:  think of Mad Men drinking and bonking the night away before they get home to Scarsdale.

But maybe the opposite is true.  Maybe in the old days the relations between the sexes was much more exploitative than the one-man-one-women-for-life of the bourgeois ideal.  Certainly the aristocracy regarded marriage as a power and property transaction.  Young princes and princesses were ruthlessly married off for reasons of state and dynastic survival.  And the poor?  They were struggling to survive, and mostly failing.  Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms argues that before 1800 agricultural society in England was a downwardly mobile society in which the rich had more surviving children than the poor, and the extra rich children crowded out the children of the poor in the scramble for resources.  After the industrial revolution the poor developed into the respectable working class and adopted bourgeois cultural norms--at least until the welfare state came along.

Perhaps the bourgeois cultural model is not a hopelessly old-fashioned notion but a radically new idea that is being attacked by the nostalgists of the left who long for the good old days when powerful political figures got all the women they wanted, including servant girls, and the poor did without.  The current liberal fashion for "polyamory" is curious considering how liberals inveigh against Mormon polygamy.  The idea that men and women would mix together in multiple-partner relationships without rich men dominating the process is laughable.

But we already know this.  Since the sexual revolution and the mass entry of upscale women into the workforce, women are reporting less happiness.  Could this be because women don't thrive in the loveless sexual hookup scene?  Could it be that enforcing a cultural norm for women to work at careers is anti-woman?  Could it be that no-fault divorce, supposedly enacted for the benefit of women trapped in abusive, loveless marriages, actually works against the desire of women for permanent loving relationships?

Conservatives make a big deal out of the notion of "civil society," the proliferation of "mediating structures" between government and the individual: family, churches, associations.  But who really breathes life into these civil society institutions; who does the day-to-day grunt work?  I'd say the answer is simple: women.  And when women are dragooned into wage-work it means that there are fewer people to contribute to civil society.  And government gets more powerful.

The idea that bourgeois marriage is old-fashioned is a crock, published by the devotees of big government and politics-with-everything.

No comments:

Post a Comment