Long before there were governments and nations, there were families. In fact, our nearest cousins in the animal world, chimpanzees, also socialize in family units. Family units remain the most important political unit in the world to this day. The Family has resisted the mightiest of empires.
In Ancient China, one emperor attempted to replace family land tenure with the land distribution allocated by the state. For his efforts, he was executed by being quartered by four chariots. In the 20th Cenutry, two of the top three worst despotic regimes in history–Maoist China and Stalinist Russia–both attempted similar collectivization at the behest of the state, and both ultimately failed. Deng’s reforms in the 70s saw the return of the family, as did the easing of Stalin’s grip on Russia.
Similarly, the autonomous family unit’s willing alliance into tribal units has resisted empires as well. The tribal relationships of Afghanistan have failed to dissolve under immense pressure from numerous outside would-be conquerors, including the British, Soviets, and, in the case of the Americans, would-be state builders. All kinds of economic theory notwithstanding, no amount of money has been able to overcome these innate, biological bonds. At least yet.
Most other major nations were founded only after the tension between the family unit and the state was more carefully negotiated. In much of the world, states had to come about for mutual defense–but never pretended to override the family totally.
One extended family in particular has survived thousands of years with only occasional self-rule: that of the Jews. The Bible is an amazing record of the evolution of the family of Abraham into the Empire of Solomon and back to the isolated units of the diaspora. Taken literally, the Bible tells this story in a straight forward manner. Applying critical studies techniques, we can see layer upon layer of subtle reinforcement of this story.
Starting with the House of Abraham, a pastoral band comprised of Abraham, his wives, children, retainers, and servants where the faith is first established, we see the development of a confederation of extended family units linked in part by lineage and in part by religion brought down to Egypt, where their own self-identification becomes a source of their exclusion from being Egyptian, and the source of their formative experience: the exodus. Here, even larger tribal units are congealed under the stress of flight and the glory of conquest. After their arrival in Israel, however, no strong leadership exists. There is no state per se. Only an occasional military leader, a “judge,” arises in time of stress.
It is not until the constant threat of the Philistines on the coast that a sovereign with authority over all of the tribes comes. Yet neither David nor Saul nor Solomon are unchecked despots. The prophets and the broader established priestly class, as well as the pre-existing tribal units, serve as a check on these kings. The extended kingdom or empire of Solomon falls apart along tribal lines in the end.
Ultimately, this is all torn asunder by even more powerful empires from the east. Most of the Israelites are lost, but the Jews persist, and persist to this day. Why is that? Because their family units and extended family units could not be broken. Not by Nebuchadnezzar, not by Antiochos, not by Hadrian or Titus, not by Torquemada, not by Khmelnytsky or Hitler.
The credit for this miracle inures to the Jewish people, but in part it’s consistent with nature too. But is there something in the Jewish religion that makes this coherence even harder to tear asunder? Though there are similarities in the institutions of India and Europe (and in other places), I can speak to one aspect of Judaism that is a possible source of this resilience. Though not preached by all Jewish authorities, there is a strain of thought present in just about all periods of Jewish history demanding that moral considerations trump political considerations; moral considerations trump economic considerations; and they even trump religious considerations in terms of belief, ritual, and the relationship to the divine. A famous story from the Talmud:
“If the law agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven.” A divine voice came forth and said: “Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, for in all matters the law agrees with him!” But Rabbi Joshua rose to his feet again and exclaimed: “[The law] is not in heaven” [Deut. 30:12; implying that the divine law is now in human hands and open to human interpretation regardless of God’s position]. Some time later, Rabbi Nathan met the prophet Elijah and asked him: “What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do when rebuked by Rabbi Joshua?” Elijah replied: “He laughed with joy saying ‘My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.’” (Emphasis added.)
God is happy that the Rabbis refuse to listen to him! Even God is not a totalitarian in Jewish tradition. So much the more (kal v’komer) that no king could be!
The state can try to atomize these bonds, but it hasn’t figured out how to do it. Let’s hope it never does. But it might be getting closer. Some prior attempts to dissolve the bonds have family have proceeded (either intentionally or unintentionally) along the notion that man is homo economicus and that he will always seek to maximize his economic gains, and “rationally.” In other words, either bribe people out of it (e.g., the US in Afghanistan), or starve people to death and offer them bread in exchange for abandoning their kith and kin (e.g., Mao).
Perhaps the most successful assault on the family unit is underway right here in America—and everywhere else that the Neoliberal economic order has become the de facto religion. Yet we are distracted from the source of the threat. Certainly, it does not come from gays trying to create their own families. It does not come from any of the sources that seem to be blamed. Abortion is often blamed. But it seems to me that, of all of the complications involved in that issue, contending that it weakens families seems among the more spurious. Unwanted pregnancies rarely create stable family units, whatever else they may do. Alternative lifestyles also seem to be blamed. Ironically, one of the most contentious issues of the day is the desire of gay Americans to make more families. If the issue were institutional support for promiscuity or permanent singlehood, I would be against it.
Feminism is blamed, but how can we demand submissive Stepford wives when most families need the mothers in the workplace now? Divorce is also often blamed, but this seems like saying death is the cause of the fatal illness. What makes divorce occur?
The decay of religious institutions, especially mainline Protestant denominations, in the last decades has corresponded with a rearrangement of the family unit into one not based on economics and moral reasons together, but one based on economic reasons only, while at the same time the belief in finding the perfect spouse for romantic reasons has increased. This tension between reality and practice has created a difficult cognitive dissonance for marriages to overcome.
And what has replaced religion? Some secular faith in the American Constitution? Hardly. A kind of economic religion has, based on the god called the “invisible hand.” The American worker has become more and more productive, yet has not seen an inflation adjusted raise in decades. Worse, American families largely depend on two working parents if they hope to see enough income to support a family unit.
The economic upheaval of this period has also forced families to move far apart from each other. Some places, like Hawaii, have become places where children remaining near their families is almost impossible after graduation from high school due to limited economic opportunity, high cost of living, and other factors. If it weren’t for modern travel and communications, the persistence of family units beyond the most nuclear elements would be impossible. Even with them, extended-family get togethers are often infrequent and focused on major life-cycle events like births, weddings, graduations, and deaths—with closer families getting together on holidays.
The economic establishment has chafed at and resisted attempts to make the workplace more family-friendly. Very few American workers have access to paid family leave; indeed, most have no access to paid time off of any kind. Advancement is problematized by family commitments, including pregnancy. And, again, the ever-accelerating number of different jobs American workers will have in their life makes what benefits they do have less and less portable. Daycare, though not the best option, is expensive and out of reach for many.
Reforms providing solutions to these problems would be branded as “socialistic.” In some literal sense, that might be true. But in the sense of resisting the kind of totalitarian state associated with “socialism” and other “-isms” nothing could be further from the truth; nothing could do more to resist a totalitarian state than the strengthening of the family unit as a political, moral, and economic unit.