by Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D.
This article was first published by Family in America.org in their Winter 2009 issue.
When first published in 1947, Family and Civilization was a significant book on the sociology of the family. Thanks to the Background imprint of ISI Books, it is back in print. In this classic, Carle Zimmerman brings clarity to the precise area of today’s greatest confusion: the definition and evolution of the family. Instead of the Triumphant March of Liberation presented by the Life Style Left, the late Harvard sociologist sees an ebb and flow of changes in family structure. Instead of a contrast between the nuclear family and the individualist family, Zimmerman contrasts three different family types. While he agrees with Marx and Engels that family structure is powerfully linked with economics and politics, Zimmerman is more analytical and less ideological. Providing evidence for some of his most fascinating claims sixty years later is The War between the State and the Family, by British scholar Patricia Morgan.
As an older work, Family and Civilization can be a challenging read. But the introduction by Allan Carlson makes the ISI Books edition accessible to the intelligent reader, including many non-academics who have become marriage activists by necessity. The edition would also be good reading for college courses in history or sociology. Carlson helps situate Zimmerman, who opposed the neo-Marxist sociologists of the Chicago School, within the larger stream of twentieth-century family sociology. The Chicago School argued that the American family was losing its functions, with fathers and later mothers leaving the home for outside employment. But while mainstream American sociology applauded this trend, giving it the greatest of modern accolades—“historical inevitability”—Zimmerman denied that there was anything permanent or inevitable about the “shucking off or negation of familistic bonds.” He argued: “The disintegration of the family into contractual and non-institutional forms is so devastating to high cultural society that these atypical forms can last only a short while and will in time have to be corrected. The family reappears by counterrevolution.”
Zimmerman argues that the contractual thinking of the eighteenth-century rationalists channeled the issues in the wrong direction. Political theorists such as Locke and Hume, as well as prominent French and German thinkers, viewed the family as a private agreement between a man and a woman for specific civil functions. This definition constricted the range of issues that these analysts could see clearly enough to take seriously. Once the contractual model is accepted as the basic form of the family, scholars will interpret history as the steady march from non-contractual marriages to contractual marriages, from forced or arranged marriages to love or companionate marriages. Stephanie Coontz is the best-known modern exponent of this view. Things are getting better because they are getting freer, which means more contractual.
Zimmerman escapes this trap by focusing on the sovereignty of the family. He lays out his key analytical questions in the second chapter:
Of the total power in society, how much belongs to the family? Of the total amount of control of action in the society, how much is left for the family? What role does the family play in the total business of society? . . . If we want to marry or break up a family, whom do we consult, the family, the church or the state? If we are in need, to whom do we go, the family or the community? If we violate a rule, who punishes us, the family or the state?
These questions suggest that no necessary reason requires society to “progress” on all fronts from one type of family inexorably to another type of family. He deploys three types of family: the trustee family, the domestic family, and the atomistic family. The domestic family and the atomistic family would correspond roughly to the modern family before and after the sexual revolution. The trustee family is probably the least familiar to modern readers.
The Trustee Family and the Atomistic Family
In the trustee family, “the living individual members are not the family, but mere “trustees” of its blood, rights, property, name and position for their lifetimes.” According to Zimmerman, this family system dominated in Homeric Greece of the ninth century b.c., in Rome from the earliest tribes to the period of the Twelve Tables around 450 b.c., and from the so-called Dark Ages from the sixth to the twelve centuries. The trustee family exercises the most sovereignty of any of the family types. The family is the primary power in society, controlling individual action, punishing transgressions, and providing protection against enemy attack. The concept of the “house” is more powerful than the concept of the “home.” This family type tends be the dominant one in periods when the political authorities are relatively weak. The family keeps order, out of necessity: no one else is doing that job. Individuals in the trustee family do not typically own landed property. Rather, the living members of the family receive the property as a “patrimony” from past generations and hold the property in trust for future generations.
Modern economists might view the trustee family as a family form based on “common property,” but this is an anachronistic interpretation. The “tragedy of the commons,” in which no one takes care of commonly owned resources, does not occur in societies dominated by the trustee family. That tragedy develops only in situations in which a) the state holds the exclusive or dominant power to enforce property rights and b) people view themselves as individual agents rather than as part of an infinitely-lived family, with powers of its own. Neither condition appears in the trustee family, which claims immense non-state power to enforce norms of behavior internally amongst its members and externally against its enemies.
The trustee family is simply the strongest social entity in its time, stronger than both the state and the individual. This is why the trustee family is almost incomprehensible to Americans today, in an era of hugely powerful government and fiercely independent individuals. In contrast, the atomistic family holds that sovereignty lies with the individual, as against the family. But society pays a price for this freedom from family bonds. The very idea of liberty itself changes, according to Zimmerman:
The individual is left more and more alone to do as he wishes. At first the freedom becomes an incentive to economic gain. . . . But sooner or later the meaning of this freedom changes. The individual, having no guiding moral principles, changes the meaning of freedom from opportunity to license. Having no internal or external guides to discipline him, he becomes a gambler with life, always seeking greener pastures. When he comes to inevitable difficulty, he is alone in his misery. He wishes to pass his difficulties and his misery on to others. Consequently, he continually helps build up institutions to “remedy” his misery. He willingly follows any prophet (and they are mostly false ones) who comes along with a sure-cure nostrum for the diseases of the social system.
Hence, the atomistic family and the powerful central government tend to co-exist. This could have been written in 2010 instead of in 1947.
Moderation of the Domestic Family
Between the extremes of the trustee and atomistic family models lies the moderation of the domestic family, such as that of the American family of the 1950s. Here, Zimmerman’s reasoning provides helpful background to defenders of the family that is today deemed “traditional.” He claims the domestic family “satisfies the natural desires for freedom from family bonds and for individualism, yet it also preserves sufficient social structure to enable the state or body politic to depend upon it as an aid in government.” Zimmerman credits the Catholic Church with the rise of the domestic family in the Middle Ages. The Church attempted to moderate the more barbaric features of the trustee family system, while preventing people from lapsing back into the decadent atomistic family of the late Roman Empire.
The Church strongly objected to intermarriage among cousins and closer relatives. This was a direct blow against the barbarian trustee family, which used intermarriage to strengthen the clan. The Church loosened the power of the family to control the marriage choices of its members. Marriage was a union of equals, by mutual consent of the parties, not of their parents. The Church insisted that quarrels between families were to be heard by public assemblies, not settled by blood feuds and vengeance. The Church restricted divorce, which was characteristic of the late Roman atomistic family, and “repudiation,” the barbarian trustee-family version of divorce.
The Church also stood strongly against abortion, infanticide, and the practice of exposing unwanted infants to the elements. Both the late Roman Empire and the barbarians permitted parents to reject infants, arguing that they were not social beings unless their parents accepted them into the family. Against both the barbarian trustee and Roman atomistic family systems, the Church introduced the idea that children are automatically social beings, the children of their mother and her husband, and could not be rejected. Most significantly, the Church celebrated the bearing and raising of children. As Zimmerman observes: “The family gives more and requires more of the individual than do other social organizations.” The Church’s spiritual incentives motivated people to undertake the material sacrifices necessarily involved in the bearing and rearing of children.
Modern Culture Wars
Zimmerman’s understanding of the transition from the trustee family to the domestic family corrects modern misconceptions about the evolution of the family. But his analysis of the transition between the domestic family and the atomistic family is particularly relevant to the current “culture wars” and leads naturally to The War between the State and the Family. In this book, Patricia Morgan argues that the movement toward individualism in the family was not an inevitable result of impersonal social forces, but rather the direct result of specific policies enacted by specific people. Zimmerman shows why this happens, not only in the United Kingdom of the twentieth century but also in post-Revolutionary France and in many other historical settings.
Zimmerman saw that not everyone in society actually participates in familism, meaning the social system that brings forth the next generation: “Reproduction, even in the most virile times of a society, is limited to a small segment of the living population.” He estimates that before World War Two, only about one-third of the wives were producing more than three-quarters of the children. Men and women do not necessarily understand and respect the demands of the family, just because they grew up in one:
The great and revealing experiences of familism come primarily after adulthood. The child has gone through most of the basic experiences of familism before he has even a faint idea of their real meaning. He understands only the pleasurable and receiving aspects of the family system and few or none of the sacrificial (pleasurable in a different sense) and giving aspects of the family.
Likewise, if the elites of society do not participate in familism, they will create institutions that encourage others to do the same. Everything from the design of houses, the durability of children’s toys, and the dynamics of the labor market become geared toward those with few or no children. For families to sustain themselves becomes progressively more difficult. More and more people abandon the effort, and the society stagnates demographically. Society doesn’t immediately dissolve, notes Zimmerman, because “the backward, rural, mountainous, isolated and distant populations or countries still have to be drained of their surplus population and familistic values.” In the meantime, the urban elites have no capacity to even see the problem, much less see the remedy, because they have never actually participated in the domestic family as opposed to the atomistic family.
Red states versus blue states, anyone?
Morgan illustrates this point from the other side of the Atlantic. The government of the United Kingdom has steadily enforced the march towards the atomistic family. The state wishes to show no favoritism toward marriage and no animus toward unmarried mothers. The state does not wish to encourage “income sharing” between adults. The idea that mothers and fathers cooperate in raising their children is alien, or perhaps worse, to Her Majesty’s government. Marriage is penalized in the markets for housing, for child-care options, and in the tax code. Morgan shows that under the influence of policies like these, the proportion of one-person households in the United Kingdom increased from 14 percent in 1961 to 30 percent by 2004. The proportion of out-of-wedlock births rose from 8 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2004.
It is sometimes claimed that Americans, like their European peers, have abandoned marriage as part of the Triumphant March of Liberation. But Morgan’s data strongly suggest that people of modest means have done no such thing. Marriage has been taken from them by their “betters.” As industrial societies continue their race toward greater individualism, fewer people have the vision to even see the problem, much less the solution. Yet Carle Zimmerman, who would not have been surprised at this, provides a profound and excellent guide to those wishing to restore a culture of familism.