Friday, August 15, 2008

The Marriage Movement in the Civil Sphere

Jeffrey Alexander envisions the civil sphere as driven by social movements that realize the basic civil values against intrusions from the uncivil spheres. All of his examples of such movements are “progressive” in the liberal sense. They are movement to remove hierarchy, exclusion, restriction.

Marriage, by its nature, is exclusive and restrictive. Parenthood, by its nature, is hierarchical. Could a movement to restore marriage and married parenthood to the center of the civil sphere’s understanding of family life succeed in Alexander’s conception of the civil sphere?

Marriage is an institution. Alexander lays out what he thinks are the basic binaries governing institutions.

A marriage movement would need to make a convincing case that marriage is the more legitimate institution of the available alternatives.

The first thing an Alexandrian marriage movement would need, therefore, is a good enemy. Ideally, the enemy would be an institution with the same functions as marriage, but embodying the bad side of the binaries. I think the main, irreplaceable function of marriage is to bind a man and woman together in a uniquely powerful way so that they can endure the sacrifice and stress of raising their children in the way that serves society best.

The name of the enemy institution, therefore, is cohabitation.

Let’s contrast marriage and cohabitation in the terms of Alexander’s binary of institutions:

Marriage is strongly rule regulated: all of your resources belong by rule and definition to the marriage, with your children having first claim on their use. Cohabitation is arbitrary, because either party can declare some resources to be personal, and there is nothing in the rules of cohabitation that can be appealed to to prohibit that claim. This applies especially to the rule of sexual exclusivity.

Marriage is a relationship recognized by law. It is not a private arrangement between two individuals, but a social relationship recognized in public and protected by law from anyone who would pull it asunder – including the parties themselves. Cohabitation is regulated only by the relative power of the two parties, with the less committed party having more power to get his or her (usually his) way by the threatening to unilaterally withdraw.

Marriage requires equality in the couple. To take the biblical metaphor of what a marriage is, two become one flesh. In one flesh, as St. Paul says in another place, it makes no sense for one part of the body to claim superiority over another, because both (all) parts are necessary to the whole. Cohabitation, by contrast, produces inequality in the relationship. In practice, the one who contributes more money controls the decisions. Alexander, in discussing the movement for women’s equality, describes patriarchy as coming from the family sphere. Yet patriarchy is not essential to marriage, nor to family life. We should see this move on Alexander’s part as his attempt to pollute the family sphere as a whole as uncivil in order to bolster his case that the civil sphere is egalitarian and therefore civil.

When we get to the inclusive/exclusive binary, we run into a problem. The best I can think of is that marriage includes a concern with the public good, especially for raising children as citizens, whereas cohabitation excludes a concern for the public good because it is exclusively oriented to the private benefit of the couple. This is true, but a bit of a stretch. I am inclined to think that Alexander is just wrong that inclusive/exclusive is one of the basic binaries of society. In particular, I think any theory that aims at solidarity has to treat an exclusive commitment to the solidary whole as a good thing.

Alexander says institutions are civil if they are impersonal contracts – meaning that they are valuable regardless of the specific people embodying the institution and the specific relations they have with one another. Uncivil institutions reward only those who have personal bonds of loyalty to the specific people in them. Marriage as an institution is a civil contract that is supported by society because it benefits society as a whole, impersonally. Cohabitation is a private relationship that only benefits those with a personal bond of loyalty from the cohabiters.

Married parents form a powerful group in society with a permanent interest is seeing that all of society has public schools, public health, public safety, public security, and so forth. Cohabiters can, at best, form a temporary faction arguing for this policy or that, and usually for their own benefit rather than for the permanent public good.

To be a husband or a wife is to occupy an office through which the civil sphere regulates the uncivil sphere of family life. To be shacking up means you do what you want according to whatever personality you happen to have, with no point of leverage for civil regulation.

Thinking about a marriage movement in the Alexandrian civil sphere makes me notice another quality of all of his examples: they are all movements that promote solidarity. This is not so surprising, since he tells us first and last that social solidarity is the utopia we seek. What he did not make clear is that the values of the civil sphere would lead one to reject the libertarian values of sheer individualism. Alexander does not support social movements that aim to produce less social solidarity. The “leave me alone” movements simply have no place in Alexander’s civil sphere. They are anti-solidarity, and thus self-polluting.

A marriage movement could beat a cohabitation movement on the grounds that marriage is more civil (though we would have to wrestle about the relevance of the inclusive/exclusive standard to either one). A marriage movement could beat a cohabitation practice – or worse, a practice that left kids with divorced parents, never-married parents, sometime parents, or sheer chaos – on the grounds that all the disorganized forms of parenting were anti-social, were a threat to solidarity itself.


Patty said...

Brilliant, Beau!
- Patty Newbold,
An unbearded, left-of-center, bicycle-riding,
non-religious East Coaster who shares your view
of marriage as an important civilizing force

John Howard said...

Yeah, I second that. Very interesting.

I couldn't help but notice the parallel to the genetic engineering debate, which is also solidarity versus individualism. If you don't want a genetically engineered child, don't have one, they tell me. They say it's unacceptable to have a law outlawing something that someone might want to do.

A marriage culture is thus consistent with the understanding that we can't let scientists just go and create children from whatever DNA source they want, only a marriage should be allowed to intentionally create children, and all marriages should be allowed to create children, using the marriage's unmodified genes only.