The Family and Civil Society

At the very core of what used to be called “civil society” sits the family. This is where the young are taught such things as civil discourse, self-discipline, responsibility, and the restraint that eventually becomes what we call “character.” There are those who insist that the family so described is no more. In 1942 Joseph Schumpeter, a Harvard economist who spent forty years writing Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (once regarded as a “must” read and now simply becoming musty on the forgotten shelves of university libraries) predicted the dissolution of the family and eventually of civil society. This would result, Schumpeter insisted, from the success of capitalism — not the failure, as Marx would have it. This is because capitalism breeds a culture of calculation focused upon self-interest and short-term thinking. But above all else, it breeds a temper opposite to the temper that insists upon self-sacrifice for the needs and goods of those we love and a genuine concern for our children and their children.

At the heart of capitalism, insists Schumpeter, is the process of “rationalization,” as he calls it, the mind-set of folks raised to think that material goods are the measure of success and the source of all human happiness. Rationalization leads young people to calculate, for example, whether to not to get married — given the fact that children and the responsibilities of the family would make it difficult, if not impossible, to enjoy the things that they think will make them happy. The would-be parents

“. . .cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail under modern conditions and of the fact that at the same time, excepting in cases of farmers and peasants, children cease to be an economic asset.”

It is this tendency to calculate that disturbs Schumpeter, not only in the planning of the family in the first place, but later on as parents insist that both must work in order to achieve the level of prosperity they believe is necessary to be happy. This “must” is a felt necessity in a self-absorbed culture that places a premium on material goods and possessions as a key to happiness. It has replaced the urge to make the family unit as strong and safe as possible. The result is a more open and mobile, often broken, family and one in which the children are raised by the entertainment industry rather than by caring parents who teach them about the duties and responsibilities that go with adulthood.

Schumpeter wrote before the Second World War but his concerns have been echoed by more recent students of culture, such people as Hannah Arendt in the 1960s, Christopher Lasch in the 1970s, and more recently Gertrude Himmelfarb — all of whom despaired for the weakening or disappearance altogether of the family unit they saw at the center of civil society which they sought to preserve. Arendt, for example, saw a failure of nerve on the part of both parents and teachers that has led to the rejection of the notion of “authority” especially

“the authority of adults, implicitly denying their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and [which] refuses the duty of guiding them into it.”

Himmelfarb notes the erection of a commodified culture created by capitalism in which we find we are “too present-minded and self-centered to tolerate the kinds of constraints imposed on parents in the interest of the family — or for that matter, the constraints on children, who are no less present-minded and self-centered.” She goes on to note:

” Nineteenth and-early-twentieth-century accounts of working-class life are replete with stories of children laboring part-time and contributing their meager earnings not only willingly but proudly to the family. Today children commonly receive allowances from their parents to be spent for their personal satisfaction.”

I can attest to this myself as I received no allowance but, rather, worked after school while in high school in the early 1950s and earned $13.00 a week, bringing $10.00 home to help with the costs of running the home and keeping the remaining $3.00 for my needs during the week. This was the era of the 1950s family that is so often derided by theorists today who see the movement toward more open family groups as a good thing, greater freedom and less restriction and sacrifice — rejecting the notion that discipline and self-sacrifice might be the sorts of things that build character and make families stronger. These same folks regard the parents as incapable of raising their children properly and would rather see them raised by “experts” trained in psychology or social work, persons attached to assorted state agencies.

In any event, one cannot focus exclusively on the weakening of family ties for the disappearance of civil societies, since the Church has also traditionally been an important part of character building, teaching those virtues that helped young people grow into responsible and other-oriented adults. And, for the most part, the Church no longer addresses these issues as they are caught up in the business of turning a profit, filling the pews, and assuring their congregations that they are loved regardless of how they behave.

But it is interesting to ponder the explanation these thinkers point to when they express concern for the successes of capitalism and its decided reorientation of values in creating a calculating, self-interested, commodified culture that measures success and happiness in terms of annual income (which, by the way, helps to explain why children, and their parents in many cases, hold teachers in such low esteem). Have we really come to an age in which, as Schumpeter insists, the average parents calculate the pros and cons of raising a family in terms such as these:

“Why should we stunt our ambitions and impoverish our lives in order to be insulted and looked down upon in our old age?”

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20 thoughts on “The Family and Civil Society

  1. Hmm.Yes, I do think that it is the result of the success of capitalism. Do you have any predictions as to where it ultimately goes? Do your authors? Does it keep on spinning out the extremes of inequality we are seeing till the poorest become less than robots, replaced by AI and kept alive only to … well, what?

    • Personally I think we are headed for some variety of totalitarian rule in which one or a few strong people take over the reins of government and rule the rest who are too preoccupied with their electronic toys and the acquisition of “stuff” to pay any attention. This will happen more quickly as emergencies arise — as with serious repercussions from global warming, for example.

  2. Good, albeit depressing, post, my friend! “one in which the children are raised by the entertainment industry rather than by caring parents who teach them about the duties and responsibilities that go with adulthood.” is a most disturbing, yet undeniably apt, statement. To expand on Memoirs’ question … do you see any possible viable solution to the society we have become, other than the obvious apocalyptic one? And finally … I am re-blogging this thoughtful and thought-provoking post. Thanks!

    • Jill, See my response to Memoirs. I don’t see how we can possibly pull out of the nose-dive we have started into. The lunatics have already broken out of the asylum and are in control. Still, we must fight on or we become part of the problem. Our only hope is that there are a few really courageous men and women in positions of power who are able to stand up to the lunatics and shove them aside and take over the reins of government themselves — men and women like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Our job is to try to make sure these few get the support they will need to stand up against powerful people. You are doing just that and I applaud you for that, my friend.

      • Not sure why, but the last sentence of your comment caused me to burst into tears. Thank you, dear Hugh … you made my day, despite the tears. I think I need to come out of the rabbit hole for a bit …

  3. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    How many times do we hear someone say, “I just don’t know what’s the matter with people today”, or something similar? Everyone, it seems, has a theory: too much television, not enough discipline, they are too liberal, everybody expects things to be handed to them, or some variant of those. I have no answers either, but blogger-friend Hugh Curtler, who is a much deeper-thinker than I, wrote a thoughtful and thought-provoking post today that may point us in the direction of an answer as to why civil society has changed so much in the past century. Please take a few minutes to read his post … I promise you will come away thinking … and if enough of us think, perhaps there is hope for solutions to be forthcoming. Thank you Hugh for this post and for always allowing me to share!

  4. Hugh, nicely done professor. I would add the work of the documentary “I Am,” which noted the reflections of several sociologists, religious scholars and leaders, and scientists regarding what makes us happy. Their conclusion resonated. The presence of a lot of money does not make us happier. The absence of money, though, can make us unhappy. What is meant by this is once we have enough to shelter, feed and secure our family, then there is a diminishing marginal utility to more money making us happier.

    This may be a key reason that Scandinavian citizens tend to be more happy. They have a more socialistic society which takes care of the many, whereas we are capitalistic with some socialistic underpinnings. The dilemma is the pursuit of the American Dream has fallen as has our rankings on economic equality. In other words, we do poorly in making the American Dream happen.

    Great post, Keith

  5. An intriguing point of view. Things were very different in the 50’s when often Mother was at home to cook meals and when playtime didn’t mean on a Nintendo but rather was with other children the same age outside the house.
    Where the family group started falling down (IMHO) was when Mum found she had to go to work as rent and house prices were rising above the wage increases. Worse still, children had to be farmed out and home cooked meals and playtime became things of the past. The strangers who looked after children were not to administer corporal punishment and parents were told it was bad so they stopped and yet in the Fifties we had felt the hand of corporal punishment from the police or parents with no ill effects.
    The 1% of the World who own all the money have been happy with things the way they are and don’t expect them to change anytime soon but we need to break out from this malaise and start teaching family values to our children again.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    • Well said. “Family values” have gotten a bad reputation on this side of the Pond, but it really is what is at the heart of the matter. I think, by the way, that the lack of corporal punishment has had a much more serious impact on folks than its presence ever did. Sure, there were abuses. There always are. But parents and teachers drew lines and the kids knew where those lines were. Now they get mixed messages and are told they are terrific when they know full-well that this isa load of old bollocks.

  6. This is a most interesting and thought provoking post.
    A number of the points raised are grist to my own mill driven a socialist outlook (some might say dour and authoritarian; I would say practical and realistic).
    From recent readings of thoughts from the USA it would seem that both sides of the debate have Common Cause to rid themselves of perceived self-serving egotists who ‘make much of themselves’ in the corridors of power. The tragedy being that the shrillness of the media stifles debate…anyway I digress.
    I will restrict my response solely to the Consumer side and its Financial Parents.
    There is a common aspect to the woes of the US which can be shared with the rest of the world, linked to the Consumer Ethos. Whereas the Worship at the Church of Wealth is nothing new in previous eras this was in the main based on the production of goods and the solid visible valuables (ie precious metals, jewels etc). These days there seems to be a great imbalance in faith placed in the Ephemeral world of the ‘Finance’ and ‘Currency Values’. Now if for some reason folk lose faith in that system, or the system finally fails to contain its own internal pressures and many fortunes which in turn support many funds of ordinary people collapse. Then what? We have seen this happen before and it was only stopped by firm government intervention; in these times where the Creed of Minimal Government holds sway will this ability be lost?

    • I’m no expert in matters of high finance, but common sense would suggest that if a financial crisis or major proportion arises — even in the climate of small government — steps will be taken by the Federal government to intervene. Government will never get so small it will be unable to “bail out” those in financial straits — i.e., those major corporations and serious players of the game of Capitalism.

      • A country might be able, just, to handle its own problems. The ones which concern me are if the contagion spreads. We’ve had a few close calls.
        The long view of history does contain records of large catastrophes not envisaged or thought not possible.

  7. I see it as a privilege to be able to be home and take care of my children: Be there when they come home from school, help them explore the world (the physical one as well as the media), be there for their needs and questions (and their stories). They are getting more independent by the day, and before I realise they will be grown up and gone. But I hope to have passed on some of my values and believes by then. 🙂

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