Nuclear family plus servants doesn’t equal nuclear family plus appliances

From a tweet by “hbdchick“, a tantalizing excerpt of an essay by Peter Laslett, who researched the structure of the Western European (particularly English) family for decades.  He’s one of the reasons I talk about the domestic help aspect of family formation, even as alt-right (and regular right) types ignore that when declaiming about how the nuclear family is a staple of certain kinds of white people.  I’d put Laslett’s more exhaustive work on the back burner, but I think it may have to move up in the old queue. Below I’ve reposted the excerpt with the important bit at the end highlighted.

Characteristics of the Western European Family

Peter Laslett

By ‘family structure’ many things may be intended. I shall take it here in two senses. First, in the sense of composition of the co-resident domestic group, as the historical sociologists call it. This means the knot of persons who live together, man, wife and sometimes, but by no means always, their children, their relatives, if any, along with their servants, now excessively rare. Such is the family which the wage-earner leaves when he catches his bus in the morning to go to work, and which he returns to in the evening. It is also the assemblage of possessions which the bachelor girl or the solitary widower or divorcee calls a home, along with himself or herself. A modest array of this kind is the constitution of the family for very large numbers of Western Europeans in the 1980s. The family in the second sense is the extended family of cousins, aunts, uncles and so on who are recognised, and sometimes associated with, but do not live together in the same place.

I am concerned here with family in both these senses, historically, over time. This is not only because of the interest people have in their family history: but also because it has now been shown that unless we have some knowledge of the history of the family, the family of today, of our own personal experience, can be profoundly misunderstood. For the fact is that in the matter of the family we have suffered, and still suffer, from a series of persistent, deceptive, obfuscating misbeliefs which can only be shown up and corrected by a knowledge of the past.

This self-deception about the history of the family has particularly affected Western Europeans. Frenchmen, Germans or Englishmen, unless they have come across the work of recent historical sociologists, are likely to believe the following. That the co-resident familial group in the past, at least up to the point of industrialisation, was large and complicated, with several generations living together. Furthermore, that this comfortable, kin-enfolding, welfare-providing family group not only nurtured the young, but took in their spouses when they married, and also provided them with shelter and succour when they became old or suffered other misfortunes. That the family in the sense of extended kin was a further source of welfare. It seems to be supposed that before the days of the Welfare State it was the family and kin which rescued social casualties. Now all this has turned out to be untrue.

Untrue, that is to say, in a literal sense and for the particular part of Western Europe which first became industrialised and which has given what might be called industrial culture to the rest of the world. By this North-West Europe, especially the British Isles, Northern France, the Low Countries and Scandinavia, is meant. In this cultural region family groups had been simple in composition and quite modest in size for many centuries before industrialisation. Married children only seldom lived with their parents, and two couples in one family household were quite unusual. It is true that the family group has become much smaller in the 20th century, servants have disappeared, and solitary living has grown enormously in our own day: but this did not happen during the process of industrialisation as ‘traditional society’ gave way to ‘modern society’ and cannot be called a transition to the ‘nuclear family’. The ‘nuclear family’ was there already.

The kin composition of the English family group was much as it is today in the 16th century, and had been so since the 1300s, the 1200s or even earlier, but with one very important structural difference. Servants lived in large numbers of families, and the presence of servants made the family groups of the rich large, and the family groups of the poor correspondingly small. In this area of the West, moreover, welfare never flowed along lines of kinship. The casualties of the system, the widows, the orphans, the poverty-stricken, were supported by the collectivity rather than the family.

The implications, needless to say, are pretty major.  Hbdchick has a London Review of Books subscription and I do not as yet, so she reproduced a different excerpt mentioning very high servant turnover and that the lifetime servant was more of a literary device than an ongoing reality.

This is interesting, because due to labor shortage and some other historical quirks, the longtime or lifelong servant did exist in various forms in America and Canada all the way into the first half of the 20th century.  Likewise, the nuclear family in its frontier-isolated and later suburban form could not exist without the Industrial Revolution’s massive infusions of radical new technology and mass production.  So on the one hand, “the nuclear family has always been part of Western Europe”, but on the other hand, the people who came to America transmuted it along radical lines that were not reflected in the old country’s version of it.

And more to the point, as my title for this post notes, it’s not the same to say that appliances are your servants, even if they were devised as a replacement.  They are not a true replacement for all that.



Why are conservatives so individualistic and atomized?

My previous post was brought about by seeing promotion of 70s style egalitarian feminism on a pretty right-wing/conservative space and seeing very insistent promotion of individualistic isolated living (Just Marry and Have Kids, and optionally Homeschool ’em!) in several conservative areas ranging from the “Alt Right” to center-libertarians.

Marrying and having kids is good, but it’s not good to tell people that it ends there, that if they just follow that one weird trick everything will be all right.  It’s worth noting that even the male provision part is gone from that across the entire conservative and right-wing spectrum.  They don’t even see how badly they’ve lost the ability to think in terms of a real village, town or city.  The question of where the money is to come from to marry and have kids and optionally homeschool them is always met with quasi-solutions that rely on massive and faceless corporate entities who are completely antagonistic to family life.

The question of how your theoretical children are to be “well-reared” when social interaction with adults outside a workplace is waved away as unimportant (yes, including “church folk”, apparently hanging out with them is irrelevant to the whole marriage and properly reared kids project), where being embedded and part of a local community is dismissed as stupid to even worry about is an open one.

The question of how to raise kids with an understanding of household maintenance, management of finances and ability to save capital towards wealth-building or civic donations is also left unanswered.  There is very little discussion, even far from the internet, about what young couples who manage to marry are supposed to do for their individual families.  Again, the problem is not that for the most part we’re all reliant on the system and Business as Usual (BAU, from the peak-oil and doom-mongering crowd term for the status quo). That sucks, but you work with the situation you have.  The problem is the bizarre doubling down on the pretense that we aren’t if we just “marry and have kids”, that our choices aren’t incredibly narrow and constrained due to that reliance on BAU, that there’s no finding a way around BAU until you acknowledge you’re, well, subject to it.

But you know, this is conservatives we’re talking about.  They are leaving the development of anything meaningful to a weird guy who lives in Italy because you can live like a king on 40k a year USD because it’s so much easier to sit around complaining about how the billionaires are SJWs instead of getting funding from millionaires.  They sit around talking about how just marrying and having kids will magically produce the necessaries to feed, clothe and house them, and oh, if you do choose to homeschool, why they’ll totally be educated at an Oxford level by a worn out high school dropout mother and also simultaneously have Davy Crockett level wilderness and woodcraft skills…somehow while living in a tarmac-covered exurb without even a quarter acre parklet of grass.

And if you ask where the other people who aren’t your nuclear family are in all this, well, a surprising amount of the time it’s just a bunch of ???, because the solipsism is off the charts.  And most of the rest of the time, you’re told other people suck too much to hang out with.  The question of who your “well-reared” (in tablet-heavy isolation in the cheapest exurbs while you wreck your health with long car commuting) children will marry and have kids with themselves just leads to scary and weird places and also fails to seriously answer the question.


Immigration restriction led to Sex in the City lifestyles for young women.

There is a narrative among the more reactionary and dissident conservatives out there that immigration restriction in America in the 1920s led to a (white) paradise of family wages and happy housewives until 1965.  One of the subtexts of this narrative is that the women were purer and less scandalous because they could easily count on marrying at 18-19 to a 21 year old husband who was already making a middle class income.

Good thing it’s a subtext, because it’s not really real history at all.

As early as 1940, young women were flooding out to live alone, something they pulled ahead of young men in doing by 1960.  After all, nearly half of the supposedly glorious immigration restriction period of American history was the Great Depression.  This gets left out of the “easy middle class income on one salary” reinvention of history.

Prior to immigration restriction, almost nobody (including young men) lived alone.  As immigrants flooded in, boarding and rooming houses accommodated them.  And extended family living was more common even among “nuclear” German and English descent households.  People also labored for room and board and other barter goods rather than wages.

Once the labor pool was restricted, though, the resultant increase in wage work (along with urbanization) allowed even young women to move out and live alone in larger and larger numbers.  The median age of first marriage for white women was around 23 until the 1950s and two decades later had already begun the return back to that level, with the current age of 26 mirroring historical levels from before the late 19th century.  The window of time in which young white American women were barely twenty when they married was a small one historically, hardly a generation in length.

The value of siblings

Parents can’t pull fast ones on the kids, preserves family history more coherently, lowers risk of incestuous parent-child emotions developing.

Part of the horror of modern narcissism is the way in which parents cheat their child or “perfect two” children out of access to a continuous family history and further leave them vulnerable to emotional manipulations that are much harder to do when all the kids can compare notes.  You can run into problems with ten or fifteen siblings, but human history isn’t average people having that many kids as the normal family size.

I hope to explore this more in written form, one of the downsides of notebooking it in blog format.  Siblings are important because when the parents are outnumbered, they kind of need to communicate to the children that there are other people who care about them and can take care of them too.  The benefits accrue just having three kids instead of two, but are probably sweetest of spot at 4-6 kids.  After that, the sheer numbers issue becomes a massive problem if the kids aren’t raised factory-style with lots of other adults around.  It’s easy to get paranoid and make the child or children believe there’s nothing outside the nuclear family unit when there’s only one or two kids.  It’s harder to be anti-social and atomistic in relation to one’s local community when you have to do a name-check to make sure all the kids are rounded up.

Anyway siblings are valuable enough that society should be ordered for women to be able to have three or more children without it being a heavily politicized, rare choice.

A nuclear family is not a family, that’s why there’s an adjective.

Raising children as a married couple in total isolation is not “family”, it’s just “atomic household unit of economic production”.

A father and mother raising children in a private, independent household separate from either’s extended family and/or parish is an invention of the industrial age.  It has become normalized to the point of being considered the only real family among conservatives, who fail history 4eva on this particular front.

There are a number of folks in the far end of right-conservative land who talk a great deal about how such and such a ‘european’ ethnic group has ‘always’ had nuclear families, but this is just a sign of how poorly educated they are about their own ethnic histories.

The pioneer family model wouldn’t exist without a lot of technology.  In some very real ways, the Ingalls/Wilder pioneer family is about as modern as families now in terms of sheer social isolation and dependence on the nuclear family for emotional needs to the point of neurosis.

The shift from clan to family to “extended” vs. “nuclear” family is just tracing the steps of technology and modernity and insane amounts of wealth in tearing us all away from the real forms of kin and kith.

Also, defining family in terms of the nuclear structure saves a lot of people the trouble of being held to account for their obligations and responsibilities to their familias/clan/bondsmen/etc.  Webs of intersecting authority, hierarchy, devotion, obligation and love.  Those are lost today and to get them back for the supermajority would require a lot of people to stop egotripping.  WOE.

Anyway that’s all I have to say about this right now.