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WARD, Colin. "Open and Closed Families"
Article published on 8 January 2011
last modification on 27 April 2015

by r-c.
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From the book "Anarchy In Action", 1973, by Colin Ward, pp 74 - 78)

In choosing a partner we try both to retain the
relationships we have enjoyed in childhood, and to
recoup ourselves for fantasies which have been denied us.

Mate-selection accordingly becomes for many an attempt to cast a particular part in a fantasy production of their own, and since both parties have the same intention but rarely quite the same fantasies, the result may well be a duel of rival producers.

There are men, as Stanley Spencer said of himself, who need two complementary wives, and women who need two complementary husbands, or at least two complementary love objects. If we insist first that this is immoral or ’unfaithful’, and second that should it occur there is an
obligation on each love-object to insist on exclusive rights, we merely add unnecessary difficulties to a
problem which might have presented none, or at least presented fewer, if anyone were permitted to solve it in their own way. -
Alex Comfort, Sex in Society

"Hotel Woodstock", film by Ang Lee

One essentially anarchist revolution that has advanced
enormously in our own day is the sexual revolution. It is
anarchist precisely because it involves denying the
authority of the regulations laid down by the state and
by various religious enterprises over the activities of the
individual. And we can claim that it has advanced, not
because of the ’breakdown’ of the family that moralists
(quite erroneously) see all around them, but because in
Western society more and more people have decided to
conduct their sexual lives as they see best. Those who
have prophesied dreadful consequences as a result of the
greater sexual freedom which the young assert -
unwanted babies, venereal disease and so on - are
usually the very same people who seek the fulfilment of
their prophesies by opposing the free availability to the
young of contraception and the removal of the stigma
and mystification that surround venereal disease.
The official code on sexual matters was bequeathed to
the state by the Christian Church, and has been harder
and harder to justify with the decline of the beliefs on
which it was based. Anarchists, from Emma Goldman to
Alex Comfort, have observed the connection between
political and sexual repression and, although those who
think sexual liberation is necessarily going to lead to
political and economic liberation are probably
optimistic, it certainly makes people happier. That there
is no immutable basis for sexual codes can be seen from
the wide varieties in accepted behaviour and in
legislation on sexual matters at different penbds and in
different countries. Male homosexuality became a
’problem’ only because it was the subject of legislation.
Female homosexuality was no problem because its
existence was ignored by (male) legislators. The legal
anomalies are sometimes hilarious: ’Who can explain
just why anal intercourse is legal in Scotland between
male and female, but illegal between male and male?
Why is anal intercourse illegal in England between male
and female, yet okay between males if both are over

The more the law is tinkered with in the effort to make it
more rational the more absurdities are revealed, Does
this mean that there are no rational codes for sexual
behaviour? Of course not: they simply get buried in the
irrationalities or devalued through association with
irrelevant prohibitions. Alex Comfort, who sees sex as
’the healthiest and most important human sport’ suggests
that ’the actual content of sexual behaviour probably
changes much less between cultures than the individual’s
capacity to enjoy it without guilt’. He enunciated two
moral injunctions or commandments on sexual
behaviour: ’Thou shalt not exploit another person’s
feelings,’ and ’Thou shalt under no circumstances cause
the birth of an unwanted child.’ His reference to
’commandments’ led Professor Maurice Carstairs to
tease him with the question why, as an anarchist,
Comfort was prescribing rules? - to which he replied
that a philosophy of freedom demanded higher standards
of personal responsibility than a belief in authority. The
lack of ordinary prudence and chivalry which could
often be observed in adolescent behaviour today was, he
suggested, precisely the result of prescribing a code of
chastity which did not make sense instead of principles
which are ’immediately intelligible and acceptable to any
sensible youngster’.

You certainly don’t have to be an anarchist to see the
modem nuclear family as a straitjacket answer to the
functional needs of home-making and child-rearing
which imposes intolerable strains on many of the people
trapped in it. Edmund Leach remarked that ’far from
being the basis of the good society, the family, with its
narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all
our discontents’. David Cooper called it ’the ultimate and
most lethal gas chamber in our society’, and Jacquetta
Hawkes said that ’it is a form making fearful demands
on the human beings caught up in it; heavily weighted
for loneliness, excessive demands, strain and failure.
Obviously it suits some of us as the best working
arrangement but our society makes no provision for the
others, whose numbers you can assess by asking
yourself the question: ’How many happy families do I

Consider the case of John Citizen. On the strength of a
few happy evenings in the discotheque, he and Mary
make a contract with the state and/or some religious
enterprise to live together for life and are given a licence
to copulate. Assuming that they surmount the problems
of finding somewhere to live and raise a fitmily, look at
them a few years later. He, struggling home from work
each day, sees himself caught in a trap. She feels the
same, the lonely single-handed housewife, chained to
the sink and the nappy-bucket. And the kids too,
increasingly as the years go by, fed trapped. Why can’t
Mum and Dad just leave us alone? There is no need to
go on with the sap because you know it all backward.
In terms of the happiness and fulfilment of the
individuals involved, the modern family is an
improvement on its nineteenth-century predecessor or
on the various institutional alternatives dreamed up by
authoritarian utopians and we might very well argue that
today there is nothing to prevent people from living
however they like but, in fact, everything about our
society, from the advertisements on television to the
laws of inheritance, is based on the assumption of the
tight little consumer unit of the nuclear family. Housing
is in obvious example: municipal housing makes no
provision for non-standard units and in the private sector
no loans or mortgages are available for communes.
The rich can avoid the trap by the simple expedient of
paying other people to run their households and rear
their children. But for the ordinary family the system
makes demands which very many people cannot meet.
We accept it because it is universal. Indeed the only
examples that Dr Leach could cite where children ’grow
up in larger, more relaxed domestic groups centred on
the community rather than on mother’s kitchen’ were the
Israeli kibbutz or the Chinese commune, so ubiquitous
has the pattern become. But changes are coming: the
women’s liberation movement is one reminder that the
price of the nuclear family is the subjugation of women.
The communes or joint households that some young
people are setting up are no doubt partly a reflection of
the need to share inflated rents but are much more a
reaction against what they see as the stultifying rigid
nature of the small family unit.

The mystique of biological parenthood results in some
couples living in desperate unhappiness because of their
infertility while others have children who are neglected
and unwanted. It also gives rise to the conunon situation
of parents clinging to their children because they have
sunk so much of their emotional capital in them while
the children desperately want to get away from their
possessive love. ’A secure home’, writes John Hartwell,
’often means a stifling atmosphere where human
relationships are turned into a parody and where sips of
creativity are crushed as evidence of deviancy.’ We am
very far from the kind of community in which children
could choose which of the local parent-figures they
would like to attach themselves to but a number of
interesting suggestions are in the air, all aiming at
loosening family ties in the interests of both parents and
children. There is the idea of Paul and Jean Ritter of a
neighbourhood ’children’s house’ serving twenty-five to
forty farnilies, there is Paul Goodman’s notion of a
Youth House on the analogy of this institution in some
’primitive cultures, and there is Toddy Gold’s suggested
Multiple Family Housing Unit. These ideas are not
based on any rejection of our responsibility towards the
young; they involve sharing this responsibility
throughout the community and accepting the principle
that, as Kropotkin put it, all children are our children.
They also imply giving children themselves
responsibilities not only for themselves but to the
community, which is exactly what our family structure
fails to do.

Personal needs and aspirations vary so greatly that it is
as fatuous to suggest stereotyped alternatives as it is to
recommend universal conformity to the existing pattern.
At one end of the scale is the warping of the child by the
accident of parenthood, either by possessiveness or by
the perpetuation of a family syndrome of inadequacy
and incompetence. At the other end is the emotional
stultification of the child through a lack of personal
attachments in institutional child care. We all know
conventional households permeated with casual
affection where domestic chores and responsibilities are
shared, while we can readily imagine a communal
household in which the women were drudges
collectively instead of individually and in which a child
who was not very attractive or assertive was not so
much left alone as neglected. More important than the
structure of the family are the expectations that people
have of their roles in it. The domestic tyrant of the
Victorian family was able to exercise his tyranny only
because the others were prepared to put up with it.
There is an old slogan among progressive educators,
Have’em, Love’em and Leave’em Alone. This again is
not urging neglect, but it does emphasise that half the
personal miseries and frustrations of adolescents and of
the adults they become are due to the insidious pressures
on the individual to do what other people think is
appropriate for him. At the same time the continual
extension of the processes of formal education delays
even further the granting of real responsibility to the
young. Any teacher in further education will tell you of
the difference between sixteen-year-olds who are at
work and attend part-time vocational courses and those
of the same age who are still in full-time education. In
those benighted countries where young children are still
allowed to work you notice not only the element of
exploitation but also the maturity that goes with
undertaking functional responsibilities in the real world.
The young are caught in a tender trap: the age of puberty
and the age of marriage (since our society does not
readily permit experimental alternatives yet) go down
while, at the same time, acceptance into the adult world
is continually deferred - despite the lowering of the
formal age of majority. No wonder many adults appear
to be cast in a mould of immaturity. In family life we
have not yet developed a genuinely permissive society
but simply one in which it is difficult to grow up. On the
other hand, the fact that for a minority of young people -
a minority which is increasing - the stereotypes of sexual
behaviour and sexual roles which confined and
oppressed their elders for centuries have simply become
irrelevant, will certainly be seen in the future as one of
the positive achievements of our age.

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