Cordelia’s Portion: Of Family and Politics

Posted on 10 August 2017

Cordelia's Portion by Ford Madox Brown

Cordelia: Unhappy that I am,I cannot heave my heart into my mouth. I love your majesty according to my bond; no more no less.
~William Shakespeare, King Lear Act 1, Scene 1

When things are going disastrously wrong it is always much easier to find someone or something who represents what is felt to be the problem and make a grand public sacrifice in hopes of turning fate. This is the very definition of a scapegoat. We do this when we say: it’s all the fault of religions, it’s all the fault of our political leaders, it’s all the fault of this ethnic group. Yet, when has cleansing the Earth of a scapegoat ever provided a real solution?

What humanity requires more than ever is a serious cultural change. Playing at the edges where a toe is ventured into something new, but we are still largely invested in deleterious ways of living, because we are terrified of what change will bring, will keep us hurtling into oblivion.

I have written a number of articles about how we need to change the nature of work. So long as we are employed within powerful non-democratic systems, we will not be living within a true democracy. Business must be democratic. Schools also need to be structured so as to ensure we live in a more democratic, compassionate and equitable society. It’s why I have been working to create a scholar owned university where students share in its ownership in the same way that members of a credit union own that institution. An even more basic structure of power that we need to address in order to pull ourselves out of this hole is the family.

The First Triangle

Sierpinski's Triangle

Families are our first experiences of both relationships and power. They set our expectations for “normal”. With such an ingrained and particular understanding of social life, many people find it hard to even imagine what life would be like under different family structures.

As a baby the capacity to recognise the faces of caretakers is critical to survival. We have to bond with those who will see to our needs and seek them out for nurture. We also have to recognise differences, and to be shy of those who do not look like our family since they may be a threat to our well-being. Families can take this shyness further and turn it into fear, disgust, and hatred. This will further the outlook that “What my family does is right. Those who do things differently are wrong”. The bias does not have to go this far, but often does.

Those seeking authoritarian power rely on a cultural structure that will bring support to their position. What they are doing will feel familiar, normal enough that their actions will pass without remark. If it is acceptable to beat a child for unwanted behaviour, it seems acceptable to whip prisoners. If you were raised to obey through fear and domination, then you may even support the use of harsh methods to control citizenry over ideological points. After all, isn’t that how life works?

When political groups start talking about “protecting families” and even naming themselves things such as “Family First”, what they are really about is granular dominance. Their model for power is something like a Sierpinski’s Triangle. They enforce a certain sort of family structure, that family structure indoctrinates the next generation to accept a particular world view and power structure, the next generation then accepts and even supports this structure at educational and governmental levels. The whole thing becomes a self-enclosed machine. Those wanting to break out will have to get extra creative to even conceive of different ways of doing things, and often do so in a partial manner (e.g. “Sure, let’s bring in Universal Basic Income, but punish people when they don’t do the work we assign them”).

Comparing Family Structures

The stereotypical Western family consists of a father who holds all the power and provides financial support through outside work, a mother who is expected to birth and raise children and do all in-house work whether or not she has any outside work to supplement the family income, and a child or children who are expected to obey their parents. Christianity has a similar structure: God the father, Jesus the son, and the Holy Spirit — sometimes called the “Paraclete” which means “helper”. In the US and Australia we talk about “founding fathers”. Authoritarian leaders often speak of themselves as the parents to their countries. Joseph Stalin was called “Dear Father”.

Children need loving responsible caretakers. What that looks like has differed through the ages and across cultures. To this day we can still find places where children are raised directly by their community: not just their parents. Among the Mosuo people of China, a woman gives a man permission to visit her at night. If these visitations result in a child, that child is the responsibility of the mother and her brothers, and not the father. The couple continue to live in their separate households with no financial obligations between them. Both parties are free to have intercourse with whoever they like, and fathers of children are commonly not known. This culture has survived hundreds of years.

Western culture has been experimenting with adult relations most noticeably since the 1960s. However, these experiments are more about broadening sexual access and not about methods of care for resulting children. If a group of married couples have agreed to “open” relations, then what is the norm if a woman becomes pregnant? Is the resulting child the responsibility of herself and her marital partner? Is the responsiblity hers and the biological father? Perhaps the responsiblity is hers and her parents and/or siblings. Sadly, these decisions are usually made after the fact through abandonment or governmental intervention. Women end up single parents with children from more than one father. Biological fathers are forced to make support payments. Sometimes children are taken and put into foster homes. Children who are dealt with as an after thought are rarely treated well. Single mothers and their children should have support made available to them by their government without question. However, they are often treated punitively and not given enough to survive.

The family structure as it stands in the US and Australia is a form of imprisonment. Women traditionally have had to marry in order to survive, because the means of financial survival has been put in the hands of the men. Since governments are unwilling to take responsibility for its vulnerable citizens, men are financially responsible for all children with their DNA. Children have little access to escape if they are in an abusive family. Runaways on numerous occasions end up street beggars. Governments use desperation and dependence to keep people under control, so do families.

Family Break Down

The traditional family is breaking down because it is inherently dysfunctional. For centuries women have been treated like chattel and sold to husbands. Younger children have been outright sold as slaves. People are being treated as possessions even now. I remember as a child some kids sassing their parents by saying, “I didn’t ask to be born.” I was taught it was bad to say such a thing, but it’s a fair enough observation. We speak of children owing a debt of gratitude to their parents…but they were born into this debt without choice. To speak of human relations in this way is debasing of our humanity. This is the birth place of our warped sense of capitalism. Who owes who what? Perhaps caring for one another without burdens of obligation is our reason for being. We have to care for one another, but we can’t enforce making it more specific than that.

The saddest family failure in modern society is how the older generation is divesting itself of responsibility for younger generations. I’ve heard my own parents gleefully saying, “I’m spending my children’s inheritance!” They certainly are: environmentally and economically. The older generation have broken from the tradition of attempting to leave the world a better place for their children and grandchildren. A while back the Australian government paid people to have children to ensure those children were the bottom of a pyramid that would comfortably support the elderly and the privileged.

What We Need

We need to create family communities that don’t entirely rely on biological relation. When they are youngest, children cannot be equal and cannot engage democratically with a family, because they don’t have sufficient experience or understanding. However, the objective of every family must be to lift their children up to become equal members of their family and society. We need to teach and value the skills required for interdependence. We need to support our children learning how to share responsiblity and thereby share power.

Children cannot be mirrors to our egos, they cannot be minions in our personal armies, they cannot be insurance policies for our old age. When they become adults they must have the freedom to make their own decisions and launch themselves into the world. If we have done our job well, many will want to maintain the nurturing connection of a family. If we have not, then it is within their right to leave and never return. Other animals do this all the time. Love is about respect. You cannot be said to love your children, if you do not respect them. A culture cannot survive if it does not respect all its members. Let’s start creating change at this most grassroots of levels.

Peace and kindness,


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