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Steve davies

AS you say there's a longstanding tendency within much political thought (not just liberal) to make families and individuals the same - like you I think Carole Pateman is quite right about Locke, whose individuals are clearly conceived of as male heads of households. However not all thinkers are like that. Hobbes clearly is not - I disagree completely with her there. If you look at the intellectual history there is a minority tendency within historical liberal thought that applies consistent individualist thinking to the family and, if you will, deconstructs it. This is very prominent in late nineteenth century individualist thinking, most notably in people like the Harmans, and Wordsworth Donisthorpe who had several extensive pieces about this (as did Auberon Herbert). It's associated with classical liberal feminism and with the so-called free love movement. I think what you say is true about what you call neoliberalism (the remnant aspect of classical liberal thinking between the later 1930s and now). I think the reason has to do with personalities (the simple fact that most of the exponents were from a particular class background and despite their self-image not intellectually marginalised in the way that nineteenth and early twentieth century individualists were). The other big factor is the historically specific conjuncture of welfare reform and its politics in the United States in particular (to a lesser extent the UK) in the period from the 1960s to the 1990s. It's also worth pointing out that the radical libertarian fringe of neoliberalism took a much more consistently radical and contractualist view of the family, maybe because so many of them were gay men. Putting my historian's hat on, one way to think about this from a liberal perspective is that in the pre-modern world true individualism was almost impossible, even for the wealthy. You simply could not survive on your own for any length of time. That meant the fundamental unit of society was not the individual man or woman but the household, which was internally a domain not of choice but of authority (of course most people then thought that was true of the larger world as well). In the modern world this becomes ever less true and you get a steady move towards greater individualism. The big limitation on this is and always has been the rearing of children, which is very difficult to do on a one person basis. However that is also gradually being transformed by the effects of modernity. So from a liberal point of view this is all about the gradual unfolding of autonomy and agency in modernity. (This was Donisthorpe's view). I've argued myself that the family is the ultimate source of authority and unchosen relations.

A Facebook User

Hi Steve,
Thank you for your detailed comments and for calling attention to radical individualists (many of whom I am unfamiliar with)!
On Hobbes/Pateman: we agree (and I have argued a version of it in print or at least on the blog), but I don't tend to think of Hobbes as a liberal.


A few possibly relevant thoughts: first, both the right and left in their own fashion are trying to reimpose order, or social controls, in light of perceived or real chaos; second, the rise of the radical right ws instigated by the unrest and upheaval of the sixties. I sense these are mitigating factors to the mess we're in, at least in America, though it's not my job to figure it out or prescribe policy solutions. The Greek States in Hellenistic and Roman times maintained their liberties on an individual level, even though they lost teir collective freedoms. Perhaps local is the way to go


It would seem that the distinction between liberals and social conservatives can simply turn on the kind of value placed in family. For the liberal it is extrinsic, and for social conservative, intrinsic (moral). Cooper has it right that neo-liberal sees (or should see) it as the shortest path to economic flourishing of individuals.

The neo-liberal, then confuses the matter if they slide over the line from using the power of the state to merely encourage familial flourishing (say, earned income tax credits) with enforcing it (say, restrictions on divorce or banning gay marriage). It would simply be a mistake in fact, not value, to oppose gay marriage - since such relationships also lead to economic flourishing of individuals (including children).

Aaron Lercher

Economies of any kind, market or whatever, presuppose the production of human beings.

Paid or unpaid, the labor of producing new humans mostly falls to women. This a potential source of power for women who are more indispensable than men in this.

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Here's a link to my past blogging (and discussions involving me) at: New APPS.


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