It's a tumultuous time for the institution of marriage. Gays want it, which is bad enough, but so too does the Minister for Social Services, Kevin Andrews, and that's even worse. Australia's conjugal unions are in such a dire state that Andrews is proposing the government dish out $200 marriage counselling vouchers for newlyweds. So his 2012 offering, Maybe 'I Do' – Modern Marriage and the Pursuit of Happiness, seemed like the perfect second offering for Right Wing Book Club.
The nature of the family, and the heterosexual, nuclear married couple family in particular, has become the terrain for one of the fiercest debates in the so-called culture wars. Very sophisticated debates about erotic love, kinship and procreation, gender, sexuality and the like are taking place both inside and outside the academy, but Andrews doggedly refuses to advance them a single step.
In fact, the man responsible for driving social services policy in this country barely mentions his opponents' critiques of the nuclear family, because Maybe 'I Do' isn't really a serious discussion of where the marriage debate is at. It's more like an instruction manual, and should probably have been titled "Wife Maintenance Through Marriage: How To Keep Your Indentured Reproductive Labourer Healthy And Strong".
Rather than running the standard religious, historical or political conservative plays, the main thrust of Maybe 'I Do' is that life-long heterosexual marriage is the healthiest environment for adults and children. Andrews has marshalled hundreds of pages of bare statistics, which are laid out like a dog breeder's manual under subheaders like "morbidity", "suicides and accidents" and so on. For example, here's one at random:
"[A]nalysis of the US data indicates that married men and women in all age groups are less likely to be limited in activity (a general health indice) due to illness than single, separated, divorced, or widowed people."
OK then, come on honey, let's get hitched for health! Actually, you can read most of the book this way. Just say "We should get married for life because… " then pick any line from the book, like "[M]arital dissolution was associated with a 3.7-fold increased risk for mood disorders…" This is an absurdly utilitarian way to argue for the solemnisation of loving relationships, and the effect is more exhausting than convincing.
Unfortunately, Andrews doesn't have much truck with actually analysing the stats, and they become less solid after a few quick questions about self-selection. If heterosexual married couples are generally happier, richer and healthier, but are on the decline, as Andrews' stats show, might it be because as an institution marriage is becoming accessible only to people who are already enjoying those benefits? Could it be that people who co-habit before marriage do so because their circumstances mean they're unable to make a full marriage and kids work? Like a selfish husband, Andrews doesn't even bother to ask.
He also rallies a bit of old-style biological determinism to his cause, to show that hetero marriage is a "natural" arrangement. For example, he quotes a study regarding levels of oxytocin in males and females as they age, and, after surveying the figures, concludes that women exhibit sacrificial behaviours when they become emotionally attached. Males, on the other hand, must make a concious rational decision to become attached before they start to perform those same behaviours.
By drawing long bows from single studies, Andrews actively reinforces the old trope that men are default "rational" beings while women are default "emotional" beings — and that marriage is an institution that tames and civilises men, stopping them from becoming much-maligned "deadbeat dads".
But when he fumbles his way through issues of class and race around 200 pages in — "The Growing Marriage Divide" — his utilitarian approach miraculously falls away. Degree-educated rates of marriage failure are lower, he writes, which is creating a marriage divide. We should instead worry about the unfulfilled "marital aspirations", or lack thereof, of single degree-educated women who can't find decent partners. For those with only a high school education Andrews' sights are set much lower: divorce rates, single mothers, crime stats and broken homes are the real issues. He wants future soulmates for the middle class, but when it comes to the working class, it's more about avoiding future inmates.
Marx's characterisation of people like Andrews in The Communist Manifesto will continue to bear fruit, as long as books like this keep getting published. "The bourgeois sees his wife a mere instrument of production," he wrote in 1848, but we could put it a different way: the Liberal Party are born-to-rules, and need women to birth the rulers of tomorrow, today.
Ultimately Andrews is really concerned with kinship, not marriage — transmitting from one generation to the next the family bloodline, property and ultimately, the character of society itself. But the notion of kinship is troubled by the suggestion that it could also be influenced by economic and political forces, as the left has always asserted. This is still a ripe field for inquiry. Country town ageing and Fly-In, Fly Out work are just two examples of how traditional kinship structures are being changed by Australia's political and economic settings right now.
But again, Andrews can't be bothered to make inquiries into these real-life problems. Instead he prefers to blame evil French social theory in the persons of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida for the change in attitudes towards gender and marriage, and assert ever more forcefully that marriage is "a pre-political institution. It is not a creature of the State". Therefore, Andrews reckons, the state does not have the right to intervene to change the traditional, natural way those relationships have been structured.
He deploys this pre-political marriage argument against his enemies on both left and right: the left, who are attempting to broaden the definition to include other types of kinship arrangements who cannot complete the biological goal of creating children; and right-libertarians, who want to see the idea of kinship replaced with a contractarian approach between consenting adults, which removes the goal of children from marriage altogether.
Unfortunately, the solution proposed in Maybe 'I Do' is completely at odds with his characterisation of the marriage question. Policy, Andrews says, should be put through a grid of family-based questions and requirements and should wherever possible buttress and support traditional families. The state should make normative statements about what kinds of family it prefers and pursue "pronatalist" policies like those of Singapore to incentivise births.
What Andrews doesn't realise — because he's incapable of arguing with his opponents, only about them — is that some of the best thinkers on both the radical left and the orthodox Christian right identify this kind of biopolitical questioning of the family as the main force acting on hetero marriage today. These views have begun to break into the mainstream, and are ironically informed by Foucault, Derrida, and the other post-moderns Andrews despises. One such writer, the conservative theologian John Milbank, wrote at ABC Religion last year on same-sex marriage:
"For the individual, the experience of a natural-cultural unity is most fundamentally felt in the sense that her natural birth is from an interpersonal (and so 'cultural') act of loving encounter — even if this be but a one-night stand. This provides a sense that one's very biological roots are suffused with an interpersonal narrative. Again, to lose this 'grammar' would be to compromise our deepest sense of humanity, and risk a further handing over of power to market and state tyrannies supported by myths both of pure human nature and technocratic artifice."
For Milbank, the real risk is that state intrusion into kinship structures, including through the increasing normalisation of technology to produce children, is "a recipe for psychological confusion, family division and social conflict … In this instance we have sleep-walked into the legalisation of practices whose logic and implications have never been seriously debated." Andrews, by promoting a technical-utilitarian justification for heterosexual marriage, which to retain its primacy must be supported by state power, falls into this same trap.
On the other end of the spectrum, the radical feminist and social theorist Judith Butler says the state's involvement in kinship matters is often a matter of invitation — that we all crave its approval to legitimise our relationships, especially those outside the hetero marriage establishment. But as soon as a relationship attracts the state's desire, it ceases to be "natural" in the way Andrews would attest to:
"At that very moment, desire and sexuality are dispossessed and displaced, so that what one 'is,' and what one’s relationship 'is' are no longer a private matter; indeed, ironically, one might say that through marriage, personal desire acquires a certain anonymity and interchangeability, becomes, as it were, publicly mediated and, in that sense, a kind of legitimated public sex. … the desire for universal recognition is a desire to become universal, to become interchangeable in one’s universality, to vacate the lonely particularity of the nonratified relation and, perhaps above all, to gain both place and sanctification in that imagined relation to the state."
Butler goes a step further, and says that many of the anxieties and ill-effects of living in nontraditional relationships could be attributed to their existing in prohibited or "unofficial" spaces. Moreover, she writes, by focusing the entire debate on who can rightly be called married, questions of who might be permitted to form alternate family or kinship structures, perhaps using technology to assist in birthing children, are never asked. Nevertheless, none of this is dealt with in Andrews' pretty execrable book.
So let's spell it out clearly for him. The very fact that conservatives want to incentivise and defend marriage with state power should be seen not as a sign of the weakness of marriage, but of the desire on the part of baby-boomer conservatives to once again establish heterosexual marriage as the ideal, universal form of gender relations. Regardless of whether alternate kinship structures and relationships might work, conservatives like Andrews cannot even tolerate the suspicion that they exist.
They won't succeed in universalising marriage again. The genie is already out of the bottle. But their totalitarian approach will wreck a lot of lives in the process, and perhaps also strip marriage of whatever mystique it has left.
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