13 July 2015

If Not the Declaration, Then What? The Cultural Genealogy of SSM in America

Last week I posted a friendly critique of an argument that judicial acceptance of a Constitutional right to same-sex "marriage" found its warrant in the principles of America's Declaration of Independence. You can read it here.

To be sure, the Declaration tilts toward a political philosophy of natural rights but I argued that tilt was not as pronounced as some have suggested. In other words, the original American audience of the Declaration would have understood it in terms of the long-standing tradition of British Protestant constitutionalism of which natural law with duties as well as rights embedded in a broader order was part. (More about that here and here.) I concluded that post as follows:    "[Political] liberalism may have contained within it certain seeds of its own destruction but the flowering of those seeds owes as much to historical contingencies as it does to the liberal tradition as such."

What are the historical contingencies that caused the natural rights tilt of the Declaration to flower into a right to same-sex "marriage" particularly and maximal sexual autonomy generally? Thankfully, addressing this question is easier than at first it might seem. Alastair Roberts has written an exceptionally cogent post Before Obergefell: Some Thoughts on How We Got Here (download here). My burden here is to highlight Roberts's review of the relevant social and cultural history of the past two hundred-plus years and add a few of my observations.

First, our understanding of the nature of sex has changed:
The character of marriage has changed under many influences. Medical, technological, and economic influences have been among the most powerful of these. Contraceptive medication and other contraceptive devices, coupled with greater access to abortion, have facilitated the growing detachment of sex from procreation. It has normalized a situation where society regards the default form of sex as "safe"—sterile and, ideally, STD-free. Sex that is open to the possibility of procreation is a break from the default form of sex, either a failure of responsibility or a determined act of choice. It is no longer regarded as just natural.
Sex is no longer understood as inherently connected to procreation. Not all sex before the invention of the Pill led to new life, of course, but the connection between the two was too obvious to have needed much explication. However, "as sex in all of its standard forms is now sterile by default, it has become homogenized, the only criteria that continue to matter are consent and pleasure." Sexual activity oriented to pleasure and limited only by consent "creates the conditions for a proliferation of non-marital sex. No longer perceived of as the responsible context for sexual relations, marriage gradually becomes a mere lifestyle choice, rather than a set of governing cultural norms."

With the change of marriage as institution to marriage as lifestyle, the presence of children is no longer tightly bound to marriage. Children too are a lifestyle choice. Marriage is no longer the precursor to marriage nor marriage to children who become a mere option, and an expensive one at that.

Second, "marriage has also been changed by the related forces of capitalism and the state." With respect to his first point, Roberts observes that "marriage and the family is no longer a primary site of production, whether of material goods and services, or of community and society." Over a century ago, "production of goods and services migrated from the cooperative economy of the home to the industrial workplace." Division of labor leads to division of hearth and home and further individualizes the self-understanding of married persons that in turn subjectivizes their understanding of the meaning of marriage. If marriage is oriented neither to the purpose of having and raising children nor the goal of economic stability, it end up being "all about me."

Concerning his second point, Roberts characterizes the family-displacing role of the modern nation state as follows:
Mass mobilization of the population for the purpose of the national economy led to men and women being pushed into the workforce in an increasingly undifferentiated manner. The wider communal, social, welfare, and pedagogical functions once largely performed by families were steadily taken up by the state and its agencies.
As I read him, Roberts is not arguing that the state has actively sought to displace marriage and family as the basic units of society. Instead, the individualized aspirations of those living in a consumer capitalist economy (where "individual choice and autonomy are dominant and foundational cultural values") and the demands of the capital-controlling corporations devastate the family and thus "open" social space such that the state seems to be the last, best hope of social stability. 

Next, Roberts makes some interesting observations about the every-expanding notion of equality:
The values of egalitarianism and individual choice have been integral to the movement towards same-sex marriage. The notions of "equal" marriage and the right of every individual to marriage as a lifestyle choice expressive of their love appear self-evident to most persons within our society. These values of equality, individual choice, the pursuit of pleasure, and self-expression—the values of liberal capitalism—are sacred and any threat to them will be treated as heresy.
Equality as understood in classical liberalism had to do with equality before the law. Until well into the nineteenth century, social, sexual, and familial equality were beyond the remit of liberalism. Did liberalism nonetheless contain within it the seeds of the sorts of "equality" that turn all institutions and even virtues into lifestyle choices? Perhaps, but I continue to believe that but for the fantastic growth of ostensibly non-teleological economic and scientific systems, the reality of legal equality would not have spilled over into all aspects of society.

In any event, in view of the changes in the understanding of sex, the dis-integrating effects of corporate capitalism, and the expanding notions of equality,
Marriage, as it functions for the proponents of same-sex marriage, is regarded more as a form of expressive lifestyle choice for individuals, rather than a vocation and set of cultural norms imposed upon wider society. Any set of cultural norms that marriage might impose upon prospective spouses or upon the society more broadly are resisted. Marriage must be a pure choice.
And, if marriage is pure choice, then same-sex "marriage" ineluctably follows. Indeed, same-sex "marriage" is a positive good because it adds to the choices of lifestyles available and what, in a world of neo-classical economic theory, can be better than more ways in which to satisfy subjective wants and thus increase net social welfare? Which explains why 
so many large corporations have jumped onto the gender-neutral marriage bandwagon. Gender-neutral marriage is not only good for business, firmly situating corporations on the progressive "right side of history," it is a vindication of liberal capitalism’s social ideology.
While I might quibble with Roberts's straightforward identification of liberalism and capitalism, I do not disagree that large-scale corporate accumulations of capital--and the means of social and political control that follow from those accumulations--relentlessly grind to sand all natural forms of social order because "they undermine freedom of choice and expression." And freedom of choice directed to nothing more than individual satisfaction is the efficient cause of corporate profitability. (For more on the telos of the corporation go here, here, and here.)

I have done little more than scratch the surface of Roberts's lengthy post. I strongly recommend that my readers go to the source and read him for the elaboration of these and more points which go far to explain the "why now" of same-sex "marriage."

No comments:

Post a Comment