10:42
Tuesday, 22
October 2019


Idea
10:42

What will singleton society do to politics?

by Ed West

More than a third of households in some countries now consist of someone living alone, as shown in this chart from Branko Milanovic’s new book Capitalism Alone:

This has lots of implications but one of the least talked about is our political system. How we live has a huge impact on our politics; for example, how long a country has been Roman Catholic affects its ability to have a functioning democracy. Why? Partly because the Church’s ancient ban on cousin marriage led to the decline of clans and the rise of nuclear families. As Nottingham University’s Jonathan F Schulz explained a couple of years back:

The role of the family as one of the most fundamental institution for human society is unquestionable. The family is traditionally seen as individually beneficial providing emotional and material security. However, strong kinship ties can have a perverse negative effect for society as a whole. It can foster an in-group mentality preventing large scale cooperation beyond the confines of the kin-group. As a key consequence, a narrow focus on the interest of the extended family may undermine the essence of democracy – playing by the rules set by the whole society.
- Jonathan F Schulz

The fall of the clans meant that, once a child grew to adolescence and found a partner, he or she was not just a member of the extended family but a separate individual.

And as both Larry Siedentop and more recently Tom Holland have emphasised, the Christian sexual revolution, by creating the radical concept of consent in marriage, also led to individualism and, therefore, liberalism.

Individualism is quite unnatural; throughout human history people have thought of themselves in relation to their extended family, and countries in which the nuclear family is not the norm still find it difficult to create functioning democracies.

Both the western liberal and conservative traditions are tied up with the nuclear family and its inevitable compromise and friction between the individual and the wider community, although liberals have tended to lean towards the former and conservatives the latter. For example, in the US the marriage gap between overwhelmingly liberal single women and conservative married women is substantial, and there is evidence that having children makes women more conservative.

So what happens when western societies move beyond the nuclear family and towards singlehood as the new norm? Do we become ultra-individualists? Or does our need to be part of a wider community mean we instead increasingly turn to – often intolerant – pop-up political tribes?


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