Friday, January 26, 2007

Huxley's utopian family

In 1962 the writer Aldous Huxley published his last book, Island. In this work Huxley describes his vision of a utopian society, one which he hoped would be taken seriously by readers.

I recently read a brief excerpt from Island, in which we are told about family life in Huxley's utopia. A visitor to the island of Pala asks "How many homes does a Palanese child have?" and the surprising answer runs as follows:

"About twenty on the average."
"Twenty? My God!"
"We all belong," Susila explained, "to a MAC - a Mutual Adoption Club. Every MAC consists of anything from fifteen to twenty-five assorted couples."

What does such a family system have to offer? According to our utopian guide Susila it produces in comparison to the "bottled up" nuclear family:

"An entirely different kind of family. Not exclusive, like your families, and not predestined, not compulsory. An inclusive, unpredestined and voluntary family. Twenty pairs of fathers and mothers, eight or nine ex-fathers and ex-mothers, and forty or fifty assorted children of all ages."

This is a strikingly liberal justification for Huxley's utopian family. We are supposed to be impressed by the Palanese family being inclusive, unpredestined and voluntary. This makes sense only in terms of an underlying liberal politics.

According to a liberal politics we are made human when we are self-determining: when we can choose at any time and in any direction the nature of our being.

This requires liberals to assert (usually to assume) that we begin as blank slates, without a significant given nature.

It also means that social institutions must be made radically open so that they don't impede our self-determining will. If, for instance, I define the family as consisting only of my own close blood relations, then I make it exclusive and deny the possibility of membership to another human will. I close off the sphere of what another individual will can possibly determine for itself. To a strict liberal this will seem politically illegitimate.

Similarly, if the family is defined as consisting of a married couple and their offspring, then the form or shape of the family will remain stable over time and appear "predestined", as it will exist in a single, inherited form rather than in multiple, uniquely gathered forms.

Nor is it difficult to see why a strict liberal would object to the traditional family as being "involuntary". If couples, having once married, are expected to remain together faithfully and if children remain within the family home by virtue of birth/biology rather than choice, then membership of the family unit is not wholly "voluntary".

Huxley, therefore, was not being merely eccentric in dreaming up his "adoption club" system of family life. To someone who doesn't accept liberal politics, the idea of having a child raised by twenty different households of various types will seem unnatural and unappealing.

If, though, the aim is to make the family as open as possible to least impede a self-determining individual will, then Huxley's system becomes intelligible.

That's why other radicals have proposed similar reforms to family life. Germaine Greer, for instance, suggested in 1971 in The Female Eunuch that children should be raised in a "rambling" family structure on communal farms, which the parents would visit "when circumstances permitted". Some parents might "live there for quite long periods, as long as we wanted to". Greer didn't think it necessary that her child should "know that I was his womb-mother".

Alexandra Kollontai, as a spokeswoman on family issues in Lenin's communist government in 1918 went even further in attempting to break down the "exclusive" nature of the traditional family. She wrote:

a woman should know that in the new state there will be no more room for such petty divisions as were formerly understood: "These are my own children, to them I owe all my maternal solicitude, all my affection; those are your children ... Henceforth the worker-mother ... will rise to a point where she no longer differentiates between yours and mine ... The narrow and exclusive affection of the mother for her own children must expand until it embraces all the children of the great proletarian family.

Mainstream society hasn't adopted such modernist utopian visions. There has, though, been a considerable effort to modify the family along liberal lines. The attempt to make the family less exclusive, predestined and involuntary can be seen in the advent of easy, no-fault divorce, in the enthusiasm for role reversal within marriage and in the insistence that there are many, equally legitimate forms of family life and that "family" can't really be defined and is whatever you make it.

Further reading: Whatever that may be


  1. I read Island, expecting a lot after Brave New World. But it really does read like a shopping list of every failed, sentimental, baby boomer ideal.

    Everything from a mixed race elite ruling Pala; children being encouraged to do drugs and have sex to “open their minds”; young boys being emasculated so they don’t become the next Hitler or Stalin; pacifism, even in the face of an enemy, as a virtue; condescending natives mocking western science and family structure; “well balanced” Freudian childbots and on and on.

    Beware the utopians.

  2. children should be raised in a "rambling" family structure on communal farms, which the parents would visit "when circumstances permitted". Some parents might "live there for quite long periods, as long as we wanted to". Greer didn't think it necessary that her child should "know that I was his womb-mother".

    In practise this would mean that no one would be ultimately responsible for any one child and thus the child would be drastically neglected. (The proof of this is to examine what happens when multiple adults are caring for kids in any given situation. Each adult says to the child, "I'm busy, go and tell Dad/Mum/Nan/Grandpa/ Aunty" etc). This would then apply to all the children. Great system.