As I have noted before, mankind has an amazing and innate skill for manipulation through shame, which implements an effective evolutionary strategy designed to ensure group coherence and the passing on from one generation to the next of epigenetic knowledge about the world. Emotional manipulation is particularly easy for persons in positions of authority.
This skill, or Achilles’ heel if you will, has been exploited by agrarian societies in order to solidify the social relations of economic production. They have done so in two main ways, one of which Aquarian society is well aware of and in the process of abandoning, but the other of which remains largely normative and unquestioned.
The institution of whose corruptness we are well aware is religion. Organized religion cynically latches on to mankind’s inherent sense of awe and numinosity, and channels it into a vehicle which commands subservient obedience. True religion is a demand-side, or better collective experience, but the supply side has used threats, misrepresentation and coercion in order to dominate it.
We have been fighting this and pushing it back for centuries. In the Enlightenment we coined the idea of separation of church and state, choosing, no doubt opportunistically, to ignore that this is a complete nonsense: church and state have always been simply two aspects of each other. Whenever a religious movement has really challenged the basis of the agrarian state, it has either been short-lived and brutally repressed, or rapidly co-opted, and thereby denatured, by the powers that be. As Marx stated, “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness.”
We have been much less willing to dethrone the second pillar of social subservience: the family. Should we be in any way surprised to learn that this institution is one of those dearest to a religion whose founder stated “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life — he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26)? We should not be surprised: the intentions of the religion and of its founder are diametrically opposed to each other.
I am not, however, going to get into a lame exegesis of statements I am not concerned to defend. The point I wish to make is that human nature displays a tribe-building instinct which social authority has deemed is allowed expression only through the institution of the family.
That institution and its rules have of course varied from place to place and changed significantly over time. For most of human history it has not implied complete restriction on the sexual freedom of men, but it has ensured that women occupy a subservient place in society, essentially reducing them to one more item of property in the estate of their husband.
The social allocation of women – what we may term the bridal economy – has, of course, reduced men’s sexual freedom indirectly, by making many women sexually unavailable, but there has always remained the institution of the brothel, and enough “shared” women with no choice other than to populate it due to unfortunate circumstances in their lives. However, this is no more than a valve to let off what would otherwise be an unbearable build-up of pressure due to the power of male sexual drives. A brief liaison with a prostitute in a brothel, even when relatively free from shame, hardly allows for satisfaction of the complete sexual instinct, which requires relationship and connection. Indeed, the sexual drive itself is only the basest component and the easiest to gratify. Thus it remains the case that within all systems where women are treated as property, the sexual instinct of both sexes, in its full sense, is almost completely repressed.
Repressed, of course, is not the same as forgotten, as many utopian attempts at reconstituting polyadic communities over the centuries attest. Free love has often been subversive and remains so today. Friedrich Engels wrote that “It is a peculiar fact that with every great revolutionary movement the question of ‘free love’ comes to the
foreground“. As Reich can testify, the idea of sexual pleasure as an organizing principle of society has hardly been universally welcomed.
Monogamy and its historical variants have served the goal of social control not only by repressing sexuality and the empowering vitality which it engenders. Families are perfect units to tax, both for money and for soldiers. They are associated with transgenerational property rights, the defence of which necessitates compliance and docility. They are also far less robust than tribes to the losses of individual members, meaning that those members must be risk-averse. Lastly, the family unit is naturally self-propagating. Children are conditioned into it and their economic incentives are aligned with it.
Even today, there is a doctrine of humanitarian intervention into the affairs of state, but families are very largely self-governing, not as a result of any liberal conviction but rather because they are so constitutive of the greater whole which is the state. But if monogamy were intrinsic to our species, why would we need so many institutions to enforce it?
We sleep around, but we feel guilty, just as we used to feel guilty for not going to church. This is a sure sign of having been manipulated into believing that the behavior in question is inconducive to the welfare of the group. If we believe the exact contrary to be the case, then it behooves us to be courageous. We need to reject the traditional institution of marriage with the same joyful iconoclasm as many of us reject the institutions of the church.
Certainly, we will need to find other ways to structure our lives remaining compatible with the need for community, companionship, allowing each person independence, and rearing emotionally healthy children. This is a vast project with no map to guide the way, and it is easy to fall back on what is tried and tested, even if the result of testing conventional monogamy in its modern form has been to show that it is an enormous failure. Whatever institutions we may invent going forward, however – and I use as always the word ‘institution’ to mean not only form but also content – such institutions will need to be compatible with human nature and aspirations, or they are not worth having.
The confinement of sexual expression, and indeed frequently of all expression of adult intimacy, to one single other person, together with the societal assumption that this will, always and everywhere, be the case, is a pillar of oppression which we need to pull down if we purport to be on a spiritual path. This alone, however, is insufficient because it considers only the sexual dimension and ignores the aspiration – often passed over by some of the more austere thinkers I have quoted – to live in deep community and to raise children together in love. Given our biological nature, this is frequently hard to realize other than within institutions which have the form of dyadic relationships with dependent children, and I am not arguing that everyone is obliged to follow a more utopian path whatever the practical difficulties. Within that structure, it must, however, be absolutely clear that commitment does not translate into exclusive focus and that other loves, on the part of persons equally conscious and enlightened, are considered an enrichment, and welcome.