Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Maternal State

At the end of the first quarter of teaching, I was given a couple days off. I used the time to throw together some thoughts about the state and the church, which I will share in a series of successive posts. My reflections have taken up roughly where my earlier essay on left-wing totalitarianism left off. In my earlier essay I suggested that the impulse to control all aspects of society has led the contemporary liberal to a vision of government that is simultaneously antithetic to the values of classical liberalism while at the same time being the logical corollary of that tradition. Building on those ideas, I would like to now suggest that one of the ways liberal totalitarianism has manifested itself is through the state assuming a maternal aspect.

Put simply, what I am calling 'the maternal state' is a government that assumes the function of mother. The maternal state is there it nurture us, to train us, to instruct us, to be our tutor in the way of virtue and, like a good mother, to make sure we share our possessions with our brothers and sisters.

The confusion between statecraft and motherhood is an ancient one. When Diocletian published his Edict of 301, mandating the persecution of Christians and destroying the few remaining liberties of the old Roman republic, he justified it by referring to himself and his associates as “the watchful parents of the whole human race.” Contemporary governments are increasingly following the pattern of Diocletian, acting not simply as the guardians of law and order, but as mother to their citizens. I would like consider five overlapping areas where this is the case.

Government’s Maternal Eye

Part of a mother’s vocation involves educating her children in the path of virtue (Proverbs 1:8-9) and nourishing their bodies in growth. When government assumes the role of mother, the state begins to have a constant eye on our education, our virtue, our growth and the all-round development of the human personality. Our lives become their business because, like a good mother, they have assumed responsibility for our growth and training. As C.S. Lewis remarked,

The modern State exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good – anyway, to do something to us or to make us something. Hence the new name ‘leaders’ for those who were once ‘rulers’. We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, ‘Mind your own business.’ Our whole lives are their business.” [C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, ‘Is Progress Possible?’]
The French Revolution is one of the prime modern examples of a state assuming responsibility for the private lives of its citizens. During the Revolution’s ‘Reign of Terror’, Robespierre justified the use of terror by appealing to the need for both private and public virtue. Virtue is necessary in a society, but when government assumes responsibility for its cultivation, the result is terror. [See Maximilien Robespierre, ‘Justification of the Use of Terror’, available online at]

Government’s Maternal Hand

Law-makers have always suffered from an insistent eagerness to act as parents to citizens, as expressed in Abraham Lincoln’s dictum that, “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot do so well, for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities.” (The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, vol. 2, pp. 22021) The presupposition behind this idea is that the State, like a good mother, must offer a helping hand wherever the citizens are incapable or in need. Otto von Bismarck, the great German Chancellor of the 19th century, suggested similarly when he said that government must act “in fulfilment of the workers' right to look to the State where their own good will can achieve nothing more.” (Quoted in P. J. O'Brien, Forward with Roosevelt, Chicago: John C. Winston Co., 1936, 84.)
Contemporary examples of this same tendency are readily available. On 15 March, 2007, the UK government published Every Parent Matters, outlining a myriad of areas where the government intends to start partnering with parents in the rearing of their children. As Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for Health, explained the new policies, “We want to create conditions where more parents can engage as partners in their children’s learning and development, from birth, through the school years and as young people make the transition to adulthood.” [The government has made the document, as well as Alan Johnson's letter, available online at ]
Government’s Maternal Ownership

A good mother will determine what objects her children are allowed to possess and how they are allowed to use them. If a brother is using a stick to hurt his little sister, the mother has the right to step in and remove the stick. This is because it is understood that a child’s ownership is provisional and can be overruled at any given time by maternal interference. This not only protects the child from potentially harmful objects, but helps them to learn to be responsible with their possessions, including sharing them with the other siblings. It is also understood that all ownership proceeds from the parent in so far as the child owns nothing that the parent has not given or allowed.

In following the maternal paradigm, the modern state has no scruples exercising ownership over all the land and the fullness thereof. One of the ways it does this by redistributing wealth and dictating how citizens can use their property. A.P. Lerner was typical when he defended governmental interference with the economy on the grounds that it was “a form of guardianship…to prevent foolish spending.” Abba P. Lerner, The Economics of Control, New York: Macmillan, 1944, p. 52.)

Not only does Mother State believe it has a right to plunder the profits of individuals (effectively forcing us to share our toys with our siblings), but it also views itself as possessing ownership of money in the collective, having the right to control and manipulate the economy, interest rates, cash flow, etc. At the risk of over simplification, that is the whole point of the American Federal Reserve: to regulate the economy through manipulation of interest rates.

Unconsciously, we have been oriented to think that everything belongs to the government by default and what is ours is only that which the government has graciously allowed us to keep. However, a citizen population presupposes citizen ownership, seeing that a citizen who cannot engage in free trade and ownership is not properly a citizen at all but bears the same relation to the state that a slave bears to its master or a dependent child to its mother. Karl Marx recognised this relationship between property and family. The family, he said, is based on capital and private property; therefore, he realised if he was going to successfully attack private property, he had to also attack the family. The family, he wrote, “will vanish with the vanishing of capital.” One of the methods communism used to ensure the vanishing of the family was state control of education. (“The bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parents and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of Modern Industry, all the family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour.Communist Manifesto) Marx realised that destroying the family was central to destroying private property, and destroying private property was essential to destroying the family. When the family was destroyed it would be replaced by the family of the state. Communism was as much about a new kind of motherhood as it was an economic theory.

(As an side, Scripture also acknowledges a link between family and private property. Both are honoured and protected by the ten commandments. Rushdoony writes that “According to the Bible, the family is more than a spiritual unity; it is a material unity, firmly grounded in property and economic realities. Similarly, private property is not merely a neutral material thing for the Bible; it is essentially linked to God’s spiritual realities, His law, and the family. The property and family are everywhere closely linked together by the Bible. Every attack therefore on private property is an attack on the family, and every attack on the family is also an attack on private property.” [Rushdoony, Law & Liberty, p. 68])

Watch Your Grammar

It is mother that gives us language. A good mother will correct the grammar of her children in order that they may learn to speak their native language properly. With the advent of ‘political correctness’, this is exactly what government has begun to do, imposing her own grammar on the populace. But political correctness involves more than merely a preference for certain idiom: building on the assumption that there is a correlation between language and virtue, the canons of political correctness tells us how to conform to the prevailing archetype of the good citizen. As such, the demand for political correctness is like a mother’s demand for virtue in her children.

In the advent of political correctness we also find a misplaced type of sympathy that resembles maternal affection that has morphed into neurosis. This comes across quite powerfully in Anthony Browne’s treatment of political correctness in his little booklet The Retreat of Reason: Political Correctness and the Corruption of Public Debate in Modern Britain. (See my review of the book

Browne suggests that PC is a kind of cultural Marxism. In its classical form, Marxism used economics as a single factor explanation for all history, suggesting that society is determined by ownership of means of production. Marxism thus sought to redistribute wealth. Political correctness does this, not with economics, but with culture, arguing that history and society are determined by which groups have power over other groups. These groups are defined in terms of race, sex, ethnicity, etc. PC then tries to distribute power from the powerful to the powerless.

The ideology of political correctness – which, unlike Marxism, is rarely thought through in any systematised form but only felt - enables its advocates to categorise certain groups of people as victims in need of protection from criticism. For example, homosexuals, Muslims, ethnic minorities and the developing world are all victims and must therefore be protected from criticism. PC attempts to redistribute power so as to fall on the side of these groups. Like a mother punishing the tattle tail, a politically correct government will censure those who criticise its favoured children.

Government’s Maternal Food

When the state becomes maternal and tries to fulfil the vocation of parent, its first job is to try to feed us. God designed the world in such a way that children expect sustenance from their mothers. When the state becomes mother, we expect it to feed us when we are hungry and cloth us when we are naked.

Government’s Maternal Responsibility

A good parent assumes responsibility for fixing problems that exist in the home and the family. Consequently, a child’s problem is his mother’s problem. Because contemporary government is structured around the maternal paradigm, it follows that all problems in society are the government’s responsibility to fix. William Buckley articulated common sentiment when he said, “If there is crime in the street, it is because government does not provide enough day care. If there is unemployment in the steel mills, it is because the government is using too much steel making submarines. If there is a growing number of broken homes, it is because government has not passed the Equal Rights Amendment.” (Buckley, ‘For the Democrats, Government is a God’ The Atlanta Journal (July 23, 1984), 9A.)

A state that assumes maternity over its citizens feels compelled to keep a careful watch over their education, their money, their speech and even their thoughts. Political scientist Andrew Hacker defended government’s role in taking responsibility over all the activities of its citizens on the grounds that “If government is to govern it must be able to tell people they must stop doing things they are now doing; it must be able to curtail private activities and privileges so that society will be more orderly. Leadership is meaningless unless citizens are prepared to follow: to sacrifice individual pleasures and agree to redistributions in which they may be losers. To be a nation, in short, a society must have a citizenry willing to surrender a substantial portion of its freedom to public authority.” Andrew Hacker, The End of the American Era, New York: Atheneum, 1970).

Government’s Maternal Compassion

As a good mother shows compassion to her children, especially when they are ailing, so the maternal state offers its own compassion to the masses.

Because it is not government’s job to act as mother, compassion from the state is always a prelude to tyranny. The beneficent state naturally morphs into a malignant state. C.S. Lewis described this well when he wrote that “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busy-bodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” (See also R. Andrew Newman, ‘Stay Out of Our Wardrobe! The libertarian Narnia state’)

In a future post, I will attempt to offer a Biblical critique of this notion of statecraft.

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