Allan C. Carlson
The Natural Family Where It Belongs: New Agrarian Essays
Transaction Publishers, 2014
Allan Carlson is a writer we interact with often at TCI. We have reviewed his Third Ways here and have tried to summarize his overall project here. Earlier this year we were sent a review copy of his newest release, The Natural Family Where It Belongs: New Agrarian Essays. This book continues Dr. Carlson’s project of stimulating social critique and imaginative constructive proposals, illustrating and explaining the family-centered socio-economic policy. In what follows, we will summarize The Natural Family Where It Belongs, highlight some of its more salient observations and criticisms of modern liberal capitalism, and raise a few questions that need still to be addressed as well as some important concerns.
The book asserts “the remarkable thesis that agrarianism is alive in twenty-first century America and—if not exactly well—showing clear and enticing prospects for the future” (ix). But, and this is a point we will return to towards the end, it isn’t clear that Dr. Carlson’s central proposal is necessarily agrarianism, though that is certainly a feature, nor is it clear that The Natural Family Where It Belongs is really a book about agrarianism, despite the subtitle. Instead, it seems that the main argument is for “household” economies and “household” politics. Indeed, as we will see, this book begins by laying out a basic theory of what politics is and how it ought to work, then it explains the modern “fall” away from household-centric life, lists noteworthy critics of this fall, and then concludes with specific policy proposals for restoring the household to its place of central importance. The household obtains such necessary importance because it is the one domain where “the ‘sexual and the economic’ are merged” (ix) and the natural family (a husband and wife pairing in which children are normative) can flourish. And so, as foreword goes on to state, “the common thesis is that family renewal will only occur as these bonds and goals are recreated and strengthened in the years and decades ahead” (x). In short, this is a book about family renewal and its relation to the rest of public policy and political theory.
The Natural Family Where It Belongs is made up of more or less independent essays, but it successfully combines them in a logically and rhetorically consistent manner. The layout and pagination is somewhat confusing, however: the essay which would appear to be an “introduction” (its Roman numeral pagination matches that of the foreword and differs from that of the rest of the book’s “body”) is actually an essential foundational chapter. Skipping it would leave a major hole in the book’s overall argument, and so it would make much more sense, and greatly assist the reader, if the introduction were actually labeled and paginated as the first chapter.
This “introduction” is titled “The Natural Family at Home,” and it gives a general overview of political theory, helpfully explaining Dr. Carlson’s overall philosophy of politics. For his purposes, “agrarianism” or “household” living it is not a personal or family lifestyle choice, but rather an agenda for public policy, to include regional, national, and international politics. He lays his theory out by listing the various levels of human “social constructs” or levels of relationship and jurisdiction. He begins with marriage: “The first and most crucial bond is marriage” (xiii). Marriage is, Dr. Carlson says, “natural and self-renewing, rooted in the mutual attraction of man to woman, both of whom feel their incompleteness when existing alone” (xiii). Marriage is universal, existing among all cultures throughout history, marriage alone provides for and protects the natural complementarity of man and woman, and “marriage forms the foundation on which humans build other social bonds” (xiii). This institution alone can solve the inescapable dependency problems of human life. “Marriage, in turn, creates a new household. When gathered together, these form the second institutional tier in natural social life, and the one on which all political life is built” (xv).
That last affirmation makes it clear that marriage is really a sort of prelude or introduction to the main political unit, the household. While marriage might be the first and necessary human bond, it is actually the household upon which politics is founded, as society consists of households interacting with other households. Dr. Carlson notes that the needs of the household dictate the economy, especially food and consumption. These are understood as the basic elements upon which society is founded and whose health society is designed to provide for and protect, and this means that the household requires special authority, land, and the means of production:
Accordingly, the natural society views the home and arable land as different-in-kind from other commodities. The most critical of social, political, and economic tasks becomes the appropriate partition, distribution, and use of such property, where ownership is spread as widely as possible, and where freedom of use is conditioned by a responsible stewardship toward future generations.
… Together with land, the autonomous household also needs control over the means of production. (xvi)
It is this conviction that will drive the rest of Dr. Carlson’s political theory. Such a society will not be an individualistic one, and it will understand the proper role of politics and government as that which specially supports the family and its household. This is where Dr. Carlson’s outlook moves beyond a simple “conservative” politics and into something fundamentally different.
After the household, three political jurisdictions are named: the village or town, the state, and the nation. These are intended to have a harmonious relationship built upon the general principle of subsidiarity, though challenges emerge. Dr. Carlson gives a brief definition of each, and he explains the political logic of each. First the village or town. This social bond is the most natural and spontaneous, formed simply by the people, their families, and the place itself. It will necessarily have some sort of government, though its “form” can and will differ according to time and place.
The village or town level of government is entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the community from “open aggression or gross challenges to public safety,” as well as “alien ideologies and technologies that would strike at the heart of healthy community life” (xviii). This latter part is necessary because towns and villages “operate best when bonded by other affections: a common religious faith; a shared ethnicity; a binding sense of history; the intermingling of a relatively small number of kin groups” (xviii). Dr. Carlson even says that “children receive a kind of communal rearing” and that “public actions are guided most commonly by custom and convention, with formal law generally aimed at the regulation of the stranger” (xviii). The town or village is really a natural network of closely related households, and in this section the emphasis on local “place” is heavy. It is not clear if these statements are meant to be morally prescriptive or merely historically and pragmatically descriptive, but they will certainly be some of the most controversial. One can imagine more progressive readers finding the specter of racism and tribalism in such a “village,” and so a lengthier explanation and defense is necessary. We will return to this point in more detail during our critical reflections.
From the town or village, Dr. Carlson next moves to the state, where things get much more narrowly political:
The next—or Fourth—tier of society is the state. It exists to protect villages, households, and their members from external threat, and to mediate disputes between households and communities that cannot be resolved at a lower level. Having no fixed metaphysic, the structure of the state can vary from place to place, and circumstance to circumstance. The sole guiding principle is the limitation of its power. Natural authority resides in households and communities, where it is conditioned by innate human affections. These entities cede to the state only the minimum power necessary to keep foreign armies and other alien pressures at bay. Constitutional arrangements need insure, as far as possible, that most authority remain in local and household hands, that power granted to the state remain strictly limited, and that leaders of the state be persons of character and self-restraint. (xx)
The state is demystified and given a very specific and limited authority, apparently only having a negative “guiding principle.” But added to this principle is an important list of qualifications:
Full citizenship in the state is granted only to those who fulfill certain duties: participation in the common defense through membership in the militia; maintenance of personal independence through a productive homestead; ownership of home, land, and tools; marriage, procreation, and acknowledgement of responsibility for the next generation, and acceptance by one’s neighbors. (xx)
And so while this state is said to have no “fixed metaphysic,” it clearly agrees on many metaphysical issues. It also has a clear understanding of common purpose and common good, as well as a shared ethic. Depending on how that final qualification is interpreted, this sort of state would seem to be a larger version of the town or village listed earlier, and thus more than a single negative guiding principle would emerge. How neighborly acceptance is achieved and regulated would seem to be of the utmost importance, and yet no lengthy discussion of this follows. We will return to this, too, below.
The final order of jurisdiction is the “nation.” It is distinct from the state in that it carries a sort of spiritual significance:
It rests on commonalities that transcend households, communities, and states, among them religious belief, a common morality, language, a shared history, a common ecosystem, inherited folkways, and blood. The consciousness of nationhood may wax or wane, encouraged at times by rallying voices who remind a people of ‘their common destiny,’ discouraged at other times by voices urging ‘universal brotherhood’ or the creation of transnational ‘empire,’ or even forgotten during periods of social and political chaos. (xx-xxi)
Many readers may be alarmed by these sorts of sentiments, but I think, on this point, it is clear that Dr. Carlson is illustrating a natural tendency of human society and not an ideal prescription. In fact, he seems quite antagonistic to such a “nation.” This can be seen in his wanting to maintain a separation between the nation and the state and to guard against the undue influence and power of nationalism:
… danger lies in even an incomplete merging of these two social tiers, for such a bond inevitably augments the state’s claims against family households and communities, by appealing to “the needs of the nation” in a quest for taxes, conscripts, and territory. A sense of nationhood, while necessary to a complete or full social life, is properly mediated through the foundational tiers of state, community, and household, and is often relabeled patriotism. Any attempt by large numbers of individuals to swear first loyalty to the nation, or by the nation to sweep aside the social structures lying between it and the individual, must bring in its wake another form of crisis. (xxi)
The appropriate role of the nation is still rather unclear at this point. Its existence is held forth as “necessary to a complete or full social life,” but it must be mediated through the other jurisdictions and institutions. The precise distinction between the state and the nation is itself unclear: the nation seems to possess other important qualities than legal structure, and one could perhaps imagine a single nation existing throughout multiple sovereign states or multiple nations within one state.
There is a final entity in Dr. Carlson’s political theory: the corporation. “The wild card in human social relations is the corporation, seen here as an artificial, voluntary union of persons toward some common end” (xxi). He notes that these corporations may be religious, economic, or intellectual. “The common characteristic of the corporation is the manner in which it transcends the natural social constructs of family, community, state, and nation, by claiming the direct and primal loyalty of individuals” (xxi). The corporation potentially weakens or undermines these other bonds. Dr. Carlson is not wholly opposed to corporations, acknowledging that they provide an important role of risk and progression, something like “creative destruction,” which can improve society. He suggests that “the great test facing any age is to find a workable balance between the satisfactions of continuity through community and the disruptions spawned by corporate-driven change” (xxii).
The next major section in The Natural Family Where It Belongs is called “Displacements” and seeks to explain how it is that our modern society emerged from so many centuries of “natural” society, or household-centered societies. The section has three chapters, covering the “creative destruction” of corporate capitalism, the role of gender equality in economic developments, and the social and communal revolution effected by the Second World War. Many of the themes and historical illustrations have been discussed by Dr. Carlson in his previous works (for example, here, here, here, and in some parts here).
Perhaps the most “new” material is found in the chapter summarizing Joseph Schumpeter and his criticisms of capitalism. (This is also one of Dr. Carlson’s particular strong points, that he introduces important historical characters to audiences which likely have limited or no familiarity with them. Promoting Schumpeter among homeschooling families would seem to be quite the feat.) Though described as an “Austrian Economist,” Schumpeter actually predicted the eventual collapse of capitalism, and he explained this through the concept of “creative destruction” which Dr. Carlson highlights as a major contributor to the demise of family economics. This process “incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one” (3). And as success brought change and revolution to society, it also changed the way that “cost accounting” affected the family. Children were seen as something of a handicap, and the new economy “left homes with less recognizable value” (4).
Capitalism does not, under Schumpeter’s theory, become eclipsed by socialism of the orthodox Marxist sort. Instead, it is replaced by a sort of democratic socialism with an expansive government service organ. This sort of corporate state would encourage full proletarianization, but of a new sort. Dr. Carlson explains:
Contemporary proletarianization might be defined as the steady elimination of independent sources of household income other than wages and the “redistributed” wages of state transfers, where economic gains from “commons” rights, informal economic activity, household production, and other forms of nonmarket work are displaced by industrially organized labor, commercially produced goods, and public welfare. (6)
Atop this sort of natural inertia, Dr. Carlson explains two more factors which accelerated the collapse of household economy: equality feminism and World War II. These are hardly unknown historical phenomena, but Dr. Carlson turns the tables on the popular memory of both. Feminism, Dr. Carlson argues, was actually the natural ally of corporate capitalism:
Indeed, from the 1920s until the 1960s, the Republican Party was the party of equity feminism, a movement which had a natural bond with the interests of big business: both were products of the liberal vision focused on the priority of the individual; and both wanted women in the fulltime workforce. (20)
While this alliance is not unknown to historians, many casual readers will no doubt be surprised to see the Republican Party named as a feminist party. So too, many will be surprised to see Dr. Carlson pegging the Good War as perhaps the most significant cause for the destruction of local culture and small town America, and yet the evidence is compelling. In addition to adding, even if temporarily, women to the workforce in unprecedented numbers, World War II was also the reason for “geographic mobility in the United States reach[ing] an unprecedented level” (30). Young men left their homes for war; young women left their homes for work in urban offices and factories. Cities exploded in population, and government services began to fill needs that had previously fallen under the domain of the family. Dr. Carlson quotes Jane Adams saying, “Without people being aware of it, the economy shifted from dependence on agriculture and manufacturing to a heavy reliance on government services” (33). From here the eventual bureaucratization of these services lead to the destruction of local autonomy.
The third section of The Natural Family Where It Belongs is titled “Dissents (Poetic and Numeric),” and here Dr. Carlson lays out noteworthy critics of the progression away from natural family-economy. He chooses four: Hilaire Belloc, Jay G. Sigmund, Wilhelm Röpke, and Russell Kirk. Belloc and Röpke both received extensive treatment in Dr. Carlson’s earlier book Third Ways, and so we will not spend time resummarizing them here (we also wrote on Carlson on Röpke here). Their criticisms of 20th-century capitalism Dr. Carlson retells mostly with approval.
The two other men, Jay G. Sigmund and Russell Kirk, enjoy something of true introductions, at least insofar as they appear in Dr. Carlson’s narrative. Sigmund is now a mostly forgotten name, and so Dr. Carlson presents a brief biography as well as literary overview. While interesting and enlightening for its historical and literary value, the chapter on Sigmund seems the least important for the political argument. Rather than providing arguments, Sigmund seems more to serve as an image of a more ideal American, one of Dr. Carlson’s beloved regionalists. It is pointed out, however, that Sigmund’s work sometimes exhibited “economic and political populism” (65). Carlson cites Sigmund’s poem “Whistles—Seven A.M.,” where the factory workers are compared to serfs: “It marks the beginning of King Time Clock’s day—/Calling to serf-dom a grotesque array/ of puppets” (65). Sigmund also disclaimed the rise of usury and the growing power of bankers over land ownership.
As for Russell Kirk, readers will no doubt be much more familiar with him, but they may not have considered him from the context of pro-family economics. Dr. Carlson seeks to unite him to the narrative. Kirk called himself, we are reminded, a “Northern Agrarian” (91) and identified himself as standing in the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, the “Twelve Southerners” of I’ll Take My Stand, Richard Weaver, and even, to a lesser degree, Orestes Brownson (94). Beyond personal affinity, however, Dr. Carlson is able to list 9 major themes in Kirk’s writings which support a pro-family economic outlook:
Also provided is one of Kirk’s key criticisms of the Austrian school of economics, and it nicely summarizes the way in which Kirk differs from absolute free-market capitalism:
Theirs is a doctrine which destroys itself in proportion as it is generally promulgated: once supernatural and traditional sanctions are dissolved, economic self-interest is ridiculously inadequate to hold an economic system together, and even less adequate to preserve order. (96)
The chapter on Russell Kirk may be Dr. Carlson’s most strategically important, as Kirk is both closest to our own time and most respected among modern conservatives. Reviving his ideals among the American Right would go a long way towards promoting the household society envisioned by The Natural Family Where It Belongs.
The book’s final section is called “Movements Home,” and it deals with three socio-political movements that Dr. Carlson believes to be on the rise. These are “family-centered neighborhoods” (including “New Urbanism”), patriarchal arrangements between the sexes, and small farming. These three are each presented as mostly good recent developments, and Dr. Carlson gives them something of an endorsement as practical strategies to return to a more natural economy with a strong family household at the center.
The chapter on housing is important, as Dr. Carlson claims “the fundamental problem facing the natural family is in fact the problem of living in cities, of housing” (105). As he explains in From Cottage to Work Station, the household was emptied of its place in American life largely because it was simply emptied, first of production, then of parents, and finally of children. “Stripped of their many former economic functions,” he writes, “homes became little more than shared sleeping quarters” (105–106). This change was caused by industrialism, the challenges of urban living, and the entrance of women into the workforce. To this unhappy development there have been several responses, and Dr. Carlson seeks to explain and evaluate each of the major ones.
He begins with the suburbs and the rise of the “homemaker” model for wives and mothers. Interestingly, Dr. Carlson sees the beginning of this move in the Beecher sisters, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Catherine Beecher, particularly their book The American Woman’s Home. Dr. Carlson argues that their vision eventually flowered in the new suburbs. While suburbs have received a nearly universal flogging in recent years, it is important to remember that they started off as an intentional and more or less successful pro-family move. Dr. Carlson explains, “the new suburbs of the 1950s did display many positive [i.e., good] qualities.” He then quotes Michael Johns saying, “[they] joined together the classic American forces of cultural assimilation, economic mobility, and ownership of property” (108). While the suburbs did displace the larger extended family, so important to rural homesteading, “intense forms of neighboring” filled the void, among them “religious, charitable, political, and recreational groups” (108). But this neighboring was not to last.
What then went wrong? According to Dr. Carlson, the sharp decrease in children caused the suburbs to lose their meaning:
And yet, starting sometime in the 1960s, the suburbs ceased working well as communities…. marital fertility fell by 40 percent between 1960 and 1977: young children—the very purpose of suburban life—were much fewer now…. Suburban home architecture turned inward: sidewalks disappeared; garages swelled in size, soon dominating front yards; living and dining rooms shriveled further. In another major change, suburban mothers abandoned the Beecher model of full-time motherhood, taking jobs outside the home … about 75 percent [of mothers worked outside the home] by 1990. (108)
Without children and vibrant families putting the features of suburban life to proper use, “an eerie silence spread over the daylight ghost towns of late twentieth century suburbia” (108). They became lonely and empty places. New architectural features actually worked to subvert local community, and it is not uncommon for suburban families to now be wholly unacquainted with their next-door neighbors.
Certain left-wing or progressive alternatives to the suburbs have arisen as well. Dr. Carlson treats the socialist “collective-or-community House” which came to notoriety in early-middle-20th-century Sweden. Promoted chiefly by Alva Myrdal, these modernists fully embraced industrialism and an urbanized Europe. As equity feminists, they promoted the full employment of both men and women, and so, naturally, mothers would not be in the home. How, then, did they seek to supplement the home? They argued that the home must be transformed into something more efficient and attractive to modern needs. And it must be radically egalitarian: “architects should pursue the goal of ‘a total democratization of the bourgeois garden suburb’ ” (110).
In order to achieve the older domestic functions, the “Collective-or Community-House” would be constructed. Multiple families would share this house, where “central corridors would link family units” (110). They would share a kitchen, dining hall, lounges, and community reading rooms, and especially a nursery. “In the infants’ section, children under age two could be cared for up to twenty-four hours a day by paid ‘competent attendants … in the most hygienic conditions’” (111). While the private household would be eliminated, multiple households would be brought together by new technology and outsourced domestic services. Dr. Carlson gives this entire episode of history a much more thorough treatment in his 1990 book The Swedish Experiment in Family Politics.
Moving back to America and closer to the present time, Dr. Carlson next treats “New Urbanism” and particularly the work of Jane Jacobs. This movement is clearly attractive to Dr. Carlson numerous fronts, and it is of course enjoying popularity and currently a sort of vogue among certain American thinkers. It is characterized by its coherent and unified city-planning, common space, and mixed-use organization. And yet it has some clear flaws, most of which come down to a sort of boutique commercialism that is naturally exclusive. Dr. Carlson points out that New Urbanism has so far been anti-children: “a number of New Urbanist projects have sought to restrict, or prohibit, the presence of children” (114). These common-ground and mixed-use (new) urban centers, while providing an aesthetic appeal, cannot hope to transcend being a mere lifestyle choice for the wealthy until they open themselves up to the family.
The main flaw of each of these responses to industrial cities is, according to Dr. Carlson, that they have failed to grasp the root issue. None of them attempt to return meaningful production to the home. “Suburban America, the Myrdal Collective House, the New Urbanism, and even cohousing communities all accept as a given the radical separation of work and home introduced by industrialization” (115). Dr. Carlson goes on to quote Jane Jacobs saying, “Working place … must be mingled right in with residences if men … are to be around city children in daily life” (116). Hopefully, Dr. Carlson suggests that there are certain promising movements on the rise which could support a move in this direction. Among these are home schools, home business, and telecommuting. More practical proposals along these lines need to be made, and it seems that here is a natural place to ask for follow-up essays.
From housing, Dr. Carlson moves to social and political relations between the sexes. He argues for an unapologetic patriarchy, and he does so principally by highlighting the destructive features of women in the full-time workforce. In this section Dr. Carlson ingeniously or infuriatingly, depending upon one’s perspective, employs an array of feminist writers to make his point, what he calls the current problematic state of “public patriarchy” (122). In short, the private patriarchy has largely been outmoded, and yet equality and fulfillment have not been achieved. Women have moved from dependency on fathers and husbands to dependency on a corporate and technocratic state. This concept is further explained by a quotation from Sylvia Walby: “While [women] lose their own individual patriarch, they do not lose their subordination to other patriarchal structures and practices. Indeed, they become ever more exposed to certain of the more diffused sets of patriarchal practices” (122).
Dr. Carlson continues with this theme:
Once dependent on a “family wage” earning husband, the woman now sees her standard of living fixed by “the patriarchal state” through welfare benefits and by “the patriarchally structured labor market.” … [Men are] “liberated” from their obligations under the moral economy of domesticity. A few working women reach top positions as doctors, lawyers, and corporate executives, but most wind up in the low-pay service sector. (122)
In fact, women have, in large numbers, simply become employees of welfare state programs. By the turn of the 20th century, “American women held 70 percent of the jobs at all levels of government concerned with social service” (123). This is hardly a feminist victory. Dr. Carlson quotes Carole Pateman, who says, “The power and capriciousness of husbands [are] being replaced by the arbitrariness, bureaucracy, and power of the state, the very state that has upheld patriarchal power” (123).
To make matters worse, Dr. Carlson asserts that this public patriarchy has even continued the division between what constitutes men and women’s work. “Welfare states ‘channel women in disproportionate numbers into feminine occupational niches’ such as child care, elder care, nursing, and elementary education” (123). Dr. Carlson notes that, in what is supposed to an ultra-progressive society, Scandinavian female politicians tend to “serve on the committees dealing with family, education, and social welfare; the men, meanwhile, serve on the high-prestige committees dealing with commerce, industry, and oil” (123). He concludes that “men still rule and women are, as before, still doing traditional ‘women’s work’ ” (124).
This is the theme of the inevitability of patriarchy, and Dr. Carlson promotes it as the primary reason why we ought to return to a society centered around the natural family. In a final section that is sure to enrage any progressive readers, Dr. Carlson speaks his mind directly:
Patriarchy is inevitable, as the more gloomy of the feminists theorists have admitted. Walby summarizes: “Women are no longer restricted to the domestic hearth, but have the whole society in which to roam and be exploited.” …
Women need some entity that will help them secure property, gain food and clothing, and control the boys. There are only two practical options: either the private patriarch (who is, in the end, simply a contemporary form of the husbandman found in the agrarian past), a figure who is adept at breadwinning and taming the lads; or the public patriarch (i.e., the welfare state), which provides food stamps, public housing, and day-care subsidies and eventually jails a large share of the lads. The first choice is compatible with health, happiness, wealth creation, and political liberty. The second choice is a sure path to the servile state.
Women of the world, there is no third way here: which patriarchy do you choose? (128, 129)
The final chapter in The Natural Family Where It Belongs has to do with farming, particularly “the small family farm.” This chapter is where Dr. Carlson gives his most concentrated pitch for “agrarianism” as a component to the household model. As one might expect, he gives attention to Wendell Berry and the rise of organic farming. Dr. Carlson believes that these trends show that “agrarianism is again on the rise” and that “there is evidence to back up these claims” (134). At the end of the chapter, it is not exactly clear how scientific this evidence is (it is mostly literary and anecdotal), but Dr. Carlson is hardly alone in noting some movement in this direction and that of domesticity more broadly.
Among the promising developments in farming and community-conscious eating, Dr. Carlson lists the rise in organic foods, the growth in popularity of farmers’ markets, “Community Supported Agriculture,” and grass farming. These work to form something of a “New Agrarianism” which complements and parallels the New Urbanism in its attempt to provide an alternative to industrial farming (137–140). But the presentation is not entirely one of endorsement. There are some “weird elements,” Dr. Carlson says, particularly “the concept of ‘biodynamic farming,’ ” which is more mystical and even pagan than merely traditional (142). There’s also the unavoidable problem of cost. Average families “simply cannot afford it, and this would require some sort of “widespread, equitable division of land” which is impossible to imagine under current conditions (143). Dr. Carlson admits that filling this need is, at present, only a fair tale, and yet he has “somewhat seriously” attempted to set forth a plan to do just that.
The Natural Family Where It Belongs is perhaps the best single introduction to Allan Carlson’s ideas and pro-family project. It combines his historical skills with prescriptive proposals, and it manages to promote what seems to be a fantastic vision in a way that remains anchored to reality and the not-so-distant past. He also manages to incorporate critique and constructive proposals from both “Left”- and “Right”-wing politics, thus avoiding any charge that he is simply offering a hyperpartisan and parochial agenda. (A leading example would be his positive appraisal of key tenets of the New Deal, which manages to appear sporadically in several of his other books as well, sure to enrage the contemporary American Right as much as his patriarchal views enrage the Left.) Dr. Carlson has no hesitation in quoting Marx, or Schumpeter, alongside Jefferson and Chesterton. And in this, Dr. Carlson offers an important corrective to the two dominant “conservative” options, Libertarianism and corporate capitalism.
Even so, The Natural Family Where It Belongs seems unlikely to attain an audience outside of very small circles. Some of this is simply due to the subject matter and the unpopular thesis. Some of it is also a marketing problem. The subtitle of “New Agrarian Essays,” combined with a cover picture of cows and mud, is sure to catch only selective eyes. Also indicative of the problem are the category descriptions on the copyright page: “families,” “rural families,” “country life,” and “sociology, rural” hardly seem to do justice to a book about capitalism, sexual politics, moral philosophy, and contemporary reactions to postmodernity. While it may sound hopelessly pedantic to criticize the copyright page, the point is that this book looks like a book about country people for country people, and it will have a difficult time finding interested readers among the communities which most need to read it.
Further still, we would suggest that the term “agrarian” ought to be critically evaluated, as we would raise some questions about the nature of its relation to the rest of the “natural family” project. Given Dr. Carlson’s own admission that the kind of New Agrarianism really necessary to restore a natural society is still something of a fairy tale, it would seem wise to not make it a central and seemingly essential component of the program. Might not a subtitle like “New Urbanism and New Agrarianism Meet to Make Room for Home” be more balanced and more attractive? Again, we may still be judging this book by its cover, but it seems that any strategy approach to such a difficult project needs to maximize its ability to attract and inspire real people in real communities in the present moment. Escapism and Utopia must both be pushed out of the picture.
More substantially, there are some potentially serious issues in The Natural Family Where It Belongs that need much more treatment. The introductory essay, “The Natural Family at Home,” was especially stimulating, particularly because it set out to put theoretical feet to the otherwise historical and observational nature of the book. And yet this chapter was relegated to an introduction, and the ideas it addressed deserved much more explanation and evaluation. There was also one obvious omission whose absence is inescapably noticeable. As Dr. Carlson listed the hierarchy of jurisdictions, one famous “order” was missing: the church. Dr. Carlson does say that “a common religious faith” must be shared on the “village” level (xviii), and this is also true for “the nation” (xx); but as for the specific political ways in which this faith is manifested, he passes over them without comment. This is unacceptable given the Christian tradition of seeing family, state, and church as “three hierarchies” or overarching orders that equally govern society. Furthermore, the definition of a church, as well as what political duties and privileges it ought to be accorded, differs considerably between major Christian divisions, not to mention other world religions. It will not do to list the church as but one more possible “corporation” alongside schools, businesses, and community groups, as Dr. Carlson appears to do in his introduction (xxi).
There is also the unfortunate specter of racism which is always looming over such conversations, particularly in America. While it would be entirely unfair to charge Dr. Carlson with racism (and he rejects nationalism, it ought to be noted), there are still a few turns of phrase that give the reader pause. “A relatively small number of kin groups” are constitutive of the “village, town, or neighborhood” (xviii), and “full citizenship in the state is granted only to those who fulfill certain duties,” among them being “acceptance by one’s neighbors” (xx). How different “kin groups” ought to relate, or whether they can occupy the same “local” space, Dr. Carlson does not really discuss; but surely critical readers will seize upon the dangers here. Additionally, while it is not clear what Dr. Carlson’s attitude is towards “the nation,” as he seems to have mixed feelings about it, he does include “blood” as one of the “commonalities that transcends households, communities, and states” (xx). But whether it always does this or whether it should do this is not clearly stated. Indeed, the appropriate distinctions between nations and states remain unclear throughout, and thus what Dr. Carlson wants to see on this point is hard to determine. Whatever the answer to those questions may be, it seems imperative that a “natural society,” at least within a Christian context (perhaps even Islamic and other notable religious ones as well), be open to a diverse range and a potential intermixing of races and even cultures. Clearly certain moral and religious boundaries must remain fixed, but Christianity has always been a multi-ethnic religion, and Christendom has always (even if imperfectly) allowed for a cross-pollination of sorts.
In addition, while Dr. Carlson is consistently critical of Austrian-style Libertarianism, he also seems to view the state in mostly negative terms. He writes that the state’s “sole guiding principle is the limitation of its power” (xx). This would seem to be very Libertarian-esque, and yet it manifestly contradicts the rest of Dr. Carlson’s vision. He wants the state to promote the family, for one, and he wants it to limit the ability of corporations to subvert both state and family. Dr. Carlson does not object to all “government involvement” in domestic matters. For one, he has in the past proposed a family-friendly tax policy. Clearly he assumes that there is an intelligible notion of the common good, as well as a common moral code. And so we would suggest that the state actually does have, or at least needs, some metaphysical foundation, and that this foundation ought to be consistent with the rest of the pro-family vision.
Finally, we must go back to the matter of agrarianism. While agrarianism surely has an important role to play in a natural society, it cannot be the universal one, and it seems nearly impossible for it to hope to be the predominant one in American society today. New Agrarianism has yet to prove that it is indeed “sustainable,” and it has been rightly criticized for at times continuing to exploit its workers. A better way to recover a natural society, it would seem, is to give equal priority to the urban and suburban possibilities. How can homes in those environments become centers of production? Dr. Carlson, it should be noted, has addressed these questions in other places, but they ought not be given a second-class status in the program. Most readers will find themselves occupying those locales and thus in need of application in them. In short, they deserve much more space in the vision.
These are important criticisms, and I fear that they, or similar ones, will prove fatal to The Natural Family Where It Belongs being taken seriously in broader circles. But this is a shame, for the book really ought to be taken seriously. It addresses a serious, perhaps the most serious, political matter, and it does so in creative ways that defy simple and worn-out partisan bifurcation. It also does succeed in connecting what initially seems a backwards and contrarian thesis to modern trends, even trends that are showing up among progressives. And so, while there is still a long way to go, this book’s picture of coming home is largely compelling. It falls to other thinkers, writers, and families to complete it and find effective ways to begin implementing concrete proposals, but this remainder should be understood less as an omission than a commission. We should find ways to get to work, and Dr. Carlson has certainly helped us see how to get started.