Dystopianism has always been an easy game to play, and there’s something useful about imagining how badly things might go if we don’t deal with our issues now.
If imagining the worst-case scenario is a useful exercise, then imagining the best-case scenario must also be useful — and for the same reasons.
So why does this seem so much harder to do?
A new book by Kristen Ghodsee called Everyday Utopia offers some interesting answers. It’s a sweeping look at various communal experiments over the last two centuries and it makes the case that utopian thinking is both necessary and pragmatic. Beyond that, it’s a critique of our present society and the lack of care and connection that defines so much of it.
I invited Ghodsee onto The Gray Area to talk about what she learned from all these experiments and how we might apply those lessons today. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you find podcasts. New episodes drop every Monday and Thursday.
A book about alternative ways of living is obviously animated in some way by a critique of the present order. How would you sum up that critique?
This is very much a post-pandemic book. It was initially animated by a lot of the isolation and loneliness and general discombobulation that people felt during the pandemic and what we realized about our family structures. The hegemonic model in the United States is monogamous pairing, generally heterosexual, where we provide exclusive bi-parental care to our own biological offspring in a single-family home surrounded by hoards of our own privately owned stuff. That’s our model and for many people it made the pandemic even more difficult.
Almost immediately, people who had families rushed out to form pandemic pods. They tried mutual aid experiments and they did everything they possibly could to create communities of support, which shows you that the way that we live normally is somewhat problematic.
The real arc of the book is to go through every piece of that formula. So the nuclear family, the exclusive bi-parental care, the way we raise our children in these isolated single-family homes away from other children, our relationship to property and the physical built environment within which we dwell, within which we warehouse ourselves when we are raising our families — all of these different pieces of the way we organize our private lives are fairly recent inventions. And they are conventions that are eminently changeable.
When we look out across the historical record and when we look cross-culturally, we can see that there have been multiple ways of organizing our family lives, depending on different external factors. Human beings are uniquely creative, flexible, and adaptable. And our family forms and our mating practices are also uniquely creative, flexible, and adaptable.
So the critique here is that too many of us today are fixed in our idea of what a family is supposed to look like. How we form families, how we insert those families into dwellings, and the ways in which those families interact with other families. All of those things are preconditioned by a certain set of cultural norms that are very anachronistic for the world that we are going to be living in in the 21st century.
It’s about a change in our attitude towards the natural environment. We are coming from an era where people believed that the earth’s resources were abundant. And we are now having to come to grips with the idea that the earth’s resources are not abundant and that unlimited economic growth is not necessarily desirable.
One of the things that makes the sort of experiments you’re describing in the book feel like such distant possibilities is that they’re revolutionary in the most concrete, intimate way. Because we’re talking about transforming not just our social and political lives, but our private lives, our family lives. And this is something you say a lot of people fail to appreciate. Why do you think that is? Why are so many people so eager to critique our economic system, but much less interested in what might be amiss in our private lives?
I think that people do feel that their private lives are under much closer scrutiny. You can talk about economic systems, you can talk about politics, and it’s not necessarily about you and the people that you love and the people that you’re sharing your resources with.
There’s this way in which our private life is this place of incredible expectation around unconditional love, care, and support. And I really want to stop and recognize that. I’m not saying that family is bad. I’m actually saying that family is really good and that we should just expand our definition of what family is.
Especially for communities of color and for immigrant communities, the family is an incredibly safe space where you get support and you get unconditional love. But there’s this very primal fear that people have, that if you start to change anything about these relationships and the way that they get maintained and sustained over time, then the whole thing could fall apart and we will all end up being unloved and alone. We are so afraid, on a very visceral level, of being unloved and alone. And given that the family is this place where, in a very cruel, hostile environment, we often get company and support and emotional care, it’s really hard for us to shake that up in our personal lives. What I argue in the book is we’ll actually be more loved and in a greater level of community if we expand our notion of what family life is.
The other part of this argument is the much more radical part. I think that our family form as it is currently instantiated for most people, particularly in the United States, is that our form of the family upholds a particular kind of political and economic system. With high levels of inequality, where the nuclear family and this exclusive bi-parental care in our own privately owned homes with our stuff actually facilitates the intergenerational transfer of wealth and privilege largely from fathers to their legitimate sons. This model was a particular adaptation to plow agriculture where you didn’t want to divide agricultural estates and then you get the institution of primogeniture or ultimogeniture, where either the first son or the last son inherits everything so you don’t have to divide the estates.
There are really interesting evolutionary and anthropological reasons, as well as historical reasons, why we have the particular family form that we do. But the key thing is that the way we do family really underpins a particular political and economic way of being in the world. And so if you critique the family, if you try to challenge the family in any way, you’re already challenging the economic and political and social system.
I suppose one of the conservative reactions to this is to say that, on the one hand, you’re right, the way we live now is a historical aberration. This is not how humans have lived for most of our history. The world could have turned out very differently. And yet this is where we are. This is how our society evolved, and our institutions and even our psyches in lots of ways have adapted to it. And that’s not something you can easily overturn, or at least not too quickly. Does this sort of objection give you any pause at all?
The simple answer is no. But I’d also say that I respect the hesitation there. I understand where it’s coming from. I am sympathetic to this fear that if you upset the status quo the whole thing might fall apart. But I go back to the evolutionary anthropology of the family and the fact that it’s becoming increasingly clear that our mating practices are separable from our child rearing practices in the contemporary way that we imagine the family.
We think of the bi-parental model of exclusive care for biological children as the appropriate container for childbearing, right? So there’s a romantic couple (usually it’s a romantic couple), and that romantic couple pairs off and has kids and raises those kids exclusively without much support from outside of that bi-parental unit.
But that’s not really how human beings evolved to raise children. We are pair bonders. There’s very good evidence that we tend to form pairs, we tend to have strong attachments. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re heterosexual, that doesn’t even necessarily mean that they’re monogamous, but we do tend to be pair bonders.
We even see in cenobitic monastic communities when you have groups of monks or nuns who are taking in children, often orphans, and they’re raising those children collectively. Even there you find that pair bonds form, though they’re not couples in a romantic sense. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the pair or the pair bond is the appropriate container for child rearing.
Any argument that human beings are naturally one way or the other, or that we’ve evolved in a particular way because of a particular set of environmental or climatic or political circumstances, that’s not true. We are so flexible, and that’s true for both parts of this, for the child rearing part of it and for the mating practices part of it.
We are fixed in a particular model right now, but if certain external factors were to change — or if we wanted to change certain external factors — we could change our family lives, the way we’re organizing our love and care and support, because we live in a society right now with high levels of loneliness and isolation and with a real care deficit.
I think we need to think creatively the way we did during the pandemic about reorganizing our domestic lives to make them more capacious and more supportive and more loving in the absence of any sort of state efforts to do things like expand universal child care or provide support for the elderly and so on and so forth.
There’s a whole chapter in the book about raising kids in common. Plato famously makes the case for this in The Republic and he says it’s the only way to ensure that citizens remain truly committed to the good of the society. Maybe he’s right about that, I don’t know. But I’m a parent and I can definitely say that there’s no way in hell I would ever want to do this, and I don’t know any parents who would. I guess the question is, what are the benefits to that radical arrangement and what we can learn from that and how can we adapt it to the world we’re in now?
I think this is a great question. You have this utopian extreme put forward by Plato, where child care is common and parents don’t even know their children and children don’t know their parents. That’s the absolute extreme. But I walk it back to something that people can understand.
I’m talking about letting your kids spend more time with their grandparents. Let your kids spend more time with other loving adults in your community. They might be your neighbors, they might be your college friends. They might be your colleagues at work. In a lot of religious traditions, there are these things called godparents; the idea is that a couple has a parental backup plan in case you and your partner dies. But it’s really a case where religious traditions are trying to instantiate a relationship with other adults in their children’s lives, so that they’re surrounded by a loving community of adults.
I’m a mom. I understand what you’re saying, especially when your kids are young and vulnerable and you’re overprotective of them, and the world is this big, bad, scary place and you want to make sure that they get all the love and attention and resources that they need to thrive. And let’s face it, for a lot of us, other children are competitors, not only for resources, but for our attention. Anybody who grew up in a really big family will know this. But if you think about the evolutionary anthropology of the family, we’ve always been these cooperative breeders. Older siblings have always played a role in raising young children because unlike other non-human primates, we have our children very close together and they’re so dependent on us and we’ve always relied on broader networks.
I don’t say in the book that you should go join a commune and give up your parental rights or something like that. But I do point out that there are some states in the US which now allow for what’s called de facto parenting. So if you’re a divorced couple, and let’s say there’s a stepparent, a stepmother, or a stepfather who’s providing parental care, in many states that person cannot become a legal guardian unless the biological parent gives up their parental rights. So some states are saying, why shouldn’t children have three parents? Why not four parents in LGBTQ+ communities where you might have a surrogate mother and an egg donor and maybe two sperm donors? Or in the case of mitochondrial replacement therapy, which is where you have an egg from one woman, and then the mitochondria of that egg is from a second woman, and then you have a sperm donor. You literally have a child that is biologically related to three adults, three parents.
But our society doesn’t really know what to do with a non-bi-parental model of care. And so there are legal interventions we could make. There are social interventions that we could make. We could really take godparenting seriously and think hard about identifying other adults that can be a presence in our children’s lives as they grow up. I don’t think anybody would say that that’s a bad thing.
It is not psychologically healthy for us to be so isolated and to have all of our love and care from just two people, and I think this became really apparent to people during the pandemic. And now that we are coming out of that, I want people to think, “Hey, maybe those pandemic pods were a great idea! Maybe we should keep them around in some form as a supplement to our parenting efforts.”
One thing we definitely agree on is it’s worth remembering how easily things that seem permanent or fixed can change almost overnight. Often it’s because those changes are forced, like during the pandemic where suddenly the state just starts giving out a form of universal basic income, and parents are forming these pandemic pods where they’re sharing child care and homeschooling responsibilities. That doesn’t prove these are things we should do, but it does prove that we can do them — and there’s a lesson there.
Yeah, and it’s really worth emphasizing because I think there are two critiques of the book. One that I’ve heard and that I want to address head-on is that I’m saying that all the different examples that I give in the book are somehow models for us to emulate. And that’s not at all what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that they can each teach us different things about how people in the past have organized and reorganized their domestic lives in certain ways for certain reasons, and that we could learn from those things.
The second thing is that by talking about the ways that utopian communities have organized their private lives differently, that I’m advocating for some kind of state intervention. And in fact, the whole point of this book is to ask what we can do in the absence of state intervention. I’m not talking about socialism here. I’m saying that if we’re not talking about top-down transformations from the state, what are the sorts of things people can do in their own lives within their own communities?