John Milbank has written a remarkable critique of gay marriage that points to the ways it will ultimately and immeasurably strengthen the modern liberal State. The theologian who launched “Radical Orthodoxy,” and who identifies as a man of the Left (indeed, a radical man of the Left), argues that the claim that marriage is merely a word that can be applied to different relationships masks the underlying transformation that is in fact being proposed. That transformation will not simply “add” same-sex couples to the institution of marriage, like the 26th amendment added 18-20 year olds to the voting rolls. Rather, it will transform all human relationships in the image of homosexual unions, and becomes the means by which the liberal State will come to rule over the one institution that has proved thus far recalcitrant from its redefining reach – the family. Homosexuality – an identity based upon non-procreative sexuality and requiring political and technological child-provision – was all along liberalism’s aspirational norm to which procreative sexuality would ultimately have to conform.
Where the reality of sexual difference is denied, then it gets reinvented in perverse ways – just as the over-sexualisation of women and the confinement of men to a marginalised machismo.
[Gay marriage] would end the public legal recognition of a social reality defined in terms of the natural link between sex and procreation. In direct consequence, the natural children of heterosexual couples would then be only legally their children if the state decided that they might be legally “adopted” by them.
And this, I argue, reveals what is really at issue here. There was no demand for “gay marriage” and this has nothing to do with gay rights. Instead, it is a strategic move in the modern state’s drive to assume direct control over the reproduction of the population, bypassing our interpersonal encounters. This is not about natural justice, but the desire on the part of biopolitical tyranny to destroy marriage and the family as the most fundamental mediating social institution.
Strong stuff. But plausible?
We are many steps from a point at which biological parents must “adopt” their children (But getting closer). But taking gay marriage as one of a number of general devotions of a progressive class, we see an overarching commitment to weakening and ultimately rendering wholly “voluntarist” any intermediary bonds that exist between individuals, of equalizing, rationalizing, and “liberating” the individual from chance, contingency, and unchosen obligations. Liberal theory has long struggled with the brute natural basis of families and child-bearing, the human association most closely grounded in nature, and hence, not easily subject to the liberal logic of individualistic voluntarism, on the one hand, and primary membership in the State, on the other. Milbank points out that gay marriage is a deepening of an already pervasive technological remaking of these elemental relationships. Gay marriage will invariably make technological child-making a norm, indeed, in the foreseeable future, a “right” that must be afforded by the State in the name of equity and “health.” As child-making becomes ever-more subject to human engineering, as it becomes ensconced as a State-sponsored and State-monitored activity, and thus increasingly governed by political and technological devices, will it be permissible any longer to leave such an important activity to chance?
For those of us who came of age in old-fashioned and sometimes “irrational” and antiquated institutions, it has been breathtaking to see with what rapidity they have been remade in order to accord with State-mandated, rationalized “measurable outcomes.” Today the university; tomorrow, the family.
Milbank’s argument leads one to at least ponder grounds for the extraordinarily rapid and widespread political and social acceptance of gay marriage. It has been thought by many – myself included – that its breathtaking success has been due to its strong linkage to the language of rights and the claim to be a further extension of the civil rights movement. This is doubtless the case. But it seems to me that there are many claimants to “rights” that are unlikely to find a hearing in the current configuration of an ascendant Progressive class. Among of those, interestingly, are children growing up in fatherless households, the condition of a third of children in the United States today. The media is almost entirely silent about this scandal in plain sight, one that negatively effects the life-chances of fifteen-million children. Why is it that nearly every elite institution – news station, newspaper, sit-com, talk-show, school, university, and so on – has made gay-marriage the object of its most fervent devotions, not children growing up without fathers?
What of other issues that might be on the agenda? Too big to fail? Imperial overreach? Drone strikes? Massive and growing inequality between the well-off and the working class? Yes, those are problems. But is every elite institution devoting anything comparable to similar energies to any of these issues as they are to the drumbeat of “marriage equality”?
Which leads me to think that Milbank is onto something. All these other issues are just policy matters on which reasonable people can disagree. Gay marriage, on the other hand, is an extension of a 500-year agenda of remaking every social institution in the image and likeness of liberalism – the autonomous rights-bearing individual freely consenting to, and identifying primarily with, the liberal State. The family was an intractable challenge and its undefining was liberalism’s ultimate goal. Gay marriage is the political vehicle on which reproductive technologies will now be enabled to finally remake that most recalcitrant institution. The fact that every other institution has already been effectively reordered by liberalism’s logic – regions, States, neighborhoods, schools, universities, and churches – has made even the family fairly easy prey. If it weren’t happening before our eyes, it would make for a pretty good science-fiction novel.