Life in the Therapeutic State

The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction

by Michel Foucault, translated by Robert Hurley
Pantheon, 159 pp., $8.95


The growth of the inward-turning, child-centered family, sociologists have long told us, is one of the distinguishing features of the transition from “traditional” to modern society. In the last twenty years, this theme has been elaborated with an increasing abundance of documentation by social historians—Philippe Aries, Eli Zaretsky, Edward Shorter, Lawrence Stone, Nancy Cott, and now Carl Degler, to name only those who have attempted large syntheses.

With minor variations from one country to another, the development of the family has followed the same pattern, it appears, throughout the Western world. By the nineteenth century, young people had won the right to marry with a minimum of direct parental interference. Marriage became a union of individuals rather than a union of two lineages. Companionship rather than parental convenience became the goal of matrimony. A new insistence on the innocence and vulnerability of childhood encouraged a growing preoccupation with child-rearing and especially with maternal influence on the child’s development.

In order to give each of their children the advantages to which children were now thought to be entitled, parents deliberately restricted the number of their offspring. Large families gave way to the intimate, private, conjugal unit. A “cult of domesticity” and a strict division of sexual labor—justified by the doctrine of sexual “spheres”—removed women from the world of work but gave them greater control over the family itself. Shorn of its productive functions, the family now specialized in child-rearing and emotional solace, providing a much-needed sanctuary in a world organized around the impersonal principles of the market.1

Drawing on letters and diaries, many of them unpublished; on medical writings; and on the work of other historians (notably Nancy Cott, Linda Gordon, and James C. Mohr), Carl Degler, in his study of the American family, has filled in this conventional picture, modified some of its details, but left its general outlines untouched. His principal contributions, aside from the sheer weight of evidence he has assembled and his even-tempered treatment of issues that too often serve as incitements to riot, come down to three lines of argument. He has successfully challenged the older view that the Victorians surrounded sex with a “conspiracy of silence.” He has shown that Victorian sexual morality, and indeed the whole ideology of domesticity with which it was bound up, was at least in part the creation of women, not a brutal patriarchal ideology designed to keep women in their place. And by demonstrating that women took an active part in the transformation of family life, he has made it more difficult than before to think of the family merely as an institution that responds to impersonal socioeconomic “forces.”

The first of these contentions—that the Victorians discussed sex more openly than we have imagined and even took some pleasure in it—has already received a good deal of advance attention. Degler does not argue that the Victorians lived in a sexually permissive paradise, but he denies that they had no understanding of female sexuality. Statements that have been misinterpreted as evidence that Victorian physicians denied the existence of sexual appetites in women should be read instead as prescriptive statements, designed to support a new morality to the effect that a male should not “obtrude himself upon the unwilling female,” as one medical authority put it. Since men had no particular interests of their own in restricting sexual activity, Degler reasons, sexual restraint must be seen not as a morality imposed on women but as part of their attempt to free themselves from repeated pregnancies.

This argument is closely related to a second line of reasoning. The “cult of domesticity,” on this view, was no more a limitation imposed on women than a restrictive sexual morality was. Nineteenth-century domesticity rested on the principle of companionship, and women appealed to this principle, according to Degler, in order to justify not only their right to protect themselves but many other demands. The “cult of domesticity,” though it confined women to the home, made them the moral arbiters of the family and of whatever else touched its interests.

By exploiting this ideology, women won greater autonomy in marriage and launched social campaigns to abolish prostitution (or at least to withdraw social sanction from it), to raise the age of consent, to control the intake of alcoholic beverages, and otherwise to protect women from male violence and sexual harassment. “One of the arguments of this book,” Degler writes, “is that the history of the family is best understood by recognizing that changes in the role of women have been at the root of that history.” This rather bland formulation conceals the more interesting thesis that women actively reshaped the family in pursuit of their own interests, turning the “cult of domesticity” against itself and thereby laying the basis of modern feminism. Demands for the recognition of married women’s property rights, for divorce laws favoring the wife, for sexual self-control on the part of men, for acknowledgment of the woman’s greater stake in regulating the frequency of sexual intercourse and pregnancy, and even for larger reforms in the field of social justice and “social purity”—all arose out of the logic of domesticity itself and succeeded, according to Degler, for that very reason.

That feminism took support from the very ideology it seemed to challenge—the “cult of domesticity”—will come as no surprise to careful students of nineteenth-century history, certainly not to readers of the work of Aileen Kraditor and Nancy Cott.2 The implications of this development remain to be explored, however, and Degler’s book, merely because it is the first to deal with domesticity and feminism in the same place, at first sight promises to advance our understanding of their dialectical interplay. Unfortunately his treatment of feminism, and even to some extent of domesticity itself, bogs down in confusion and contradictions.

At Odds is not a closely argued book. Degler hedges, for example, on the important question of whether women managed to restrict the frequency of sexual intercourse in opposition to their husbands, or whether men cooperated because they took the idea of companionship seriously and also perhaps had economic reasons, after all, for wishing to limit the size of their families. Did the practice of sexual restraint, reflected in declining fertility, reflect a “close and communicative relationship between husband and wife” or a breakdown of communication? Did nineteenth-century middle-class marriage encourage “mutual consideration” or conflict?

Although conflict certainly seems to be implied by Degler’s central thesis that women were “at odds” with the family, most of the time he prefers to stress “closeness and mutual influence between husband and wife.” If cooperation was the rule, however, it becomes difficult to explain why nineteenth-century women (feminists and antifeminists alike) so often regarded men as antagonists and preferred the company of their own sex.3

Degler waffles, then, on the question of whether declining birth rates reflected women’s victory over their husbands or, on the other hand, a victory for companionship and “close communication.” But his argument on this point is a model of consistency compared to his analysis of feminism. On the one hand, Degler maintains that the feminist demand for the vote, alone among the various reforms advanced by nineteenth-century women, challenged the doctrine of sexual “spheres.” Feminists “made no attempt to conceal the conflict between feminism and the traditional family.” Unfortunately most of their sisters were not yet ready to “alter the traditional family and woman’s role in it,” and their opposition (much more than the opposition of men) postponed the adoption of woman suffrage for many decades.

On the other hand, Degler argues a few pages later that woman suffrage “did not disrupt the family” at all and that antifeminist fears were therefore misguided. Indeed he thinks it is too bad that feminists didn’t “confront” the family more directly. They wanted women to take part as equals in the world of politics and work but refused to admit that such a program conflicted with the “traditional” family structure that required women to be full-time wives and mothers. Instead of facing up to this contradiction, feminists backed down from their initial assertion that votes for women “symbolized their individuality [and] their need to speak politically as individuals,” and rested the case for suffrage on the more conservative grounds that women as moral custodians “had a special contribution to make to society.” If women were given the vote, feminists now claimed, they would abolish the traffic in liquor and women, put an end to political corruption, and advance the work of “social housekeeping.”

Some of these assertions are refuted by Degler’s own evidence. Having shown that large numbers of middle-class women—women who did not regard themselves as feminists at all—had “challenged the family” on many issues, from the 1830s on, he cannot very well argue that these same women opposed woman suffrage because it challenged the “traditional” family. It seems more reasonable to assume—in the absence of a thorough study of the opposition to woman’s suffrage, which has yet to be made—that most women correctly perceived that voting would do little to advance their immediate interests, either as women struggling against the remnants of patriarchal authority or, in the case of lower-class women, as members of an exploited social class. Working-class women wanted not the abstract recognition of equal rights but special protection for women in factories. Women who lived on farms, at a time when the conditions of agrarian life were deteriorating at a fearful rate, had more important things to worry about than the suffrage. It is significant that the Populist party, which included a considerable number of politically active women, refused to endorse woman suffrage in 1892—not because it shows that even radical women held conservative opinions on the family, as Degler reasons, but because radical women presumably recognized that feminism, a middle-class movement addressed to the middle-class woman’s need for self-expression, had little to offer women who faced the more immediate threat of poverty.

If the feminist movement posed no threat to the socioeconomic status quo, however, this was not because feminists failed to “challenge” the family. On this point Degler relies on earlier interpretations of nineteenth-century feminism—those of Aileen Kraditor and William O’Neill—that are about to be drastically revised in a forthcoming study by William R. Leach.4 Kraditor and O’Neill maintain that suffragists gave up arguments based on justice and embraced the conservative position that suffrage would extend women’s purifying influence over all of public life. Leach shows, on the contrary, that feminists saw the reform of marriage as the central issue and advocated suffrage as one method of equalizing the relations between men and women. Far from denying that suffrage would “force an alteration in the traditional family,” feminists advocated it precisely for that reason. Yet their vision of an egalitarian family based on the economic independence of women remained, for all its radicalism, a class program, closely tied to the outlook and interests of an emerging professional class seeking new forms of control over the sexual and social conflicts which threatened, in their eyes, to tear American society to pieces.

It is my own contention that American progressivism—of which the feminist movement constituted an integral part—has to be seen, as Charles A. Beard proposed at the time, as a “counter-reformation.” Progressivism represented a highly successful attempt to deflect Populism, labor radicalism, and other potentially revolutionary movements by reforming society from the top down. Feminists, like other progressives, advocated not individualism but social “cooperation,” starting with marriage. They sought to control sexuality, greed, aggression, and other socially disruptive passions by diverting them into harmless outlets. William James’s famous essay on the “moral equivalent of war” is an example of a type of thinking that runs through progressivism and through feminism as well. Feminists assumed, moreover, that women, more cooperatively disposed than men and less heavily committed to the masculine pursuits of war and competitive profit-seeking, could change society by infiltrating the major institutions (government, business, education, the service professions) and turning them to more peaceful purposes. The “expediency” argument for woman suffrage has to be seen as a particular application of the general progressive principle that the “best” people should govern—people qualified, that is, by allegedly disinterested motives and plenty of professional training.

Like other progressives, nineteenth-century feminists had a boundless faith in disinterested scientific expertise. They proposed to organize both sexual life and social life according to the principles of modern science, and they had nothing but contempt for those (like the Populists) who tried to base political action on the native intelligence of ordinary men and women. It is not surprising, under these conditions, that ordinary men and women did not rush to support woman suffrage.

It is impossible to make sense of the history of the nineteenth-century family—as the inconsistencies and contradictions in Degler’s argument suggest—unless we see the drive to “control sexuality,” as he puts it, as part of a larger campaign to control everything else as well—to put society under the microscope. The emotional intensification of family life—the new “intimacy” on which Degler and others have lavished so much admiring attention—led not to cooperation but to conflicts between husbands and wives and between parents and children. These conflicts laid bare the sexual attraction between parents and children and the complications to which it later gives rise in the relations between adult men and women. Nineteenth-century “alienists” and health reformers already understood the connection between sexual repression and neurosis, and, as Degler shows, they also knew a good deal about infantile sexuality. To enlightened members of the professional classes—and this includes most feminists—knowledge of this kind promised a preventive science of sexual and social control, which could be used among other things to civilize the poor, to subject them to new controls sincerely disguised as benevolence, and thus to integrate them more fully into the emerging industrial order.

Because Degler adopts the conventional distinction between “social feminism” and the suffrage movement, he cannot see that efforts to control sexuality in the family were inspired by the same drive that found expression in progressivism—the drive to bring dangerous energies, social or sexual, under control. The achievement of “individualism” and “autonomy” for middle-class women represented part of a larger social and political process that ended in the ascendancy of professional experts.

Degler misses one of the most striking features of the late nineteenth-century American scene—the alliance between women and doctors and the irony of its result. Because professional intervention in family life eroded patriarchal authority, women sought professional help—or at least welcomed it when it was offered—even when it also eroded the traditional prerogatives of women. Thus women welcomed the substitution of doctors for midwives in childbirth. The redefinition of pregnancy as a disease requiring medical intervention helped women in their campaign for voluntary motherhood by raising the cost of pregnancy to their husbands—not only the financial cost but the emotional cost of the doctor’s intrusion into the bedroom, his usurpation of the husband’s sexual prerogatives. In the long run, however, professionals expanded their jurisdiction over domestic life not only at the expense of patriarchal authority but also at the expense of the authority formerly exercised by women over childbirth, child-rearing, and domestic economy. Doctors, psychiatrists, social workers, child guidance experts, and other specialists derided maternal instinct, home remedies, and rule-of-thumb methods, claiming to substitute for the traditional lore of women new techniques based on science and understood only by those with professional training. In allying themselves with the helping professions, women improved their position in the family only to fall into a new kind of dependence, the dependence of the consumer on the market and on the providers of expert services, not only for the satisfaction of her needs but for the very definition of her needs.


For a better understanding of these issues, we have to turn to the recently published studies by Michel Foucault and Jacques Donzelot. Like so many French intellectuals, these writers take no account of historical developments outside France and show no acquaintance with English or American scholarship. Nevertheless their studies cover some of the same ground discussed by Degler. Foucault’s History of Sexuality, like Degler’s book, takes issue with the received wisdom that the nineteenth century surrounded sex with a conspiracy of silence. But Foucault does not make the mistake of assuming that nineteenth-century attitudes were therefore more enlightened than we have assumed, or that they foreshadow the sexual liberation of our own time—for which he holds no brief in any case. He challenges not only the conventional picture of nineteenth-century sexual repression but the ideology of sexual emancipation itself. “We must not think that by saying yes to sex, one says no to power.”

The achievement of sexual freedom, in Foucault’s view, has to be seen as another aspect of the medicalization of life, resulting not in a richer emotional experience but in a more thoroughgoing surveillance and control of sexuality. The extension of medical jurisdiction over sex, replacing the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the old regime, belongs historically to the growth of the disciplinary apparatus analyzed in Foucault’s earlier works—Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the Clinic, and Discipline and Punish. In those studies, he argued that the reform of criminal justice, the “moral treatment” of the insane, and the abandonment of public torture cannot be attributed merely to the influence of nineteenth-century humanitarianism. Nineteenth-century philanthropists, whatever their intentions, created a more effective and pervasive system of social control based on systematic observation and surveillance. Similarly the exposure of sexual life to scientific scrutiny contributed to the rationalization, not the liberation, of emotional life.

Volubility, not silence, characterized the nineteenth-century approach to sex, according to Foucault: the translation of emotion into discourse. Far from suppressing an awareness of sexual appetites, the medical profession encouraged people to speak of them fully and with an abundance of detail. “An immense verbosity is what our civilization has required and organized.” The details of sexual activity came to be valued for the symptomatic insights they provided into the formation of personality, child-rearing, family life, and into broader problems of social hygiene.

Medicine now upheld what American observers have called a normative schedule of psychosocial development, deviations from which doctors attempt to correct (not to punish) by means of appropriate pedagogical and philanthropic measures. In place of moral norms, the new style of social discipline substituted a set of medical and psychological norms from which moral questions, questions of commendation and censure, were rigorously excluded. Doctors, criminologists, alienists, and other members of the learned professions—to which in the twentieth century were added social workers, psychiatrists, educators, marriage counselors, child development experts, pediatricians, parole officers, judges of the juvenile courts, in short the modern apparatus of resocialization—governed society not “by right but by technique, not by law but by normalization, not by punishment but by control.”. Foucault describes the origins and dynamics of what others (Philip Rieff, Nicholas Kittrie) have called the therapeutic state.

In order to identify the characteristic features of the modern attitude toward sex, and to distinguish it from earlier traditions, Foucault compares the scientific attitude to the classical and Oriental “art of love,” which organized sexual experience as a body of closely guarded secrets transmitted—like other sacred mysteries—from master to disciple. The master initiated the novice into esoteric information and guided his progress “with unfailing skill and severity.”

The Counter-Reformation confessional, according to Foucault, represented the first break with the ancient art of love. Just as Aries saw in the Counter Reformation a new concern with the formation of personality and the discipline of childhood (and with discipline in general), and Foucault himself in his earlier work saw the “great confinement” of the seventeenth century as the beginning of a concerted attempt to subject poverty, crime, and insanity to the organized discipline of the state—the “new medicine for poverty,” as R.H. Tawney called it—so Foucault now finds another expression of this social impulse in the reform of the Catholic ritual of confession. “Beginning in the sixteenth century, this rite gradually detached itself from the sacrament of penance, and via the guidance of souls and the direction of conscience…emigrated toward pedagogy, relationships between adults and children, family relations, medicine, and psychiatry.” The Christian tradition of penitential self-examination became the basis of the modern scientia sexualis, which adapted the “ancient procedure of confession to the rules of scientific discourse.” In the nineteenth century, “the same doctors who sought to control disease by subjecting it to medical scrutiny hoped to manage and administer sexual activity by means of analytical discourses.” The psychoanalytic confession represented a later elaboration of the same procedures.

The growing medical recognition of the importance of sex in personality formation gave doctors a new stake in the supervision of child-rearing and family life. The nineteenth-century family became the chief agency for what Foucault calls the deployment of sexuality. By subjecting the sexual pathology of the family to closer investigation, doctors tried to stem the rising tide of “modern nervousness,” perversion, masturbation, prostitution, venereal disease, physical and moral degeneracy. The family itself, encouraged by experts, “engaged in searching out the slightest traces of sexuality in its midst, wrenching from itself the most difficult confessions, soliciting an audience with everyone who might know something about the matter, and opening itself unreservedly to endless examination.”

Perhaps because The History of Sexuality is intended as the first of several volumes on the subject, Foucault does not elaborate on the subject of the family. But his follower and colleague, Jacques Donzelot, has extended Foucault’s analysis of modern discipline in The Policing of Families. The freshness of Donzelot’s analysis is striking when it is compared to Degler’s more conventional treatment of somewhat similar issues. Donzelot, like Degler, understands the connections between the nineteenth-century cult of domesticity, as it has come to be called by American scholars, and the emancipation of women. He sees that “birth control and the ‘liberation’ of women rested on women’s old social vocation, on their function of ambassadresses of culture.”

But he also sees what eludes Degler: that women’s role as cultural missionaries, closely bound up with their domestic confinement but simultaneously serving to justify demands for wider social influence and participation in public life, was to some extent the deliberate creation of doctors seeking to make wives and mothers agents of medical influence—of the medical “colonization” of the family. Foucault, as we have seen, rejects the common-sensical interpretation of nineteenth-century moral progress, according to which the rise of humanitarianism led to the decline of public torture. A similar interpretation of family history has been offered by historians like Edward Shorter, Lawrence Stone, and Degler, who see the growth of intimacy, the rise of “companionate marriage,” a more enlightened attitude toward sex, and a new respect for children as the principal ingredients in nineteenth-century domesticity.

Although Donzelot does not confront this interpretation directly, his book implicitly repudiates it, on the same grounds that led Foucault to reject another version of the Whiggish interpretation of the past. The “privatization” of middle-class family life, described by Ariès and by English and American historians who have followed his lead, occurred at the same time that other influences were opening the family to medical surveillance and control. Donzelot’s is one of the first studies to do justice to both sides of this development—the new value set on privacy, on the one hand, and the invasion of privacy, on the other hand, by the “tutelary apparatus” of the modern state.5

The conventional interpretation of the family’s history, as it has emerged in the last twenty years, not only misses the ironic outcome of well-intentioned reforms (the rationalization of private) life), it also ignores the antagonistic social relations in which these reforms took shape. The bourgeois “cult of domesticity” defined itself in opposition to aristocratic license on the one hand and to popular immorality on the other. Under the old regime, the state rested on the family, or more accurately on the system of matrimonial alliances that controlled the succession of property. Nineteenth-century philanthropists objected to the old arrangements on the grounds that matrimonial choices ought to be determined by eugenic rather than economic considerations. They claimed that the old-fashioned education of women, instead of training them for motherhood, trained them only in the arts of sexual attraction. In their eyes the old system of arranged marriage, by treating women solely as ornaments, objects of matrimonial exchange, encouraged habits of dissipation in both sexes. It perpetuated the notorious double standard of sexual morality, hypocritically condemning the sexual irregularities it encouraged in women while condoning them in men. It gave rise to prostitution and venereal diseases, which were sapping the nation’s health. In short, the system of matrimonial exchange corrupted sex and marriage by subordinating them to the advancement of private ends—the family’s economic and dynastic ambitions.

Because the philanthropic critique of conventional marriage turned on the same issues raised by advocates of romantic love, spokesmen for the rights of children, educational reformers, and feminists, it is easy to miss the hygienic intentions behind the reform of marriage or the extension of medical authority over family life. Doctors sided with the weaker members of the family against patriarchal authority. They sought to make women agents of a new medical morality. In the “privileged alliance between doctor and mother,” however, the mother remained a subordinate partner. As Donzelot (or rather his translator) puts it, “The doctor prescribes, the mother executes.”

Accordingly the family emerged at the end of the nineteenth century as a “hothouse insulated against outside influences” but subject, at the same time, to close medical surveillance. Children achieved independence from parental control but fell increasingly under the control of the state. “Family patriarchalism was destroyed only at the cost of a patriarchy of the state.”

Donzelot shows that the destruction of the alliance system went hand in hand with the domestication of the poor, as it might be called. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, doctors and civil servants began to argue that irregular unions among the poor, illegitimacy, incest, and other forms of sexual immorality kept the lower orders in a state of chronic demoralization, prevented them from becoming industrious workers, and made them dependent on public charity. By encouraging orderly habits of domesticity, reformers hoped to make them sober and self-supporting. Here again, they tried to play off the housewife against her husband and to make women the arbiters of domestic morality. In Donzelot’s formulation, they replaced a government of families with a government through the family.

These reforms eroded “popular enclaves that allowed for autonomous ties between the generations.” Relations between parents and children came under the supervision of the state, as executed by the schools, the social work agencies, and the juvenile court. The supervisory apparatus, Donzelot points out, “fostered mistrust among [the family’s] members” while eradicating the adversary relation between the child and the court, thereby creating a situation in which the rights of the family depended on its willingness to cooperate with the machinery of law enforcement. The juvenile court replaced punishment with prevention, judgment with surveillance. It treated the adolescent’s offenses as symptoms of an unhealthy domestic environment, which justified the “technicians of human relations” in launching inquiries into family morality, removing the child from his home if necessary, and demanding that families comply with the new principles of social hygiene.

Parents who called in the police or social workers, in the hope that outside intervention would strengthen their authority over a wayward child, found instead that it transferred the child to a professional authority. “Instead of the desired admonition, the juvenile judge, after reviewing the results of the social inquiry [the social worker’s case report], decides in favor of an educative assistance that has another purpose altogether, since it brings the adolescent into the sphere of the tutelary complex, leading to his detachment from family authority and transferral to a social authority,…all in order to prevent him from contaminating his brothers and sisters and to enable his parents to devote themselves to the younger children.”

Naturally the architects of the juvenile court justified their activities on humanitarian grounds. They argued that it would make the court a friend of the juvenile offender and an ally of the family. “But these are pious representations,” according to Donzelot, “of reasons that are much less ‘democratic.’ ” Philanthropic intervention in the family, he argues, was a “deliberately depoliticizing strategy.” Inspired by a fear of class conflict, it belonged to a general attempt to control the poor, to counter socialist propaganda, and to transform political procedures into administrative procedures. Reformers designed a new style of domestic life as an alternative both to the paternalism of the old regime, which made the lower classes dependent on charity and noblesse oblige, and to socialism. In their calculations, hygienic and political considerations were “indissociable.”

Only if we see the modern “companionate” family as a liberal solution to the problems of industrial society, according to Donzelot—in particular, to the problem of countering industrial unrest without creating an all-powerful authoritarian state—can we understand its distinctive characteristics. Liberals in France (and in other countries as well) tried to steer between conservative paternalists, who upheld the family as the basis of the social order and saw every change as a threat to the domestic integrity of the domestic unit, and socialists, who wanted to replace parent-hood with the state. In the end they outflanked their adversaries by creating a therapeutic state which left the family more or less intact yet subjected it to nonstop supervision.

The new machinery of therapeutic intervention mediated between “familialist” and socialist strategies and eventually rendered both of them obsolete. The polemics that swirled around the family in the early twentieth century now have an archaic flavor (in spite of their revival in the 1970s). We can no longer take very seriously either the out-cry about race suicide and the imminent extinction of family life or, on the other hand, the socialist-medical utopia that envisioned total state control over reproduction. The modern family in the West in neither patriarchal nor socialist. It is an “advanced liberal family,” in Donzelot’s words, attended by a “little army of counselors and psychologists” who neither “assign anyone, dictatorially, to family life” nor “aim to destroy family life.”

The triumph of the therapeutic, as Philip Rieff called it, has provided the liberal state with a new system of indirect controls that preserves the appearance and even some of the reality of private initiative—in the family as in the economy—within a larger structure of professional supervision. In this sense Freud proved to be the Keynes of the family, according to Donzelot. What Donzelot describes as the psychoanalytic point of view—but is better described as a “relational fever” common to both behavioral and humanistic psychology, and having little to do with psychoanalysis as such—provides a new morality that blames “nothing in particular and everything in general.” The therapeutic apparatus subjects the family to “social management” as opposed to the direct intervention of the state. It saves the “familial reference without which ‘possessive individualism’ has no functional possibilities” yet keeps a watchful eye on the pathology of the nuclear family, seeking to free individuals from its excessive emotional demands. In short, it leaves the family “always ‘justified’ in theory and always suspect in practice.”

Much of the current public debate about the family, in the United States and no doubt in France as well, continues to be informed by outmoded assumptions. Ever since the Fifties, the left has periodically deplored the revival of pro-family sentiment, as if the modern cult of the “companionate,” “developmental,” and psychiatric family signaled a revival of patriarchal authority in all its severity.6 The right, on the other hand, sees in the extension of therapeutic controls the menace of statism (among other things). Efforts to understand how these controls work, to describe their effects on marriage and on the socialization of the young, are immediately absorbed into an older, obsolete debate about the “future of the family.” The right applauds such investigations as an ideological defense of the family, the left condemns them as a plea for the revival of patriarchal authority, and the social service professions seek to incorporate them into their own never-ending campaign for a more effective “policy on families.”

Thus Carl Degler’s book ends—just as one would expect it to end—with a discussion of the false and meaningless issue of whether the family has a future. The continuing popularity of this empty debate offers another example of the way in which attention has been displaced onto “the family” that would better be paid to the changing quality of the relations between men and women, parents and children. Degler mounts the familiar argument that the high rate of remarriage, the lengthening of the time children stay at home, and the lack of any increase in the number of women electing to remain childless all indicate—notwithstanding a declining birth rate and a rising divorce rate—that the family is “here to stay.”7

But this argument about the survival of the family is beside the point. The conventional understanding of family history generates such a debate only because it treats the “crisis of the family,” as Donzelot points out, “as the result of an evolution of mores, the development of psychologism and psychoanalysm as the solution.” A more penetrating view, one that stresses the “genealogy of counseling,” as Donzelot calls it, gives no support either to the right or left, much less to the psychiatric apparatus which seeks to mediate between them (and which, as he observes, is equally compatible with an ideological defense of the family and a Laingian indictment of the family). Such an interpretation traces the collapse of patriarchal authority and the rise of therapeutic authority, and thus makes it equally pointless to call for the revival of patriarchy and to condemn the modern family as an agency of continuing patriarchal domination.

This new interpretation of the family’s history also undermines the position of those who call so urgently for solutions to the “crisis of the family.” Donzelot resolutely refuses to offer any constructive proposals for change. To offer them, he insists, is to accept the historical assumptions on which the demand for practical solutions rests. What becomes of this demand, he asks,

When we challenge its assumptions, when we identify the emergence of the modern family and the expansion of “psy” organizations as a single process, and one that is not politically innocent in the least?…Instead of being lured into the search for a solution to the obvious malaises that develop around and within family life, we shall ask ourselves: This crisis of the family, together with this proliferation of “psy” activities, are themselves the solution to what problem?

The answer to this question should now be clear. The problem—the solution to which occupied much of the social imagination of the last two centuries—was to replace a discredited patriarchal authority with a new form of social discipline that stops short of total domination by the state. But this new style of noncoercive, nonauthoritative, and manipulative control poses its own kind of danger to the democratic institutions it is intended to preserve. Here my own perception of the current situation may begin to diverge from Donzelot’s. He sees Freud and Keynes as the two great stabilizers of the liberal order. Leaving aside his too close identification of Freud with a “tutelary apparatus” that owes more to his detractors and revisionists, I think Donzelot overlooks the instability of both the Keynesian and the psychiatric modes of adjustment.

Keynesian economics helped to control some of the chronic problems of liberal capitalism but provided no longterm solution, as we can now see all too clearly. The same thing can be said of therapeutic modes of social control. These controls create new forms of dependence and discourage participation in political life. In so doing they simplify some of the problems of social discipline but at the same time make it more and more difficult for political leaders to mobilize public support of their policies when the need arises. Voter “apathy,” popular indifference and cynicism, the national “malaise” to which our leaders direct our attention all testify to the erosion of older mechanisms of popular participation and the reduction of the citizen to a consumer of expertise.

A passive, suspicious, apolitical electorate can no longer be roused by appeals for national solidarity. Leaders who preach sacrifice to such an electorate are wasting their breath. In a society that remains formally democratic, people will make sacrifices only in support of policies they have had a hand in drawing up. The new mechanisms of therapeutic control, however, tend to exclude people from active participation in political life or in any of the other decisions that affect them. The directors of the therapeutic state, having to some extent pacified a formerly rebellious population, now find themselves confronted by a full-scale “crisis of confidence.”

In the recent primary election in New York, a Manhattan housewife explained that she intended to vote for Kennedy, reluctantly, because she is tired of hearing from President Carter about the sacrifices he expects her to make in the austere times ahead. “I hate Carter,” she said. “Carter tells me I’m going to suffer. I don’t want to suffer.” This statement dramatizes the “crisis of confidence” that faces liberal leaders.

The prospects for the liberal state, in its therapeutic as in its Keynesian manifestation, are not good, In the days ahead, it will either have to adopt openly dictatorial forms of control or give way to a more truly democratic system. In the meantime, those who care about the “future of the family” would do well to follow Donzelot’s lead and to have nothing to do with the official search for a national policy on families. What the family needs is a policy on officials, designed to keep them in their place.


Democracy Vs. Therapy December 18, 1980

  1. 1

    The following observations by the psychologist Jerome Kagan, approvingly cited by Degler in support of his prediction of the “continuance of the family” provide a representative specimen of conventional thinking on this subject: “As modern environments make a sense of potency and individual effectiveness more difficult to attain, freedom from all affective involvements becomes more and more intolerable. Involvement with a family is the only viable mechanism available to satisfy that hunger.” In other words the family, according to the conventional sociological wisdom, has come to serve as a “haven in a heartless world.”

  2. 2

    Aileen S. Kraditor, The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement (Columbia University Press, 1965); Nancy F. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood (Yale University Press, 1977). Degler’s book draws heavily on both these interpretations.

  3. 3

    Probably the root of this difficulty lies in the idea that women were “at odds” with a sociological abstraction of more interest to scholars and to professional helpers than to ordinary men and women—”the family.” In fact they were more often at odds with men. Not only scholars but feminists (surprisingly) shy away from this fact, however. In spite of all the recent talk about women’s interests, women’s rights, and women’s struggle to achieve full citizenship, the assertion that men and women are seriously and in some ways fundamentally “at odds” still strikes most progressive-minded people not only as an erroneous but—more reprehensibly, from their point of view—as a reactionary interpretation of the matter. Everybody agrees that “the family” oppresses women, but nobody is in any hurry to take a serious look at the oppression of women by men. I think I know the reason for this reluctance: such an investigation might lead to the conclusion, abhorrent to the sensibility of our enlightened age, that not every conflict has an obvious institutional resolution. This squeamishness about sexual conflict explains why feminists, social workers, sociologists, and other professional critics of domestic arrangements confine their attacks to “the family”—a safe target, since “the family” can’t fight back, and men these days, moreover, have their own reasons (as always) to reject the values associated with domestic life.

  4. 4

    O’Neill’s Everyone Was Brave: The Rise and Fall of Feminism in America was published by Quadrangle in 1969. Leach’s study, True Love and Perfect Union: The Feminist Reform of Sex and Society, will be published next fall by Basic Books.

  5. 5

    Richard Sennett, in a recent review of The Policing of Families (The New York Times Book Review, February 24, 1980), claims to find a “divergence” between Donzelot’s interpretation of family history and the one I presented in Haven in a Heartless World. “For Mr. Lasch, the history of the modern bourgeois family is a history of the state ‘invading’ the functions of the family through welfare bureaucracies, psychiatric controls, and other professional organs. For Mr. Donzelot, the invasion image is wrong. From the middle of the eighteenth century, he contends, the state has actively participated in creating the forms of family life that we know today.”

    I have no idea what this last sentence is supposed to mean. What concerns me, however, is that readers of Sennett’s review will get the impression that Donzelot explicitly repudiates the imagery of invasion and refrains from using such imagery himself. In fact, he speaks repeatedly of the “colonization” of the family by the helping professions, of their “full penetration” of the family, of their “ceaseless technocratic interventionism,” of the “continuous surveillance” they exercise over domestic life,” of the “extension of medical control,” and of the “transfer of sovereignty” from the family to a corrective system that “never stops swelling.” I don’t know why Sennett prefers the vague, noncommittal formula of “active participation,” but such euphemisms play no part in Donzelot’s account.

    Like other careless readers, Sennett detects in my own work a “kind of nostalgia for the virtues of the nineteenth-century bourgeois family,” whereas Donzelot, he writes, “feels no such regrets.” Maybe not; but he describes very clearly, in several passages, the modern definition of liberation as freedom from family ties and the search for low-keyed, undemanding, non-neurotic relationships free of the emotional ambivalence associated with family relationships. The modern therapeutic outlook, he writes, regards emotional “maturation not [as] the acceptance of a heritage, a destiny, but the fading significance of one’s family, escape from its desires, liberation from the possessive desires of one’s parents.” It is the historical accuracy of such statements—and of similar statements in my own work—that is, or ought to be, at issue. I leave to others the weighty question of whether they encourage a politically debilitating “nostalgia” for the old regime.

  6. 6

    Writers on the left find it almost impossible to introduce an essay on the family without performing this obligatory ritual. “We are witnessing a significant retreat from the experimental mode of the Sixties]. The nuclear family is back in favor, both within the wider society and within the women’s movement. This retreat is being duly registered in the academy” (Wini Breines, Margaret Cerullo, and Judith Stacey, “Social Biology, Family Studies, and Antifeminist Backlash,” Feminist Studies, February 4, 1978, p. 43). “Patriarchal societies have always associated social disintegration with women’s activism…. Politically, pro-family and anti-feminist forces emerged from their closets around the issue of the proposed White House Conference on the Family…. On both scholarly and popular levels, feminism has generated distress that manifests responses ranging from scorn to ‘backlash’ ” (Sandi E. Copper, “Feminism and Family Revivalism,” Chrysalis, summer 1979, pp. 58, 60-61).

    Eli Zaretsky opens a recent paper on “The Welfare State and the Family” in the same vein: “A striking political development during the past several years has been the emergence of a pro-family consensus among almost every group concerned with the issue…. This near unanimous support for the family has the quality of a return of the repressed after a period of challenges to traditional ideals of the family…. The call to ‘strengthen the family’ embodies the conservative mood of the moment.”

    All these exercises in trend-spotting miss the point. The “call to strengthen the family” comes from the same therapeutic professions that identified themselves, only a few years ago, with the radical critique of the repressive nuclear family. They have no particular stake in the question of whether the “crisis of the family” derives from the persistence of patriarchal oppression of women or from the collapse of patriarchy. Their only stake lies in public acknowledgment of a crisis that can be resolved only by their own intervention. Professional commentators on the family are professional crisis-managers, not ideologues. They can easily adapt themselves to changing political and journalistic fashions.

  7. 7

    Like Mary Jo Bane (Here to Stay, Basic Books, 1976) and many other commentators, Degler claims that divorce is no more disruptive than the early deaths that used to disrupt family life. But the important question is whether children experience these disruptions in the same way—which seems unlikely. Instead of addressing this analytical issue, most commentators take refuge in the normative cliché that “from the standpoint of the children,” as Degler puts it, “an end to an unhappy marriage is probably preferable to living in a household characterized by tension and acrimony.”