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Father, Big Brother, and the Nanny-State by Carlos Perona Calvete

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Father, Big Brother, and the Nanny-State

Bathsheba pictured as a royal, with her young son, Solomon. The image forms part of a great rose window in the church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs, Cambridge.

‘Father’ evokes gravity, a weighty presence orbited by satellites. 

Center and direction. 

If we misbehave when Father is in the room, we at least abstain from vulgarity. It is one thing to get up to mischief within the parameters afforded us by an indulgent patriarch, but the most commonplace joke and even the manner of speech we adopt with friends would seem somehow obscene in his presence. During adolescence, at least, the demarcation between spheres is stark, and teenagers will react with near horror to their parents’ attempts at slang (am I ‘hip,’ son?). 

The monarch, or the principle of monarchy, was paternal, but Mother was there too. She was far more present than she is now. The personification of the kingdom itself, its people and land, as a female presence is quite widespread across traditions. In the Biblical model of monarchy, the king has his wife, and she will be queen, but not yet. Her political empowerment will follow his. Like a babe whose throne is his mother’s lap, the queen who exerts rule during a king’s mandate is the queen-mother. If the king’s wife is a mother to her people, the queen, for now, is the grandmother. We may think of Solomon having a throne brought out for his mother Bathsheba in 1 Kings 2:19. Marian veneration in Christianity follows on from the structure of the ancient Israelite state. 

Perhaps this system of intergenerational overlap, so holistic in its way, and which also occurs in different cultures, has something to do with the proximity of the earth compared to the sky or sun, the presence of the cosmic feminine compared to her male counterpart, or on the fact that people would often reach their later years without a father, while mother lived on. It is also surely a testament to the traditional role of women in passing culture on, the weavers of patterns, the tellers of stories, the principal molders of infant minds during those formative years.

Well then, what happens when Father leaves the room? And what if he leaves the house? We might have an older brother willing to sneak us a cigarette or initiate us into some mild vandalism. And perhaps this older brother is more criminally disposed, and we are more awe-struck by his approval than we thought. We may find ourselves seduced by the new order of things—even when it makes Mother upset, even when it becomes clear that Big Brother is more arbitrary, and a lot crueler, than Father was. Still, he offers us something new and, at first, we go along with things.

But what if we have no reason to believe Father will ever return? Perhaps he fell away from his duty, perhaps he began seeing nature not as the once Edenic realm to be sanctified, but as a chaotic presence to be appeased, offering up sacrifices like king Ahaz. Or else he abolished the whole sphere of nature and culture, abrogating all estates to himself in an era of absolutism. Perhaps he incited a foreign foe, or his children rebelled.

What if Big Brother turns the funeral and our first days without Father into a sinister celebration? And if he leads the guffaw, what business is that of ours, for is he not the heir? The end of paternal authority—the new rule by sibling—need not always lead to so dark a place, but we have seen modern ideologies bent on using the language of duty, an ill-suited inheritance, while indulging in the freedoms of a fatherless house. Their demagogues are not father-figures, they are an older brother winking at us, our own image expanded to narcissistic proportions, as Theodore Adorno observed. An image no longer aspiring to itself become a father, to enter adulthood.

But Big Brother exhausted himself. What bully tactics worked on the playground, and even in the street, proved ill-suited to run a domestic economy and raise up new generations. If there were elder brothers who might have taken up their inheritance, many of these would also, eventually, be swept away—a murderous Esau as well as an unheroic Jacob. And nobody has seen Mother in a long while. The new discourses around femininity would not recall its role of culture preserver and builder.

What waits in store for orphaned post-modernity? When our parents are out, they have the option to leave us with an older sibling or a nanny, and now that the first option has run its course, perhaps the latter can be tried. She has seen the mess and is no longer as sweet as she might have been. We, for our part, are no longer children. Still, she comes, or we invite her, and the household falls to her. To the nanny belongs a state, no longer founded on the metaphors of family relation, or else one that treats ‘family’ as pure care, without any specific content, any character. If Big Brother imitated father, the nanny may likewise be a parody of Mother, and what greater parody than to dispense with familial bonds altogether. If Big Brother saw only what is commanding in Father as an excuse for power, the nanny sees only what is caring in Mother as an excuse for the same. She speaks of morality as much as her predecessors, but it is not the morality of order that belonged to Father, nor Big Brother’s mask, hiding a license to plunder. Her morality lacks both grandeur and (apparently) gore. All she sees are vectors of disease, where others saw, and even pursued, visions of disaster.

Of course, she will recycle older artifacts here and there. A stern look mimicking Father, a grin at the violence befalling disobedient children of the sort we might think would be more proper to Big Brother. But Father’s moral aesthetic is gone, that old preference for upright symmetry and definite forms. Nor does she pretend to inherit past concepts of duty, for which reasons she at first seems to allow us more freedom than both her predecessors. Because she is not family, she does not have the instinct to preserve those in her care against certain elective deviations, the way actual parents want their sons and daughters to grow up to be better versions of themselves, but still versions of themselves. With her, there is no ‘living up to the family name.’ Her sense of care is less formally-determined. The lack of any ‘thick’ account of the good, her refusal to privilege any overt cultural form over another, is simply accepted as a neutral standard on which to proceed.

But neutrality is impossible. The more we pretend to it, the less aware we are of our preconceptions, and so, the more unthinkingly we will follow them. There is no giving up on the search for a positive articulation of the good. Prayer may be apophatic, but politics is always cataphatic, always a definite action leading to a definite end. To ignore this is to confuse the stratospheric with the atmospheric, to treat rocks as though they were clouds. 

By insisting on cultural neutrality, by insisting that it merely baby-proofs every hard edge and socket, the new mentality rejects any account of the anatomy of the human mind. It does not care, or does not know how to care, whether aspects of our lives distort our nature. How can we judge a cathedral over a glass and metal rectangle? How can we judge reading a book or hearing it recited by a loved one over reading pixels across multiple tabs for hours on end? We said that the nanny exercises care, but not onto any particular version of maturity, inverting the role of the Mother. Yet this has its own trajectory, for it will seek to care for every passing flight, every half-conceived, illusory, distorting identity will find its refuge. It will attack the standards and coherences of the past that it perceives as doing violence to these artefacts of personality. Identity will be ever more fragmentary. We might say the new philosophy sees our likeness, but not the image in which we are made. It shares this with Big Brother; of course, only Big Brother wanted, or thought it still necessary, to parody Father. 

The archaic conception, invoked by both the Christian church and medieval kingdoms, was that a community is a body and, specifically, the body of its king or head. Early modernity often retained this, even in a republican context. Today the image evokes for us a rigid organicism—each cell permanently differentiated, and each organ fixed in place, unto death. What we have built on instead is freedom defined not as the action of some definite nature, but as pure capacity to act—the theological equivalent of a God whose sovereignty takes precedence over His goodness, per Protestant and Augustinian excesses, as though the freedom to act against one’s nature were not an alienating compulsion. If we are each ‘free’ in this sense, our peaceful relations must depend either on some arbitrary equilibrium or an external agent. And if action does not proceed from nature, if freedom is spontaneous excitation and impulse, not the prompting of some coherent inner character, we have all but denied the subject altogether. We might as well have automatons, and a universe of mechanical causality rather than any idea of a ‘god.’ 

There is no longer any basis on which the body politic might index itself to its head, for the two would have to correspond, being the collective and individual expressions of a single nature, and we no longer believe in natures or essences. This being denied, political representation becomes an empty fiction whose occupation by sheer arbitrary egoic power or replacement by bureaucracy and algorithm seems irresistible. Likewise, the community is no body, for then some of us would have to desire to be a heart, others a spine, and so on, but we have opted for a formless freedom, ever protean. Yet, even with an expansive and negative understanding of freedom, we must proceed on some basis, and if this is not to be a totalizing obsession concerning how best to reinvent humanity (which it will actually always end up being, but if we refuse to admit this for now), then it will be the most evident, visible aspects of good, such as physical health. It must restrain the war of all against all which its unexamined belief in formless freedom implies. Yet it is not able to do this purely on the basis of some ideology of messianic horror. Therefore, it must act on the basis of external pressures, threats to health and safety. The house is a hospital now, a collection of self-isolating organs without bodies.

This has been a loose exploration of ideas, but if it is to have a clear takeaway, it should be that our understandings of authority and community are mutually determining, and that these understandings can be expressed as images—metaphors whose power is hard to underestimate. Furthermore, we might now be more aware of the features of totalitarianism, as they have occurred previously, than of its substance. 

Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.


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