Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Private Communism

Did you know that this is what David Brooks advocates? He is one of those light-weight wingnut columnists, installed in the New York Times to irritate all correct-thinking progressives, and mostly he writes total rubbish. Like in his last column, about the holiness of shared financial accounts in families:

I'm not saying that people with separate accounts have marriages that are less healthy than anybody else's. I'm saying we should pause before this becomes the social norm. Private property is the basis for our market democracy. But private property in the home is an altogether trickier proposition.

For one thing, separate accounts can easily turn into secret accounts. A person's status and resources inside the home shouldn't be based on how much he or she is making outside it. A union based on love can easily turn into a merger based on self-interest, where the main criterion for continuing becomes: Am I getting a good return on my investment, psychic or otherwise?

This is a very revealing article, in many ways. We are told that you can be a selfish narcissistic pig in the public sector, to be a greedy hog in the markets, and that is all perfectly fine (sorry, pigs, I know that you are not really like that but we use you to reflect our lowest characteristics). But at home you must be a communist. Connect this with the hidden idea behind all this wingnut poetry: that it's the women who are supposed to be at home and the men who are supposed to be in the public sector, and you get David's point: women should not have independence.

This has something to do with Tolstoy:

Leo Tolstoy wrote a lovely novella called "Family Happiness," narrated by a young woman who goes out for a walk with a man she loves. They talk about nothing in particular - frogs, actually - but exchange looks and gestures. "He said goodbye as usual and made no special allusion; but I knew that from that day he was mine, and that I should never lose him now."

They are married but grow apart. She likes parties, while he doesn't. Then one day they are sitting at home and her heart suddenly grows light. She looks around and realizes that the courtship phase of their relationship has ended, but it has been replaced by something gentler and deeper:

"That day ended the romance of our marriage; the old feeling became a precious irrecoverable remembrance; but a new feeling of love for my children and the father of my children laid the foundation of a new life and a quite different happiness; and that life and happiness have lasted to the present time."

Tolstoy's story captures the difference between romantic happiness, which is filled with exhilaration and self-fulfillment, and family happiness, built on self-abnegation and sacrifice.

Too bad that Tolstoy had a terrible marriage which ended in dreadful rows about all the money that he decided shouldn't be given to the children. According to his wife, Tolstoy was a really bad husband, never mind his status as a writer. But yes, they had their finances pooled so all was fine, according to Brooks. Never mind that they ended up not talking to each other.

Of course Brooks is mostly just waffling, filling up the required space with something that would look good from the wingnut point of view but that wouldn't completely disgust the progressive readers of the New York Times. I mean, who could earnestly say that shared finances wouldn't be just fine? Of course they are. But so are separate finances, depending on the personalities of the people involved in the relationship, and on what works for them. So what's all the fuss? Let David write whatever he writes.

Sure. But it's interesting to think about what he might be really saying here when he talks about private communism. The traditional view of family finances was one where the husband owned all of them, including the moneys that the wife brought into the marriage, and where he could alone decide on their use. This was not private communism at all, and when we talk about pooled finances in families many have this arrangement in mind: where one person determines how the funds are being spent. And this is what such readers react to: the idea that women should not have control over their own incomes. Or that men should not have control if it is the woman in a particular family that decides on money. For such readers separate finances have a lot to say for themselves.

What I find interesting about Brooks's arguments is that the underwear of the wingnuts is showing so very clearly here, the playing rules of the capitalistic game, if you like. He's telling us that you can be as horribly self-centered and greedy as you wish out in the public, but in the private sphere of the family someone at least must be self-abnegating for the game to work. And I suspect that that someone would not be called David but more like Davida.
Thanks to NTodd for the link. See his take on the topic here.