When is "saving marriage" not a conservative program?

A reading of Zola's Germinal coincides with the debate on marriage to suggest a radical defence of the institution

Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
12 February 2013

Last week, legalising gay marriage was debated in Britain's parliament. When Prime Minister David Cameron argued that gay marriage will help to “save the institution of marriage”, my first reaction was to dismiss the comment: here is a social liberal offering a sop to his traditionalist base with a clever turn of phrase. Rather as I have dismissed any deep motivation - beyond that of formal equality - on the part of gay friends who not only want to be allowed to get married, but on top of that actually want to get married. Again, I have been tempted to think of the LGBT demand for marriage rights as simply being the natural next step in a political program: first demand tolerance by asserting a previously underground identity; then, living with the reality that to be tolerated is not the same as being accepted (indeed coming to understand that the two were antithetical: you can only tolerate what you do not like), demand formal equality.

So both in my reaction to Cameron and in my reaction to gay couples wanting to marry, I have tended to dismiss marriage itself - I could not see it as being a valuable, distinctive institution in its own right and with its own potency. Just a vestige of tradition. And I’m sure that many with a libertarian bent would have a similar first reaction: marriage is - or ought to be - supremely an arrangement between consenting adults. Social liberals should only wish the state to budge out of it and quite naturally, the special social place given to marriage as opposed to other private and domestic arrangements should be allowed to slowly wither.

About 15 years ago, my wife and I argued at length over whether or not to marry. My libertarianism back then was more pronounced than it is now - it was almost evangelical. We argued night after night, with me trying to make the case that marriage simply made no difference. Our commitment to each other existed for whatever reasons it did. Our daughter would be born a few months later and would strengthen our bond. But the assertion of a vow, the participation in a ceremony, simply had no place to enter a model of rational decision-making. The only reason to consider marriage was in its vestigial role in conferring this or that privilege in our dealings with the state. (Eventually, I had to concede that if it made no difference, as I claimed, then I should be as happy married as unmarried. So, for the sake of the in-laws, we married.)

A chance piece of reading, however, has made me somewhat reconsider my libertarian impulse. Not to reconsider my views on the political question. But rather to ask whether it is right to dismiss marriage, whoever it is that enters it, as being of no consequence at all.

In Zola’s Germinal, the hero Etienne Lantier walks out of his cold, hungry wanderings and into a job at the mine and a bed at the heart of a sprawling mining family. The whole mining community lives at a Malthusian edge, where the only free distraction is sex and its remorseless consequence is a steady supply of children to be sent down the mine who keep wages low and thus reproduce a community on the breadline.

The only individuals with any leisure are young men who have not yet taken responsibility for children and who, living independently, are not paying wages into any family pot. Etienne uses his leisure to read and he is gradually radicalised, partly through his conversations with a nihilist Russian, Souvarine, who has a good job tending the machines but who bears the wound of having seen his lover executed for sedition by the Tsar. Souvarine has transformed that wound into a political motivation:

“heroes will be born of her blood, and I have no cowardice due to a faint heart any more … Nothing! No parents, no woman, no friends! nothing that makes the hand tremble on the day that one needs to kill or be killed.”

Etienne leads the whole community into a terrible strike during which much property is destroyed and many die. Little does he understand that the machinations in the ownership of the local mines means that the largest of the companies welcomes the strike - all its competitors are harmed more than it is itself, and so it welcomes the opportunity to buy them up when they finally have to fold. (The novel is an early reflection on Darwin and Marx: the brutality of blind evolution runs through the book, but the “germ” of the title that is sown is the seed of Etienne’s political action, born of his anger at injustice.)

It seems as if Etienne and his most loyal followers will see the strike through to the bitter end; he has followers who would rather die than return to work without real concessions. The company offers to pardon vandalism and to take miners back on, but nothing on pay. The die-hards, it seems, will die.

Souvarine and Etienne both expect that many will return, but Etienne swears that he never will. And yet, that night, that is exactly what Etienne does. He goes because the girl he loves is returning to work, and, in the pitch dark of the night, he has a vision:

… he held her tight, his heart drowning in an immense sadness. He was overwhelmed by a desire for peace, an invincible need to be happy; he could picture himself married, in a small, clean, house with no ambition beyond that of living and dying there, the two of them. Bread would be all they’d need; and even if there was only enough for just one person, that piece would be for her. Nothing else mattered; did life really demand any more?


… He had sworn not to return to the pit, so where did his decision come from? Such a sense of calm had descended over him, there was such a total healing of his gnawing doubt … he was a man saved by good fortune, a man who had found the only door to salvation. She was worried - what would the others say - but he refused to listen. He would devote himself to her. He did not care what the miners would say. The company was offering pardons, and that would be enough for him.

So just as the death of his lover would harden Souvarine into murderously destructive opposition, so a vision of marital bliss sends Etienne back to the mine. He deserts his own strike. As it turns out, Etienne lives in a sort of concentrated hell the domestic bliss that took him down the pit - Catherine will die down there, and Etienne will only just make it out. But they will have spent those last days together, their perfect home a flooded tunnel with floating corpses.


Here then, is an image of marriage as a potent political force. And Zola’s particular version of it might actually make sense of Cameron - this time the conservative, not the social liberal - being perfectly serious in his desire to “save marriage”. Whatever the harshness and injustice of the world outside the home, the utopia of marriage makes it all worthwhile. This is a vision of marriage as creating the well-ordered society by encapsulating all the yearning for an ideal within the safe confines of home.

But if that is the right way to read Cameron’s genuine desire to save marriage, then it’s worth pointing out quite how nineteenth century the vision is. Yes, marriage is politically potent - it offers a vision of the creation of a full union between individuals - but that vision can today be much richer than the one that sent Etienne back to the mine. D H Lawrence elaborated on that utopia:

It is marriage, perhaps, which has given man the best of his freedom, given him his little kingdom of his own within the big kingdom of the State, given him his foothold of independence on which to stand and resist an unjust State. Man and wife, a king and queen with one or two subjects, and a few square yards of territory of their own: this, really, is marriage. It is a true freedom because it is a true fulfillment, for man, woman, and children.

Lawrence - despite the macho and monarchical metaphor - is pointing out that the vision of total union can be the opposite of Zola’s quiescent one. This is a view of marriage that does not result in orderly little platoons, but in points of micro-resistance against an unjust state. Marriage itself stands for an absolute union, and stands all the stronger for being elective. It becomes a political ideal and a force against claims on loyalty that don’t live up to that ideal. Compare this vision of a union of humans standing against an unjust state to the Randyan individual’s stand: John Galt may be another fictional strike-caller, but there is no room for a vision of a utopia a deux in his world.

More recently still, Franzen has taken up the theme in “Freedom”, in which the middle-class, middle-American marriage is not only a locus of resistance, but becomes a multi-generational one: the family, despite infidelities, generational non-communication and separations, stands as the glue that allows the father to become an environmental campaigner and the son - despite all odds and despite a distinctly Randyan beginning to his adulthood - to become a fair trader. In Franzen, the American dream becomes the freedom to marry. When his characters live by the demands of that freedom, they flourish both themselves and as citizens. When they deny it, they bring destruction all around them.

In this light, “saving marriage” starts to sound like a more attractive proposition. Just maybe marriage is the ideal of an elective union of trust. If the world outside the home is one of disappearing attachments, one where humanity, nation or class are no longer viscerally bound in fraternity, then the simple move from the single individual to the pair becomes the first move in an emergent process of rebuilding a humane world. As such, marriage is potent - and the libertarian impulse to dismiss it - just maybe - misses the point. And if that’s so, it shouldn’t be the preserve of conservatives. Indeed, the modern family - multi-generational, permeable, supportive - might well be the real conservative’s worst nightmare.


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