Michelle Parker, a young mother of two, disappeared from her Florida home in 2011 and has never been seen again.  The only suspect in her disappearance is her husband, who has left the state with the two children.  Michelle’s mother, who has not seen her grandchildren since 2011, has repeatedly petitioned the Florida legislature to pass a law establishing the right of grandparents to see their grandchildren.  While grandparental rights are not unknown in the 50 states, the concept has been slow to develop, and in several court rulings visitation rights have been explicitly rejected as violations of state constitutions.

After centuries of activism against the family and several decades of conservative counterattack, the only imaginable redress available to grandparents is to come from the very entities of government that have engaged in a relentless campaign to reduce the once independent strongholds of family and kinship to mere wards of the state.  To understand how we have come this far, it will be necessary to think ourselves back into a time when Indians roamed the plain, and Apple was not.

When future trending bloggers contemplate the opening decades of the 21st century, they will, with the benefit of hindsight, see this period as the culmination of the revolution against human nature that had been stirring in the murkier depths of the Renaissance, came out into the daylight during the Enlightenment, entered into armed struggle during the French and Russian revolutions, and triumphed in the United States after World War II.

The regime’s mythmakers will be able to see what conservatives refused to see: that same-sex marriage was only a late stage in the long march through the institutions of blood and family, whose progress was marked by children’s rights, feminism, the emancipation of married women from their husbands, and the two-century-long divorce revolution.  In this struggle, the revolutionaries have won nearly every battle, and their agenda has triumphed in every campaign.  Conservatives are already conceding same-sex “marriage,” but they promise to hold the line on transgender rights, and once they have lost that battle they will fearlessly declare war on transspecies identities and intraspecific relationships.

For most of the past hundred years, defenders of “family values” have limited their attention to the so-called bourgeois or nuclear family, and some have even pretended that these isolated households of parents-cum-children are a human norm.  To anyone who knows anything of chimpanzees or primitive societies and, indeed, to anyone who has read the Old Testament or Beowulf or the Iliad, such a notion will appear preposterous.  In rough times, isolated households are incapable of defending themselves from predatory enemies, and in the conditions imposed by modern states, nuclear families cannot stand up against the legions of public-school teachers, child-saving social workers, and children’s rights advocates.  Stripped of the protection offered by broader networks of kith and kin, the nuclear family cannot even protect its children from mass culture, much less from the vast network of social agencies arrayed against it.

Conservative defenders of the family have got it wrong.  The so-called bourgeois family has never been a threat to the modern state, which cannot afford to do away with either marriage or the nuclear family.  After the Bolshevik Revolution, some Marxist intellectuals—Alexandra Kollontai was the most prominent—were calling for free love and collectivized childrearing, but Lenin was too smart to fall for such nonsense.  Imagine the logistics of the Soviet state assuming direct responsibility for housing, feeding, and toilet-training millions of children.  Lenin shipped Kollontai off into honorable exile as ambassador to Norway and contented himself with reducing family ties to the nuclear level.  The Soviet project—only partly successful because human nature rebels—was to turn families into holding pens for children, when they were not being subjected to the propaganda of the Soviet educational system.

The ham-handed tactics of Soviet communists inspired resentment and resistance, though their more subtle counterparts in the United States—educationists inspired by John Dewey, welfare bureaucrats, social workers—have been far more successful.  Meanwhile conservatives, forever prating of individualism and bourgeois values, patted themselves on the back for defending the bourgeois family, even as the concept of the extended family of grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins was being erased from the American consciousness.

The elimination of kinship as an essential part of the social network is fraught with consequences.  Before the city or the state came into existence and before the invention of the “individual,” men and women lived within families that were part of broader groups of kinfolk, such as clans and tribes.  The Israel depicted in the Book of Judges is a network of villages belonging to tribal entities that are both territorial and, at least in principle, based on kinship.  These villages are made up of compounds of extended families that acknowledge a broader social structure, a clan, that may or may not be coextensive with the village itself.  These village clans are joined together into tribes.  From what we can make out of ancient writers and the archaeological record, this structure was paralleled (not replicated) in archaic Greece, and similar patterns are found in medieval Europe, not only among primitive Germans and Scandinavians but also in France and Italy.

These broader networks of clan and tribe discharge many of the functions of modern government: They settle disagreements and regulate feuds; they defend their people against rivals and aggressors; and they prescribe rules on marriage, kinship, and punishment.  These kin-based rules told people whom they could and could not marry, whom they had to support, from whom they could inherit, and to whom they would bequeath property.  They also dictated the terms of blood revenge and of collective responsibility for the misdeeds of kinfolks.

Among middle-class Americans blood feuds are no longer of much concern, and while close relatives of the disabled and impoverished often do their best to shift responsibility to the taxpayers, inheritance laws are an issue that is far from dead, even in these posthuman United States.  It is true that most Americans, including the lawyers with whom I have discussed inheritance, think that a man has the right to dispose of his property any way he sees fit.  When an old fool of an oil tycoon meets and marries a stripper, with whom he cannot even consummate a union, he is free to rob his heirs of half the estate and make the stripper wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice of anyone but Anna Nicole Smith and her predatory boyfriends.

Every American conservative has undoubtedly read Sir Henry Sumner Maine’s great book Ancient Law, in which he argued that the history of our civilization was a progression from status to contract.  In the early phases of ancient societies, law and custom stipulated who received what part of a man’s estate.  Your status as wife or son or brother determined whether and how much you would inherit.  In the law of Moses, property went to the sons, with the firstborn receiving a double share.  If a marriage had produced only daughters, they could inherit but had to marry within the tribe, to prevent the property from passing to complete strangers.  Athenian law, which provided for equal shares among sons, was more demanding, and, in the absence of sons, an heiress could be claimed in marriage by her closest male relative—an uncle or cousin.

In early times, inheritance was concerned largely with agricultural land, a house, and assorted weapons, tools, and furnishings; however, as societies develop and diversify, both men and women can accumulate money and valuable artifacts that are not really part of the house and land.  Gradually, testators acquired the right to dispose of such valuables, either in their life or by a will.  There were always ambiguities of the sort that make lawyers wealthy.  Such disputes are not limited to ancient Athenian courts: The plot of Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds turns on the question of whether the diamonds are heirlooms, and thus part of the estate, which has to pass to a legal heir, or simply costly jewelry that had been given to Lady Eustace.

In the evolution of English law, the desire to preserve estates led to rules on primogeniture and entailment, the former being the right of the eldest son to inherit the entire estate, and the latter being the right to dictate rules by which the estate will be transferred to future generations.  To the classical liberal mind, such restrictions on property as quitrents, primogeniture, and entail were a residue of feudalism and an infringement on individual liberty.  The argument to abolish primogeniture was part of the ideology of liberal Whigs in England, and in America Thomas Jefferson led the attack, declaring that “The earth belongs always to the living generation.”

It is not that any of these rules would necessarily serve a useful purpose today—as they undoubtedly did in earlier centuries—but in dismantling legal traditions that restricted legacies and in lumping inheritances together with money and other forms of fungible wealth, Jefferson was unintentionally attacking Virginia’s network of family and kinfolk that was an essential part of who he was.

Kinship provides the institutional structures by which individuals and households are integrated into society.  Once these ties of blood have been cut, there is only anarchy—and the despotism of absolute government.

The arguments in this essay are drawn from Thomas Fleming’s ongoing book project entitled Properties of Blood.