Thursday, October 29, 2020

47. The Post-Nuclear Family: Is It Communism? (Demographic Doom Podcast)

 This is the script for my Demographic Doom podcast episode (#47) recorded on 29 October 2020 (released on 30 October 2020). It may differ slightly from the final broadcast. This episode is available on major podcast platforms, including PodbeanApple Podcasts and a video version on YouTube. See the description on the YouTube version for extensive annotations, links and corrections. You can also comment on this episode there. (If you leave comments on this blog post, I might not see them.) The main website for this project is

I’m Glenn Campbell. I call myself a demographic philosopher. I’m looking at life and trying to predict the future through the lens of demography, or the study of human populations. I'm trying to view humanity from a distance, as aliens would see us from space.

In this episode I'd like to respond to a comment someone left on the YouTube version of my last episode, #46, where I first introduced the post-nuclear family. The comment said: 

This very unrealistic. The Hippies have already tried this and it falls apart every time.

If you want to know what he's talking about, you should probably listen to my previous episode before you listen to this one. The basic idea of my post-nuclear family is that instead of one or two adults raising one or two children, we have a consortium of parents raising a permanent household of between 9 and 18 kids, evenly distributed in age. With that many kids, you've got economies of scale, and you also have a captive labor force of older children caring for younger ones. I am confident that children raised within this system would handle it well. The main challenge is how to get the adults to work together.

Apparently, the listener is equating my system to some kind of utopian commune from the 1960s or 70s. Another listener is more explicit. "This sounds like Communism," he writes. Political Communism obviously failed, for the practical reason of destroying personal incentives, but my system is not Communism. It is a group of adults living separate lives coming together only for this one project.

I think a better comparison is a community church. Throughout the world, the landscape is dotted with houses of worship supported solely by their parishioners on a voluntary basis. Everyone within the congregation shares an ideology, but they are largely self-organizing and there is no central authority telling them what to do. Apart from performing their church duties, each of the adults live their own separate lives without trying to share everything they own.

In a standard Christian church, parishioners attend regular services once a week, typically on Sunday, but they may also return to the church throughout the week for social or civic functions. The church is supported by voluntary contributions, often called a "tithe", which is literally one-tenth of your income. The fact that members of the church contribute their time and money to the church does not imply that every member is sharing all their assets with every other member. Members still live their own independent lives. They are allowed to own assets and pursue a career of their choosing. Only the church holds them together.

The kind of Protestant churches that I have known don't make many demands of their parishioners. The members are motived enough by their ideology and their loyalty to the parish to keep it going. They organize themselves into committees and plan social events—like pot-luck dinners—generally without much friction and without a power structure telling them what to do. There's a vicar who is technically in charge, but power is widely distributed over a number of parties. The people who tend to have the most influence in the church are those who choose to be most active in it. There may be disputes but they are generally mild ones. If anyone didn't believe in the parish's shared goals or didn't get along with other members, they would probably leave the church on their own. Technically someone could be asked to leave, but that would happen only under extreme circumstances. 

There is a certain amount of "Communism" involved in maintaining any non-commercial enterprise, be it a church or some other community-supported service, like a local zoo or museum. So long as important tasks get done, there isn't a strict accounting for who does what. If the cause is something that everyone in the group believes in, they are all willing to pitch in however they can. In any church, members tend to sort themselves according to their skills and interests. One member becomes the parish treasurer, another is the secretary, a third is the organist, and someone else might look after facility maintenance. Sometimes, there is pay involved, but it's usually not much. People mainly contribute because they identify with the organization and want to it to succeed. 

Parishioners know you are expected to give some of their money to the church. There may be a formula, like 10% of your income, but there's not a lot of enforcement. People comply out of a genuine concern for the group, which is easy if you know everyone involved. In spite of these relatively lax conditions, many churches not only survive but thrive as permanent institutions. Parishioners live and die, but the church keeps going.

The post-nuclear family follows the church analogy. If you decide to join the organization, it implies that you support its core beliefs and are willing to make a commitment to it. You know from the beginning that you are going to perform certain duties without pay. This might mean serving as a parent or teacher on a certain defined schedule—say, one or two days per week. If the family calls on you to perform a more time-consuming function, like treasurer, teacher or bearer of children, they may to pay you, but since you care deeply about the project, you're not going to gouge them. All the adults in the organization believe in the same mission, so there is likely to be a lot of cooperative and communistic behavior regarding the main project of raising kids, but it certainly isn't Communism in the Soviet sense. You're not sharing everything you own with everyone else.

Communism is more evident within the core household where the children are raised and the sick and elderly are cared for. A family, by its nature, is a communal undertaking: "From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs." You can't expect a toddler to change his own diapers or pay his own way. Young children will require a lot of services because their needs are great and their abilities small. As older children gain abilities, they are expected to contribute more to the household—"from each according to his abilities." As soon as a child gains a skill, it is immediately put to practical use in service to the others. For example, when an older child learns to change diapers, they will be expected to perform this task whenever it is needed. Ideally, they'll do it on their own without being asked. They will call on older family members if they have a problem, but they also have pride in doing things themselves.

Yet even in the core household, there are limits to sharing. Every kid wants to own stuff and accumulate wealth—in whatever form wealth takes for them. If they obtain some nice object or article of clothing through their own initiative, they should be allowed to keep it. I call this the "footlocker system".

I imagine every child having their own footlocker, a sort of steamer trunk that contains their own personal possessions. It is usually kept in the same room they sleep in, maybe at the end of their bed. If you find a nice shell at the beach and want to keep it, you put it in your footlocker, and no one can take it from you. If someone takes something from your box without your permission, it's a crime worthy of punishment (although we haven't discussed how punishment works in this household). Everything inside a footlocker is private property. Everything outside all footlockers is community property. A teddy bear kept in your footlocker is yours, assuming you acquired it legitimately. If you leave your Teddy out on the floor too often, it becomes a community Teddy, and you lose your exclusive title to it.

The only limitation on the footlocker is that it is only so big. If you accumulate so many possessions that you can't close the lid, you'll have to relinquish something. The contents of your footlocker can be anything that's valuable to you: photos, clothing, toys, trinkets, or a collection of seashells. With this cache of wealth, you can trade with other kids in a proto-capitalist system. You can also give gifts to others and have it mean something, because you clearly owned the things you gave away.

Children are also allowed to accumulate monetary wealth. As long as their family duties are fulfilled, teenagers are free to get jobs outside the home, and they get to keep 90% of  what they make. What happens to the other 10%? That's their tithe, of course—their family taxes—paid to the family for as long as they are employed. 

These little slices of Capitalism are critical to a child's identity and self-esteem. I may love my sisters and brothers, but if one of them tries to take my stuff, I'll bite their head off. This is healthy and natural. The only thing I would try to restrict is the sheer volume of goods a child accumulates, and that's where the footlocker comes in.

The footlocker aside, a family is chiefly a Communist system and always has been. "From each according to his abilities; to each according to their needs." Whenever you marry someone, you are buying into a Communist system. You are agreeing to share your assets and liabilities without a strict accounting of who owns what. Among siblings, Communism also prevails. This is especially easy when the ages of the children are staggered and there are clear gradations of abilities and needs. No one expects a baby to change its own diapers, and no one who cares about the baby feels too aggrieved about doing it. This is one of the reasons I want ages to be clearly separated. If you have multiple children of the same age, you world probably run into all the classic problems of Communism, with some children slacking and others monopolizing communal resources. With staggered ages, there is less competition and more opportunity for pure altruism.

If you want to see a situation where Communism often doesn't work, look at a family with only one or two kids. The parents provide everything, and the kids just sit back and accept their largesse. They have no other model of behavior. The kids may have chores, but there is no natural way to assign them, and they often go undone. In the post-nuclear family, the chores are more integral. When dinnertime comes, everyone snaps into action, knowing what they are expected to do to make dinner happen. Child in small families get dinner made for them. In the post-nuclear family, the kids have to do it themselves or no one eats.

I am not advocating that the children fend for themselves. The kids cook the food, but the parents still provide it. Parents are always a background presence, assuring the safety and integrity of the household and teaching new skills. What's nice about having a spectrum of children is that if you teach something to one child, they can teach it to the others. Over time, more of the family's culture will be passed from child to child than from parent to child.

Every family requires adult supervision, because without monitoring and intervention things will starting going off the rails. If everything is working well, the adult touch can be light. Adults should not be intervening in matters they can be settled internally, through the natural hierarchy of older children supervising younger ones. Parents step in only on complex issues that cannot be resolved at a lower level.

If there is a competent 17- or18-year-old in charge, there might be no parent on duty for a few hours or even a couple of days. You need parents to teach complex ideas, pursue a larger plan and fine-tune the operation. The goal of the household is to be self-sufficient in all its standard operations. This reduces the demands on the parents and gives them more time to pursue their own private goals. When the parents come into the household, they should be engaged in high-quality interactions, not routine chores.

Among adults, Communism tends to work pretty well when you have a limited number of dedicated people voluntarily engaged in a worthy mission, separate from their private lives. The cooperation breaks down when people are forced to join the enterprise, as happened with Soviet-style Communism. That is why I'm not promoting the post-nuclear family as a solution for everyone. Joining other adults to raise children has to be a highly motivated free-will choice, and only the most cooperative and conscientious people should be accepted.

Now, when you mention Communism, most people think of the Soviet Union, but there was another form of communism practiced in Israel in the 1960s and 1970s. This was called the "kibbutz", which was more like the hippy commune mentioned by my first listener. It, too, eventually failed, but it was an interesting experiment while it lasted. Soviet Communism never abandoned the nuclear family. The basic unit of Soviet society was still a Mom and a Dad and some kids. Kibbutzim did try to remake the family. They sought to raise large numbers of children in a communal setting which may seem to resemble my system, but there was one key difference: The kibbutz segregated children by age. It was a horizontal system instead of the vertical system I am proposing.

A kibbutz attempted to raise literally hundreds of children at once. Kids were taken from their parents at an early age and raised in nurseries of 4-8 children, all of similar age. At the age of 7, nurseries were merged into "societies" of 14-22 children, which stayed together until adulthood. So every kid had a family of sorts, but it consisted only of children their own age. You had no access to older siblings, who could teach you stuff or younger siblings who you could teach and care for. All new knowledge had to come from adult teachers.

It was really a brutal system that scarred a lot of people. First of all, if you are one kid forced to live with 20 others your age, you don't get a chance to be special. Gangs would form among the children, where the strongest individuals would make themselves special through force. The children still had parents, but they we allowed to see them only on a very restrictive basis, and this was extremely painful to everyone involved. In the end, the failure of the childrearing system is one of the things that doomed the kibbutz. Children who graduated from the system never cared enough about the system to keep it going. They just wanted out.

In the system I am proposing, 9 to 14 children stay together for their entire childhood, just like families today. No kid is the same age as any other kid, except perhaps in the case of twins. If you have older siblings who are actively involved in your care, you see them as parents, and you receive a great deal of knowledge from them.

Think of the problem of learning language. If you've got 4-8 infants in one nursery, some adult has to spend time with each other for the one-on-one practice that makes language happen. This is essentially a full-time job for some adult who probably has to be paid for their service. If one infant comes into a household with at least 8 existing older children, there's plenty of opportunity for interactions with parental figures who already know their language. You don't need to be an adult to talk baby talk to a baby. An 8-year-old can do it just fine.

An infant in my system has a lot more stimulation than an infant in the kibbutz. Most learning is passed from child to child instead of teacher to child. There is still a role for teachers in my system, but I see them more as "educational managers" who assure that the proper skills are learned. They don't directly teach a child something if an older sibling can teach that skill just as well. Children can teach other children how to talk, walk, use the potty and obey the house rules. This is valuable not just for the child being taught but for the child doing the teaching, who gains the skills of social responsibility and cements their own knowledge of the skills being taught. 

Eventually, I'll have a podcast episode on education within the post-nuclear family, and as you might expect, it depends a lot on older children teaching younger children, especially for the basic skills of early childhood. There is an adult education manager watching over things, but when it comes to the nitty-gritty of teaching a toddler new words, reading books to them and correcting their grammar, older children should do it. It is part of their family responsibility, which they will see as perfectly natural if that's the way they themselves were taught.

What about that problem in the kibbutz of restricting a child's access to their parents? This was a big issue because parents and children really want to be together, and prying them apart is painful to both. My system solves that problem by redefining what is a parent. I mean, a newborn infant isn't very picky about who they bond with. When they look up from their cradle and see a face, they perceive that face as their parent. They bond with whoever communicates with them and cares for them.

The real test of parenthood is when I child stubs their toe, who do they run to for comfort? I don't want to declare in advance who will hold that special bond. The toddler might run to the 8-year-old or the 18-year-old. I think children within the family should be able to choose their own bonds. As I see it, this is a diverse family with a lot of different personalities, some of whom are more attuned to the needs of infants. Since the family never changes, apart from all the children getting older, this special bond with a parental figure can last for a long time, until, perhaps, the parties outgrow it.

Every child also has a biological mother. This is the woman who bore the child and naturally has a strong bond with them. I would never propose tearing a mother and baby apart. For one thing, I think that mother's should suckle their infants, which seems to be a lot healthier than baby formula. I expect possessiveness, but if the mother herself was raised by the family and trusts her younger sibling who she herself raised, she may be more than happy to let those siblings handle the granular tasks of raising that child.

At this point, you may be getting a few hints about where the babies come from, if, in fact, the stork doesn't bring them. I'm not ready to tackle it in this episode, however. That will be a future episode. 

Before I end this episode I want to mention an important principle we learned from the kibbutz. It's called the Westermarck Effect. That's the observation that children of the opposite sex who are raised together have very little sexual interest in each other. In the kibbutz, you had 20 kids of both genders raised and educated together, straight through puberty and into adulthood—although presumably living in gender-segregated dorms. There was no prohibition against marrying within your society, since most of the kids were not genetically related, but hardly anyone did it. You may love your brother or sister in a platonic way, but you probably wouldn't want to have sex with them. I think most young people would regard that as gross. This revulsion obviously has an evolution purpose, because inbreeding leads to serious genetic abnormalities. The sexual part of the brain has no way of knowing who you are genetically related to to, so it simply turns off for anyone you grew up with.

This little principle is something we'll file away until it's time to discuss sexual aspects of the post-nuclear family. What happens when children reach puberty and start taking an interest in the opposite sex? The Westermarck Effect says that they are going to look outside the family for their mates. This gets complicated, because if you marry someone from another family, which family do you belong to?We'll get into that later.


Subscribe to this podcast for more discussions of this theoretical family structure. I encourage your input. If you have anything to say, you can email me or post a comment to the YouTube version of this episode. My contact information is found in the YouTube description.


Written, recorded and edited by Glenn Campbell. For annotations, links and corrections, see the description on the video version of this podcast. You can also leave comments there. See here for all my podcast scripts on this blog.