George Walford: The Enduring Base (36)

In the journal which the IRA – sorry! – the RAI has the courage to entitle simply MAN, Daniel Miller brings out, without particularly intending to, the way in which early systems of relationships tend to persist, in a buried or suppressed form, within later ones, thereby indicating the persistence of the early major ideologies. Reporting on his recent field-work in an English council estate he comments on the ‘antipathy to neighbourliness’ (calling on Mass Observation’s studies of the 1940s for confirmation), and notes another source of human contact:

Apart from an antipathy to one’s immediate neighbours, less than 1 in 100 expressed any interest in community involvement. The more important factor behind any deterioration in conditions for housewives, as evident from various sociological studies is likely to be the relative absence of close kin. (“Appropriating the State on the Council Estate” in MAN, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, XXIII, 2, June 1988).

Kinship relations play a large part in anthropology; indeed, it is not unusual to find the simpler societies distinguished as kinship communities. The routine view distinguishes between these and societies in which people locate themselves socially by role or function, but this turns out to be an over-simplification. As Miller and Mass-Observation have found, kinship persists even in Britain today as a basic network providing support, human contact and a sense of worth for people without a place on the ladder of public position.

And does this not agree with universal experience? With the sole exception of the marriage-partner (who in any case can be ranked as kin-by-selection) the closest contacts for nearly all of us are siblings, parents or offspring, with cousins, aunts and uncles often coming a close second. By comparison with this warm intimacy – strong enough, very often, to be able to incorporate hostility – our contacts with neighbours and community remain cold and thin.

Kinship systems vary from one society to another, showing them to be social constructs; few of us now can trace second, third and fourth cousins as many Victorians seem habitually to have done. Kinship, however, is universal, if not a fact of biology at least close to being one; it is found acting – at least in some limited way – as a basis for communal solidarity in the earliest and simplest societies, and it persists today, providing security and satisfactions at a deep level the welfare state cannot touch. The reformist and revolutionary intellectuals take little account of it, believing contacts set up in the medium of the larger society to be sufficient for emotional needs; it is those who study the way people behave, rather than prescribing how they ought to behave, who recognise its importance.

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ONE BELIEF contributing to the conception of Britain as the land of the free is that the Anglo-Saxons were a free people on whom the Normans tried – unsuccessfully in the long run – to impose their domination. John W. Burrow comments: ‘The connotations of Saxon “freedom” must not be mistaken. To be free was simply not to be a slave.’ (A Liberal Descent; Victorian Historians and the English Past, Cambridge U. P. 1981 p. 118).

DISRAELI: ‘We must remember that this country is not governed by logic, but by Parliament.’ (Quoted on the title of Doolittle I. G., The City of London and its Livery Companies 1983)

from Ideological Commentary 36, November 1988.