Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Biopolitics of marriage

Let’s deconstruct the phenomenon of marriage. What is it: a rite of passage, an act of religious or philosophical meaning, a totalitarian way of state trying to control the population? Let’s examine anthropological, moral and political aspects of marriage, to unpack this old ritual and strip it out of outdated baggage.

I won’t be touching upon the absurdity of the modern Western conception of marriage as a union based on a never-ending romantic love. In his famous book, ‘Love in the Western world’, the Swiss author Denis de Rougemont has debunked this myth a long time ago. To say it short: the historical model of marriage that has proven to be successful across centuries and cultures, from Ancient Greece to modern Japan, is an arranged marriage, that has nothing to do with lust.

On the other hand, the concept of romantic love (essentially based on lust) originated in the West only recently, during the times of chivalry and courtly love, and it’s never been associated with marriage before the past century. The concept of romantic love is based on some unresolvable contradictions – such as the essential temporality of the whole phenomenon (courtly love fades out when the lust is satisfied – to maintain the feeling the protagonists have to stay apart, for instance by placing a sword of chastity between them, like Tristan and Isolde did). Therefore all canonic stories about chivalry and courtly love were essentially tragic and ended with a death of one or both protagonists. The idea to base such a long-term enterprise as marriage on the idea of romantic love is therefore absurd, and simply goes against the definition of the concept.

Anyway, let’s rather focus on more practical aspects of marriage which have been defining this ritual across cultures over a much longer time horizon. And let’s check applicability of these features in the context of modern world. As we’ll see, many of them have lost their relevance, and thus can be reformed, while others have emerged in their influence.

Marriage as a rite of passage

From the anthropological standpoint, marriage historically qualified as a rite of passage – a step into adult life, separation from childhood and initiation into adulthood. A woman was removed from her father’s house and was initiated into adolescence, where she had to join a family of her husband, and establish a new branch of a family unit. It’s needless to say that this interpretation of marriage has lost any meaning these days – barely any couple doesn’t live together before the wedding.

What’s more absurd is that even though marriage no longer bears significance of a rite of passage, it still comes with a lot of unnecessary baggage of traditions and rituals that refer to it. Think of the awful ritual of ‘buying out’ the bride prevailing in Eastern Europe, where the groom has to offer a symbolic bribe to friends and relatives of the bride in order to get her out of the parents’ house. Or, even the tradition of wearing a white dress on a wedding as a symbol of childhood purity.

Nietzsche was comparing such outdated values and social conventions with a rotten tree: seemingly standing, but hollow inside. Our moral obligation, according to him, is therefore to push it and reveal its hollowness. ‘What is falling, that one should also push!’. ‘The values that have become hollow, all creeds out of which the faith has gone, and all that is processed only by hypocrites’ – that’s what should be exposed and eliminated. The baggage of absurd social traditions associated with the ritual of marriage is definitely one of these things to get rid of.

Marriage as a moral act

As we found out that marriage no longer qualifies as a rite of passage, does it have any other sacral meanings? Religious marriages were supposed to commemorate the eternal union of two Christians by prohibiting them to divorce under a threat of God’s punishment. Even these days in order to break a Catholic marriage you have to get a special permission of the Pope himself!

On the other hand, barely any marriages are sanctified by church these days, and divorces are normalized. The average divorce rate in the EU is 45,5%, with countries like Finland and Belgium having the divorce rate of more than 50%. One of the highest divorce rates in the world is observed in Russia – 73,6%. Ironically, Russia is also a country that treats the sphere of weddings and marriages extremely seriously. It not socially acceptable to have a small wedding. On the opposite, it’s normal to take consumer loans to finance huge luxurious weddings, just to get divorced a year later. Fun fact: India, where arranged marriages are still prevailing, has a divorce rate of 1%.

While conservative people still endorse the idea of marriage as a moral institution, this model clearly stands no chance in real life. The hypocrisy of the ritual persists though. Pledging love until the end of your days – while acknowledging that, statistically speaking, your promise only has a 50% chance of being valid in the long-term, is in the best case shortsighted, in the worst – simply hypocritical and morally flawed.

This moral fallacy could however be fixed by removing the presumption of long-lastingness from the marriage contract. An average marriage in the US lasts for 8 years. Therefore, a marriage contract could limit the timeline of commitment for a shorter period of time – for instance, for the period until a child reaches the age that makes him a bit less biologically or socially dependent on the constant presence of both parents – for example, around 10 years. From the biological perspective, monogamy in human species is mostly driven by the fact that human offsprings take a particularly long time to reach adolescence, therefore they need support of both parents for a substantial period of time.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that all marriages have to end after a decade. For instance, the marriage contract can include a prolongation clause – after a decade the parties might either choose to renew the contract of withdraw from it.

Another solution would of course be to choose better partners – the ones you simply wouldn’t want to divorce in a couple of years. As we’ve already seen above, the arranged marriages stand the highest chance of being successful. Of course, I’m not saying that it’s realistic to have marriages arranged by families in the Western society of the 21 century. In most cases families don’t even have a better judgement than the couple itself. By the word arranged (or rather self-arranged) we should simply imply rational – a marriage where such factors as common socio-cultural background, similar interests, future goals and priorities in life form the basis of the union.

Marriage as a tool of biopolitics

Since modern marriage fails to qualify both as a rite of passage and as a moral act, there’s one last aspect of it left to examine – the use of marriage as a political tool.

This is the easiest to interpret through philosophy of Michel Foucault, and in particular – through his theory of biopolitics. According to Foucault, starting from the 17th century, the state hasn’t limited itself to disciplinary power only. Another sphere of power that emerged was biopolotics – the control of the ‘population body’:

Biopolitics of the population focuses on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary.’

This is essentially linked to the development of capitalism. It’s in the best interest of the state to maintain its population in a productive state, and reproducing at a healthy rate, to ensure that economic processes are running smooth, with ‘bodies inserted into the machinery of production’.

‘Biopolitical power, focused on the administration of the life of the population, seeks to strengthen and enhance it through techniques as wide-ranging as labour laws, public hygiene, and the regulation of heredity. The second, called anatomopolitical, focused on the disciplining of individuals, primarily through knowledges and institutions from medicine and psychiatry to principles of taxation.’

No doubt, the government is still actively involved into the sphere of biopolitics. The politics of mandatory vaccination is one of the examples of state regulation of public health. Deaths, epidemics and famine are simply not beneficial neither for an individual nor for the governor.

Therefore, to make it clear, we should regard marriage as a three-way contract between people and the government (as it was defined by Wendy McElroy). This is a dismal realization, but we’re essentially married to the state. This can however be fixed (more about it soon).

Let’s first however focus on the problem of gay marriages. I see biopolitics as one of the reasons why most governments still oppose gay marriages. The essential goal of biopower is to ensure that the population reproduces itself at a healthy rate of growth. According to the government, gay marriages apparently do not fulfill this goal. But don’t they?

Marriage as an institution of reproduction

One biological aspect that has been historically crucial for marriage is the childbearing. Which made sense – given the lack of contraception, only through registration of an exclusive union it was possible to track who’re biological parents of a child, and this way ensure the bloodline continuation of the parents. This was for instance the Ancient Greek model, where marriages were a civil obligation and a matter of public interest, as they primarily served the purpose of population reproduction.

At the same time, in Ancient Greece, nothing prevented men from having affairs with other men, while still having conventional families with women. In fact, love was mainly reserved for the homosexual affairs. For instance, in Plato’s Symposium there’re 4 types of love described. Interestingly enough, none of those are related to women – Plato devoted only a short remark to heterosexual relationships somewhere at the end of the dialogue. Therefore, a union with a woman was simply treated as a life necessity for the bloodline continuation. Homosexuality was out of scope of marriage, therefore there was no conflict between family and gay love affairs. Only heterosexual adultery was considered an offense, since it could have led to the worst of crimes – break of a bloodline, in case wife of a citizen gave birth to a child from another father.

The development of modern-day science has made this whole heterosexual reproduction-centric model of marriage quite outdated. Or, at least outdated in its classical sense. First of all, gay couples can have children with the help of surrogate mothers. Gay people can therefore form a legitimate reproduction-centric family unit. What is more, the development of contraception and DNA testing made the offspring control much easier – there’s no longer need to establish an exclusive union just for the purpose of making sure your offspring is biologically yours.

Just like straight child-free couples are not prohibited from entering marriage, and having children with DNA of both biological parents is not a prerequisite, there’s thus no reason why gay marriages should be prohibited. After all, apart from bearing a child, it should also be raised – and in the context of modern Western culture, the responsibility for it lies on the shoulders of two parents, taking a substantial time and effort on their side. Nevertheless, gay families may participate in upbringing of children in a way that’s not at all inferior to the straight families. Therefore, the government has no single reason to endorse only heterosexual marriages due to allegedly moral reasons. As we’ve seen, moral act is the last thing that a modern-day marriage fulfills.

The only reason therefore why the state insists on reproduction within a straight marriage is the simplification of population monitoring, the demographic transparency. Using the words of Foucault: ‘administration of bodies and the calculated management of life’. Standardization is a facilitation of control. Whether through regulation of heredity, psychiatry or the principles of taxation, the state disciplines the population, subjugating various life forms to a common denominator of a standardized citizen, or – a standardized family unit.

Fun fact: Foucault’s critical theory is the original source which gave birth to all the modern-day theories of systemic discrimination and structural oppression (like: ‘the world is made to serve interests of white heterosexual men!’). And even though I dislike the modern-day left-wing liberal applications of Foucault’s theories, I find his original ideas reasonable.

Divorce from the state, and privatization of marriage

Anyway, one of the ways to strip the institution of marriage from its biopolitical use and divorce the contract from the state involvement is the privatization of marriage. This is a solution widely proposed to tackle the problem of gay marriages. Essentially, a civil partnership can be regarded just as another type of contractual relationship, where the role of the state can be limited to registering the contract. Civil union contract therefore can be registered between any parties that are willing to take part in it: regardless of gender or… the number of participants. Such unions could theoretically provide an entire set of current legal benefits associated with marriage. Such benefits include: co-ownership of property, hospital visitation, right for inheritance, children guardianship, medical insurance, etc. In some sense, such contracts would have a lot in common with prenuptial agreements – documents that enable the couple to ‘customize’ many standardized legal rights that come upon entering a marriage.

Some opposers of marriage privatization claim that not everything can be contractualized, while some things should remain sacred. I could never understand this argument though. This is the same weird logic that states that surrogate motherhood is morally wrong, as the process of motherhood is sacred, or that hiring a contractual army conflicts with the idea of patriotism. I consider this hypocritical though. As we’ve seen, 50% of marriages end up in divorce anyway, therefore the alleged sacredness of the ritual clearly doesn’t have much connection to reality.

To sum it up, marriage of course has certain positive aspects: for instance, as already mentioned, it’s probably the only viable option in the modern-day West to raise children. On the other hand, as long as the state exists, it will continue to exercise its biopower, and endorse it through media and mainstream culture. And people will be falling prey for it, being subjugated to the unrealistic narratives that have nothing to do with the original motive of the act (meaning: population control and demographic standardization). Our moral obligation is therefore to at least examine the true motives of this biopower, and not fall victim of a romanticized narrative, an appealing facade of the politically-driven ritual that offers nothing more than a truckload of useless and outdated socio-cultural baggage.


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