Melinda Cooper’s Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and New Social Conservatism (Zone Books, 2017) tracks the politics of kinship in the era of neoliberalism, placing the centrality of “family values” discourse within the broader context of American social thought and post-Fordist economic transformation. In this interview, Viewpoint asks her about the key insights of her work and their implications for political struggles in the present.
Ben Mabie: Our analysis of neoliberalism – a state-driven process of crisis management, targeting the barriers to capital accumulation thrown up by the contradictions of the post-war “Golden Age” – has often attended to the restructuring of the capital-labor relationship at the point of production, the dismantling of working class institutions, and the state’s pivot away from social welfare spending that such institutions forced them to adopt in the highpoints of struggle. Neoliberalism, then, is the name of a political project aimed at neutralizing the antagonisms emerging out of the ‘60s and ‘70s. But often in this analysis, traditionalist ideas about gender and family, indispensable parts of actually-existing neoliberalism, are reduced to political concessions epiphenomenal to the restoration of capitalist profitability and power.
Family Values, however, argues that the recomposition of the family is at the heart of the neoliberal revolution from above. What sort of pressures was the Fordist family undergoing that required the re-constitution of the family? And can you describe some of the mechanisms that were deployed to those ends?
Melinda Cooper: The family was necessarily at the heart of the neoliberal/neoconservative revolution from above because the Fordist compact was itself structured around the family. The Fordist family wage, which assigned white unionized men the waged role in productive labor and white women an unpaid role as domestic workers in the household, was a defining component of the Fordist division of labor. This is the compact that brought many unionized working men and their families into an expanded middle class. Rising wages for one class of workers (white men) was possible on condition that another class of workers was not paid (white women). For a long time, African American men were excluded from this compact altogether and African American women, like the poorest of white women, were still expected to work outside the home, often performing domestic work in the homes of others.
The New Deal welfare state was never meant to extend beyond the core of white, male unionized workers; the wager made by Johnson, with the Great Society, and by Nixon, with his basic income plan (the Family Assistance Plan), was that these limits could be extended to include African-American men, that national income would accelerate if these “surplus workers” were included in the Keynesian compact, but only on lesser terms and only through the remaking of a normative male breadwinner family. This project was supported by people as diverse as Milton Friedman, who still thought that “everyone was a Keynesian,” and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was not yet a neoconservative. This already was a considerable extension of the Fordist family wage, although it did not in any way question the dominance of men within the family or the dependence of women on the male wage. Marisa Chappel’s The War on Welfare is in my view the best history of this period and this project.
This consensus began to break down under pressure from stagflation and with the change in tone of the second Nixon administration. At this point, many people who had fully embraced the New Deal family wage and were fully engaged in the project to extend its racial boundaries to black men began to pull back and their critique focused in particular on what they understood as the excesses of the welfare rights movement. They thought that instead of working to shore up the African American family and the role of men within it, the welfare rights movement was enabling “irresponsible” lifestyle choices among African American women. You find this critique even from within the welfare rights movement, from people like Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, who decried the fact that welfare was subsidizing the emasculation of black men. The problem as they perceived it was that part of the public interest litigation that had grown out of the welfare rights movement was busily extending “sexual privacy” jurisprudence to women on welfare and therefore effectively extending their ability to receive a social wage without being subject to the very heavy policing of sexuality it had entailed in the past.
At this point, people like Milton Friedman and Daniel Patrick Moynihan who had been actively involved in Nixon’s project to extend the family wage began to question the whole purpose of the welfare state. They were not interested in supporting a welfare state that now extended to non-normative lifestyle choices – women who had never been married, women who had no legal attachment to a husband, who may have been in a relationship with a man or woman but were accessing welfare on an independent basis. And they began to associate inflation itself with this illegitimate expansion of public spending. Both neoliberals and neoconservatives began to denounce what they saw as an unsustainable inflation of demands and desires that was driving up wages and public spending without any perceptible benefits for wealth holders.
In a very literal sense, they understood inflation as symptomatic of moral crisis. They thought that the Keynesian consensus simply wasn’t workable when redistribution broke through the bounds of sexual and gender normativity and in a strict sense, they were right. The Keynesian trade-off between wage inflation and productivity growth was always reined in by the gender and sexual normativities of the family wage structure – women were only meant to be subsidized if they were white, if they were mothers, and if they were or had been married. You get a wonderful commentary on this in the work of the Virginia school neoliberals James M. Buchanan and Richard Wagner where they describe inflation as being all about sexual profligacy and the breakdown of moral order. What’s striking about that description is that it’s almost indistinguishable from what the neoconservatives were saying at the same time.
The reason why I think it’s important to recognize this particular focus and bias of the neoliberal response to inflation is that otherwise you can’t explain why so many of their proposed policy responses to inflation were all about restoring or remaking the family in some way. The neoliberals understood inflation as signifying a crisis of the family. So it made sense to them that the fight against inflation would need to restore the family in some fashion. But instead of trying to revive the family form of the New Deal, they tried to revive the much older poor law tradition of family responsibility, which identified marital and kinship relations as the proper source of economic security and a suitable alternative to the welfare state.
The policy reach of their project to reinstate the family was vast and extended to everything from welfare to education and fiscal policy. Their specific interest in reviving the poor laws took shape very early on and was first acted on by Ronald Reagan, during his time as Governor of California. Here Reagan tried to revive the existing, but dormant or deactivated state poor laws relating to everything from the care of aged parents to children in state institutions and single mothers on welfare. The latter project was obviously the most successful and was carried onto the federal stage by Clinton in the mid-1990s.
Beyond these direct efforts to revive family responsibility laws, the influence of the poor law tradition is reflected in many other aspects of the neoliberal policy agenda. It can be seen in efforts to repeal the estate tax on inherited wealth, a campaign that was loudly supported by neoliberal thinkers in the 1970s; in the local and state tax revolts that began in California in the late 1970s and that were closely informed by the constitutional philosophy of James M. Buchanan, with his focus on family property and family wealth; in the war of attrition to replace Social Security and work-based health insurance with private asset accumulation strategies; and in efforts to promote home ownership as a form of “asset based welfare” under Clinton and George W. Bush. We tend to forget how central the problematic of the family was to each of these campaigns, but it was always front and center in the eyes of neoliberal policy makers, who saw asset-based welfare as a way of replacing the “impersonal bonds” of social insurance with family-based forms of wealth transmission.
We can also observe multiple ways in which cuts to public funding in healthcare, education, and welfare have pushed people back toward kinship-based forms of self-care and mutual support and how the expansion of consumer credit has turned household deficit-spending into a substitute for state deficit-spending. Today, family responsibility very often takes the form of intergenerational debt where parents and other family members are actively enrolled in the debt obligations of children, signed up as guarantors or required to post their housing wealth as collateral to fund the social mobility (or simply stasis) of younger generations. Here too neoliberal policy prescriptions have played an important role, as Milton Friedman and Gary Becker were among the first to suggest that investment in “human capital” such as education should be the responsibility of the family, aided and abetted by private credit markets, not the state.
Even when neoliberals are talking about what seem to be the most neutral macroeconomic issues of monetary policy and public finance they are also talking about the family as an economic institution and the role it should be playing. Look at Milton Friedman and Gordon Tullock and Richard E. Wagner on inheritance; look at Gary Becker on parental investment and altruism; James M. Buchanan on the importance of family capital and moral order; or Richard Posner and Becker on the dangers of no-fault divorce and the jurisprudence of sexual privacy. These are not marginal preoccupations within their work. Yet strangely this is a dimension of neoliberalism that is always being actively forgotten or obscured and this clouds our understanding of what the neoliberal project of the 1970s was all about.
It’s important to be clear about the centrality of moral politics within neoliberalism because we are currently being bombarded with a revisionist historiography according to which neoliberalism was all about sexual freedom. Hence, we are told, feminism and gay liberation were handmaidens of neoliberalism. Interestingly, this argument almost always comes from the left in the English speaking world but in continental Europe comes also from the far right, with its critique of ultraliberal decadence. The argument completely confuses the causal relations between neoliberalism and the anti-normative movements of the 1960s and 70s. It was the intensification of these movements, their insistence on inflating money and desire beyond the normative bounds of the Fordist family, that provoked the neoliberal backlash and catalyzed the alliance between neoliberals and neoconservatives.
Of course, there are expressions of feminism and queer politics that can be defined as neoliberal, but like neoliberalism itself, their critique of normativity has become unmoored from any larger critique of wealth distribution and instead channels sexuality back into the moral and economic form of the family.
BM: Some might say that your book is a not-so-distant relative of Robert Self’s All in the Family, where heargues that conservatism since the ‘80s has pivoted on the figure of the normative family. In his account, each distinct thread of southern and suburban realignment – “from civil rights to women’s rights, from the antiwar movement to Nixon’s ‘silent majority,’ from the abortion wars to gay marriage, from the welfare state to neoliberal economic policies” – coursed through the figure of the American nuclear family, making it the central anchor for right wing politics.
But unlike Self’s research, your book largely attends to the shared project of Republicans and Democrats to reestablish the primacy of family responsibility through its remaking as a site of household debt accumulation and the concomitant liberalization of credit. Were there meaningful political divergences between neoliberals and conservatives on the family? And should that analysis – as well as what you call the anti-normative struggles of the New Left – recast our understanding of “the culture wars”?
MC: There were real differences between neoliberals and conservatives on the family. Although they converged around the idea of family responsibility, there were different motivations and different inflections to this convergence. Social conservatives saw the family and its moral order as foundational to any social and economic order. Even when they became converts to the free market, as was the case with Irving Kristol, they saw the family as the necessary foundation on which market freedom needed to rest. They were also more often than not invested in a particular vision of the family – patriarchal, heteronormative, monogamous. Ideas about responsible fatherhood and the need to reinstate the place of men within the family come from this conservative tradition.
Neoliberals had a more minimalist understanding of family responsibility. For them, family responsibility meant that the family or the couple should be the primary source of economic security and in this way function as a substitute to the welfare state. They were in general much less normative about the particular form of these relationships and as I detail in my analysis of the neoliberal response to the AIDS crisis, were some of the first advocates of same-sex marriage, which they understood as a kind of mutual insurance contract. Alternative kinship relations were not a problem for them as long as these relationships could successfully internalize the health and welfare costs of partners and children. When people failed to internalize these costs, the neoliberals thought that kinship relations should be legally enforced in the form of family responsibility rules. Foucault was half right: neoliberals were not at all attached to the normative disciplines that grew up around the 20th century welfare state, the sciences of deviance and perversion that informed everything from eugenics to psychology and criminology. They were variously in favour of decriminalizing prostitution, sodomy and recreational drugs. But Foucault misses the big proviso that goes along with all of this. All social costs (the costs of raising children, the economic fallout from divorce, health care costs, STIs) need to be internalized by the parties to the sexual contract – kinship relations, marriage and parenthood, are the legal means through which the state can enforce these costs. What Foucault called “care of the self” is a central imperative of neoliberalism, but it would be better defined as “care of kin.”
In terms of academic currents, the dividing lines between neoliberals and social conservatives of various kinds are relatively stark, at least in the American context. But in political life, the dividing lines are less clear. A figure such as Reagan is both a neoliberal and a social conservative; so also, in practice, is Bill Clinton. Many of the key “neoliberal” think tanks and funders such as the Koch brothers and the Mercers are happy sponsoring both economic neoliberals and social conservatives and have never seen any contradiction in doing this.
My book tries to show that the neoliberal/conservative divide does not map onto the left/right or Democrat/Republican divide in any neat way. Rather, what defines both Republicans and Democrats is a specific articulation of the neoliberal/conservative alliance. Most of us are familiar with the new kinds of social conservatism that defined the Republican party after Reagan – the rise of the religious right and the moral politics of early neoconservatism. But we are less familiar with the social conservatisms of the New Democrats, in particular the role of communitarianism in forging a “progressive” attachment to family values, or the role of neopaternalism in rationalizing workfare and responsible fatherhood programs among self-identified liberals.
The New Democrats offered no challenge to the right wing culture wars, they simply absorbed its lessons and offered up a third way moral conservatism called communitarianism. Of course communitarianism is more inclusive and a little more adaptable than right wing conservatism – as evidenced by the eventual decision by the Institute for American Values to support same sex marriage as the best way of defending marriage.
BM: Now a year into the Trump presidency, would you say that the family remains that key reference point for the organization of Republican Party politics?
MC: Trump remained somewhat protean during his campaign; he was a lightning rod for very different tendencies on the right but has settled into something more recognizable now he is in power. As it now stands, the Trump presidency (and by implication the Republican Party) is defined by the same alliance between neoliberal and social conservative tendencies I analyzed in the book. Except it has moved further to the extremes on both sides. My book focuses for the most part on the alliance between neoconservatism and Chicago school/Virginia school neoliberalism. The rise of Trump was accompanied by an alliance between paleoconservatism and a peculiar American translation of Austrian neoliberalism, represented by someone like Murray Rothbard. The aristocratic and anti-government tendencies in Austrian neoliberalism find a new home in the American South. Paleoconservatism was rejected by the neoconservatives because of its overt racism, its opposition to Civil Rights and its anti-Semitism. The alt-right have moved back to paleoconservatism and so have revived the fortunes of the Ku Klux Klan and a myriad of other white nativist formations on the far right. Austrian neoliberalism has had little direct impact on policy or economics in the US but has flourished as a political movement, in the guise of Ron Paul and various libertarian gold bugs.
So the conservative/neoliberal alliance that defines Trump in power takes the specific form of paleoconservatism and Austrian neoliberalism. Someone like Hans-Hermann Hoppe – a student of Rothbard – embodies this alliance. I think this is truly a fascistic phenomenon, although one with distinct American characteristics. We are used to thinking of the far right within the template of European history but this cannot account for the anti-federalist, anti-central bank tendencies on (at least part of) the American far right which is at polar opposites to the state fascisms of 20th century Europe.
Much like the Chicago and Virginia school neoliberals, Hoppe assigns an absolutely central role to the family as the primary source and locus of economic security. But unlike Friedman or Becker or Posner, he is committed to a radically traditionalist and patriarchal view of the family. He sees no contradiction between his libertarianism and his ultraconservatism because radical economic freedom requires some kind of foundation in property and in his conception of things, it is the family not the state that must serve as the ultimate guarantor of property. This is where libertarianism becomes very gendered and seemingly hypocritical and why you find someone like Milo Yiannopoulos espousing a radical libertarianism for and among white men while also complaining about women for being whores and murdering fetuses. It is this particular alliance between economic libertarianism, moral ultraconservatism and white nativism that seems to have triumphed after Trump’s election.
Of course, it could have gone another way and someone like Steve Bannon represented a much more nationalist, workerist far right – nativist, protectionist, ranged against the globalizers and the nefarious elites. Bannon’s politics is much more recognizable within a traditional fascist template and interestingly, it is Bannon’s economic nationalism that has been most seductive to certain authoritarian currents on the left. Bannon, with his pro-life Catholic affiliations and economic nationalism, stands for an option that was on the table for a while and if anything seemed more dominant within the Trump machine during the election campaign. It could certainly come back as a reaction against Trump’s obvious concessions to the American ultra-rich. But Bannon was also feeding into the networks of far-right libertarian resentment via his work at Breitbart.
What you see in the alt-right is the expression of a white masculine libertarianism that wants to free itself from all imagined statist, feminine and maternal moral prohibitions (the left being associated with infantilization) while at the same time pursuing a relentless campaign of moral vigilantism against women. The libertarian and puritanical impulses are not incompatible. It’s a familiar feature of misogyny – libertarianism for men and purity for women. It’s also a familiar feature of historical fascist movements, especially in their militia-led, direct action phases. We forget the orgiastic and terroristic dimension of fascism when we only consider its settled state formations, which are far from accounting for the full historical spectrum of fascist movements.
You also have the longstanding neoliberal/evangelical alliance playing a major role in bringing Trump to power, with massive support from white evangelicals. This is a longstanding component of the Republican voting base since Reagan but the willingness of evangelicals to vote for a Republican party outsider also expresses their desire to push further to the right on issues like abortion and “religious freedom.” The presence and dominance of evangelical Christians within the Trump administration goes further than under George W. Bush and reflects the consequences of his (and Obama’s) heavy investment in faith-based welfare. Mike Pence is the truly significant figure here. His opposition to planned parenthood in Indiana and his efforts to pass an extraordinarily homophobic religious freedom bill are all indicative of the kind of politics that evangelicals would like to see implemented at a federal level.
BM: In the book’s first pages you advance an acute criticism of social democratic nostalgia for the Fordist family wage, either in the overt anti-feminism of someone like Wolfgang Streeck, or a more subtle valorization of the security afforded by the Fordist family in people like Luc Boltanski, Eve Chiapello, and Nancy Fraser. What do you think accounts for the popularity of these sentiments in left theory and politics?
MC: I think a lot of organized left wing politics entails some kind of attachment to reproductive order. It might be the working class family or left nationalism or some kind of ethnic/cultural/racial nationalism or minority fundamentalism. It might be a kind of queer nationalism that makes all kinds of trade offs with white militarism and imperialism. The investment might be upfront and personal or it might express itself by proxy – someone who can spin a radical critique of white nationalism or homonationalism might have no problems romanticizing third world nationalism or religious fundamentalism if it can be rationalized as anti-imperialist. It might be a kind of reproductive maternalism that presents itself as anti-patriarchal but positions women as the guardians of nature or the earth or something called social reproduction. This is a recurrent position on the left, although it can reshuffle itself in all kinds of ways. I think this is what people are getting at sometimes when they critique “identity politics” on the left and I’m sure I’ve used the term in this way, to refer to a kind of reproductive communitarianism. But the term “identity politics” is misleading and seems to suggest that only minorities can be afflicted whereas reproductive communitarianism very obviously takes majoritarian and minoritarian forms.
I think these sentiments are popular because they feel good. What I’m suggesting is that there is no false consciousness here. Perhaps the easiest way to critique some kind of dominant reproductive order is to latch onto an alternative one. It’s the easiest way out, psychologically and politically, and it facilitates political bargains with people who might otherwise find you suspect. The easiest way for any one class of workers to “resist capitalism” is to do something less ambitious – to assert a claim to special protections vis-a-vis other classes of workers by appealing to some imagined prior order of social reproduction, sometimes the nation or the race, sometimes, at a more intimate level, the family. Once you have made that move, you begin to think that what is wrong with capitalism is not the fact that it generates and feeds off all kinds of inequalities, but the fact that it threatens your favorite reproductive order. So capitalism is bad because it destroys the family, or the nation or the community. And you begin to think that if you make a bargain with the state to sustain and subsidize your reproductive order, and the natural hierarchy of inequalities that exist within it, then you can live with it. You start to believe that if you could just stabilize the family or protect your culture or community from predatory outside forces then you would be resisting capitalism.
What I am trying to argue in the book is that these bargains are part of the system we call “capitalist,” they are not outside, and that we need to understand the reassertion and relegitimation of reproductive order as one of the ways in which specific divisions of labor and specific regimes of accumulation are stabilized. Of course, capitalism as such is not reducible to any one particular reproductive order and this is the “creative destructive” element that theorists like Marx and Schumpeter brought to the fore. But even when new industries draw on and exploit the labor of migrants and women – even when a new phase of capitalist accumulation appears to aid and abet the undoing of the family or the nation – these reproductive orders remain operative in a prospective and retrospective fashion. Women were paid less and assigned to the newest, most volatile forms of factory work because they were not meant to be there, they should have been at home.
The history of working class politics reveals a longstanding commitment to the so-called “family wage” or male breadwinner wage, although such commitments by no means exhaust the actual multiplicity of passions and interests among wage workers, many of whom were women in the early stages of industrialization. Very early in the industrial revolution, you find male-dominated trade unions claiming their right to a “family wage” and trying to push women out of the factories. They could have fought for higher wages and better working conditions for everyone, but they chose the option of redefining women as economic dependents of men, and to do this, they needed to appeal to some prior (but presumed lost) order of natural relations between the sexes and some idealized vision of family order.
Marx and Engels were far from neutral observers in the campaign to push women back into the home. Marx frequently quotes the Tory factory reports verbatim, as if their moral outrage at the presence of women workers required no further comment. In his report on The Condition of the Working Class in England Engels went much further and complained that factory labor was reversing the proper order of relations between the sexes. It “unsexes the man and takes from the woman all womanliness”; turns the family “upside down.”1 It’s interesting to read between the lines of Marx’s account of this process, to see just how the sexual division of labor was created and how the nineteenth century family came to be created. Women’s labor had first to be politicized as problematically unreproductive – a threat to the family unit – before it was disciplined into the work of reproduction. People like Janet Halley and her colleagues have done a lot of very interesting work to show that we can’t understand the rise of the commercial contract – the model of the free labor contract – without simultaneously paying attention to the legal constitution of the family, as a space of non-contractual obligations and unpaid personal services. Modern family law and labor law were co-constitutive, and yet Marx’s critique of capitalism has everything to say about freedom of contract and nothing to say about family law and the way it shaped our understanding of the production/reproduction divide. Much of his work assumes that the division between production and reproduction, work and the family was already in place at a time when there were massive battles being fought to confine women to the space of so-called “reproduction.” This already tells you that we shouldn’t be looking to Marxist-feminist concepts such as “social reproduction” as if they were a given.
Of course, much of Marxist-feminist work offers a highly critical perspective on the association between women and the work of reproduction, but the very use of the word “social reproduction” to refer to domestic, sex and care work forecloses the most interesting question: how were women workers relegated to certain kinds of labor and how were these kinds of labor assigned a reproductive or genealogical role in the ordering of social relations? Domestic workers and nannies are not only performing work for wages, they are also expected to contribute to the work of reproducing the family through a certain supplement of love or unpaid care. As non-members of the family, this places them in a precarious position, where their role as surrogate kin authorizes the most extreme forms of exploitation but also positions them as potential threats to the family, as representatives of venal, commercial forces contaminating the bonds of love. Conversely, sex workers, who are almost automatically seen as threats to the family, have in some countries been able to acquire a certain kind of legitimacy precisely by claiming the role of surrogate spouse for the ill or disabled. There is nothing automatically “reproductive” about domestic work or cleaning or sex work; rather when women engage in these kinds of work they are also being asked to shore up some abstract figure of reproduction, whether that be the family or the “social.” Women are constantly being asked to prove that they are not only working on contract but also participating in a familial economy of non-contractual obligation. This is a specific kind of discipline that doesn’t often apply to men. Before women’s reproductive work was devalorized then, women had first to be disciplined into the work of reproduction itself. The concept of “social reproduction” obscures this moment and so misses the most interesting part of the action. When you miss this moment, you can easily fall into the trap of simply reasserting the foundational role of reproduction and hence of women in any social order. You end up with a reproductive labor theory of value.
The argument that reproductive order has somehow been lost tends to amplify in periods where there has been a general increase in insecurity, so general that it also affects those who were once the beneficiaries of the prevailing economic order. So today there is a small publishing industry reflecting on the insecurity of white working class men in particular but simultaneously declaring that this is all about rediscovering class in general. This insecurity exists and is real, if only relative compared to those who were already relegated to the margins of the Fordist social contract, but because of the inchoate sense that this should not be happening to white men of all people, there is a tendency to assume that women or racial minorities are somehow responsible, that they have commanded too many special privileges and that they should be put in their proper place. Some kind of restoration of family and of men’s place in the family seems to be central to this plan.
There is also a feminist version of this narrative that you find in the work of someone like Elizabeth Warren, with her “two-income trap” thesis, the idea that women going out to work was really not a great idea and that somehow this fact in and of itself is responsible for the general insecurity of the “middle-class family.” You find a similar narrative in the recent work of Nancy Fraser, who blames feminism for having destroyed the security of the Fordist family wage, thereby laying the ground for neoliberalism. You also find echoes of this idea in the Marxist-feminist thesis that we are undergoing some kind of “permanent reproductive crisis” – however carefully the concept “social reproduction” is defined, I don’t think it escapes the valences of the term “reproduction” as Marx used it, with its reference to nineteenth century theories of biological heredity and legal inheritance. What the “crisis of reproduction” story often implies in practice is a revalorization of women’s caring role as distributed nurturers of the left and mothers of the common. In fact, it is entirely possible to imagine a better organization and subsidization of care work that would not reinscribe the overwhelming identification between women and care and that would not valorize the family as the exclusive institutional form in which care should take place.
The idea that capitalism poses a threat to the social reproduction of the worker and hence the family is one that has been played out many times over in the history of the labor movement. And the idea that the solution to economic insecurity is to subsidize the reproductive labor of women – through the introduction of a family wage – is close to being the historical default response to any great deflationary crisis. It’s hardly surprising then that we are seeing the return of a family wage politics on the center.
We are seeing mainstream economists like Larry Summers discovering a kind of soft Keynesianism and attempting to revive Alvin Hansen’s theory of secular stagnation. This is the idea that ageing populations, that is, women’s failure to produce enough children, is having an inevitable dampening effect on demand. Hence record low interest rates, near-zero inflation and a complete absence of capital investment. You would think the growth of inequality, four decades of wage suppression and inflation-targeting, and the post-crisis tendency to deleverage would be better explanations for this state of affairs, but the advantage of the demographic thesis of crisis is that it contains a ready-made template for the form in which redistribution (if it takes place) should happen. We are living in the aftermath of a serious financial crisis and somehow the most natural, almost automatic assumption among economists is that this crisis must somehow have its origins in a crisis of reproduction.
BM: Why, in the face of this nostalgia, do you think it’s important to hone our criticisms of the family?
MC: The reason why I take the family as focus of critique is because it represents the most intimate form of reproductive order and one that is much harder to think about critically than nationhood or race, although it is obviously essential to both. The family lies at the heart of all nationalisms and all reproductive orders of the left and the right. It is where sexual alliance intersects with descent to create a given order of genealogy, a nation or a race or a people – to mash Balibar and Wallerstein with Nira Yuval-Davis. The family is resistant to critique because most of us are in some way enmeshed in family relations and these relations are experienced as much more immediate and personal than our relationship to the state for example. It is easier to think about good or bad family relationships than to think critically about the role of the family in sustaining a given order of economic and subjective relations. I wanted to think about family critically without dodging the issue, that is without jumping forward to the option of trying to imagine a better, alternative family form, as nice and necessary as this may be.
The family is central to the neoliberal/conservative alliance we now live in. It is as central to the current, post-Keynesian and post-Fordist economic regime as it was to Fordism. And yet while we have honed our critical skills in thinking about the role of the Fordist family wage in buttressing the whole architecture of Fordism, we have little experience in thinking about the role of the family in the current conjuncture. There is perhaps a good reason for this, beyond the habitual difficulty of recognizing the family as an institution. The neoliberal retreat from redistributive social spending tends to posit the family as if it were beyond the state, as if it were a spontaneous form of self-care and mutual aid arising beyond the space of overt social intervention and protecting us from the pervasive insecurity wrought by neoliberal economic reforms, and in this respect it is tempting to imagine that this is where we are resisting neoliberalism.
It is also important to hone our critique of the family because it has not ceased to be an institution that delegates the bulk of care labor to women. The inertia of the identification between women and the work of care (between women and the work of kinship in fact) is remarkable. The labor market has been completely reshuffled, gender expression and sexual relationships are subject to endless critique, without substantially displacing this one foundational premise. Women, queer or not, remain symbolically and subjectively foundational to the family in a way that most men (with the exception of trans men?) are not and this bleeds into all kinds of relationships that don’t look family-like. It shapes the division of labor in the workforce, including the division of labor between women of different social classes and races, and its pervades intimate relationships. It feeds an always latent fear that women are about to destroy something by virtue of their movement beyond certain boundaries. Even when it occurs in the street or outside the home, violence against women is often instigated or rationalized by the idea that they should not be in public space, alone, without a man or visible attachment to kin. This has different valences depending on your race, class and whether you are cis or trans or perceived as gender non-conforming, but the fact of occupying public space as a woman without advertising some kind of affiliation to kin is very readily perceived as a provocation. I’m not talking only about street space here but also political space.
It seems we have lost any space there used to be to question the pervasiveness of family as a model of relationality. Much of queer politics these days seems to be about exploring the possibilities of alternative kinship or alternative reproductive economies. It’s striking to me that these questions would become so all-absorbing in a movement that was once more interested in exploring sexual desire and sexual relationships independently of kinship. The shift is very evident when it comes to the incipient normalization of trans people which has occurred almost entirely through an appeal to the family and through an interpolation of “childhood transgenderism” as a developmental problem that can be resolved through hormone therapy and parental understanding. It seems as if the exploration of non-normative gender expression has become more and more acceptable, as long as it is channeled into some kind of aspirational reproductive or familial form. I don’t want to be nostalgic here. Rather, I want to suggest that in hindsight, the affinity between sexual minorities and the critique of the family is beginning to appear historically contingent. In the meantime, the imperative that all relationships pay some kind of tribute to the reproductive familial form implies we are beginning to create new forms of deviance that have nothing to do with gender expression as such but with the simple refusal or failure of reproductive legitimacy. I think this is an important shift to mark.
BM: The explosive popularity of discourse about accelerating income and wealth inequality has been a high-water mark of left-wing politics since the crisis, reshaping the political landscape in this country and elsewhere. You make a compelling argument that inherited family wealth and asset price inflation are at the heart of this dynamic, and you similarly find the privatization of higher education and the emergence of “human capital” – understood to be engines of oppositional youth politics, that major dynamo of Occupy, Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders – to also be stamped with the logic of family investment. Should this change the way we understand or organize in these movements? Does this offer insights into the shape of contemporary feminist or generational politics?
MC: At this point, to push back against the privatization of public goods is one of the best ways of offloading the weight of debt from the household and kinship relations. To refuse debt obligations in whatever fashion is probably the most effective thing you can do. There is obviously no appetite for redistribution from above, as evidenced by Trump’s corporate tax cuts, so any effort to push back against the multiple ways in which the public space (of health care, education, and infrastructure) is financed regressively is important. This is a project that I think connects all these movements in some way but which highlights the different kinds and degrees of debt that weigh on people as a function of race, gender and class. What happened in Ferguson, Missouri, made it clear just how far taxation itself has become regressive, how user fees and fines for local government services are pushing African Americans into states of permanent indebtedness by virtue of simply occupying and moving through “public” space.
Debt as it is currently organized is not extrinsic to or oppositional to kinship relations. The poorer you are the more likely it is that your student debt will involve intergenerational relationships of mutual indebtedness or parental guarantee, and it’s not surprising that these debt ties end up intensifying the kinds of expectations of service and care that define women as more obligated to spouses and kin than vice versa. Domestic violence services have long been aware of the fact that gendered violence is compounded by and enforced through the “sharing” or dumping of economic debt. The permanent indebtedness of African Americans reinforces expectations and demands for servility that are enacted in very personal and violent ways. To refuse debt then requires a much deeper understanding of the ways in which gender and race have already structured our sense of who owes most to whom within a given household structure or a given economy of services.
We are at an interesting historical conjuncture where economic technocrats who were once the agents of shock therapy or structural adjustment – people like Larry Summers and organizations such as the IMF – are crying out for more social spending and wage growth. But we also need to be aware of the ways in which state deficit-spending and the assumption of “human capital” investment by the state has historically involved a normative trade off. The Keynesian consensus between labor and capital came at a price – that of the family wage and the hierarchy of gender and racial relations that went along with it. The reason why it’s important to preempt the demographic theory of crisis and its echoes on the left is because what these people are doing is laying a blueprint for the next family wage.
Asset price appreciation, which magnifies the role of the family as a transmission belt for reproducing class, can also be resisted “simply” by inflating wages – which is why workplace activism and unionism is more important than ever. Ironically, if neoliberal human capital theory was taken seriously and income from labor was actually comparable to income from assets (rents, dividends and interest) then everyone would be complaining about (wage price) inflation. The union movement, such as it is, should be upgrading its expectations and demanding that wages and government transfers keep in line not with the Consumer Price Index but with the price of assets. This would have the effect of blunting the enormous advantage currently held by accumulated wealth and weakening the concentration of power in the family.
Family Values was also featured on the Who Makes Cents? A History of Capitalism podcast. You can stream the discussion with Melinda Cooper here: