Family Matters

Heather Ben­ning, Doll­house

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 he argues 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.

Heather Ben­ning, Doll­house

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.


  1. Engels 2009 [1845]: 155, 154 

Authors of the article

is Associate Professor in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Sydney, Australia. She is the author of Life as Surplus and Family Values.

is managing editor at Viewpoint.