Notes on the family under neoliberalism


A nuclear family

“What kind of society is this”, the SWP’s Women’s Voice magazine once asked, “that turns people to violence? What kind of jobs, and housing conditions, and burdens distort human beings and lead them to harm the people they love?” (Women’s Voice, 1980)

The biggest single change in fifty years of the family’s history has been the freeing up of sex from procreation, and therefore of all other intimate relationships from the reproduction of labour. Whether you explain this by reference to the contraceptive pill or the movement that developed from Stonewall riots, the starting assumption under the welfare state capitalist societies of the 1950s and early 1960s was that young adults would settle down and have several children, be monogamous, and remain in relationships even if the initial spark was lost. The state was heavily involved in planning family size: whether through promoting births (the USSR) or through restricting them (China). Most adults were married, and marriage rates were high. In 1972, there were 426,241 marriages in Britain, accounting for over 60 of every 1000 unmarried adult women in the country. In 2009, there were just 231,490 amounting to less than 20 of every 1000 unmarried women (Rogers, 2010). The decline of marriage is however only a part of the story; for even when people marry, their relationships are different to what they were. Having children is less important, staying together is less important. What is really taking place is a proliferation of family types (LGBT relationships, unmarried heterosexual monogamy, casual relationships, singletons) instead of the single, dominant nuclear family of the past.

In all previous societies, there was always a certain gap between sexual pleasure and procreation; after all some of the oldest forms of contraception (eg the withdrawal method) have a history longer even than writing. People of the same sex have slept together for millennia. Under neo-liberal capitalism the gap between pleasure and procreation has widened as never before. For tens of millions of people this has been a liberating experience. But capitalism always seeks to assimilate the new. We see the proliferation of soft and hard pornography online, in advertising, and in print media. Huge businesses form out of the need to satisfy people’s desire for sexual expression, e.g. chemical stimulants of sexual function, a global industry with a value of around £1 billion p/a. The revolutionary gay sub-culture of the 1970s gives way to the pink pound. We get the recreation of old types of misogyny in new forms. Sex is made pervasive, intrusive rather than liberatory.

For thirty years the global rich have sought to increase their share of wealth at the expense of everyone else. As a consequence of their success, the cost of living has become vastly more expensive for working class families in particular. The average rent in the UK is £811 per month (Homelet, 2013), which is only just under half of the average net salary of £1,638 per month (ONS, 2013). The expense of housing, and the lack of social housing, has an impact on household demographics. It encourages children to stay living with their parents for longer; and defers the starting of relationships. The average age at first marriage in the UK has increased from 24 for women (and 27 for men) in 1970 to 30 (and 32) today (ONS, 2012).

Different generations experience austerity in radically different ways. The ageing of society means that middling generations have to contribute greater time to caring for the elderly, who save in very few cases do not receive state (or adequate) state provision of housing, medical care, etc. Yet those over 50 are recognised by all parliamentary parties as more likely to vote, and are in many ways shielded from the effects of austerity. Overwhelmingly, they own their own houses, and key government policies (low interest rates, pressure on banks to provide mortgages and promote a housing market boom) protect their capital wealth.

Younger people, their working lives characterised by mass unemployment and the rapid devaluation of their qualifications, show themselves to be radically unmoored to the political values of older generations; during national elections there is as sharp a divide between the voting patterns of those in their early 20s and their parents’ generation, as there is between workers and managers in any particular age cohort. Meanwhile youth protests in Spain or Britain come and go (in contrast to the revolutionary 1960s when the generations were better synchronised) on a different rhythm to the strike waves of older generations.

Increasing numbers of families fill the gap between low income and high living expenditure through reliance on state benefits. Of the five million housing benefit claimants in the UK in summer 2013 (including dependant family members, this is more than 10 million people), a fifth were in work (DWP, 2013) Under New Labour, subsidy was government policy, with child and family tax credits being used to tacitly fund millions of people taking the “right” lifestyle choices (the wider use of childcare enabling mothers to return to work more quickly after pregnancy, a shift from employment to self-employment, etc.)

Under the Coalition government, the element of subsidy has been phased out, and benefits changes have been introduced to penalise “wrong” choices, such as having more than one child (penalised through household-based global benefits caps), living in areas of the country which are intended to be reserved for middle-class families (i.e. London, where rents are double the national average, and market-rate rents are typically above the various housing benefit caps), and remaining in social housing after your children have left home (penalised by the bedroom tax).

Fifty years ago, the general expectation was that women would remain in work until childbirth, and then return to work only after many years as a full-time housewife. Many sectors of the economy (such as manufacturing, construction, and manual or labouring tasks) were predominantly considered “men’s work”. Other jobs (nursing, primary education, care) were restricted to women Between 1987 and 2012, the following sectors of the economy contracted: mining and quarrying (by 64%), manufacturing (by 46%), electricity and gas supply (46%). Meanwhile growth has taken place in areas long open to women; administrative and support service activities (up 93% in the same period), health and social work (60%), education (45%). The gap between the proportion of men and women working has narrowed and the proportions are now as close as they have been since records began.

While, as ever, the burden of gender oppression (unequal pay, domestic violence, sexual division of labour in the upbringing of children) falls overwhelmingly on women, there is a sense in which the inequality of gender contributions to childcare is being (very slowly) eroded. Despite this very partial convergence of men’s and women’s contributions to childcare, the situation persists in which society assumes that women just “will” contribute more. A mother of a child aged between 1 month and a year will take maternity leave where it is available to her; fathers take up parental leave at lower rates even when the choice is there. Parents’ services – baby classes, contacts with health visitors – are dominated by mothers. On relationship breakdown it remains vastly more common for a child to live with the mother rather than the father.

From this starting division between the sexes, the whole of women’s specific oppression follows: “women’s jobs” which relate to women’s greater role in childcare (nursing, teaching, cooking, cleaning), the part-time divide between men and women (in which employers rely on women workers to fill part-time roles, and have a seeming justification for paying these roles dramatically less than men’s), the “family bargain” (under which mothers reduce their hours on becoming parents, because someone has to look after the child, and fathers increase theirs, because the money still needs to come in) under which couples with children drift into the sexual division of labour of past generations, “sticky floors”, “glass ceilings”, the different role of men and women in initiating sexual relationships, etc.

Migration has changed the shape of the family. It has become increasingly common for women in their 20s and 30s to travel away from their family to look for work. In some societies this occurs intra-nationally, with mothers migrating with or without their children, who (if separated from their mother) are brought up by father or grandparents in a family “base”. Elsewhere we see similar dynamics internationally, and the increasing use of social media to maintain family bonds. Meanwhile, in several of the richer societies, the wealthy are increasingly dependent on migrants to provide privatised childcare as nannies, home helps, etc. The women who are expected to do this work are themselves of childbearing age, so inevitably there is a dynamic under which the constitution of a seemingly “perfect” nuclear family for rich people in any one country becomes dependent on poor families crossing borders to service them. What capitalism seeks is a marriage of two barely-compatible dynamics: the complete freedom of the rich to make use of as much labour locally as will best enable them to live how they want, whether in the home (home helps, nannies) or outside (labour in employment). And, at the same time, to keep labour cheap, by reducing its bargaining power, by making much immigrant labour illegal, and by placing the entire burden of this illegality on the workers themselves.

There is a near universal acceptance (at least in principle) of the feminist idea of equal treatment. No-one will dispute the obvious truths that it is wrong to give a job to a man just because he is a man, or that it is wrong to pay people less because of the sex they are. Yet this shallow egalitarianism hits, repeatedly, against the economic processes of neoliberalism, the ubiquity of pornography, the deepening of gender socialisation by the marketing of clothes, toys, etc as separately “girls’” or “boys’”, the increasing sexualisation of women’s bodies. Real, sensuous equality is limited by the reconstitution of the family, and in particular the ongoing division of responsibility for childcare, which constantly serves to make men’s and women’s experience of the family different. Part of this gap is filled by a rhetoric which blames women’s suffering on feminism, and says for example that if working mothers are overwhelmed by the pressure of combining paid work and childcare, this is the fault of the women’s movement for encouraging impossible ideas about women’s potential economic independence from men. In her book, Backlash, a study of the reversing of gender inequality that took place in the 1980s, Susan Faludi describes this ideas a “a kid of pop-culture version of the Big Lie” in which women’s continuing subordination is blamed on “the very steps that have elevated women’s position” (Faludi, 1992, p12)

Never before have there been societies in which the principle of women’s equality with men had as much (albeit passive) acceptance as it does today. All formal distinctions have been swept away; all directly discriminatory laws abolished. The sexual differences which persist are no longer political or legal in origin but really “merely” on the market to sustain them. And yet never before has true, sensuous equality seemed so distant.

One response »

  1. Interesting Article. Given that you include parenthetical references, could you add the bibliographic information? I’d like to do some further reading… Thanks.

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