Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The Fragmented Family

Much of the critical literature on neoliberalism has focused on its effect on the state, in particular the way that aspects of public policy are put beyond democratic control through marketisation and privatisation, and the manner in which policy is suborned to commercial interests through regulatory capture and the "revolving door". Less attention has been paid to the impact of neoliberalism on the family. This doesn't mean that the family is ignored so much as it is viewed as a permanent fixture that is buffeted and stressed by neoliberalism - for example the way in which the erosion of the welfare state has driven the growth in household debt - rather than as a subject that is transformed. There is no conception of the neoliberal family to match the idealisation of homo economicus, the neoliberal individual, and thus little attempt to historicise it. This seems odd given the wealth of twentieth century analysis into the changing formation of kinship groups, from historical studies of the early modern period to sociological studies of the contemporary nuclear family, not to mention current debates on the "varieties of family" occasioned by feminism and same-sex marriage.

Sociology has certainly not neglected the impact that neoliberalism has had on the family as a unit, from its increasing dependence on working mothers to the frictions arising from growing intergenerational inequality, but it hasn't ventured a theory of the neoliberal family in the way that the nuclear family was defined as the logical kinship formation of modern industrial society. This is partly a disciplinary problem, reflecting both the divorce of sociology from economics that occurred under neoliberalism (a process that some sociologists, like Wolfgang Streeck, seek to reverse) and the revived interest in Karl Polanyi and the idea of the family as a site of resistance to the market. Both treat the family as anterior to and independent of the economy (the one oblivious, the other antagonistic) rather than as a social result of economic power. But it is also a political problem, reflecting the success of the right in reconciling neoliberalism with traditional conservative theory through an emphasis on both the family's pre-eminent role as the source of social assistance (replacing the welfare state) and on its exemplary role as the foundation of property rights (which in the US has heavily influenced the debates around abortion and gun control).

The result is that even those studies that focus explicitly on the relationship of neoliberalism and the family tend to see the latter as a site in which power struggles take place rather than as the product of socio-economic dynamics. This perspective is reinforced both by feminism, with its emphasis on individual emancipation and historic abuse, and by readings that seek to excavate the reactionary roots of modern conservatives' instrumental use of the family. The consequence is the all-too-familiar friction between the demands for social and economic justice that divide the contemporary left (identity politics versus "brocialists") and a tendency to treat "conventional" family forms as inherently suspect. For example, in separate reviews of Melinda Cooper's Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, Angela McRobbie brackets the regret expressed over the loss of the family wage by "European leftist social scientists", such as Zygmunt Bauman and Streeck, with the Chicago School economist Gary Becker, while James Chappel expands the bracket far back into the past: "Scratch the surface of the most hardheaded economic rationalist—Thomas Malthus in the nineteenth century, Gary Becker in the twentieth—and you will find that the apparent commitment to rugged individualism is more accurately a commitment to family altruism and private relations of dependence".

Cooper's fundamental and correct point - that neoliberalism works through the agency of the family despite its rhetorical emphasis on personal utility - shouldn't come as a surprise. That neoliberalism requires a strong (even authoritarian) state, despite its ostensible commitment to reducing the burden of government and increasing the freedom of the individual, is now well known. Only the naive would still claim that the promise of neoliberal politicians to "shrink the state" is sincere. Similarly, neoliberalism sees the family as critical to its success, not merely as a substitute for welfare but as a more reliable asset for financialisation (people in family units are less likely to renege on debts than people on their own, and more likely to have assets to call on). But there is no doubt that the neoliberal state is a significantly different animal to the social democratic state of les trente glorieuses, from its valorisation of markets to its deficit obsession. By the same token, we should expect the family under neoliberalism to exhibit similarly distinct characteristics. To identify these, we need first to establish the baseline: the characteristics of the typical family in the years before neoliberalism started to seriously affect social relations, i.e. around the 1980s.

In the 1950s and 60s, some children would move beyond the area where they were brought up by their early-twenties, but the majority would stay in (or within walking distance of) the parental home, sometimes beyond marriage. The arrival of children (i.e. grandchildren) was often the point at which young adults would finally move out of their parent's immediate orbit, particularly after the growth of the postwar suburbs and the appearance of affordable cars. The Sunday lunch ritual - being driven to the grandparents for meat and two veg - was a thing by the 1970s. By the 1990s, "empty nest syndrome" had become a thing. The post-millennium "boomerang" effect, of young adults moving back home after a few years of independence due to low-wages or housing shortages, might have been expected to ameliorate this sense of estrangement but it actually exacerbated it by leaving both children and parents in limbo. The former were often resentful at their "failure to launch" while the latter were unable to properly process their anticipated "loss". Uncertainty about the stability of family groups is now common and anxiety over future inheritance conflicts (i.e. liquidating the chief asset means someone may lose their home) is growing. The nostalgia that underpins TV programmes like Back in Time for Dinner is for predictability not Angel Delight.

This doesn't just affect "traditional" family groups - i.e. married parents with two or more children - but other formations too: unmarried parents with kids, re-marriages with step-children, same-sex couples with adoptees etc. All family models have been affected by broader social changes: the reduction in family sizes in the 1970s and the subsequent growth in childlessness; deindustrialisation in the 1980s, causing young adults to move often long distances in search of work; and the expansion of tertiary education starting in the 1990s, which meant more children moving away (at least temporarily) and acquiring different values earlier. While intergenerational conflict is often deployed as a distraction from wealth inequality, the relative reduction in life chances for the young (social mobility, home ownership etc) is real. The chief characteristic of the neoliberal family then is fragmentation and a loosening of bonds in multiple dimensions: spatial, generational and cultural (the intra-family frictions over Brexit are typical of this). In this light, the alliance of neoliberalism and conservatism starts to look less like a happy marriage that advances both household indebtedness and traditional family values and more like an attempt to mitigate the disruptive effects of the one by an appeal to the coercive normativity of the other.

The tension in this marriage was obvious from the beginning. For example, 1981 in the UK was the first full year of right-to-buy and also the year that Norman Tebbitt gave his notorious "get on your bike" speech at the Conservative Party annual conference. The one policy encouraged the encumbrance of a mortgage and the fixity of place while the other advocated the mobility of labour. Renting would actually have been an optimal social policy for industrial capital, particularly in a period of massive reorganisation, but the interests of finance capital (more so than simple electoral calculation) were decisive. The fading away of the vision of a "property-owning democracy" was always inevitable, and while some conservatives seem to appreciate the problem, they appear unable to address it because of their conflicting interests. The crisis of conservatism is a set of contradictions arising not simply from material changes in the economy and society but from antagonistic policies enacted by conservatives themselves. These antagonisms are increasingly located within the family, giving the impression that conservative political parties are losing their touch despite their family-friendly rhetoric (the Tories' "dementia tax" being a recent example).

The popular culture of the 60s and 70s often focused on the idea of escape from the constraints of family, and in particular the limitations of working class life, but this imagined the family background as at worst conservative and timid. For all its failings, it was a launchpad for social progression. In retrospect, this looks like early period neoliberalism with the emphasis on individual freedom and potential. The modern equivalent of the "traditional" family has been reduced to scenarios of individual rebellion against the socially retrograde, such as gay kids fleeing homophobia or Muslim girls fleeing arranged marriages. The ideal of escape is now tinged with fear and desperation (the recent film Get Out took this to hilarious extremes). The idealised neoliberal family today is not just socially tolerant, in a predictably middle-class way, but its members oscillate between atomised indifference and competitive support, which reflects the contradiction at its heart. Parents as much as children are highly individual, to the point of rebellious eccentricity, but with a sense of collective obligation. TV sitcoms like My Family, Outnumbered and Cuckoo, with their tropes of permanent exhaustion and barely suppressed resentment, suggest that neoliberalism has entered a late, decadent phase.


  1. Terrific piece.

    The late decadent phase. Do you mean something like 'the only thing worse than being in an exploited family, is not being in an exploited family'. What are families for now?

    A theme that runs through much of your work is how apparently contingent social phenomena are driven by the demands of capital reproduction. In terms of the family we see that reproduction of humans is always subordinated to the reproduction of their social relations. How does the Marxian paradox, (that capital has a tendency to expel humans from its circuit thus resulting in a crisis of surplus realisation) apply to your modern history of family structures?

    In other words how clear are the demands made by capital on the family today. To what extent is it even needed. On the one hand we see the family sidelined, as propertyless new service workers are simply imported. On the other we see, as you point out, increased reliance on the family as a financial (liquidity:collateral) unit. This maps neatly onto the contradiction of the Tory coalition of Shire and City. But maybe there is no actual contradiction. Maybe we are just seeing the return to older form of rentier society. As you hint - it's who you are that counts now, and not your techniques. As once before in history , families are about names as much as bodies.

    1. The longstanding conservative argument that the welfare state undermined families is not without foundation, though it ignores the extent to which welfarism in practice contained competing tendencies: natalism and support for the family wage on the one hand, and the bipolitical atomisation of workers through state education and healthcare on the other.

      The demands of capital on the family have shifted over the last 30 years, with less emphasis on the production of labour and more on the consumption of commodities. The "reform" of education would be an obvious example (as an aside, the change in the GCSE system looks like a shift from the crude grading of pupils to the achievement of a level within a complex game). Capitalism no longer needs the conventional family, hence the social tolerance of unconventional structures and (in response) traditionalist's angst over same-sex marriage and childlessness.

      Your final point is fruitful: it may well be that the residuum of the family is as a company of shareholders in specific assets, including not just the tangible capital of property but the intangible assets of social networks, cultural capital and name (i.e. the brand).

  2. An excellent return!

    'suggest that neoliberalism has entered a late, decadent phase.'

    As does the fact that neoliberalism's dependence on inter-generational redistribution within the family will be steadily eroded in the years to come. Parents will have less spare money as they have to pay mortgages for much longer, and the fact that the retirement age is steadily creeping upwards will decrease job opportunities for the young and make free childcare increasingly difficult for those starting families.