Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Memories Are Made of This

Simon Schama's 1989 history of the French Revolution, Citizens, memorably opens with a description of the monumental plaster elephant that stood in the Place de la Bastille between 1814 and 1846. It was a temporary structure erected on the order of Napoleon as a celebration of his victories and intended to be replaced by one cast in bronze from captured cannon. It long-outlived its purpose and was eventually eclipsed by the current monument, a column memorialising the dead of the 1830 July Revolution. Schama uses the increasingly decrepit elephant as a metaphor both for the obliteration of the 1789 revolution's history after the Thermidorian Reaction and the ultimate vanity of the revolutionaries' hopes, though their true monument was surely the dismantling of the Bastille Prison - i.e. the creative absence you still feel in the square as you circle the July Column. If Schama ideologically followed Francois Furet in seeing the Revolution as on-the-whole a bad thing (essentially liberalism perverted by the totalitarian left), then he followed the method of Furet's brother-in-law, Pierre Nora, the author of the monumental Les Lieux de Mémoire, in seeking to tell the story of the Revolution through its rhetorical expressions, from pamphlets to pageants.

Nora's even more comprehensive approach to French historiography (which ironically recuperated techniques pioneered by Debord and Foucault) would inspire the genre of popular world histories seen through the prism of a commodity: salt, pepper, the chronometer etc. It would also provide a background to the post-1989 debates on the removal of statues in Eastern Europe and the memorialising of resistance to Communist rule (the Gdansk shipyard gates, the site of Jan Palach's self-immolation in Prague etc). Unfortunately, this approach encouraged the idea that retiring some configurations of metal and marble and erecting others was sufficient in itself, which would eventually lead to the orgy of statue-toppling that obscured the far more damaging destruction of the institutions of the state in Iraq in 2003. What the focus on the symbolic in Eastern Europe hinted at was the high degree of continuity at the institutional level. This wasn't merely because democracy was adopted as a cover for existing networks by elites, though this clearly played a part, but because those states had institutions that were largely accepted as legitimate by the population. The two exceptions to this were East Germany and Russia: the one "taken over" by another institutional culture (to no little resentment), the other weakened by the fragmentation of the institutions of the USSR, which empowered now-private actors in state industries to entrench an oligarchy.

While many have drawn a parallel between Eastern Europe's monumental hygiene and the recent clashes over the memorials to white supremacy in the US, this equivalence tends to ignore the institutional dimension. Toppling statues is a perfectly reasonable activity, but it looks a lot like displacement unless there is an obvious symbolic value in a specific monument, like the notoriously near-empty Bastille. While some historians have rightly pointed out that most of the monuments to Confederate soldiers in the US were actually erected as symbols of the triumph of post-1890 "Jim Crow" laws, or resistance to civil rights in the 1960s, rather than memorials to the Civil War, this simply encourages the left to claim that these statues represent contemporary racism. That's obviously true in part, but it neglects the institutional basis to the persistence of that racism: the state house, the local sherrif, the conservative judiciary etc. The civil rights movement targeted institutions, not monuments. Donald Trump showed a better understanding of power, not to mention an appreciation of the idea that lieux des mémoire are more than just statues, when he pardoned the notorious former Arizonan sherrif, Joe Arpaio, for his abuse of the Constitution. That he also wants to rescind a lot of the National Monuments decreed by Barack Obama and previous presidents, specifically for the benefit of industry, should come as no surprise.

There appears to be an unconscious admission among centrists in the US that institutions are off limits, though whether this is due to a lack of imagination, or a fear that they are so far gone that the slightest pressure might lead to the complete collapse of the state, is hard to say. Much of the US "resistance" to Trump has been vapid and entitled precisely because it has focused on issues and symbols that are either marginal to popular concerns or seen as part of the establishment, such as quibbles over travel expenditure or insults directed at TV hosts. Though there is no shortage of popular delusion in the US, from the reality of angels to the intangibility of Obama's birth certificate, Democrats cannot attribute Hillary Clinton's failure solely to the lies over "Pizzagate" and her emails. Those tall tales merely reinforced an existing suspicion that she was untrustworthy and lacking in sympathy for ordinary people. Now, at a time when they should be challenging the institutional decay that has given rise to Trump, the Democrats remain wedded to old forms and familiar symbols, meaning that the defence of democracy against its presumed threats looks like the self-interested defence of institutions and norms that are anything but democratic (including the Democratic Party itself).

If the French have a wider symbolic vocabulary than Americans it is not down to any difference in their institutional resilience but to a greater anxiety over cultural cohesion. The French state has consciously sought to "make Frenchmen" since 1789 and many of its contemporary social frictions arise from that legacy, not least because it suffers a surfeit of lieux de mémoire and a constant demand to recognise more, particularly those that acknowledge the state's darker deeds in living memory, such as the Vel' d'Hiv and the Pont Saint-Michel. This debate around memory is ultimately a good thing, being a popular recognition of the state as a shared endeavour, even if it does lend an overly-theatrical air to proceedings. Macron's concern with symbolism, not to mention his expenditure on cosmetics, might strike many as ridiculous, but he is employing a conventional political grammar. In contrast, the US has a tradition of defining its sense of community in opposition: to native Americans, the British, Mexicans, subsequent waves of non-Protestant immigrants and, most obviously, blacks. Much of the current populism (i.e. anti-elitism) and distrust of Washington springs from this "agin-ness". The consequence is that identity is reduced to a handful of possessive symbols that anyone might own, such as the lawn flag, the handgun or the car, which encourages a defensive intransigence ("when you take it from my cold, dead hands") rather than an engagement with the federal public realm.

This explains the paradox of Americans as chauvinists who mistrust the nation state. Attempts to inculcate a more expansive patriotism in the French manner (one nation under a flag) have often struggled to get beyond the superficiality of performative patriotism: the hand on the heart, the stars-and-stripes pin on the lapel. It also suggests why the end of the American superlative after the 1970s (the best this, the best that) has been more disconcerting than the earlier relative decline in Britain. While the US moved from the hope of "It's morning again in America" to the petulance of "Make America great again", Britain settled down to watch It Ain't Alf Hot Mum and Only Fools and Horses, suggesting our admiration for entrepreneurialism was no more profound than our regret over empire. Britain has no shortage of chauvinists, but there would be few takers for a torchlight procession to defend the statue of Edward Colston. The irony of the current wave of American statue-bothering is that many of these monuments lost their resonance years ago, particularly since post-60s racism moved its symbolic focus to the spectre of race-inflected violence: "three strikes", concealed carry, Sheriff Joe etc. The compounding irony is that attempts by the "alt-right" to defend the statues have highlighted their irrelevance and inappropriateness, which is now accelerating their removal.

The turn to the symbolic in American political discourse suggests a renewed engagement by the general population with its history. This isn't peculiar to the one country: a similar tendency is to be seen across developed nations, perhaps because the contingency of the state has become more apparent under globalisation and so settled national narratives have come in for more interrogation. That neoliberalism has stimulated an interest in family history, essentially as a defence against fragmentation and the loss of memory, is self-evident, but it has also encouraged an appreciation of history as the product of many individual decisions and experiences (an ironic echo of Hayek's theory of dispersed knowledge). But if this engagement is limited to statuary, it will be no more fruitful that the occupation of Zuccotti Park. Democratic renewal in the US requires institutional reform, and that is only going to come through party reform. The problem is that the Democrats remain in denial about their own need for renewal, insisting that the plaster elephant of the Republican Party must surely crumble under the weight of its own decay and so leave the field to them. As Parisians could remind them, sometimes it takes a revolution to clear away the rubbish.

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.