Rally at Minneapolis Social Security Office. Credit: Flickr/AFGE. Some rights reserved.
The rapidity with which the Trump administration has set about dismantling what remains of publicly-funded institutions and facilities in the US begs some crucial questions: what was the prior state of welfare provision in American society? What battles have been fought on questions of social security over the last 50 years, and what was the public policy landscape that contributed to his victory?
Melinda Cooper’s new book, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, plays an invaluable role in filling in this historical background from the 1960s onwards, outlining and explaining the forces that underpin contemporary anti-welfarism and the increasingly polarised nature of the USA.
Cooper documents the array of economists and public policy advisors from the Christian right, the harder edges of the neoliberal spectrum, and even some progressive democrats, all of whom have worked to undo a social security system that they perceived as inducing dependency, driving up inflation, and—with welfare payments in their pockets—freeing sectors of the unemployed from their obligations. Her painstaking account also throws light on the ways in which the right has succeeded in one of its key objectives by finding common ground between neoliberals—who typically endorse the singular freedoms of individual choice and personal responsibility unfettered by the state—and social neo-conservatives (many of whom it transpires were once on the left), who adhere to a more traditional or paternalistic notion of social obligations.
The effect of this consensus has been to reduce the legitimacy of government-backed welfare and social security provision by re-focusing attention on the family as the foundation of all social assistance. Gary Becker, the Nobel prize-winning economist, understood that this shift involved appealing to the ‘altruistic’ bonds of kinship so that the family unit undertakes what organized welfare systems might otherwise be expected to do. The love and emotional attachment of family bonds, he believed, leads people to care for each other outside of the market values that prevail in all other domains of life.
Feminists have long highlighted the effects of this philosophy in terms of unpaid domestic labour, but for Becker such labour is an exploitable resource that can be used to reduce the costs of welfare. Families should provide or pay for their own elder care, health care, and college education for their children. But how is this to happen when resources for most families are so scarce and wages are stagnating? Becker argued that expanding access to cheap credit was the key, enabling people to purchase care while guarding against inflation. Cooper sees this as a shift to ‘asset-based welfare’ or even ‘democratised debt.’ If low and middle-income families are enmeshed in debt from the cradle to the grave, their members are more likely to be beholden to each other.
This steering of the family into a pivotal place in the nation’s economy has not been without difficulty. It has been the method of choice on the part of the right as they seek to undo many of the gains which second-wave feminism set out to achieve in the US from the late 1960s. It is also the right’s answer to the dilemma posed by the un-viability of ‘moral majority’ nostalgia for placing women back in the home. As women maintain a steadfast presence in the new service-led labour markets, and as working class men’s skills are eroded and wage stagnation kicks in thanks to the monetary policies of finance-led neo-liberalism, the family must somehow cohere as an entity, as often as not through the mountains of debt they now have to accrue to cover the cost of mortgages, childcare, college education for their children, and privatised health insurance.
By appealing to the family as the moral base of all wider social values, a desperate horizon of respectability emerges. Unlike in more overtly feminist times, divorce and singleness reek of social failure, so there is a double bind: sheer dependency on each other for care within the kinship unit (especially in times of hardship or illness), and also a loss of status or social worth for those who fall outside of these familial networks of support. As Cooper shows, these strategies for shoring up the family as an economic unit were also focused directly on the management of the African American population.
Dating back to the right wing reaction against civil rights, the welfare activism of the War on Poverty, and the community engagement of the Black Panthers, the pathologisation of the black family deflected attention away from segregation and the pervasiveness of structural racism which reached into every corner of life, severely limiting the ability of black men and women to maintain their livelihoods—never mind settling down to the ideal of life as a nuclear family in the suburbs. What Cooper emphasises is just how wide the political consensus has become across the male-dominated political spectrum from left to right about the dangers to society that are apparently posed by a perceived loss of ‘family values’ through, for example, divorce and single parenthood. Feminism is also blamed for devaluing the meaning and quality of love.
Nor is it just economists from the University of Chicago like Becker who have led this charge. Cooper draws attention to the influence of European leftist social scientists such as Zygmunt Bauman, Ulrich Beck, and most notably the German economic sociologist Wolfgang Streeck. According to Cooper, Streeck implies that in its bid for equal pay and flexible working arrangements, middle-class feminism has more or less shunted working-class men out of their jobs, thereby depriving working class women of a reliable breadwinner and destroying the stability of the family unit. Even Karl Polanyi—currently favoured by so many social theorists—took refuge in a return to community and state protection in the form of the family wage and its associated securities.
Cooper includes Nancy Fraser, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello in her list of progressives who look to restore the family as the foundation of welfare. In one way or another all of these writers see the unsettling of the male breadwinner model and the battles fought by feminists to free themselves of dependency on male earning power as contributing to the social ills of today, including those wrought by neo-liberalism and its flexible labour markets. Fraser’s account of feminist complicity in this process is well known, though also hotly disputed.
Finally there is the sheer vindictive cruelty that Tea Party adherents and other far-right elements display towards ‘the poor.’ According to Cooper, the idea that the uninsured should be ‘left to die’ has earlier precedents. For example, neoliberal economists calculated that AIDs sufferers saved the state money by dying since many were poor and unemployed, and hence unproductive. And because the sexual behaviour of gay men who contracted the illness entailed a calculated risk, they themselves should pay the costs. Cooper gently chides the LGBTQ activist group Queer Nation in this context for seeking the safety and respectability of gay marriage as a way for loving couples to look after each other, and gain inheritance and property rights in the process.
Cooper’s book leaves us with a bleakly realistic account of the (often Christian) rightwing patriarchal forces whose resoundingly angry response to feminist and pro-welfare activism has sought to stifle the impact of the women’s movement from the 1960s onwards, especially in regard to economic, racial and reproductive freedoms. One might assume that similar ideas are at work in the Trump administration today. Under the weight of such antagonism the tenacity of feminism is nothing short of miraculous, and Cooper’s sombre analysis serves to remind the pro-feminist left and the women’s movement of how few in number we are, and have been.
However, against this background Cooper’s contribution leaves two questions unanswered. The first is that, if the family unit is here to stay, what kind of feminist politics are required to ensure equality for all its members—for women, grandmothers, daughters, young women and girls as well as men?
Second, as is so often the case, when the family becomes over-burdened and incapable of dealing with the crises such close quarters typically generate, how can we re-imagine ‘alternative kinship’ as a potentially-positive response? One of the most compelling arguments from feminism in the late 1970s was that bonds of kinship by no means guarantee love and protection. Instead, they may entail violence, misery and suffering. For many girls and young women at that time, being caught in a family-based trap of gendered assumptions and requirements regarding marriage and motherhood led to angry outbursts of feminist rage and the desire to escape the family altogether.
That rage led to a different focus on friendship, and on finding ways of developing female support networks. Since then, feminist and LGBTQ struggles have changed the way we look at kinship by including an increasing range of ‘families of choice.’ But as Cooper shows, what really matters is who picks up the tab for social reproduction, for childcare and education, and for what befalls us in ill-health, old age, and periods of unemployment. There are no equitable, healthy or sustainable answers to that question inside the family.