Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism
by Melinda Cooper
Zone Books, 2017, 416 pp.
Homer J. Simpson is one of contemporary pop culture’s exemplars of alienated labor. A man of considerable sloth and selfishness, he continues to clock into a job at Springfield’s nuclear power plant that he loathes and at which he is worryingly incompetent. Why does he put up with it? In one of the series’ finest episodes, we learn that Homer had once had the opportunity for joyful employment at the local bowling alley. In a cruel irony, it was precisely Homer’s joy at the job that led to Marge’s pregnancy. Responsible for a child that he could not afford, he returns to the power plant. The scene is a gut-wrenching reminder of the affective logic of modern capitalism. Why does he stay? The sign that Homer fashions at his station answers in four simple words: Do It For Her.
As atomized individuals, we might prefer a life of freedom. But we are not atomized individuals. We are parents and children—and everyone has bills to pay. This might explain why the great utopias—whether imagined, as in Plato’s Republic, or real, as in Oneida—have sought to weaken the ties that bind parents to children. Our affective investment in our own children becomes a disinvestment in those around us, and even in ourselves. As Nikole Hannah-Jones reported in 2016 in the New York Times Magazine, even principled Brooklyn progressives lobby to maintain unequal, segregated schools when their own children are at stake. I can relate. Since having a child, I have moved to a “better” school zone and begun dutifully saving up for college, all in the hope of maintaining a position of privilege—not for myself, but for my son. This might be a moral weakness of my own, but it is shared by millions of others. And a moral weakness shared by millions is not really a weakness at all, but a politics.
It is no accident that our own age of hyper-capitalism is also one of aggressive “family values,” pursued in popular culture and legislation alike. Recognizing that a society of true free contract would fall apart, apologists for free-market capitalism have usually acknowledged that markets depend on unpaid labor. Consider, for instance, Margaret Thatcher’s famous remark that “there is no such thing as society.” This is often the starting point for a pious reassertion of the values of community and politics against the atomizing individuation of market capitalism. This misses her point. “There are individual men and women,” she continued, “and there are families.” 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. “Do it,” these voices intone, “for her.”
It is still surprisingly common, in the critiques of neoliberalism that have glutted the progressive public sphere in recent years, to imagine that the withdrawal of the state leaves us atomized and alone. This blinkered view ignores the ways in which modern capitalism creates and reanimates certain forms of solidarity and love while pathologizing others. In North Carolina, for instance, legislators gutted civil rights protections for transgender individuals while simultaneously attacking minimum-wage statutes in the same bill. It is surely inadequate to presume the measure arbitrarily combined together these two policy shifts, but the precise relationship between them can be hard to ascertain. We need a theoretical model, and a historical narrative, that joins capital and culture, revealing how deregulated capitalism relies on reasserting hierarchies of gender and sexuality.
This is the analysis Melinda Cooper provides in her magisterial Family Values, a sprawling book on the history of neoliberal capitalism and the family. She covers a vast number of themes: welfare reform, deindustrialization, the AIDS crisis, incarceration, spiraling inequality, the return of religion, and the role of securitized credit markets in mortgages and student debt. These discussions bring together intellectual, political, economic, and cultural history into a satisfying, and sometimes exhilarating, unity. These familiar stories, she shows, are bound up in one overarching narrative: the installation of the nuclear family, and not the state, as the privileged site of debt, wealth transfer, and care.
For decades, scholars have explored the importance of nuclear families and unwaged labor to capitalist reproduction. What Cooper provides is a history that uncovers the laws and doctrines that structure the precarious families of the present, demonstrating that the history of gender and the family are not merely cultural artifacts, while the real work of capitalist expansion continues elsewhere. At the commanding heights of governance, the family, and not the individual, reigns supreme. To paraphrase Max Horkheimer, whoever is not prepared to talk about the family should also remain silent about neoliberalism.
The pivotal role of the family today is not new, and represents in Cooper’s telling the reappearance of an old tradition. The Poor Relief Act, passed by the British Parliament in 1601, was the first attempt to codify and formalize the political community’s obligations to the needy. The act stipulated that the community would only step in if family members were incapable of providing relief themselves. Versions of the poor laws made their way into the United States in the colonial period, where they persisted for centuries. In the aftermath of the Civil War, for instance, the Freedmen’s Bureau, in Cooper’s words, “unceremoniously inducted [African Americans] into the poor-law tradition of legally enforceable family responsibility at the very moment that they were welcomed into the world of contractual freedom.”
In the 1930s, the role of the family evolved in ways that opened the door toward a more emancipatory politics. New Dealers insisted that the welfare of families with a male breadwinner had become a public responsibility. In place of means-tested welfare and familial responsibility for the indigent, they supported measures such as social security and unemployment relief, which have shaped the lives of American families ever since. This tradition had its problems, and was implicated in the creation of new forms of racial and gender hierarchy. One of the most pernicious features of that period, and one that remains with us, was a rigid distinction between social insurance, designed for healthy and stable families, and “welfare” programs like Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), designed for stigmatized or deviant populations. All the same, a generation of welfare-rights activists in the 1960s and ’70s fought, with some success, to create more equitable forms of welfare, and ones that were more available to non-normative families (for instance, unmarried women with children). Even Richard Nixon supported universal health insurance and universal basic income—much of which was contained, not coincidentally, in his never-passed Family Assistance Plan.
The expansion of the welfare state, coupled with attacks on the nuclear family by feminists, gay rights activists, and other countercultural forces, generated a backlash that, in the 1970s, united neoliberal economists and a new generation of social conservatives. They found surprising common cause around opposition to inflation, depicting rising prices as a consequence of unrestrained deficit spending necessitated by the Woodstock generation’s out-of-control sexual morality and sense of entitlement. Neoliberal economists like Milton Friedman and Gary Becker shared little, intellectually, with neoconservatives like Samuel Huntington or politicians like Ronald Reagan. Yet they forged a powerful alliance, heralding a sweeping transformation of American political economy from the Reagan years to the present.
This alliance is often noted but seldom understood. Why is the religious right so infuriated by welfare and so committed to the free market? Why do neoliberal thinkers so frequently praise marriage and the family, even while disavowing any commitment to a religious notion of natural law? These questions cannot be answered, Cooper suggests, without considering the economic and moral institution of the family. Neoliberals and social conservatives understand the family differently, to be sure: neoliberals see a cluster of rational actors, social conservatives a sacred institution and buffer against the market. But for both of them the neoliberal family, by privatizing risk and deficit spending, provided an alternative to both the New Dealers’ visions of a family supported by social insurance and the new kinship models proposed by feminists, gay rights advocates, and others.
While sometimes leaving us to our own devices, neoliberalism more frequently rivets us into networks of kinship bound together by shared responsibilities for debt, illness, and care. This is obvious in our daily lives: think of the loans co-signed (or not), the college bills paid for (or not), the agonizing decisions over nursing homes. The real and imagined connection between family values and economic mobility allows for a kindred link between social inequality and family pathology. Even where the discourse of “welfare queens” is not present, as in the rhetoric of Barack Obama, responsible fatherhood is often viewed as more important than welfare state expansion. Welfare policy from Reagan to Obama has sought to devolve social responsibility to the family whenever possible, as symbolized by aggressive collection of child-support payments by the state (the Office of Child Support Enforcement was created in 1975).
In a post-industrial age with declining union density, wage growth no longer provides a reliable pathway to social mobility—it must come, instead, from inherited wealth, home ownership, and higher education. Responsibility for all three, Cooper shows, generally rests on neither the individual, nor the state, but the family. The relentless assault on estate taxes has helped to ensure that family inheritance plays an increasingly important role in the perpetuation of income inequality. As Thomas Piketty has shown, if current trends continue, the role of inheritance in the near future will be as large as it was in the nineteenth century. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush saw family home ownership as a lynchpin of economic security, and sought to expand access through the provision of securitized credit markets. As the 2008 crisis has shown, this was a false promise.
The rise of student debt is perhaps the most chilling component of Cooper’s saga. “For a brief moment,” Cooper writes, “the expansion of public investment in education replaced private, family investment as a means of access to education.” Public funding of education, however, was viewed as a moral hazard by both neoliberals and social conservatives, who saw the student movement as a baleful consequence of this generous public policy. (Students, the argument went, were frittering away their collegiate lives because they were not paying for it themselves.) Ronald Reagan, who first encountered these issues as governor of California, slashed student aid in the White House, launching us toward our current, debt-soaked student body. This was a catastrophe that befell families, not individual students alone. Even though college students are legal adults, parents are often on the hook for their children’s loans, and many take out so-called PLUS loans, allowing them to use their own credit to pay for the education of their children. Higher education, like housing, was transformed from a public good, financed by public spending, to family obligation, financed by private debt.
The hegemony of the neoliberal family has led, predictably, to nostalgia for its New Deal predecessor, where goods like education and housing were viewed as rights, not as privileges to be ruthlessly won. This nostalgia, Cooper shows, is primarily a fixture on the progressive left—neither neoliberals nor social conservatives are much interested in the trade unionism and social insurance of midcentury America. In her reading, progressive icons like Frances Fox Piven, Wolfgang Streeck, and even Nancy Fraser are unable to think beyond the sexual contract of the midcentury social democracy. They all provide some version of the familiar left argument that feminism, by sending women into the workforce, served as a handmaiden to neoliberalism. Their response, Cooper argues, is to criticize feminism as a mere politics of recognition and reinstate some kind of normative family order in the service of a more properly redistributive politics. Some of these assessments are more convincing than others (the treatment of Fraser, in particular, is rushed, but Cooper does unearth a remarkable call from Piven and Cloward to, in their words, “create a stable monogamous family” that would give men back their “manhood”). All the same, Cooper has certainly put her finger on something important. Progressive analysts, even those sympathetic to queer and feminist perspectives, have a tendency to reaffirm the gender order that undergirded the social democratic settlement of the mid-twentieth century.
Cooper is not a prescriptive thinker, and her book leaves unclear what we might do about all of this. She is adamant, though, that nostalgia for the midcentury family is a blind alley. She is despondent that the vibrant queer activism of the 1980s became a legalistic pursuit of rights—specifically rights of marriage and inheritance that are at the core of the neoliberal family. The only proper response, she insists, is one that links together sexual politics and economic justice. The clearest critique of the neoliberal family today, she suggests, comes from trans politics. Like scholar-activist Dean Spade, Cooper would be critical of trans politics that sought to gain “rights” for transgender individuals in a liberal framework. She thus addresses and defuses the persistent, if often subterranean, concern that some progressives are worrying too much about issues of sex and identity. If anything, Cooper suggests, we are not thinking about them enough.
There is, however, a tension in Cooper’s work. On the one hand, she brilliantly shows how enmeshed we are, as political and economic agents, into the family form, and how necessary this is to the reproduction of neoliberal capitalism. On the other, she does not believe that the family itself can be a site of resistance. In fact, she criticizes Fraser because “her analysis leads inescapably to the conclusion that resistance demands the restoration of family, albeit in a more progressive, egalitarian form.” It is unclear why this is a problem, especially as Cooper’s analysis seems to lead to precisely that conclusion. It is as though Marx, after detailing the creation of the wage-labor system, did not believe that unionized labor could provide at least part of the solution. If we inhabit political and economic spaces as a family unit, then our resistance should—even must—take a familial form as well (which is not to say that this is the only legitimate form).
What might a more progressive and egalitarian family look like? How does one imagine a family unit that would neither exclude transgender communities, on the one hand, nor reinstate gendered divisions of labor on the other? These are not entirely new questions, although they do not seem to be raised insistently today. Just as history can show us how the nuclear family was enlisted into the neoliberal project, it can show us how feminists and other family activists sought to reimagine the family bond. Many of those energies have either dissipated or been neutralized in calls for charter schools and more generous family leave policies. This, perhaps, is why Cooper mostly ignores them. Those of us already enmeshed in family life need to do better. The “Bernie Bro” phenomenon, fictitious as it might have been, points to a moral and political problem that many of us face: what might it mean to be a “Bernie Dad”?
James Chappel is the Hunt Family Assistant Professor of History at Duke University. His first book, appearing from Harvard University Press in 2018, explores Catholic social thought, the family, and the creation of the European welfare state.