The Family: What Do We Really Want?

The Family: What Do We Really Want?

How should democratic socialists think about the family and its role in modern society? The essential problem is to find alternatives to individualist and marketized conceptions of social life. Solutions to this problem are most commonly sought in the political sphere. I want to argue that we cannot afford to neglect the sphere of the household, the informal sector, and relations of kinship and their chosen equivalents.

There are only a limited number of ways of organizing relations among human beings in society. The dominant one nowadays is by markets—the exchange of commodities and services by individuals (or entities behaving as if they were individuals) acting from self-interest. A second way is by political decision, enacted into law, and implemented through law-following organizations, often bureaucracies, sometimes professionals or enterprises acting under instruction from a government, or paid to carry out its wishes. Such legislated compliance may be undertaken under a democratic mandate or not. States were powerful in Europe long before democracy was the normal means of legitimating their power, and they still retain, as Ulrich Beck has pointed out, many attributes of their authoritarian heritage. Indeed, some might see democratic decision making as only the top-dressing, framing and to some degree giving a general steer to structures that remain for the most part more hierarchical than they are democratic.

And third, there is the form of relationship that depends on gift, barter, or submergence of the interests of the self under that of some larger entity. Families are one of the principal entities of this kind, but there are also friendships, voluntary associations, churches, even political associations, which may be founded on similar principles.

Within families, gift and barter are ways of arranging cooperation between members of the same generation (spouses or long-standing partners who combine their different resources, energies, and talents for their mutual benefit), but more particularly between different generations. Parents make many “gifts” of their time, energy, and devotion to their children. In their turn, children make similar gifts to their parents, especially when the latter become needy or infirm. The greater part of caring for the aged and ill who remain at home falls to family members, especially, of course, to women. Families are one of the principal means through which the obligations of one generation to another are recognized and enacted. Families are the primary locus of identification between generations.

Since it represents so substantial an alternative to commodification, individualism, and alienation, one might expect democratic socialists to be sympathetic to the family as a form of life. Marx famously described the family as a haven in a heartless world. Socialists have often used family relationships as a metaphor for the social relationships they wish to see, for exam...