Family MattersMelinda Cooper and Ben Mabie March 19, 2018BM: Now a year into the Trump presidency, would you say that the family remains that key reference point for the organization of Republican Party politics? MC:
Trump remained somewhat protean during his campaign; he was a lightning rod for very different tendencies on the right but has settled into something more recognizable now he is in power. As it now stands, the Trump presidency (and by implication the Republican Party) is defined by the same alliance between neoliberal and social conservative tendencies I analyzed in the book. Except it has moved further to the extremes on both sides. My book focuses for the most part on the alliance between neoconservatism and Chicago school/Virginia school neoliberalism. The rise of Trump was accompanied by an alliance between paleoconservatism and a peculiar American translation of Austrian neoliberalism, represented by someone like Murray Rothbard. The aristocratic and anti-government tendencies in Austrian neoliberalism find a new home in the American South. Paleoconservatism was rejected by the neoconservatives because of its overt racism, its opposition to Civil Rights and its anti-Semitism. The alt-right have moved back to paleoconservatism and so have revived the fortunes of the Ku Klux Klan and a myriad of other white nativist formations on the far right. Austrian neoliberalism has had little direct impact on policy or economics in the US but has flourished as a political movement, in the guise of Ron Paul and various libertarian gold bugs.
So the conservative/neoliberal alliance that defines Trump in power takes the specific form of paleoconservatism and Austrian neoliberalism. Someone like Hans-Hermann Hoppe – a student of Rothbard – embodies this alliance. I think this is truly a fascistic phenomenon, although one with distinct American characteristics. We are used to thinking of the far right within the template of European history but this cannot account for the anti-federalist, anti-central bank tendencies on (at least part of) the American far right which is at polar opposites to the state fascisms of 20th century Europe.
Much like the Chicago and Virginia school neoliberals, Hoppe assigns an absolutely central role to the family as the primary source and locus of economic security. But unlike Friedman or Becker or Posner, he is committed to a radically traditionalist and patriarchal view of the family. He sees no contradiction between his libertarianism and his ultraconservatism because radical economic freedom requires some kind of foundation in property and in his conception of things, it is the family not the state that must serve as the ultimate guarantor of property. This is where libertarianism becomes very gendered and seemingly hypocritical and why you find someone like Milo Yiannopoulos espousing a radical libertarianism for and among white men while also complaining about women for being whores and murdering fetuses. It is this particular alliance between economic libertarianism, moral ultraconservatism and white nativism that seems to have triumphed after Trump’s election.
Of course, it could have gone another way and someone like Steve Bannon represented a much more nationalist, workerist far right – nativist, protectionist, ranged against the globalizers and the nefarious elites. Bannon’s politics is much more recognizable within a traditional fascist template and interestingly, it is Bannon’s economic nationalism that has been most seductive to certain authoritarian currents on the left. Bannon, with his pro-life Catholic affiliations and economic nationalism, stands for an option that was on the table for a while and if anything seemed more dominant within the Trump machine during the election campaign. It could certainly come back as a reaction against Trump’s obvious concessions to the American ultra-rich. But Bannon was also feeding into the networks of far-right libertarian resentment via his work at Breitbart.
What you see in the alt-right is the expression of a white masculine libertarianism that wants to free itself from all imagined statist, feminine and maternal moral prohibitions (the left being associated with infantilization) while at the same time pursuing a relentless campaign of moral vigilantism against women. The libertarian and puritanical impulses are not incompatible. It’s a familiar feature of misogyny – libertarianism for men and purity for women. It’s also a familiar feature of historical fascist movements, especially in their militia-led, direct action phases. We forget the orgiastic and terroristic dimension of fascism when we only consider its settled state formations, which are far from accounting for the full historical spectrum of fascist movements.
You also have the longstanding neoliberal/evangelical alliance playing a major role in bringing Trump to power, with massive support from white evangelicals. This is a longstanding component of the Republican voting base since Reagan but the willingness of evangelicals to vote for a Republican party outsider also expresses their desire to push further to the right on issues like abortion and “religious freedom.” The presence and dominance of evangelical Christians within the Trump administration goes further than under George W. Bush and reflects the consequences of his (and Obama’s) heavy investment in faith-based welfare. Mike Pence is the truly significant figure here. His opposition to planned parenthood in Indiana and his efforts to pass an extraordinarily homophobic religious freedom bill are all indicative of the kind of politics that evangelicals would like to see implemented at a federal level.Heather Benning, DollhouseBM: In the book’s first pages you advance an acute criticism of social democratic nostalgia for the Fordist family wage, either in the overt anti-feminism of someone like Wolfgang Streeck, or a more subtle valorization of the security afforded by the Fordist family in people like Luc Boltanski, Eve Chiapello, and Nancy Fraser. What do you think accounts for the popularity of these sentiments in left theory and politics?
I think a lot of organized left wing politics entails some kind of attachment to reproductive order. It might be the working class family or left nationalism or some kind of ethnic/cultural/racial nationalism or minority fundamentalism. It might be a kind of queer nationalism that makes all kinds of trade offs with white militarism and imperialism. The investment might be upfront and personal or it might express itself by proxy – someone who can spin a radical critique of white nationalism or homonationalism might have no problems romanticizing third world nationalism or religious fundamentalism if it can be rationalized as anti-imperialist. It might be a kind of reproductive maternalism that presents itself as anti-patriarchal but positions women as the guardians of nature or the earth or something called social reproduction. This is a recurrent position on the left, although it can reshuffle itself in all kinds of ways. I think this is what people are getting at sometimes when they critique “identity politics” on the left and I’m sure I’ve used the term in this way, to refer to a kind of reproductive communitarianism. But the term “identity politics” is misleading and seems to suggest that only minorities can be afflicted whereas reproductive communitarianism very obviously takes majoritarian and minoritarian forms.
I think these sentiments are popular because they feel good. What I’m suggesting is that there is no false consciousness here. Perhaps the easiest way to critique some kind of dominant reproductive order is to latch onto an alternative one. It’s the easiest way out, psychologically and politically, and it facilitates political bargains with people who might otherwise find you suspect. The easiest way for any one class of workers to “resist capitalism” is to do something less ambitious – to assert a claim to special protections vis-a-vis other classes of workers by appealing to some imagined prior order of social reproduction, sometimes the nation or the race, sometimes, at a more intimate level, the family. Once you have made that move, you begin to think that what is wrong with capitalism is not the fact that it generates and feeds off all kinds of inequalities, but the fact that it threatens your favorite reproductive order. So capitalism is bad because it destroys the family, or the nation or the community. And you begin to think that if you make a bargain with the state to sustain and subsidize your reproductive order, and the natural hierarchy of inequalities that exist within it, then you can live with it. You start to believe that if you could just stabilize the family or protect your culture or community from predatory outside forces then you would be resisting capitalism.
What I am trying to argue in the book is that these bargains are part of the system we call “capitalist,” they are not outside, and that we need to understand the reassertion and relegitimation of reproductive order as one of the ways in which specific divisions of labor and specific regimes of accumulation are stabilized. Of course, capitalism as such is not reducible to any one particular reproductive order and this is the “creative destructive” element that theorists like Marx and Schumpeter brought to the fore. But even when new industries draw on and exploit the labor of migrants and women – even when a new phase of capitalist accumulation appears to aid and abet the undoing of the family or the nation – these reproductive orders remain operative in a prospective and retrospective fashion. Women were paid less and assigned to the newest, most volatile forms of factory work because they were not meant to be there, they should have been at home.
The history of working class politics reveals a longstanding commitment to the so-called “family wage” or male breadwinner wage, although such commitments by no means exhaust the actual multiplicity of passions and interests among wage workers, many of whom were women in the early stages of industrialization. Very early in the industrial revolution, you find male-dominated trade unions claiming their right to a “family wage” and trying to push women out of the factories. They could have fought for higher wages and better working conditions for everyone, but they chose the option of redefining women as economic dependents of men, and to do this, they needed to appeal to some prior (but presumed lost) order of natural relations between the sexes and some idealized vision of family order.
Marx and Engels were far from neutral observers in the campaign to push women back into the home. Marx frequently quotes the Tory factory reports verbatim, as if their moral outrage at the presence of women workers required no further comment. In his report on The Condition of the Working Class in England Engels went much further and complained that factory labor was reversing the proper order of relations between the sexes. It “unsexes the man and takes from the woman all womanliness”; turns the family “upside down.”1It’s interesting to read between the lines of Marx’s account of this process, to see just how the sexual division of labor was created and how the nineteenth century family came to be created. Women’s labor had first to be politicized as problematically unreproductive – a threat to the family unit – before it was disciplined into the work of reproduction. People like Janet Halley and her colleagues have done a lot of very interesting work to show that we can’t understand the rise of the commercial contract – the model of the free labor contract – without simultaneously paying attention to the legal constitution of the family, as a space of non-contractual obligations and unpaid personal services. Modern family law and labor law were co-constitutive, and yet Marx’s critique of capitalism has everything to say about freedom of contract and nothing to say about family law and the way it shaped our understanding of the production/reproduction divide. Much of his work assumes that the division between production and reproduction, work and the family was already in place at a time when there were massive battles being fought to confine women to the space of so-called “reproduction.” This already tells you that we shouldn’t be looking to Marxist-feminist concepts such as “social reproduction” as if they were a given.
Of course, much of Marxist-feminist work offers a highly critical perspective on the association between women and the work of reproduction, but the very use of the word “social reproduction” to refer to domestic, sex and care work forecloses the most interesting question: how were women workers relegated to certain kinds of labor and how were these kinds of labor assigned a reproductive or genealogical role in the ordering of social relations? Domestic workers and nannies are not only performing work for wages, they are also expected to contribute to the work of reproducing the family through a certain supplement of love or unpaid care. As non-members of the family, this places them in a precarious position, where their role as surrogate kin authorizes the most extreme forms of exploitation but also positions them as potential threats to the family, as representatives of venal, commercial forces contaminating the bonds of love. Conversely, sex workers, who are almost automatically seen as threats to the family, have in some countries been able to acquire a certain kind of legitimacy precisely by claiming the role of surrogate spouse for the ill or disabled. There is nothing automatically “reproductive” about domestic work or cleaning or sex work; rather when women engage in these kinds of work they are also being asked to shore up some abstract figure of reproduction, whether that be the family or the “social.” Women are constantly being asked to prove that they are not only working on contract but also participating in a familial economy of non-contractual obligation. This is a specific kind of discipline that doesn’t often apply to men. Before women’s reproductive work was devalorized then, women had first to be disciplined into the work of reproduction itself. The concept of “social reproduction” obscures this moment and so misses the most interesting part of the action. When you miss this moment, you can easily fall into the trap of simply reasserting the foundational role of reproduction and hence of women in any social order. You end up with a reproductive labor theory of value.
The argument that reproductive order has somehow been lost tends to amplify in periods where there has been a general increase in insecurity, so general that it also affects those who were once the beneficiaries of the prevailing economic order. So today there is a small publishing industry reflecting on the insecurity of white working class men in particular but simultaneously declaring that this is all about rediscovering class in general. This insecurity exists and is real, if only relative compared to those who were already relegated to the margins of the Fordist social contract, but because of the inchoate sense that this should not be happening to white men of all people, there is a tendency to assume that women or racial minorities are somehow responsible, that they have commanded too many special privileges and that they should be put in their proper place. Some kind of restoration of family and of men’s place in the family seems to be central to this plan.
There is also a feminist version of this narrative that you find in the work of someone like Elizabeth Warren, with her “two-income trap” thesis, the idea that women going out to work was really not a great idea and that somehow this fact in and of itself is responsible for the general insecurity of the “middle-class family.” You find a similar narrative in the recent work of Nancy Fraser, who blames feminism for having destroyed the security of the Fordist family wage, thereby laying the ground for neoliberalism. You also find echoes of this idea in the Marxist-feminist thesis that we are undergoing some kind of “permanent reproductive crisis” – however carefully the concept “social reproduction” is defined, I don’t think it escapes the valences of the term “reproduction” as Marx used it, with its reference to nineteenth century theories of biological heredity and legal inheritance. What the “crisis of reproduction” story often implies in practice is a revalorization of women’s caring role as distributed nurturers of the left and mothers of the common. In fact, it is entirely possible to imagine a better organization and subsidization of care work that would not reinscribe the overwhelming identification between women and care and that would not valorize the family as the exclusive institutional form in which care should take place.