Family values and the renewal of social democracy

[The following article appeared in the British journal 'Renewal' (Vol 15, Nos 2/3, 2007.]

Why worry about the family? To many in social democracy and the Left, issues surrounding the family are of secondary importance to those of the economy and equality. Moreover, public debate around the family is part of the discourse of social conservatism and the Right.

In the United States and Australia 'family values' is seen as part of a conservative 'culture war' against the values of the labour movement and as a code for attacks on feminism, on single mothers, on gay men and women.

In this paper I will argue that a renewal of progressive politics depends in part on a rethinking of the role of family, particularly in relation to the workplace and working time but also in relation to the growing commodification of family life.

There are two strategic reasons for this. The first is that today it makes less and less sense to act as if the world of paid work and production is a separate sphere to that of the family and community. The former is encroaching on the latter in ways that undermine the historic assumption of many on the Left: that a movement based on the workplace and economic exploitation is an adequate foundation for a political movement. Second, within advanced industrial countries, some of the most destructive effects of globalizing capitalism are felt in the sphere of social life including the family. Traditionally social democrats and the Left assumed these were largely if not wholly confined to the economic sphere. On this basis they criticized the market for generating material inequality. The political significance of these social effects is that they provide a powerful new basis for mobilizing popular support in order to restrain and civilize capitalism.

Globalization, the free market and the family

If any one thinker can be said to be the intellectual architect of neo-liberalism it is Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian economist whose vast intellectual output and theoretical system helped give the neo-liberal movement its resilience and depth. Awarded the Nobel prize in 1974, Hayek inspired many economists and politicians. Among the latter was Margaret Thatcher who told the House of Commons in 1981:

"I am a great admirer of Professor Hayek. Some of his books are absolutely supreme - The Constitution of Liberty and the three volumes of Law, Legislation and Liberty - and would well be read by almost every honourable member. "

But Hayek was much more than an economic thinker. His elaborate system of ideas gave a central role to cultural and social evolution and to notions of human nature.

Hayek argued that modern societies have evolved to such a degree of individual variation that there are almost no common or shared values (i.e. ends) -material acquisition was the only exception. This variation among humans makes the market all the more necessary.

He argued that the value on which markets are based -- liberty --is not 'given' in the nature of human beings, like, say, the value of survival or of material comfort. Rather, it is acquired and developed in the cultural evolution of the 'institutions of liberty'. Liberty, and the discipline that it requires, is something we must learn. Liberty as a value, then, has been 'selected' by cultural evolution.

Free markets are therefore justified in a moral-historical sense because they represent the product of social-cultural evolution which, like biological evolution, had selected the characteristics best adapted to the environment. Societies employing the most successful cultural institutions (such as the market) prospered and their population grew. (Population growth was one of his key measures of success.) His views on morality gave central and over-riding importance to the rules of the market -- that is, good conduct and fair dealing by all people towards anonymous others who are rarely met face to face.

Good conduct concerned rules about 'several [i.e. private] property, honesty, contract, exchange, trade, competition, gain and privacy'. These are what Hayek understands by moral rules.

At this point the relevance of the family and non-economic community relations becomes central.

The unexpected - and repellent - accompaniment of his notion of cultural evolution is that feelings of altruism, and obligation, usually regarded as the kernel of morality, are here seen as its antithesis, as primitive instincts from earlier, hunter-gatherer societies which have to be overcome:

"For those now living within the extended order [the modern economy] gain from not treating one another as neighbors, and by applying - rules of the extended order such as those of several property and contract - instead of the rules of solidarity and altruism. An order in which everyone treated his neighbor as himself would be one where comparatively few could be fruitful and multiply."

Hayek turns our normal conception of morality upside down by insisting that it is 'primitive' and by claiming that untrammeled self interest is both moral and modern. Socialism was therefore an atavistic response to modernization, the re-emergence of ancient, instinctive values in the face of the impersonal market.

Hayek however, reserved a place for these 'primitive feelings' of solidarity and altruism - in the family and in voluntary associations. In a vitally important admission he argued that 'if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order [capitalism and the market] to our more intimate groupings we would crush them [original emphasis]. That is, if we treat parents, children, family and neighbors as we do when buying and selling in the market, we will destroy those relationships. Hayek is right - and one reason we know is because this damage increasingly happening as market relations invade formerly intimate spaces and neighborly relations. The word for this is commodification, the transformation of obligations based on love and altruism into those of commodity-based economic value (i.e. money).

A central weakness of neo-liberalism is therefore its moral underpinning, especially in relation to the family.

Libertarian capitalism and

the commodification of the family

Neo-liberal capitalism has two major effects, First, it deepens the commodification of things once done within the family economy: functions once performed by the family are commodified and sold back to it. For example, meals, care for children and care for the elderly. Second, it is associated with a rise in the number of hours spent at work for a growing number of employees.

Moreover, activities, once performed by government, non-profit or community institutions, are being commercialized. For example, in recent years one of the top performing companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange is a child care corporation. Private companies are now moving into the next lucrative market which is aged care for baby boomers.

The effects of this new phase of neo-liberal capitalism on community and family activities have coincided with the widespread move by married women into the workforce.

As a result of both these trends a whole new range of problems have emerged which are variously styled the work-life collision or the work-family balance. A sub-discipline, feminist economics, has emerged and a small but valuable literature about this has developed.

The Australian labour studies researcher, Professor Barbara Pocock, argues that paid work was not the only goal of feminism but it was a key goal for women's entry into public life and much progress has been made toward it. But 'this goal has found its happy co-conspirator in a market greedy for women's labour, its 'flexibility' and enthusiastic for the spending power of women's earnings. Of all of feminism's goals, entry to paid work has been the most compatible with the globalizing market.'

But at the time more women were entering paid work, the workforce was undergoing its neo-liberal transformation. Gains made in previous decades were being rolled back. The price of efficiency and competitiveness meant that in Australia workers started to work longer and longer hours, often unpaid overtime, and significantly, women's share of these longer hours grew and is still growing. The proportion of workers spending more than 45 hours a week at work increased from 18 per cent in 1985 to 26 per cent in 2001. In many workplaces, work has intensified and working hours now often cover weekends and unsociable times of the day. Advanced industrial countries like Australia, says Pocock, are developing a 'long hours culture'.

All of this has consequences for the families which juggle work and care responsibilities. As Pocock points out: 'Changes in workplaces have reduced the number of hours we have available to spend on our homes, communities and care. Activities that were once mostly the province of women at home -- cooking and care of small children for example - are increasingly provided by the market.' Spending on child care has increased four fold between 1984 and 1998-99 and between 1993 and 1996, the proportion of children under the age of three who were in formal child care rose by 27 per cent.

This has created a crisis in the intersection of family and work which is recognized by major political parties but rarely addressed since its solution would be a major challenge to existing workplace arrangements on hours and leave. It also has long term consequences for civil society.

Barbara Pocock notes:

"Mutual non-monetary exchanges have embedded within them - indeed create - personal and community relationships. These obligations are the stuff of community and generalized reciprocity - While the market hungrily offers its commodified supports (food and all kinds of services delivered to the door) where the prospect of profit exists, the engine for non-monetary community creation - is a weaker machine, one that is starved in the face of time pressures in streets where work sucks both time and place."

The significance of the crisis is often not recognized by either the labour movement, since it extends beyond the workplace, nor even by those influenced by feminism since it is interpreted as undermining women's entry to the paid workforce.

Another key study on work and family is that done by American sociologist, Arlie Russell Hochschild. This explores what happens at a large American corporation when lengthening working hours are combined with two job marriages in which women continue to do the lion's share of raising children and housework. The study gives no easy answers to the 'time bind'. 'Amerco', the anonymous Fortune 500 company which Hochschild studied for several years, was one of the top 'family friendly' companies, yet its employees took little advantage of these policies. Few women or men chose to work part time - and the obvious reasons for this such as financial need or resistance from middle management did not explain their choice. What Hochschild found was that, for many women, work was a relief from home. 'Work' was much more homely than 'home' which had become too much like work. Home was not a place to relax, it was another workplace, and one more onerous than 'real' work in some cases.

As well, family time is succumbing to a cult of efficiency with the rush to the child care centre, the skipping of family meals together and loss of other unconstrained time. To achieve maximum efficiency in the family, parents responded in different ways, Hochschild found. Some developed an 'emotional asceticism', in effect minimizing how much care their child or partner really needed. 'They made do with less time, less attention, less fun, less relaxation, less understanding and less support at home than they imagined possible. They emotionally downsized life'. (Ever ready to make a commercial opportunity of any of life's problems, one company has produced self-help books like Teaching Your Child to be Home Alone, while Hallmark manufactures greeting cards which say 'Sorry I can't be there to tuck you in' and 'Sorry I can't say good morning to you.' )

Other parents acknowledged the needs of family and paid others to meet these needs. 'They outsourced ever larger parts of the family production process.' Families, once a haven from the world of work (for most husbands and some wives) are being inexorably oriented to the industrial strategies of downsizing, outsourcing, industrializing and utility maximization. One of the results is that parents, especially mothers, spend less time with their children. Hochschild is alarmed (rather than dismissive) about studies which show this can lead to problems in later life development.

"In truth scholars don't know yet what, if any, the exact links are between these ominous trends and the lessening amounts of time parents spend with children-. It's enough to observe that children say they want more time with their parents and parents say they regret not spending more time with their children."

The benefits of commodification are immense - prepared food, ready-made clothing, professional child care and aged care - the trouble is that the downside and the costs of commodification are seamlessly wrapped in the same package. The main cost is the adulteration of the quality of human and family relationships because commodification smuggles certain values into our daily lives and into our relationships. The changes brought on by each step in the process of commodification are welcome - they meet a real problem, whether it's take-away food, child care or formula milk (instead of breast milk). None of these are wrong or destructive in themselves. Cumulatively, however, they reduce and supplant other values with those of the instrumental, the technically efficient and the self-interested.

What is happening to the family under the pressure of neo-liberalism is happening to other relationships in the wider society. Not only are families moving into crisis but wider social cohesion is fraying.

A number of feminist economists argue that an economy based on self interest tends to corrode values and practices based on altruism. They have responded to this situation by foregrounding and exploring a notion of care in society. In this analysis caring labour works against the grain of a market-oriented society in which all values are increasingly reduced to commercial values.

Economist Nancy Folbre points out that a vast, parallel political economy based on the 'invisible heart' continually lubricates and reproduces society:

"The invisible hand represents the forces of supply and demand in competitive markets. The invisible heart represents family values of love, obligation and reciprocity. The invisible hand is about achievement. The invisible heart is about care for others. The hand and heart are interdependent but they are also in conflict. The only way to balance them successfully is to find fair ways of rewarding those who care for other people. This is not a problem that economists - or business people - have taken seriously. They have generally assumed that God, nature, the family and 'Super Mom' - or some combination thereof - would automatically provide whatever care was needed."

Folbre points out that the book which launched Adam Smith's career was not The Wealth of Nations but The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In it Smith showed he was perfectly aware of the existence of the kind of altruistic labour which Folbre writes. He assumed that some kind of strong moral and altruistic underpinning of society would continue indefinitely and not be fundamentally damaged by the operation of competition and markets. But the spreading and entrenchment of markets, and especially of the values they promote, is doing just that.

The traditional family depended almost totally on the unstinting and unpaid work of wives and mothers whose choices about their own desires and needs depended on the goodwill of their husbands. Conservatives have worried about it for the last 200 years and have romanticized mothers and their selfless labour. But as Folbre says the conservative argument which idealizes motherhood depends crucially on an argument about the 'separate spheres'. Men were fitted for the public world of production, and women for the private sphere of reproduction. But the separate spheres of home and work have radically changed forever.

What is happening to the family under the pressure of neo-liberalism is happening to other relationships in the wider society. Not only are families moving into crisis but wider social cohesion is fraying. Paradoxically, one of the grounds on which the Left and social democracy should base its appeal is on cohesion, rather than the traditional and instinctive desire for social change.

Work, family and care - and the

renewal of social democracy

All of this leads to a strategic conclusion about the renewal of progressive thought and practice: protecting the family from the inroads of the market should now be seen as a vital progressive cause.

Because the parallel world of social reproduction characterized by altruism and trust, is now the focal point of social and cultural contradictions precipitated by neo-liberal capitalism, 'family values' can become a rallying cry against the instrumental logic of an increasingly commercially-driven society.

Most importantly this can be linked to conditions of paid work and hence the stance of trade unions.

Essentially this means projecting a social vision with the valuing of care at its heart. Instead of a society based solely on the invisible hand of the market, such a strategy would project a society strongly based on the invisible heart. Instead of 'family values' being a catch cry to return women to kitchen and pram, it would mean family values as a call for caring for others. In this way 'family values' would spread beyond the family, so that we worry about care for all children, not just our own. In this way a new conception of the welfare state can be built..

As Folbre argues, if we really care about family values, we need to apply them critically to our economy as a whole. 'Extending family values to society as a whole requires looking beyond the redistribution of income to ways of strengthening cultural values of love, obligation and reciprocity.' This clearly has a message for the Left which is still preoccupied with economic redistribution and the workplace. The care and nurture of human capabilities has always been difficult and expensive. In the past a sexual division of labour based on the subordination of women helped minimize the difficulties and the expense. Today however, the costs of providing care need to be explicitly confronted and fairly distributed, she says.

Given the emergence of the dual income family and the decline of the male breadwinner model, a key area will involve regulating working hours for the sake of family-related responsibilities. This may be one way that trade unions can retain their relevance and be renewed.

This can be seen in a small way. Today a number of unions now talk in terms of 'working families' rather than workers. This may also have the political benefit of beginning to claw back socially conservative (mostly male) workers whose drift to the Right has been a feature for the last three decades.

One example of this occurred recently in Australia. The well-established conservative government of John Howard recently introduced a draconian series of laws on 'labour market reform'. It has been widely conceded that the ACTU (national trade union council) has won the initial public debate about the laws.

Central to its campaign were a series of TV ads which highlighted the effects of the new IR laws on workers' ability to manage family life and care for children. Apart from a powerful emotional dimension, these ads changed the terrain of debate, from the workplace to its impact on family life. They struck a wide chord. The new leader of the Labor Party, Kevin Rudd, has continued this theme, gaining traction and doing damage to the once entrenched conservative government.

By redefining 'family values' I believe the Left can begin to take back the initiative. But this will require new thinking by unions and social movements about a strategy promoting social cohesion, the family and the 'values crisis' more broadly.