We are witnessing a wave of attacks on Americans’ freedom to live as they please. Conservatives have renewed their fight against LGBTQ inclusion and are on the brink of removing the right to abortion from our constitutional order. At the same time, they have continued to fight public goods and what’s left of the welfare state, cutting spending and lowering taxes in states they control.
There is a tendency among liberals to view the conservative social agenda – and in particular the attack on abortion – as contradictory to the conservative economic agenda and its commitment to the ‘free market’, which represents the domination of capital and the total economy. erosion of the social safety net. But, as the sociologist Melinda Cooper has shown, that tension is exaggerated, if it exists at all.
In ‘Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism’ she argues that social-conservative and neoliberal critics of the state – faced with the inflation crisis of the 1970s – called for a thorough reform of the social security system. “It was now agreed that the New Deal and Great Society’s redistributive welfare programs should be radically curtailed, even while strengthening the private institution of the family as an alternative to Social Security,” Cooper writes. These right-wing critics of the social safety net, along with some liberals and others from the center left, “looked back at a much older tradition of public aid—one embedded in the poor law tradition with its attendant notions of family and personal responsibility—as an imaginary alternative to the New Deal welfare state.”
The two groups had very different assumptions about the role of the state in relation to the family. Social conservatives, Cooper says, saw “the primary function of the state as the maintenance of the family, the foundation of all social order, through the use of force if necessary.” Neoliberals, on the other hand, saw ‘the private paternalism of the family as a spontaneous source of wealth in the free-market order’, which had been undermined by the ‘perverse incentives of redistributive wealth, but also restored by the diminution of state paternalism. In short, this means that the family would thrive as long as perverse government incentives could be kept at bay.
Despite this seemingly fundamental difference, Cooper writes, “neoliberals have in practice relied on the much more overt forms of behavior correction favored by social conservatives.” In order for neoliberals to realize their vision of a “naturally balanced free market equilibrium and a spontaneously self-sufficient family”, they must delegate power to social conservatives, who then use the state to impose traditional family forms.
Cooper cites Bill Clinton’s welfare reform as the best example of how it took shape. Under the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,” states “must step up efforts to monitor, detect, and enforce paternity obligations under the assumption that the biological father of a child on welfare should be coerced into child support whether or not a mother wanted to maintain a relationship with him.”
And in what should be understood as a blurring of the lines between the free and unfree sexual contract, sanctions had to be imposed on mothers who failed to cooperate sufficiently to help welfare agencies locate their children’s biological fathers. By devoting a significant portion of the federal welfare budget to the task of getting child support from fathers, welfare reform served to remind women that an individual man, not the state, was ultimately responsible for their economic security. Unless a woman could take “personal responsibility” for her economic fate, she would have to accept her state of economic dependence on an absent father or surrogate husband.
This socially conservative/neoliberal focus on the ‘family’ becomes the basis for further destruction of public goods and for the transfer of social responsibilities to individual households. Free (or at least reasonably priced) tuition for college students becomes state-sponsored loans that individuals and families are obligated to repay. Rather than support high wages and full employment, the government would “cut back spending, suppress wages and instead lower long-term interest rates” to “generate an abundance of cheap consumer credit.”
The government would step back, the private sector would step in and the market would take control, with the traditional family – shaped by policy and disciplined by capital – as the foundation of the social and political order.
Cooper, it must be said, sees much of this as the repetition of an earlier period in the history of American capitalism. And when she describes that period, it is even easier to see how her argument relates to the present.
The social upheaval brought about by the rise of industrial capitalism sparked a movement of reformers and critics who feared that “the traditional moral fabric of American life was being destroyed by a perfect storm of malevolent influences,” of “the proliferation of households as young people.” emigrated en masse to the industrial core countries” to “interracial mixing and the rise of a feminist movement seeking to question male authority in the household.” These reformers and critics were joined by free-market liberals who tied this undisciplined working class to the growth of public emergency programs and other forms of collective aid.
They came together on the traditional family as a solution. “While free-market liberals were concerned with enforcing the economic obligations of the family,” Cooper writes, “conservatives were convinced that the moral and legal foundations of the family needed to be strengthened before the economic costs of a disruption of the family. the marriage could be properly accommodated.”
Consistent with this view, she notes, “the laws governing intimate relationships became considerably stricter in the last few decades” of the 19th century. “During this period, most states have moved to restrict or ban common law marriages, increase the age of consent, reinstate marriage waiting times, ban interracial unions, and criminalize abortion and contraception.”
For these reformers, she continues, “the economic obligations of kin cannot be properly enforced without a comprehensive effort to rebuild the family as the foundation of the social order.”
Then and now, both social conservatives and free-market liberals have had a vested interest in the traditional family as the building block for their favored political and economic regimes. The traditional family would protect the hierarchies of gender and status and absorb the consequences of capitalist inequality.
That is, the imposition of traditional family forms—the reaffirmation of patriarchal control over women and children, the suppression of alternative gender expression, and the restoration of heterosexual binary character—understood the destruction of the welfare state and the erosion of public goods. And the resulting segmentation of labor – women being relegated to unpaid work at home or low-paid work with low status in the market – is helping capital tighten its grip on society.
Or, as conservative commentator and provocateur Ben Shapiro recently… explained on Twitter: “The family is the foundation of free markets; it represents a core economic unit against the ravages of a confiscating state.”
That’s, I guess, one way of saying it.
what I wrote
My column on Friday dealt with the ridiculous idea that the Supreme Court has lost some legitimacy.
It matters whether a president has democratic legitimacy. Donald Trump didn’t. But rather than act with that in mind, he used his power to pursue the interests of a narrow-minded ideological faction and give its representatives a free hand to shape the Supreme Court as they saw fit. Thus, the court is tainted by the same democratic illegitimacy that characterized Trump and his administration.
Rebecca Traister on the post-Roe world for New York magazine.
Peggy Cooper Davis on slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment and abortion in The Washington Post.
Meaghan Winter on the fight for abortion rights in Dissent magazine.
Liza Batkin on Samuel Alito’s draft opinion destroying Roe v. Wade in The New York Review of Books.
Miles Mogulescu at the end of the right to privacy in The American Prospect.
Photo of the week
A few flowers in our garden were blooming and I dutifully went outside to take a few pictures with my macro lens. It had been raining overnight and I was trying to focus on how the raindrops rested on the petal. I think the photo turned out quite well.
Now eating: Chickpeas Braised in Olive Oil and Broccoli Rabe
An easy weeknight dinner to serve with good bread, some feta cheese and a fresh salad. Recipe comes from NYT Cooking.
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 sprig of rosemary
1 teaspoon fennel seed
½ teaspoon dried chili flakes
1 bunch broccoli rabe (about 1 pound), woody stems trimmed
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
Kosher salt and black pepper
Crispy bread, to serve with it
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large ovenproof skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat, combine the oil, garlic, rosemary, fennel seeds, and chili flakes. Cook until mixture is fragrant and garlic is golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes.
Turn off the heat, then add the broccoli rabe and toss until coated with oil. Spread the chickpeas around the broccoli rabe and stir to coat in oil. Season generously with salt and pepper.
Cover with a lid or foil and bake for about 40 minutes, until the chickpeas are tender and crispy in batches and the broccoli rabe is tender, but the stems are not mushy.
Let something cool. Before serving, remove the rosemary and season with salt and pepper. Serve with crusty bread to mop up the seasoned oil.