Modern families: neoliberalism’s alternative to the welfare state

A typical critique of the neoliberal capitalist system accepts that it

  1. fetishises the individual, and by consequence
  2. promotes the breakdown of the typical ‘nuclear’ family.

Melinda Cooper’s new book Family Values argues the opposite: that it would ‘be a mistake to think that neoliberalism is any less invested in the value of the family than are social conservatives’. That without a strong family structure, the responsibility for social welfare would necessarily shift to the state. Cooper argues that contrary to expectation, it is actually in our government’s interest to reaffirm the primacy of the family in late capitalism, so that it can act as ‘the primary source of economic security… a comprehensive alternative to the welfare state’.

This theory has been aptly, though obviously accidentally, satirised by the wildly popular new show The Handmaid’s Tale. It presents a dystopic future, stemming from a context which parallels our own. In this dystopia, neoconservative ideals (defined by Cooper as ‘the new religious right … new paternalism, and welfare communitarians’) has reached their most dramatic end point: creating a world in which women comprise a sexually dominated underclass, self-contained within highly religious family units, which care totally for their subjects.

The fact that such a scenario could be (not totally unreasonably) extrapolated from our purportedly ‘individualised’ present affirms that the link between neoliberalism and neoconservativism is not as distant as it might first appear. The recent New Yorker article ‘We Live in the Reproductive Dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale’ affirms that ‘the Reagan years made clear that traditional gender roles are not just some arbitrary cultural preference. They are a means of insuring that the necessary work that capitalist power does not want the state to pay for continues to get done.’ In fact, Atwood drew directly from the news of the time (1985) to write her original work. She was ‘scrupulous about including nothing that did not have a historical antecedent or a modern point of comparison’.

The same point could be made of the 2017 Hulu adaption. It extrapolates, of course, the socially conservative values of the right of today: the withdrawal of contraceptive rights, denial of civil rights to queer citizens, the re-assertion of a women’s place, and so on. But it also demonstrates the dangers of the new social conservatives, as well as ‘a certain kind of thinking in the left’: a desire to re-establish tradition bonds of community, which they view as destabilised by the autonomous neoliberal world. Cooper points out the fallacy of this desire, noting that ‘leftist demands for the decommodification of social life or the protection of kinship relations all too readily lend themselves to the social conservative argument (for example that) certain forms of (domestic, feminised) labor should remain unpaid’. While these new social conservatives have no issue with welfare spending on fiscal grounds, they do believe that the welfare state should work in tandem with the traditional family structure: to ‘cultivate certain kinds of gender hierarchy and normative lifestyles’. The neocon desire to return to the Fordist family wage, for example, is less about a desire for family stability, and more about the maintenance of certain types of gender and sexual hierarchies, whereby white men held the greatest ability to earn in a highly stratified society. By contrast, neoliberalism’s obsession with family stems from a desire to ‘see all welfare needs downloaded to the private family unit’. And both crossover in their desire to maintain a traditional family unit.

If neoliberalism and neoconservatism are so intertwined today, why then have we seen the increasing mainstream of alternate family structures – such as queer parenting/marriage? The popular show ‘Modern Family’, for example, which features/accepts two gay male partners and their adopted child as a key focus, suggests that a neoconservative viewpoint has not been assimilated into mainstream neolib thought.

In point of fact, Modern Family only indicates, if anything, the degree to which neoliberalism has been able to effectively adapt purportedly radical movements into its nuclear family mould, in line with the desire to avoid (in large) state welfare obligations. As Steven Edward Doran writes, Cam and Mitchell are in fact a ‘child-rearing, monogamous upper middle-class couple — [a] normative fantasy of gay men cohabiting in domesticity’. If queers can fit within a private, consumption-based, domestic family structure, then society will accept them as sufficiently conforming citizens – that is, their deviant sexualities may be ‘obscured’. These overt displays of homodomesticity do not indicate the opening of the family structure under neoliberalism, but rather the converging interests with new social conservatism – of maintaining ‘family values’ at all costs.

Cooper’s work does not purport to claim that there is total conflation in the aims of neoliberal and neocon doctrines. Rather, similarly to The Handmaid’s Tale, it uncovers how a conservative agenda, especially in relation to the maintenance of traditional family values, can unexpectedly crossover with today’s seemingly ‘progressive’ late capitalist agenda, as well as the desires of a ‘certain kind of left thinking’, which lauds a return to old community bonds. The combination of each of these schools have created a context within which notions of ‘family’ are now a powerful and prescriptive social tool that relegate the majority of welfare requirements to a private context, and the dangers of which have been interestingly satirised by Hulu.


Image: Screenshot from Modern Family wedding

Jemimah Tarasov

Jemimah Tarasov is a law student who is obsessed with Helen Garner, the intersection between pop-culture and academia, and anything queer. She works with Demos Journal.

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