18 March 2015

Values and economic institutions go hand-in-hand

In no state can a minimum-wage worker afford a two-bedroom unit at fair market rent, working a standard 40-hour work week.

But you didn’t hear it from me, gentle readers. Take a gander at this story by Seth Wessler at NBC News.
The growing ubiquity of families like the one that Bridges and McCann have crafted is tied in part to changing values and norms. But these shifts are intimately connected to the reordering of economic institutions that once underpinned middle and working-class family life, scholars say. As industrial sector and professional jobs that a half a century ago provided men with enough income to support a family disappear, so has the attachment to marriage as a prerequisite for an economically stable life.
It is increasingly obvious, and increasingly necessary to observe, that the shift in values and norms and the ‘reordering of economic institutions’ are intimately connected with each other at every conceptual and analytical level. The sexual revolution of the 1960’s and the radical cultural change that accompanied it were ultimately oriented toward the decoupling of sex from all three of love, marriage and reproduction, and the pursuit of sexual pleasure as an end in itself. It would be naïve to think that the ‘liberation’ of eros from all its institutional strictures and from all expectation of self-control or sublimation into long-term projects (loving relationships, bearing and raising children) would have no weakening effect on such projects in the economic sphere. Much of the moral grammar that underwrote labour movements in the first place – including that which fuelled the outrage at practices like child labour! – was based upon the aspirations of the working class to the very same long-term projects of family independence that the sexual revolution sought to invalidate or make merely optional as consumer choices. (In this, some recommended historical reading ought to be the proudly-Wobbly Frank Tannenbaum’s work, The Labor Movement: Its Conservative Functions and Social Consequences.) The weakening of the moral grammar around sex must be considered part-and-parcel with the weakening of the economic institutions that protected the rights of the working class.

It is no surprise, either, that the project of ‘liberating’ eros would inevitably give rise to the project of ‘liberating’ other forms of cupidity. It is not only in The Wolf of Wall Street that greed and lust are so intimately tied together, and it should come as no surprise that the same people who participated in and spearheaded the sexual counterculture also voted for Reagan. For another contemporary example, though, one may cite Heather Havrilevsky’s excellent and devastating critique of Fifty Shades of Grey. E. L. James’s vision of her protagonist couple’s sexual excesses, one which has garnered so much appeal amongst bourgeois American women, is inextricably tied up (so to speak) with an equally-banal vision of consumerist excess and greed, along with which goes power over the working class (who are – very noticeably – not presented by James as having either erotic or family lives of their own). If Havrilevsky is to be believed, none of this is questioned within the text itself, which further demonstrates the point: in the American society shaped by the counterculture, lust is so closely intertwined with greed that the connexion goes undisputed by those who don’t have the self-awareness to disentangle them.

So we can say that Ross Douthat of the New York Times is half-right when he says regarding the social crisis amongst America’s working poor, that ‘however much money matters, something else is clearly going on’, and he is certainly right to point to the ‘60’s counterculture and sexual revolution in making his point. Where he misses the point, though, is turning the question of the social crisis of working-class families into an ‘either-or’, instead of a ‘both-and’.

‘If I were my parents’ age, I’d have married, then had kids, and had the same job for my whole career,’ says Michael Bridges in Seth Wessler’s NBC piece. ‘But that kind of work just isn’t around.’ The notion ought to be more widely entertained that the reason that kind of work isn’t around, is precisely because the idea of a job that can support a family has long been considered an option, and one that is not owed to the working class; and that what made it so was precisely the defenestration of family life as normative.

I’ll give the last and most important word, of course, to the Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church. The document reads very clearly that values are very closely intertwined with economic life. Note the judicious and careful use (a use which would most certainly not be wasted upon a post-Soviet audience!) of the economically-inflected language of ‘the professional field’, ‘alienation’, ‘antagonism’, ‘exploitation’ and ‘trade’ below, in their treatment of the contemporary issues facing the family.
The experience of family relations teaches a person to overcome sinful egoism and lays the foundations for his sense of civil duty. It is in the family as a school of devotion that the right attitude to one's neighbours and therefore to one's people and society as a whole is formed. The living continuity of generations, beginning in family, is continued in the love of the forefathers and fatherland, in the feeling of participation in history. This is why it is so dangerous to distort the traditional parents-child relationship, which, unfortunately, have been in many ways endangered by the contemporary way of life. The diminished social significance of motherhood and fatherhood compared to the progress made by men and women in the professional field leads to the treatment of children as an unnecessary burden, contributing also to the development of alienation and antagonism between generations. The role of family in the formation of the personality is exceptional; no other social institution can replace it…

The physical relations between man and woman are blessed by God in marriage in which they express chaste love, complete communion and the ‘harmony of the minds and bodies’ of the spouses, for which the Church prays in the celebration of wedding. What actually should be denounced is the tendency to turn these chaste and appropriate relations as God has designed them and the human body itself into an object of humiliating exploitation and trade to derive egoistic, impersonal, loveless and perverted pleasure. For this reason, the Church invariably denounces prostitution and the preaching of the so-called free love in which physical intimacy is completely divorced from personal and spiritual communion, selflessness and all-round responsibility for each other, which are possible only in the lifetime conjugal faithfulness.

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