10 December 2015

Helen Ward on defamilialisation

Ms. Ward, a low-income single mother and member of Kids First Parent Association of Canada, has a well-researched article up on MercatorNet which is very well worth the read. I don’t particularly want to rehash all of her arguments here, but in fine, the points made are these: at the behest of corporations and technocratic elites, welfare-state institutions have been and are being retooled to erode support for families and transfer working-class women to a workfare-daycare schema. They do this by supporting an ideology which treats the family as a hidebound, patriarchal and oppressive institution, and seeks to supplant it with private-sector loyalties, buttressed by a modicum of public services and state incentives for employers.

Ms. Ward identifies the economic policy branches of the EU, the OECD, the World Bank and the World Economic Forum as defamilialist organisations, and the Economist magazine as one of the key cheerleaders of the trend. But her analysis of feminist acquiescence and collaboration in this ideology gives this particular paper an interesting dimension. The neoliberal erosion of the family was sped by an ‘ideological convergence’ of the feminist left, particularly that arising from the second wave, and the corporate right.
Together they demand increased labour supply from mothers and massive state-funding for institutional daycare. The bed-sharing is kept discreet, perhaps because the left distrusts neo-lib/-con groups like the World Bank; exposure could dissolve the partnership.

Kershaw’s academic writing explicitly calls for a “neoliberal” and “paternalistic” approach which “utilizes the state's coercive power for the purposes of altering citizenry decisions”, modeled on neo-liberal welfare reform.
Very interesting insights indeed. Ms. Ward’s research and conclusions call directly to mind this two-year-old article in Comment is Free, from veteran American critical theorist and feminist Nancy Fraser.
As women have poured into labour markets around the globe, state-organised capitalism’s ideal of the family wage is being replaced by the newer, more modern norm – apparently sanctioned by feminism – of the two-earner family.

Never mind that the reality that underlies the new ideal is depressed wage levels, decreased job security, declining living standards, a steep rise in the number of hours worked for wages per household, exacerbation of the double shift – now often a triple or quadruple shift – and a rise in poverty, increasingly concentrated in female-headed households.


Feminism has also made a second contribution to the neoliberal ethos… Rejecting “economism” and politicising “the personal”, feminists broadened the political agenda to challenge status hierarchies premised on cultural constructions of gender difference. The result should have been to expand the struggle for justice to encompass both culture and economics. But the actual result was a one-sided focus on “gender identity” at the expense of bread and butter issues.

Worse still, the feminist turn to identity politics dovetailed all too neatly with a rising neoliberalism that wanted nothing more than to repress all memory of social equality. In effect, we absolutised the critique of cultural sexism at precisely the moment when circumstances required redoubled attention to the critique of political economy.

Finally, feminism contributed a third idea to neoliberalism: the critique of welfare-state paternalism. Undeniably progressive in the era of state-organised capitalism, that critique has since converged with neoliberalism’s war on “the nanny state” and its more recent cynical embrace of NGOs.
Definite food for thought, here. It bears stressing again and again, though, that neoliberal capitalism is not a value-neutral system. The erosion of family institutions within capitalist societies is neither accidental nor unintentional. As Ward points out quite astutely, there is an ideological basis for the defamilialist policy stance, and an active technocratic discouragement of family life which follows from it. That is not good news for those social conservatives who still want to cling to the idea that capitalism can be harmonised with traditional values. However, it does provide at least some hope that cultural pressure can be brought to bear on the neoliberal anti-family policy stance.

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