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The Unholy Family

“Family values” and neoliberal capitalism are supposed to be enemies. A new book begs to differ.

An aerial photo of Henderson, NV. Jan Buchholtz / Flickr

What comes to mind when we think of neoliberalism?

When the word first entered widely into left-wing vocabulary in the early 2000s, it likely conjured up scenes of men in suits walking briskly through big cities: the Gordon Gekkos and the Wolves of Wall Street; World Bank and International Monetary Fund bigwigs like Lawrence Summers or Dominique Strauss-Kahn. In 2018, neoliberalism calls to mind the seemingly more laid-back atmosphere of California. The people who run Silicon Valley style themselves as the heirs of the hippie movement, whether by wearing jeans at the office or by experimenting with free sex during their free time. (These same people, of course, are nonetheless working tirelessly to run every single element of our personal and work lives through an app.)

In their own way, each of these images represents the brave new world we imagine neoliberalism has created: both the banker’s world of “high risk, high reward” and the techie’s world of Uberized jobs and Tinderized relationships. Everything is monetized, and nothing is stable or sacred. With the arrival of neoliberalism, it appears, all that was solid has finally melted into air.

If there’s one thing that does not seem to fit into this neoliberal world, it’s the traditional model of morality and the family. Sure, conservatives were the first to bring neoliberalism into power, at least in America and the United Kingdom. Yet the governments of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher represented coalitions between an emerging neoliberal economic elite, on the one hand, and “social” or “cultural” conservatives on the other. And like any coalition, these right-wing alliances risked breaking apart once some of its members felt their needs to have been satisfied.

So if social conservatism helped bring neoliberalism into being in the 1970s and 1980s, what need did neoliberal elites have for their more backwards-looking comrades once financial markets had been allowed to dominate the global economy, and once twentieth-century social democracy was put on the defensive?

If there’s one lesson to be drawn from Melinda Cooper’s masterful new study of capitalism and the American right, it’s that this supposed opposition between neoliberalism and social conservatism is a caricature. The central argument of Family Values is that a shared normative project united neoliberalism and social conservatism as they arose beginning in the 1970s. At the center of this project was the notion of the family. For Cooper, neoliberalism is far from the amoral, or even radically “antinormative” creed it is often made out to be (including by left-wing theorists such as Wolfgang Streeck and Nancy Fraser). No less than social conservatism, neoliberalism sought in its own way to reestablish the family as the basic unit of social life in response to the crises of the second half of the twentieth century. The two movements were hardly mere allies of convenience, let alone mortal enemies. On the contrary, Family Values reveals how their close conceptual and practical collaboration helped to build the foundations of the contemporary social world.

Moral Crisis

To understand why the idea of the family was so central to the neoliberal-conservative project, Cooper argues that we need to begin by looking at the political climate of the late 1960s. At the peak of American Keynesian social democracy, an overwhelming consensus existed in favor of the “Fordist family wage.” That the best way to ensure a decent standard of living was to provide a livable wage to each male breadwinner at the head of a traditional heterosexual family was an idea nearly everybody accepted.

Of course, different variations of this idea were advanced by opposing sides. Through much of the 1960s, the activist left and the liberal center aimed to use the welfare state to extend this family wage to people previously excluded from it, namely African-American male heads of household. Though many Republicans hoped to eliminate welfare programs that they judged to be too generous, the right more or less conceded that “we are all Keynesians now.” The Fordist family wage, Cooper reveals, united everyone from the anti-poverty activist Frances Fox Piven to the New Deal liberal Daniel Patrick Moynihan to the moderate Republican Richard Nixon. Even Milton Friedman — whom Cooper describes during this period as a “pragmatist” willing to compromise with the left and center — was on board with the idea of a moderate welfare state that extended benefits to more and more male-led families.

But if the consensus around the Fordist family wage was remarkably broad, equally remarkable was its swift collapse during the 1970s. The turning point, Cooper argues, was the failure of the Family Assistance Plan, a crucial piece of legislation that aimed to replace much of the Great Society welfare programs with what was effectively a guaranteed income for male-headed working households, inspired by the work of Milton Friedman. Intended to be the culmination of the family-wage welfare state, the bill failed — largely thanks to Nixon’s unexpectedly pulling his support from it as it made its way through Congress — and in doing so, it ultimately sounded the death knell of the Fordist consensus. A large-scale expansion of the family wage was no longer on the table politically.

The economic and cultural crises of the 1970s, both real and perceived, soon created conditions that made it necessary to abandon the Fordist wage system altogether and reimagine the role of the family in the American economy. Neoliberal economists began to argue that “stagflation,” the 1970s-era combination of unemployment and inflation, was primarily the result of the out-of-control expenditures and “perverse incentives” created by twentieth-century social democracy. No longer as “pragmatic” as Friedman had once been, they advocated an aggressive policy to tackle the inflation crisis by replacing as much of the welfare state as possible with private sector mechanisms. They believed that by doing so they could create adequate pressure on individuals to work, thereby leading to economic growth.

Cooper believes this project was inseparable from that of contemporary social conservatives, starting with the former liberals — like Moynihan, Irving Kristol, and Daniel Bell — who came out as neoconservatives in response to the New Left. The neoconservatives, she argues, were firm believers in the Fordist family wage, and found those elements of 1960s radicalism that challenged accepted notions of family and sexuality deeply threatening. In reacting against the counterculture, the neoconservatives provided a convenient explanation for the excessive welfare spending and inflation highlighted by neoliberals. Not only did the counterculture encourage “hedonistic” spending beyond one’s means, as Bell suggested in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, but neoconservatives also made the case that, under the influence of the radical left, the welfare state was actively causing the breakdown of the American family by distributing funds to people who did not conform to traditional norms (or who challenged dominant racial hierarchies). More than two decades before Bill Clinton’s reforms, for example, Moynihan warned that single black mothers were becoming the “aristocracy of welfare recipients.”

Faced with what Cooper calls the “moral crisis of inflation,” neoliberal thinkers began to discover that the language of family values was more than just an expedient way to sell an attack on the welfare state to the public. Neoliberals did not always share the moralistic convictions of the neoconservatives, nor the religious or traditionalist beliefs of others within Cooper’s pantheon of “new social conservatives.” But they nonetheless recognized that their ambition to transfer state responsibilities to the market required the enforcement of a strictly normative view of the family. Privatization, it turns out, required a moral vision of what exactly the “private” is.

With the help of social conservatives, neoliberals reimagined the family as the basic unit of a market society. If under the Fordist system the male-headed family was the recipient of welfare benefits, neoliberalism saw intra-family care as a replacement for state transfers. Cooper views this shift as a return to the once-archaic “Poor Law” tradition of social policy, in which family members were forced to assume financial responsibility for their dependent relatives. Under the Clinton-era welfare reforms, for example, benefits to single mothers were replaced by childcare payments that required tracking down the child’s biological father (a practice that soon became quite costly for a program designed to reduce spending). At the same time, the costs of healthcare and education were shifted from the collective purse to the private family, where relatives could be made to care for one another without pay or share the burden of mounting student debt.

Moralistic family values also became a major component of how a thrift-minded neoliberal public policy determined who did and did not deserve a large variety of state-funded benefits. Cooper cites, of course, the “workfare” reforms of the 1990s, which deemed a person deserving of welfare based on employment, and therefore capacity to be “responsible” for one’s family. But she also finds less well-known examples of this sort of moral distinction, for example in the arguments of neoliberal theorists Richard Posner and Tomas Philipson against public funding for AIDS prevention. By actively fighting the disease, the government effectively encouraged “risky” behavior such as gay sex — though the authors claimed to have no moral objections to homosexuality — and in so doing charged the public for the irresponsible acts of individuals. They recommended promoting marriage and traditional sexual norms as a way of containing the costs of individual health choices to the family.

This sort of moral logic, Cooper argues, has become a fixture not only of health care, but of American policy thinking in general. Family Values demonstrates in exhaustive detail how conservative normativity pervades the neoliberal approach to education, housing, prisons, religion, and practically every other area of our sociopolitical landscape. Though many supporters of neoliberalism over the years have claimed to be indifferent to matters of family, morality, and sexuality — indeed, today’s libertarians of the Ron Paul variety consider themselves radically open-minded on questions of individual behavior — Cooper shows that this misses the point. Neoliberalism could never be a movement of pure deregulation, whether in economics or in morality. Just as the privatization of the economy requires the political power of the state, the privatization of society more broadly requires the enforcement of a certain moral order. And so, Cooper writes, “neoliberals must ultimately delegate power to social conservatives in order to realize their vision of a naturally equilibrating free-market order and a spontaneously self-sufficient family.”

The Bannon Illusion

Cooper’s intervention is important, not least because so much of our current discourse about the right assumes a stark opposition between neoliberalism and social conservatism. And this opposition has indeed been at the heart of the far right’s attempts to justify its worldview. The story goes something like this: for four decades now, neoliberal elites of both center-right and center-left have run roughshod over the institutions that protect ordinary Americans’ ways of life, whether by closing Rust Belt factories, “bringing in” illegal immigrants, or undermining the nation’s moral values. In the narrative of Steve Bannon and his ilk, Donald Trump’s combination of economic protectionism with nationalist and traditionalist moralism appears as a serious challenge to neoliberalism’s dominance.

Thankfully, the illusion of Bannon’s genius as a political strategist appears to have begun wearing off. But the fact remains that since Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, many liberals and leftists have been all too willing to indulge Bannon’s interpretation of these events. To some extent, this has been a matter of editors attempting to jump on the far right as the next media craze: from the New York Times’s recent publishing of letters from Trump voters on its editorial page to the Atlantic’s and many other publications’ profiles of Richard Spencer to the frenzy over J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and the abortive Simon and Schuster deal for Milo Yiannopoulos. But in the shock of Trump’s victory, many people to the left of center have sincerely begun to think that the right knows something they don’t. If the “neoliberal” Hillary Clinton lost key Midwestern states to Trump, perhaps the Bannonite right has something to say about how to organize against neoliberalism.

The idea that capitalism and conservatism are essentially opposed, of course, has deep roots in the history of ideas. Today’s far right did not invent it, but the notion perhaps explains the durability of Bannon’s appeal. We can find this opposition not only in Marx — who believed that liberal capitalism was essentially an enemy of traditional ways of life — but also, and perhaps most importantly, in the work of the Hungarian political economist Karl Polanyi. In his magnum opus The Great Transformation, Polanyi observed that capitalism’s endless drive for the accumulation of wealth and the introduction of disruptive new techniques represented a destructive social force. For this reason, it periodically sparks movements of resistance from those whose lives it upends. Polanyi therefore argued that modern capitalist societies progress through what he called the “double movement”: after each moment of capitalist upheaval, countermovements arise in the attempt to defend ways of life threatened by economic transformations. Writing at the end of World War II, Polanyi recognized that these countermovements against capitalism were all too likely to include reactionary conservatism and fascism. Hence Polanyi’s conviction that in the face of capitalism’s inevitable tendency to destabilize social life, left-wing social democracy was the only viable bulwark against both extreme liberalization and the kinds of fascist experiments that arose in the 1930s.

For Cooper, however, the intimate collaboration between neoliberalism and social conservatism over the past five decades is ample grounds to revise Polanyi’s notion of the “double movement.” Social conservatism did not arise as an external reaction against neoliberal capitalism. In reality, neoliberal disruption and the conservative defense of tradition both played integral roles in the construction of contemporary American capitalist society. “What Polanyi calls the ‘double movement,’” Cooper writes, “would be better understood as fully internal to the dynamic of capital.”

Cooper’s analysis in Family Values suggests that it is a mistake to regard today’s right-wing resurgence as a form of resistance to neoliberal capitalism. Just as the “family values” conservatism of the 1970s and 1980s worked hand-in-hand with neoliberalism to construct the Reagan-era economic order, today’s return to the values of white American identity — also a defense traditional sexual norms — has again and again proven its willingness to assist in the entrenchment of unequal economic structures. Today, Bannon and many others on the alt-right profess their aversion to neoliberal capitalism, just as neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol once claimed to be the opponents of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Cooper makes a well-documented case that now, as then, they are not to be believed.

But if Cooper relies on a radical revision of Polanyi’s theory of the “double movement” to reject the far right’s claims to be the resistance against neoliberal capitalism, where does that leave Polanyi’s social-democratic convictions? For Polanyi, as Cooper points out, social democracy was a preferable alternative to fascism and other right-wing countermovements, but he saw them as different more in degree than in kind. Both social democracy and reactionary conservatism seek to reestablish what capitalism threatened to destroy. If only the former was capable of doing so in the name of humanitarian ends, it nonetheless performed the same conservative role of propping up destructive social patterns. As Cooper points out throughout Family Values, the vast majority of postwar progressive liberals and leftists were committed to similar kinds of family normativity as the neoliberals and social conservatives: from African-American radicals like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X to the anti-poverty champions Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward (not to mention the Democrats of the Clinton and Obama eras). Cooper demands that we ask whether attempts to radically transform capitalism do not ultimately fall back on moral logics that help keep it the way it is.

Cooper doesn’t think this has to be the case. On the one hand, she expresses clear admiration for those movements on the radical left that are thoroughly and authentically “antinormative.” Though Cooper believes such movements have mostly remained marginal even within the queer and feminist left, she sees in the unequivocal rejection of dominant conceptions of sex and sexuality the potential to break the cycle of capitalism’s internal “double movement.” But Cooper does not praise “antinormativity” merely for its own sake, nor does she believe that issues of women’s liberation, gender diversity, or personal identity ought to supersede questions of economics.

Indeed, what is so powerful about her argument is her rejection of the distinction between the “cultural” and the “economic,” or between “recognition” and “redistribution.” Family Values provides ample evidence not only that questions of family and sexual norms are at the heart of economic structures, but also that “antinormativity” is not merely a question of individual expression. The single mothers in the Welfare Rights movement who demanded benefits independently of a male breadwinner — among the heroines of Cooper’s book — were neither dogmatic “class-firsters” indifferent to gender and sexual equality nor self-absorbed partisans of “identity politics.” Family Values, then, not only helps us resist the far right’s narrative of how to oppose neoliberalism but also begins to provide a picture of the kind of social democracy that ought to replace it.