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The Family Style in American Politics

Political scientist Melinda Cooper explains how neoliberals and social conservatives have found common ground

Malcolm Harris
May 30 · 6 min read
Photo: Bloomberg Creative Photos/Getty Images

When I first read political scientist Melinda Cooper’s 2017 book Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism it left me searching in vain for a cliché to use besides “mind-blowing.” Her central idea is that conservatives and neoliberals have collaborated to restore the central importance of the family in American society, and along the way she reinvents the intellectual history of the second half of the 20th century. Cooper flips and twists the coordinates of American politics — and in prose that’s uncommonly clear for an academic.

The book became a cult hit across the (normally fractious) left-wing intelligentsia, earning plaudits from magazines including Dissent, Jacobin, and Viewpoint. Now available in paperback from Zone Books, an imprint of MIT Press, Family Values deserves mainstream attention. Ahead of the release, Medium spoke with Cooper — a professor in the School of Social and Political Science at Australia’s University of Sydney — about conservative socialists, why the family is becoming more important in American policy, and more.

Medium: The titular alliance between neoliberals and social conservatives is often figured as pragmatic or mercenary, but you make the argument that they share a common purpose. You write that “the dismantling of welfare represents the most effective means of restoring the private bonds of familial obligation.” Are these ideological currents (neoliberalism and social conservatism) closer than some would have us believe?

Cooper: As political philosophies and frameworks for understanding the world, economic liberalism and conservatism do have distinct lineages and styles of analysis. There is a certain common sense to the argument that they are at loggerheads. The liberal defense of the free market is built on a critique of inherited status, of so-called unearned income or rent, of mercantilist protectionism and monopolies. The conservative critique of the free market is a reaction formation against the bourgeois revolutions of the 19th century and a revanchist effort to reinstate or reinvent social hierarchies of all kinds.

However, if you look at the history of economic liberalism, the borders become very fuzzy both in the sense that we find key figures of the conservative canon who were also liberals and vice versa (figures such as Edmund Burke and Thomas Malthus come to mind). And in practice it is impossible to find any period of so-called laissez faire triumphalism that was not accompanied by a rollout of conservative or paternalist social policies of some kind. In American history, you could point to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century and the period from the late 1970s until today as proof of this working relationship.

When neoliberals support moralistic conservative policies, we often call them hypocrites, but you write that the idea of a generalized neoliberal support for sexual freedom and individual privacy is basically a myth. How do we get this one wrong?

There is a folkloric depiction of American neoliberalism as having inspired the sexual privacy jurisprudence of the 1960s and ’70s which brought us, among other signal decisions, Roe v. Wade. But Chicago school of law and economics scholars such as Richard Posner and Gary Becker absolutely hated the idea of a right to privacy because it implied not only a negative freedom from the state but also, potentially, an obligation on the part of the state to enable and, hence, subsidize sexual freedom — in particular women’s freedom from individual men.

When activists sought to contest the ability of the state to exclude “immoral” women from the welfare rolls, the Chicago school neoliberals understood this as a green light for the expansion of welfare. They were very much in favor of morality rules because such rules tended to restrict the scope of state welfare and to internalize the costs of too much sexual freedom within the normative couple and family form. If an unmarried mother could in some way be connected legally to a man, then the costs of her and her children’s upkeep could be offloaded onto him. Their critique of Roe v. Wade pivoted on the same issue — not sexual freedom as such but a right to sexual freedom that might imply subsidization on the part of the state: for example, Medicaid funding for abortion.

Part of the American ideology is the idea that our society is getting fairer and more meritocratic over time, but you write that the family’s role in wealth accumulation has been increasing instead.

Most people have become more dependent on the support of parents and other family members to fund their college education or a down payment on a home or simply their ability to survive from day to day. The growing number of young adults living at home into their 20s is a form of in-kind support. Thomas Piketty makes the very important point that the dwindling of public services and the stalling of wage growth has made younger people much more dependent on inherited wealth than their parents, who grew up in a time of diminishing inequality and rapidly rising wages.

But for most people, familial support doesn’t take the form of inherited assets (as imagined by the third way) but rather of intergenerational debt. Parents and grandparents are taking on student debt on behalf of their adult children or acting as guarantor on the mortgage and student debt of their children. This is not so much a dynastic transmission of wealth as a mutual entanglement in household debt.

And yet, despite its role in the restoration of the family’s importance, it’s common for a certain kind of socialist to describe neoliberalism as anti-family.

When socialists describe neoliberalism as anti-family, I assume they are thinking of the state-subsidized family form that was the male breadwinner wage. There is a popular assumption, visible in the recent work of Wolfgang Streeck and Nancy Fraser, that neoliberalism itself was a revolt against the Fordist family wage. From here we can very quickly arrive at the conclusion that any critique of sexual or gender normativity is tendentially “neoliberal” and this is clearly where a conservative socialism wants to take us.

It is true that neoliberals support another family form — one represented by the Poor Law tradition of “family responsibility” where all welfare obligations are offloaded to the private family. But it is also important to note that the major American neoliberals were either indifferent to or openly supportive of the family wage as long as it was restricted to white workers and as long as it was conditional on a certain set of “moral” behaviors, particularly for single mothers. The American neoliberals did not revolt against the Fordist welfare state until welfare rights threatened to break through the bounds of the normative family form.

When the prefix “family” is stuck onto any particular policy… it serves to designate certain recipients of redistributive public spending as deserving and others as less deserving.

Family is the often unacknowledged center of a bunch of important contemporary political issues: immigration, health care, welfare, state recognition of queer Americans, etc. How have politicians been able to use it as a vehicle for policy compromise? And what are the issues with that strategy?

Well, it depends what policy the family prefix is attached to. Family-centered policies can range from family responsibility rules that put the work of care on the household and women in particular, or they can refer to welfarist policies such as paid parental leave or child allowances or childcare subsidies. The latter I support wholeheartedly, particularly free state-subsidized childcare, not on natalist but on gender-egalitarian grounds. However, the “family” prefix is rarely neutral and historically the redistributive policies of the welfare state have been tightly aligned with particular family forms and gender structures. So the Fordist family wage was a way of subsidizing women’s labor via the male breadwinner wage — that is, via a form of wage coverture that relegated women to the home or lower paid labor.

When the prefix “family” is stuck onto any particular policy it tends to play a similar role to words such as “productive,” “hard-working,” or “tax-paying” — that is, it serves to designate certain recipients of redistributive public spending as deserving and others as less deserving. In practice, “family” often refers to certain kinds of kinship structures and caregiving arrangements while excluding others. With regard to queer politics, my sense is that in retrospect we will see that the generalization of marriage and the legally recognized family form to queers has displaced the boundary lines of deviance, from homosexual/heterosexual to reproductive/non-reproductive. This is just an intuition at the moment but I think it is reinforced by the generalized anxiety about declining birth rates that has now spread from Japan and Western Europe to the U.S.

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Author of “Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials” malcolmpharris@gmail ☭

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