Daniel Denvir: Welcome to The Dig, a podcast from Jacobin Magazine. My name is Daniel Denvir and I’m broadcasting from Providence, Rhode Island.
Melinda Cooper argues that the right wing’s culture wars are not just “flotsam and jetsam floating above the real story of monumental wealth redistribution and class warfare.” In her book, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, Cooper tells a number of detailed histories to make the case that neoliberalism and social conservatism have been consistent collaborators in creating an economy that redistributes wealth ruthlessly upwards with a risk-absorbing family at its privatized center.
It’s a remarkable book that sketches out the convergence of neoliberals and neoconservatives around not just ending welfare as we knew it, but remaking welfare into a government program to coerce normative families amongst poor people. Why neoliberals argued that the AIDS crisis couldn’t and shouldn’t be confronted by government because it was the product of risky sexual behavior undertaken by private individuals, and that the solution was to privatize the risks of homosexuality within the disciplining bonds of marriage; how inflation was viewed as an attack on social norms and private property alike, to be tamed through the Volcker Shock and the subsequent privatization of intergenerational wealth by way of family inheritance––all of that and a whole lot more. In short, it’s a remarkable book that will fundamentally change the way you think about the rise of American neoliberalism and the culture wars. And, happily, Cooper is my guest today for the first Dig of 2019.
Here’s Melinda Cooper, who teaches in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney, Australia. She is the author of Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism from Zone Books, and co-editor of the Stanford University Press book series, Currencies: New Thinking for Financial Times.
DD: Melinda Cooper, welcome to The Dig.
Melinda Cooper: Thank you for inviting me.
DD: Before we get into the specifics of the history you’re telling, I’d like you to lay out your overarching argument that social conservatives and neoliberals both turned against the Great Society for different reasons but complementary ends. What comprises these various groups that you’re talking about in the book? What did each find to be so important about a certain sort of family, and what political-economic change did they seek and effectuate as a result?
MC: So the neoconservative movement was born out of its critique of the Great Society welfare state. So they didn’t exist prior to the mid-1970s. And what was interesting about them is that they didn’t have a critique of the welfare state, per say. Most of them remained in favor of some form of welfare state and they had no fiscal critique of the welfare state. So they didn’t have that obsession about exorbitant public spending that you find among the neoliberals. They were very much attached to the New Deal welfare state and many of them came out of the left, even the Trotskyist Left. But they were concerned that the Great Society, perhaps unintentionally, had ended up subsidizing forms of welfare that were contributing to a breakdown of the family and that the programs around particularly the increase in funding to higher education, and the anti-poverty programs, the legal support programs, they were funding wholesale assaults against the New Deal familial order––so forms of anti-patriotism and student rebellion and critiques of the family. Their critique of welfare was a critique of Great Society welfare––the Great Society welfare state in particular. And you can say that of a lot of the religious conservatives as well. Surprisingly, a lot of the religious conservatives were not averse to the welfare state. They were averse to the forms of welfare that break down in conditionalities that you get around the mid-1960s. So the neoliberals were coming from a very different position. Their critique was primarily a fiscal one. And that critique was all about what they saw as an extension of demands, an inflation of demands, on this state that they thought were intolerable within the terms of the post-war Keynesian order, more or less. So they had kind of begrudgingly accepted the New Deal welfare state, to an extent that I think is not often appreciated. But the Great Society welfare state was one step too far for them, because they thought that its extension of benefits to all kinds of constituencies, to minorities who had hitherto been excluded, and especially the legal assaults on welfare conditionalities meant that this would just become an intolerable burden on the state. So their critique was primarily fiscal but was kind of connected to the moral critique, in as much as they thought that the extension of welfare to non-normative family forms, particularly female-headed households, was intolerable within the limits of the New Deal welfare state. It just couldn’t be continued. And at that, it completely upset the terms of the consensus between labor and capital.
DD: To set up your argument theoretically, you write that people on the left “tend to dismiss the florid defense of family values as so much flotsam and jetsam floating above the real story of monumental wealth redistribution and class warfare.” But your argument is that this isn’t a matter of structure in relation to superstructure, but rather, I guess it is sort of structure all the way down. And the upshot of that is that these commonly made distinctions between the politics of recognition versus the politics of redistribution obscure the fact that particular forms of identity politics have always been at the core of any given political economic order. Explain what leftists miss when they narrowly analyze power at the so-called point of product and what sort of theoretical framework you’re putting forward as an alternative to that approach.
MC: Well, first of all I wouldn’t call sexual and racial politics identity politics. I think identity politics is a way of organizing any kind of politics, so class politics, race politics, or gender politics. I think that race and gender and sexuality, the forms in which wage differentials are organized––the most intimate level, and they’re the level at which they’re least open to critique, in which most people are, in some way, invested. When you look at the work of the American neoliberals, they’re screaming family politics––from every page, actually. I mean they’re not hiding the fact that they are completely disturbed by what they see as an expansion of the welfare rolls beyond the family wage. No, they’re not. Someone like Becker is almost only writing about the family. So it’s interesting to me that it’s often from the left––from the academic and critical left––that you find this erasure. Having said that, like most liberal economists, this is a part of the economic apparatus that they are remarkably un-self-reflexive about, so that they’re unable to see that a lot of what they have to say about the family is logically contradictory with their own kind of rational choice premises. And I think in a sense, this is a kind of an aporia that you encounter. Let’s say it’s not exclusive to economic liberalism. Yes, it’s superstructure all the way down and structure all the way up, but we also need to theorize why there’s this constant forgetting of the gendered and racial dimensions of political economy.
DD: Does the right to a better job thinking about the intrinsic familiality and sociality of political economy than the left? It seems to me that the right has so masterfully pursued this reactionary agenda targeting the social, economic, and political totality, but that various sides of the liberal and left identity politics debate see things in the very siloed ways that they appear contingently under capitalism.
MC: So I was going to include social conservatives in my list of people who do this kind of division of labor, who are un-self-reflexive about the gender and race politics, but they aren’t, actually. Social conservatives, in particular, spell it all out. Why this is important, why this is the foundation of their social order, why you can’t move some kind of intimate detail of the family without threatening social order. So they do spell it out. You know, sometimes I suspect that the left, or parts of the left, are less honest about that, because there are affinities that are too deeply ingrained to be––so that there’s a certain investment in certain kind of gender divisions of labor. That kind of thing.
DD: I want to turn to some of the specifics of your historical argument. You write that the history of the family has always meant a history of the family in crisis, but that this crisis appears in distinct and even contradictory ways to particular people at particular moments. And so before we get to the era dominated by neoliberalism and social conservatism, we should address the basic contours of the period which preceded it: the post-World War II socioeconomic order, which, in short, was built around something called the Fordist family wage that––I’m quoting your book––”not only functioned as a mechanism for the normalization of gender and sexual relationships, but also stood at the heart of the mid-century organization of labor, race, and class, defining African American men by their exclusion from the male breadwinner wage and African American women by their relegation to agricultural and domestic labor in the service of white households.” Explain what the Fordist family wage was, how it emerged, and how it functioned to regulate seemingly every hierarchical relationship that characterized what’s often perceived on right and left alike to be a golden era of American life.
MC: Right. So the Fordist family wage was a version of the male breadwinner wage ideology, which has a much longer history. It goes back to the 19th century labor movement. The basic idea is that the male worker should be able to earn a so-called living wage, which is a wage that is high enough to provide for his own needs, but also for the needs of his wife and children. What was distinct about the Fordist family wage was that it was a form of male breadwinner wage that also extended to social insurance. So the social wage. The idea was not only that the wage would be sufficient, but also that the male unionized worker would benefit from all kinds of social insurance rights that his wife would then enjoy under a kind of social insurance cover charge, because she was dependent on unionized male workers. She also had rights and her children also had rights to all these forms of social welfare. So that was the idea of the Fordist family wage. In certain countries, like in Britain, the hierarchical set-up and the fact of married women’s dependence is very overt. So in the Beveridge Report that appeared in 1942, William Henry Beveridge refers to women’s vital but unpaid labor in the service of the nation, and that unpaid labor was all about reproducing the white British race. And you get, similarly, very explicit statements about what this involves in the work of Progressive Era social theorists in the States. But the way that the New Deal welfare state actually implemented these kinds of hierarchies seemed to fall into place by default, and, in fact, the organizing categories are all around what looked like mutual distinctions between full-time unionized workers and, say, agricultural workers or domestic workers. And it turns out that these kind of neutral-sounding distinctions actually divide the population along the lines of white, male, unionized workers who generally have rights to a more dignified, less intrusive form of federal social insurance, and then single, unattached women, or women who are considered to be non-contributors, they don’t work full time, they tend to fall back into state forms of public assistance which are much more degraded and degrading forms of welfare. And then you have agricultural and domestic workers in the South who happen to be African American who will be almost entirely excluded from public assistance. So you have all these kinds of hierarchies of race and gender that are put in place by the Fordist family wage structure that don’t look like they’re put in place by intent, but which are actually unrelenting in their division of the population. And these are what sustain both the hierarchy of wages that endures after World War II, and the hierarchy of social insurance rights, so that you have a whole class of the population that is still living under this degraded public assistance system that is very much entrenched in the old poor law tradition. So in a sense, the poor law family responsibility tradition lives on for certain segments of the population; very much so for those who are minorities and also for many single women.
DD: As you mentioned earlier, near the end of this period, before the neoliberal-social conservative convergence really consolidates, there was actually this remarkable consensus behind universalizing the family wage’s coverage so as to incorporate those who had been excluded from the core of the new order that you were just describing. For Daniel Patrick Moynihan, this was the solution to what he infamously described as the “tangled pathologies of the matriarchal black family under welfare.” Even Richard Nixon supported a basic income scheme and perhaps what’s most surprising, you argue that radical activists and theorists Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven held out the universalization of the Fordist family wage as the end goal of their militant welfare rights strategy and, in somewhat unsettling terms, you quote from their famous Nation article laying out their strategy. You quote from them describing welfare as reinforcing “the female as breadwinner in an already-female dominated household. Men for whom there are no jobs will nevertheless mate like other men, but they are not so likely to marry. Our society has preferred to deal with the resulting female-headed families not by putting men to work, but by placing the unwed mothers and dependent children on public welfare, substituting check-writing machines for male wage earners. By this means, we have robbed men of manhood, women of husbands, and children of fathers. To create a stable monogamous family, we need to provide men, especially Negro men, with the opportunity to be men, and that involves enabling them to perform occupationally. Over the long term, women will then leave the welfare rolls, not to work, but to marry.” It’s a remarkable quote and I’m surprised that’s the first time that I had noted it in the past. Explain the origins of this remarkable consensus around expanding New Deal social insurance on the terms of the normative Fordist family and why it collapsed when it did.
MC: So this was the last gap of the family wage ideal, and I think it was the last attempt to salvage it––the last point where you see what looks, in retrospect, like a completely unfathomable consensus. You have people like Tobin, you have Piven and Cloward, you have Friedman and Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nixon. You just can’t imagine these people together, all agreeing that the family wage needs to be extended to Black men also. On terms that are not wonderful, but this is as good as it gets. And very soon after the riot retreats, even on this. And the way I interpret this moment is that it’s a reaction to the welfare rights movement, and what my book brings to the fore, really just following the incredible historical literature on that movement, is that it was the welfare rights movement in particular, and it was this one not very expensive program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which had everyone bothered. And so this movement in favor of the universal income or negative income tax, which was Friedman’s kind of blueprint for it, was an attempt to salvage that consensus that had brought Democrats and Republicans together after World War II in favor of the family wage. And to say, okay, we can deal with the civil rights movement, we can deal with these new demands for social justice, for racial justice, that we’re seeing, but we want to deal with it by restoring the family form in some way. We don’t want to deal with it by conceding to the demands of the welfare rights movement, which, almost universally, on left and right, is seen as a dangerous threat to the family form––that this was really about subsidizing a form of non-normative living that should not be subsidized at all. So in a sense that there was both a concession, and a last gasp of the family wage consensus was to say, okay, we will increase benefits, we will make concessions to racial justice, but only if welfare is about buttressing the normative family form amongst African Americans. We will not consent to simply subsidizing Black single or unmarried women on welfare. So to me, it’s really amazing that Friedman was so centrally engaged in this, right up until the last minutes. So engaged that he actually provided the policy blueprint. Because very soon after this moment, the American neoliberals in general turned against the very idea of the New Deal welfare state. So there really is this complete 180 degree turn.
DD: And this rupture takes place around the inflation of the 1970s, you argue, which prompts both a conservative tax revolt and the very specific demonization of welfare as the icon of everything that has gone wrong with American political economy and society.
MC: That’s right. Since I’ve written this book I’ve been looking a little at the literature of the tax revolt. I mean, the actual grassroots literature. And I was also surprised to see how obsessed these taxpayers were with Aid to Families with Dependent Children also, because a tax revolt was all about the property tax. And that did not fund AFDC at all. So there’s this fantasmatic contamination whereby this one little program that absorbs a minuscule amount of the federal welfare budget becomes this lightning rod, because it synthesizes fears about both racial and sexual degeneracy. And I argue that this program, however miniscule, was the lynchpin of the Fordist family wage because it was meant to exclude Black women. It was not meant to include African American women at all. And it was certainly not meant to include women who had never married. So the fact that from about the 1950s, African American women were entering the AFDC rolls as a result of migration to the North, and that many of them hadn’t married, was perceived as a complete betrayal of the New Deal spirit.
DD: Which is somewhat counterintuitive if you attempt to look at the economic interests of these white, middle class homeowners in a very narrow way. First, of course, they benefit from massive New Deal subsidies, which create the entire segregated metropolis of which they’re a part, which underpins the value of their homes, and then, inflation, contrary to conventional wisdom, is actually transferring wealth to those ordinary middle class homeowners in a lot of ways, because it is eroding the value of their debt.
MC: This is right.
DD: But they turn against the poorest, most marginalized people in society and realign themselves politically with the wealthy.
MC: That’s right. And that’s why it’s very difficult to see the neoliberal turn purely as a kind of imposition on the part of elites, because the real impetus, the real firepower, I think, for the Reagan Revolution came from the tax revolt. And that was a popular movement. So the first real victory of the neoliberal movement was a popular lower-middle class movement. And it took the form of direct democracy, so you couldn’t say that this was elite dupery. Having said that, there was a considerable misrecognition, as you say, about what social welfare actually means. And it seems to me that the more people subsidized by the state and the more guaranteed their subsidies are, the less often they’re capable of perceiving those.
DD: The more submerged the subsidies are.
MC: Yeah, exactly, as the name of a book––I forget what it’s called. Oh, The Hidden Welfare State. So there was a survey done just before the tax revolt, and I think was by Sears and Citrin and they were interested in the fact that––or Sears and Citrin were analyzing it. They’re interested in the question of what exactly people were opposed to. And so they asked them the general question, “Are you opposed to welfare?”. Yes, yes, of course. But when they broke it down, “Are you opposed to public spending on local services, like fire stations, schools?” No, no, we actually want more. And so every question they ask turns out this way. And so they dig down and finally they get to welfare and it’s yes, yes, we’re all opposed to welfare. But then you break down welfare into kind of various kinds of public assistance programs––Medicaid etc., all the components of welfare, and it all becomes much more ambiguous. No, no, we want more spending on that. The only nugget that remains is Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Everybody wants that to be slashed.
DD: What do you know?
MC: It’s the property tax? But the property tax had nothing to do with Aid to Families with Dependent Children. But anyway, it was kind of a tax revolt. There’s an enormous own goal against the lower-middle class and the middle class.
DD: And that revolt is tellingly, also, amidst fights against taking place in California, amidst fights against school busing and school integration.
MC: This is right, yeah.
DD: The value of the home as both a social institution and as an asset is deeply, fundamentally contingent upon the segregation of housing and the resulting segregation of schooling.
MC: There’s an idea that we don’t want our family capital to be lost through tax, to be siphoned through taxes, into a general fund that can then be redistributed willy-nilly, and that all kinds of borders, from the family, the garden fence, the municipality borders, will break down and we’ll have desegregation. So there’s this idea of wanting to contain funds back within the local area, within the family, amongst one’s kind.
DD: In that sense, does whiteness––does race––serve as an extra sort of extended kinship?
MC: I think so. Yeah, I think that’s very much in play in the tax revolt. I mean, obviously.
DD: So in terms of the context of inflation, you quote some really wild stuff from neoliberals on this. The neoliberal critique really goes from the macroeconomic, which is what one might expect, to the almost spiritual. On the one hand, Milton Friedman believed that inflation financed welfare programs. But James Buchanan and Richard Wagner make this pretty radical argument that inflation shortened people’s time horizons, and thus led to a breakdown in public morality, including “increasingly liberalized attitudes towards sexual activities, a declining vitality of the Puritan work ethic, deterioration in product quality, explosion of the welfare rolls, and more.” Explain the connections that neoliberals were drawing between monetary, fiscal, and moral laxity, and if you think, in a sort of twisted way, that they were correct.
MC: In a twisted way, I do think they’re correct, but I’ll come back there. So this idea that inflation is symptomatic of moral laxity has a long history, and you find it in classical theories of sound finance. Inflation is the symptom of a breakdown in moral order because it’s seen as a fraudulent forced redistribution of wealth from the creditor to the debtor. So it seemed to be this terrible travesty of all kinds of proper hierarchical relations––the property relation itself. So you could fill pages of classical political economists and their screeds against inflation. I think what’s new about the critique that you get in the 1970s is, again, this conflation of the breakdown of household and familial order that is being subsidized by the welfare state, because, first of all, the expansion of the welfare rolls, but also, all kinds of legal challenges that you have to welfare conditionality at the time. So the welfare state is becoming much less of a normative beast, much less of the normative apparatus that it was supposed to be. And there is a logical connection there. I mean, it breaks down when you get into the detail, but the logical connection is that the normative family form was in some sense containing the social expenditures of the state, and that this was the condition of the Keynesian consensus. That, okay, you were going to have a certain degree of redistribution, but this would have to be contained in some way, and the normative family was the way it was contained. So the male breadwinner wage was the conduit for redistribution, but that also meant that women received less and only as dependents, and all kinds of people were excluded from this redistribution. So it’s true that the more that these constraints were questioned on legal terms and the more militant the welfare rights movement became, the more fiscal demands there were on the state. So there’s a connection, but the connection is not convincing when it comes to Aid to Families with Dependent Children in particular. It can become convincing with regards to social security, which Nixon expanded. He indexed to inflation, remarkably. And so these were the expenditures that were really skyrocketing in the 1970s. It was not AFDC, which was not indexed to inflation, so in fact its value fell in real terms. But somehow what was an almost-logical argument always returned obsessively to this one little program, which is really interesting.
DD: What was happening more in the background, with the demonization of AFDC welfare in the foreground, was this political-economic transformation that took hold after the Volker Shock, which affected this huge shift from middle class people receiving more of their wealth through the social wage to a renewed dependence on family-based inheritance.
MC: Right. And I should be clear, AFDC was the first line of attack; public assistance was the first line of attack. But as soon as Reagan came into power, social security was attacked too. And of course, it was a much harder target. And they were unsuccessful at first, in that they have never completely privatized social security, but they have pushed a lot of people into these private savings accounts and, very explicitly, the logic there was that 401Ks, private savings accounts––these are inheritable assets. So you are returning to a form of private savings and a transmission of wealth. This is not social insurance. So I think, again, the subjective, the psychological work performed by the tax revolt was to detach middle-class homeowners from social insurance and to convince them that it was in their interest to reattach to inherited family wealth. I think all these moves had to be made to pursue a larger project, which was about trying to dismantle social insurance as far as possible. Of course, there’s something very utopian about it and it’s very difficult––they’re still going at it. It will perhaps never be entirely accomplished. Certainly, by demonizing AFDC, that enabled them to do a lot more. And I think why I find this survey I was talking about, about the tax revolt, so interesting is that it seems to suggest that a lot of people who voted in favor of these tax limitations, or who are in favor of federal balanced budget amendments, did not quite understand how dependent they also were on redistributive public spending.So they didn’t understand that they, too, would be in the line of fire. And in a sense, I see the Trump phenomenon as the legacy of that. It’s almost as if that misunderstanding is still there, and the scapegoating is still there. And there’s an incomprehension that this is something that the white tax revolt did to white people, in the long run.
DD: Look at the Tea Party. That’s a white tax revolt.
MC: It is. It’s a complete legacy of the tax revolt. It’s a tax revolt getting angrier and angrier at the punishment it’s inflicted on itself. You know what I mean?
DD: The apex of this reaction and this turn against welfare is to really instrumentalize it as a tool to morally discipline poor families. And that comes into legal existence by way of Bill Clinton signing congressional Republicans’ welfare reform bill, which is most infamous, of course, for curtailing welfare benefits, but it was also really centrally about promoting marriage and coercing mothers to locate the biological fathers of their children. And remarkably, the legislation’s more or less very first sentence is “marriage is the foundation of a successful society.” That’s like the first finding of the bill, which is wild. You write that welfare reform remade the Fordist era’s binding of Black women to white homes in the form of binding them to low-wage service work, to men, and to private religious organizations. And that, in turn, was part of this social conservative strategy to shift government funding towards supporting socially conservative mediating institutions––part of this process to defund the left and redirect taxpayer dollars towards these explicitly sectarian organizations, to institutionalize the religious right in a parastate role under the auspices of religious freedom. How was it that New Democrats, along with social conservatives, neoliberals, neoconservatives, all converged around a form of welfare reform that was initially pioneered as something radical by Ronald Reagan in California? What does that reveal about neoliberalism in its insurgent phase versus its moment of bipartisan consolidation? And finally, what does that tell us about how the liberal turn towards neoliberalism was inextricably and simultaneously social and economic?
MC: Yes, so the Personal Responsibility Act was pure poor law. It was absolutely in the poor law tradition. But what is really remarkable is that this is being enacted at a federal level, whereas for the greater part of the 20th century, after the New Deal, it’s the federal government agencies that are at war with the states to try and undo the remnants of the poor law. So this is remarkable that a Democratic leader should federalize the poor law principle of family responsibility, and Reagan’s term as governor in California is really remarkable and interesting as a kind of laboratory. And he was seen as really extreme within the Republican Party. I mean, he was one of the most vocal critics of the basic guaranteed income idea; he even opposed Nixon and Friedman on that. So he was quite extreme. He was like a Barry Goldwater Republican. He performed some interesting experiments that were then carried to the federal level, but by Clinton. So what’s interesting about the United States, is all kinds of countries that have inherited the Elizabethan poor law tradition and the principle of family responsibility, but in the United States what’s really remarkable is that most states have family responsibility laws on their books. It’s like they’re there to be revived, and this is what Reagan tried to do, and he passed state-level welfare reform. He tried to reactivate these laws that meant that, perhaps, if you had a child who had to go into care for some reason, that the state could recoup money from relatives to compensate for the money it had spent. They were particularly active, of course, with imposing family responsibility laws on single mothers on welfare. So the laws in that case were about forcing single mothers to track down the alleged or supposed fathers biological fathers of their children. And they were required to do this. They were required to report if they were living with a man because they could no longer receive benefits, or the man would be compelled to provide for the children. So Reagan was very active and instrumental in the idea that this family responsibility tradition could really be revived. And so that worked more or less well. And Reagan had hoped to take this onto the federal stage but failed. He was not successful in completely transforming welfare on the federal level. And it remained for Clinton to complete Reagan’s experiment. What’s interesting about the poor law tradition, as I mentioned before, it’s a hybrid of liberal and conservative influences. So it’s always been informed by this fiscal concern––you have to recoup money that has been spent on the welfare poor by extorting it from their families. But it’s also been informed by various social conservative––especially religious––ideologies, that are all about reforming the poor: restoring their sense of morality and family responsibility, not just as a simple economic concern, but with a lived form of family normativity, if you like––a family way of life. It has these two strands and it’s not entirely surprising to me that the New Democrats––Clinton’s New Democrats––should be responsible for implementing this, because the New Democrats were neoliberals––Third Way neoliberals––but they were also communitarians. Communitarianism is essentially a social conservatism of the partisan left. It’s not very different from the social conservatism of the right. It’s a little bit more inclusive, if you like, and it’s a little less overtly religious. But the New Democratic ethos was a combination of neoliberalism and and communitarianism, and that could lend itself perfectly to the idea of restoring the poor law tradition, and I think that’s what was in play with Clinton’s Personal Responsibility Act.
DD: Another thing that that elucidates is that neoliberalism is not, in this simplistic way, just a project of shrinking the state, but rather one that’s focused on remaking it to serve particular ends. I think you write that the “neo” in neoliberalism, in a sense, can be thought of as the fact that it’s liberalism that comes after and in response to the welfare state.
MC: Yeah. And it’s often quite jarring that reforms that are introduced supposedly to save money, so the whole system for tracking down biological fathers cost so much money––and that money could easily just be diverted to a woman on welfare who desperately needs it and her children. But no, the disciplinary purpose takes priority.
DD: When there is all this money that’s expended… there was a great investigation not so long ago by the radio documentary program, Reveal––
MC: Uh huh––
DD: Looking at all of these these absurdly hucksterish marriage promotion programs that are funded by government. It’s wild.
MC: Yeah. I mean, not that the people who were in favor of marriage promotion ever had any problems with the economic extravagance of the welfare state; I should be clear here. So in a sense there’s concessions being made on both sides. The social conservatives never had any problem with welfare spending, as long as it’s pedagogical and punitive.
DD: So this is all part of this massive shift that you write about that has the consolidation of intergenerational transfers of wealth via inheritance on the one hand, and then on the other side of that is both welfare reform and this huge shift to private deficit spending, via both homes and student loans––all of which were supposed to be funded by rising asset prices. For New Democrats, it was even described, I believe––I’m not sure if this was their language directly––but asset-based welfare.
MC: That’s right.
DD: Within which credit-fueled home equity, facilitated by Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan’s model of low interest rates and slim budgets, replaced redistributive social insurance. And because we’re talking about homes, of course, it was also all about families, because homes are where families live. Bill Clinton said, “you want to reinforce family values in America? Encourage two-parent households, get people to stay home, make it easy for people to own their own homes and enjoy the rewards of family life and see their work rewarded.” There’s this whole democratization of credit that you’re writing about that, of course, can never be truly democratizing or redistributed because it was premised on the debt-fueled transfer of wealth upwards in an inheritance-based system that was itself built to fuel rising inequality. How was it that an accumulation strategy that used debt to reformalize relationships of subordination and independence and that ultimately, as we all know, laid the groundwork for the 2008 financial crisis––how did that get so successfully branded as a form of market-provided socioeconomic justice in the 1990s?
MC: Well, yeah, it’s interesting, because if you look at the statistics that we now have available––so if we look at Piketty statistical data––during the 1970s, equality reaches a high point in the United States. This is the catastrophic years of stagflation, and then inequality begins to rise very steeply. And I think the role that consumer credit played during that period, particularly in the Anglo-American economies, was that it softened the blow so that the harshness of the actual reimposition of class inequality was papered over by this very elastic thing that is credit––where punishment, during a credit boom, at least, can always be deferred, even while you continue to pay interest. I think there’s all kinds of tradeoffs that happen during this era that are worth picking. It can also account for the fact that we’re now seeing this really hard turn to the far right. I lived in France in the 1990s, and there was not the same expansion of consumer credit as we’ve seen in the United States or Australia, most of the Anglo-American economies. And it’s funny what a different lived experience it was. I mean, nobody was able to deny the fact of growing class inequality in France because you just could not cover over the fact that you had to have money. You couldn’t live off your credit card at all. What happens after Volcker Shock is that that combination of high wage push inflation and disinflation of asset prices that you have in the 1970s, that was experienced as a terrible violence by capitalists. The whole intent of the Volcker Shock was to reverse that dynamic. And it did that very successfully. The Volcker Shock broke the back of wage push inflation and it broke the back of it in a durable, enduring way. The orthodoxy of central banks on monetary policy after that, around the world, becomes inflation targeting and it’s presented in this very neutral way, but the politics of it was that they did not want to relive the wage push inflation of the 1970s, when labor was increasing its share of national income and capital was seeing its share eroded. I mean, that was really what was going on. So the demon becomes inflation, and that is presented in very technocratic terms. But the real fear is wage push inflation. At the same time, you see this very deliberate benign neglect toward asset price inflation. And actually, you see this series of more or less cultivated asset price bubbles, if you can call them that––bubbles isn’t quite the right word. First in stocks and then in housing. And you could look at that and think, God, how long would that be sustainable? Wages stagnating and asset prices inflating and an extreme increase in wealth inequality. This is just not going to last. And the tradeoff was one, the expansion in consumer credit. So Greenspan spelt this out very clearly. As long as we can keep a lid on social spending and on wages, bondholders will feel calm, interest rates will remain low, but that means that there will be a lot of cheap credit. And so ultimately it’s okay for wage earners, because the fact that their wages are going nowhere will be offset by the availability of credit. What can they do with this credit? Well, they can buy into asset price inflation. So you have this promise of a broader democratic participation, in this general kind of updraft of asset prices. And in the 1990s, it was about stock options and private pension funds and pension fund capitalism, and in the 2000s it was about housing. And it was easier to put a social justice slant on that, because it’s true that minorities had been excluded from housing credit until quite late, until the 1970s and that there were parts of the 1970s social movements that were about extending credit. This tradeoff collapsed with the housing crisis, and we’re in a pickle now, because we’re in the state of so-called secular stagnation, which is dangerous for capitalism for another reason. It’s a crisis but it’s not a crisis that has been caused by a militant labor movement. It’s a crisis that has been caused by capitalism’s supreme success. And yet you need some demand. And consumer demand, strangely enough, is what has been keeping this whole thing going for a long time. There’s very little capital investment on the part of corporations. In terms of macroeconomic management, governments find themselves in a real bind because they almost have no other option at the moment than to reignite some form of asset inflation and they’re almost dying for a bit of wage crisis, which is a very interesting situation.
DD: Have any of these provisional fixes been possible without recourse to the purportedly alter-economic unit of the family?
MC: It’s interesting to me that we’re seeing people like Larry Summers, who are more or less calling for some kind of restoration of the Fordist family wage, who recognize that democratic capitalism is in trouble because it has been too successful, and when capitalism is too successful, interestingly, capitalists aren’t so interested in so-called productive or income-generating investment. They’re quite happy to sit on their renter incomes and when that tradeoff with consumer credit and rising asset prices and houses becomes unworkable, it becomes politically very dangerous. We do find ourselves in a situation very similar to the 1930s in the sense that the problem is the disinflation of wages, and that poses an economic problem for democratic capitalism because you need some demand to instigate investment. But I think, primarily for people like Larry Summers, the fear is the political threat to a kind of orderly democratic capitalism. He’s really quite visibly afraid of the Trump phenomenon. Of course, any kind of move to some kind of new accumulation regime is always going to involve the family. But it’s interesting to me that he’s not doubling down on the family responsibility solution. What he’s saying is that we need some kind of redistribution to the family again––some kind of family wage.
DD: Shifting gears, you tell part of this story through the AIDS crisis. And the Volker Shock, of course, led to this massive economic restructuring which in turn drove a sharp decline in private employer-based health insurance. And these insurance companies at the very same time were imbibing neoliberal ideas about moral hazard and starting to restrict coverage for people infected with HIV and AIDS, which was emerging as a public crisis in the 1980s. And you write that even the medical discovery of AIDS was shaped by class and race. Evidence shows that it was likely that HIV and AIDS was prevalent amongst IV drug users in the 70s, yet was only discovered much later amongst white gay men who had good enough health insurance that the particularities of their illness were recognized by medical professionals. Explain your argument about the political economy of the AIDS crisis and whether it’s fair to say that AIDS was incubated, and its spread facilitated, at the margins of the embattled Fordist family wage system.
MC: The fact that there even was an epidemic only became visible through people’s access to medically-insured health care. So retrospectively, through epidemiological records that were collected from emergency departments and all kinds of sources, it became clear that you were seeing spikes of what were later recognized as indicated diseases for AIDS. Amongst women, in particular, it became evident that these had been seen in the 1970s but because these were affecting drug users and sex workers––so people who often died of undocumented diseases and at most passed through the emergency department wards of public hospitals, none of this had added up to a diagnostic picture. And it was only when there were sufficient number of gay men with solid health insurance who came to some of the premier research hospitals that the fact that there actually was an epidemic became visible. So in a sense, the whole crisis itself was framed by patterns of access and lack of access to health insurance and quality medical care. It’s true that the virus itself affected people on the margins, on the economic margins. The position of gay men within Fordism was peculiar in that they were a real minority––I mean, there were real legal and criminal exclusions––but that doesn’t map on to class in any very easy way.
DD: Because weirdly enough, they were subjected to similar patterns of residential segregation as Black Americans.
MC: Right, yeah. There’s some very interesting work on the formation of the gay ghetto in the 1960s and 70s, and how exclusion from mortgage finance for single men and women, or for anyone who had a criminal history of being gay, meant that the gay ghettos were often contiguous to racial ghettos. I don’t think that means it was going to mediate a harmony, but it’s an interesting fact that there was this kind of proximity. So in a sense, if you look at the demographics of the early AIDS crisis, it is this margins of the fittest welfare state––I would not conflate the economic marginalization of gay men with racial marginalization, but there was certainly an overlap.
DD: The neoliberal response to the AIDS crisis is one of the most shocking parts of your book. Richard Posner and Tomas Philipson argued that the net cost of the crisis might be “relatively modest were the disease left to run its course without public intervention.” Because the people it was killing off were poor. Even more disturbingly, they argued that the modes by which HIV was transmitted–– intravenous drug use and sex––meant that there weren’t external social costs outside of private, contractual relationships. And so the price was justly being paid by people who had freely chosen to take risky action. And then, what’s more and even grosser, more horrifying, they argue that a public health intervention to stem the AIDS crisis was unwise because it would lower the cost of irresponsible behavior and thus encourage more of it. They wrote, “anything that lowers the costs of sex will increase the amount of it and an increase in the amount of sexual activity will increase the incidence of AIDS, provided that at least some of the activity is unsafe.” And so they argued, you write, that the state’s exclusive response to the AIDS crisis should be marriage promotion, including amongst gay people. Why were these supposed libertarians so keen on disciplining gay men’s costly promiscuity within the confines of legally-sanctioned monogamy? And what does this reveal about neoliberalism’s capacity to incorporate what you describe as the anti-normative city of the late Fordist liberation movements?
MC: Their recommendation for gay marriage is almost the most shocking part of that book, if you follow a kind of caricatured account of neoliberalism. They were writing at the height of the Reagan era non-response to AIDS, and they were at pains to distinguish themselves from Reagan’s ultraconservative advisors on AIDS, who were up in arms about bathhouses and wanted to quarantine people with HIV. That was not what they were on about. So Foucault was right when he said that these people are not normative and they have no kind of interest in sexual normativity. And that’s true, they have no problem with homosexuality per say. Their problem, again, was with the costs of health spending on the state. And they were afraid that if AIDS was declared a public health emergency, this would trigger massive outlays of public funding. It wasn’t so long that ago that people were talking about single-payer health insurance––perhaps it would revive those arguments. They wanted to shut that down. And so the argument against moral hazard was already available––it was the Virginia School argument against social insurance in general, and because the whole idea of social insurance is no fault, you abstract from classical liberal ideas of fault and tort and you just say, well, accidents happen. They’re a normal part of life. We need to organize and ensure and predict in some way, protect ourselves against them in in aggregate terms. A moral hazard argument that was put forward by a Virginia School economist, Mark Pauly, was that as long as you do this, when you guarantee the social insurance of risks, this means that you’re actually encouraging irresponsible behavior because there’s no cost to the individual. So in some sense you need to install reinstate fault––we need to return to a kind of tort law tradition of individual responsibility. And there’s a purist argument for that, which is, let’s get rid of insurance altogether and go back to tort and litigation. But that’s politically not possible. Really, the effect this had at the margins was to actually corrode the protections that were offered by private insurers who increasingly had recourse to ideas around moral hazard to exclude certain high-risk people from their insurance premiums. In many cases, it was gay men with AIDS. It was a similar argument to the one that Posner and Philipson were making: any reasonable person in the 1980s would be aware that if you have unprotected sex, you are at high risk of contracting HIV; therefore this is an informed decision and your responsibility is your own. You bear the tort or the fault. So what they were interested in was analyzing the sexual encounter as equivalent to any kind of contractual relation. So that much is standard. And what I think might appear surprising, or what I expect will be surprising to my reader because I’m making this specific argument about neoliberalism in the family, is that Posner and Philipson then go on to say, well, to compensate for this, we need the state to promote marriage. Essentially what they’re saying is to compensate for this, we need the state to promote family or spousal responsibility––the idea that you should look for economic security within the context of an intimate relationship, a marital relationship,or a family relationship. And they come up with this idea which is actually kind of recurrent in Chicago School neoliberalism and that is the argument that the most primitive insurance contract––really, this is not comparable to an insurance contract, but this is their argument anyway––the most primitive insurance contract is the couple or the family. So that this, logically, should take the place of social insurance. Basically, their idea is that if you contract HIV and you are fully informed, it’s your fault. If we can just encourage these people to get married and legalize their relationship, then the state will have every right to enforce that relationship as the first line of care, so that the medical costs you incur will fall on your partner, your partner will be responsible for housing you, for caring for you. It’s completely in line with Gary Becker’s idea that the family is a natural insurance mechanism. It’s completely in line with the poor law tradition, but they’re not reflexive enough to say that we are writing this from the point of view of the poor law tradition.
DD: This also leads to the question of where social conservatives and neoliberals diverge, because social conservatives, of course, their response to the AIDS crisis is not that gay people should get married.
DD: You argue that neoliberals on the one hand believe that the family was a fundamental value that would emerge from market forces, whereas social conservatives held that it was the market’s a priori and society’s a priori foundation. You write, “neoliberalism and social conservatism are thus tethered by a working relationship that is at once necessary and disavowed. As an ideology of power that only ever acknowledges its reliance on market mechanisms and their homologs, neoliberalism can only realize its objectives by proxy––that is, by outsourcing the imposition of non-contractual obligations to social conservatives.” This makes me wonder, how is it that social conservatives and neoliberals have viewed each other? Did their convergence around concrete policy ultimately overcome their initial suspicions? You write about Irving Kristol delivering a paper in 1972 at the Mont Pelerin society basically accusing neoliberals of sharing the New Left’s amoralism. Or is it fair to say that the two groupings converge on some institutional levels while remaining autonomous and divergent on others?
MC: What is interesting to me about the Posner and Philipson book, and I think what I would want to correct or qualify Foucault’s characterisation of neoliberals as antinormative, is that combined with their antinormative pity is an insistence that any kind of relationship that is going to cost the state money must be reprivatized within the family or the couple form. And so I propose the notion of this alliance of antinormativity and legitimacy. I’m not quite sure legitimacy is the right word, but I’m trying to get at this strange combination of impulses within their work. They can be completely antinormative and yet have this economic attachment to the family––the family as absolute economic imperative. Some of the responses to my book have been, well, this is a critique of the patriarchal family and of course I have a critique of the patriarchal family. But my point goes beyond that, that this reassertion and reimposition of the family as an economic institution is not necessarily about normativity. It also extends to two people who are trying to be as antinormative as they possibly can, because you just can’t escape the fact that without a thorough redistribution of incomes, and in the context of increasing inequality, we’re all being pushed back into these familial forms of dependence. So building on that uninvolved relationship, it’s really interesting how un-self-reflexive, particularly the Chicago School neoliberals, are about the internal contradictions within their work. The fact that they want to extend contractual relations to every corner of human existence and yet in the last instance, they need this space. They need the family or the couple to serve as this kind of non-contractual bedrock. And they simply commit that contradiction to paper, usually without even remarking on it. It’s simply stating it.
DD: It’s a role similar to primitive accumulation, almost.
MC: Yeah. There is one interview that Milton Friedman does with PBS, on PBS television, I think, where he talks about the bequest motive of the family as being the foundation of free market capitalism. Of course, this doesn’t make sense within a completely contractual free market order where everyone’s supposedly acting in their self-interest. Why would you be so altruistic as to want to bequeath something to your heirs? And he just says, I confess that this is completely mysterious to me, but it’s kind of like, I’m glad it exists among American neoliberals. The one exception to this is James McGill Buchanan––perhaps the Virginia Achool more generally. And to the extent that I think he is almost a hybrid of neoliberal and conservative, perhaps paleoconservative rather than neoconservative, he does recognize that there needs to be a non-contractual order to the free market system and he does locate the basis of these non-contractual, binding moral engagements in the family. He has this whole kind of parallel corpus which is all about moral philosophy and he is quite explicit about that. In some ways I think he’s closer to the German Ordoliberals, who also are conservatives and economic liberals at the same time.
DD: What about Murray Rothbard and his ilk?
MC: Yeah, yeah. The paleoconservatives and the paleolibertarians are getting there too––even wilder, because their conservatism is on the fascistic side. But anyway, we won’t even go there.
DD: A different show.
MC: Yeah. I mean, what is remarkable about the American neoliberals is that you do get these pure types in the academic space. Milton Friedman is about as free market neoliberal as you would get. He’s not normative, as Foucault would say. He’s in favor of the decriminalization of drugs, of sex work. He’s against conscription. He obviously has no problems with gay sex. But it’s very unusual that you find these pure types in the political arena. You almost always find hybrids. So even someone like Ronald Reagan, people would sometimes argue that his social conservatism is a little bit hypocritical, but I’m not sure. He wasn’t a religious conservative, but I think he was certainly paternalistic, and a law and order paternalist. As far as I can see, the most contact that these people had with each other was via political figures. Someone like Ronald Reagan was amazingly in contact with these neoliberal and social conservative scholars, and he had them around on all kinds of business and collaborating on all kinds of different policy projects. And I don’t see them collaborating with each other otherwise. I think they met each other in that context and of course, there’s Angus Burgin, and his book The Great Persuasion has this wonderful chapter on the encounter between Irving Kristol and Milton Friedman. And there wasn’t much love lost between them; in fact, Kristol was one of the earliest critics of Friedman. The alliance was certainly not ready-made in the United States in a way it might have been, say, with German Ordoliberalism.
DD: I want to turn to the final act of the AIDS story you’re telling, which is the LGBT movement’s capture by neoliberalism, if that’s the right way to phrase it. You write that neoliberals came around to gay marriage before the gay rights movement did. And initially, the leading militant AIDS action group ACT UP had recognizing equities baked into the private insurance system, thanks to the leadership of women and minority caucuses in the organization, and expanded its actions beyond private insurers’ exclusions to look at the broader issue of the need for universal single-payer healthcare. But soon thereafter, you write that the horizon was suddenly curtailed quite dramatically, and the movement shifted its focus to ensuring gay inclusion in marriage so as to access the class-exclusionary private healthcare system. And you write, “at a time of shrinking political horizons, same-sex marriage proponents looked at the surviving remnants of the family wage social insurance benefits premised on marital and familial status to argue that they too should be included in this last vestige of forced normativity. The call to recognize same-sex marriage thus becomes a demand for inclusion within a family wage system that is itself in terminal decline. What prompted this dramatic shift and what was its impact on the liberatory potential of the LGBT movement in particular and of queerness in general?
MC: There was some interesting health insurance activism within ACT UP, from the margins, which was was news to me. I guess it lost steam along with Clinton’s efforts to introduce some form of universal health insurance. I can see within the context that it would have been very difficult and very utopian at the time, in the 90s, to set your hopes any higher. It’s an incredible loss and it’s an incredible step backwards in terms of reimagining public health, which is what the ACT UP movement at its most interesting was about, and so later, when you get the same-sex marriage arguments, many of them are explicitly about ensuring the right for same-sex couples to share the workplace health insurance benefits of their partner. Which makes perfect sense. I mean, I have nothing against that. But it’s remarkable that horizons shrank so much during that period. And it was symptomatic of a defeat of the left in general. I don’t think it’s the same now, but at the time, that was symptomatic. But beyond, when you look at a lot of the legal arguments against DOMA, against the Defense of Marriage Act, they were even more aggressive than their social insurance family wage argument. They were about arguing that if you give us the right to same-sex marriage, if you legalize our relationships, we will be less of a burden on the state than we would otherwise be. So it was absolutely the Posner/ Philipson argument in favor of same-sex marriage. In terms of queerness, I guess it’s that pincer movement I’m talking about, or that kind of simultaneous opening to antinormativity, because these look like moments, and these are decades, in which, at a general social level, antinormative queer relationships become more acceptable, and at the same time they become acceptable by virtue of the fact that they’re being funneled into this family responsibility form. There’s this funny disjuncture which I think is very typical of American neoliberalism, which is antinormativity combined with family responsibility or marital responsibility. I think that in Anglo-Saxon economies more generally, the experience of the recent history of queerness is precisely that: an openness to antinormativity combined with an extreme restriction of the institutional space and extreme privatization of the space in which that can express itself.
DD: You write that others misread the state of family life under capitalism by making the case that neoliberalism has been destructive of family life, or even that revolts against normativity––familial normativity– beginning in the 60s pave the way for neoliberalism. This is an interesting argument and I’d like to unpack it a little. There are both light and heavy takes along these lines that you identify, perhaps the most explicit being from German political economist Wolfgang Streeck. Streeck argues, according to your reading, and I haven’t read this directly so I’m reading it through you, that the breakdown in the marriage contract facilitated the liberalization of markets because it destroyed the constituency for the Fordist family wage, which was the wage-earning man and dependent wife. You also argue that Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, the authors of The New Spirit of Capitalism, fall into a similar, if less brazenly anti-feminist, version of the trap by arguing that it was the countercultural left that cleared the way for neoliberalism. You argue on both accounts that the opposite is true, that in fact these new liberation movements weren’t useful idiots for neoliberalism. Explain the disagreement and and your take on it.
MC: Yes, I thought it was really important to counter this argument because it was building up a lot of steam. It was starting to become common sense and I think it’s extremely dangerous. I think it’s striking to me because it’s also a far-right argument that the problem with capitalism is liberalism––understood as cultural liberalism, understood as the dissolution of borders or boundaries, and that can be the borders of the nation, or hierarchies of gender. And obviously this is a very dangerous argument at the current moment, so I think it really needs to be contested forcefully. So the argument––it makes total sense, if you accept that the working class is the working class family and if you accept that the working class family naturally implies the dependence of women on men. And in that sense Streeck is completely right. Feminism, in as much as it contributed to a breakdown of family law and the Fordist family form, destroyed the economic security of the male breadwinner wage. That’s absolutely true. And feminism would have been a pathetic movement if it hadn’t accomplished that. But if you don’t accept that women should be dependent on the male wage, then the question does not even pose itself. I mean Boltanski and Chiapello are very clear about the move they’re making. They’re separating what they call the liberation and freedom movements from the movements for security, and then when it comes to listing what these liberation and freedom movements are, of course, it’s feminism and gay liberation and the movements for security are all about the labor movement. Of course, it’s a completely false distinction, but that allows you to say that the specific wrong of neoliberalism is the fact that it’s destabilized gender and sexual hierarchies. I think racial hierarchies are in there too. And so once you’ve identified that specific ill, your remedy is as much about restoring those hierarchies as it is about redistribution. It’s some kind of restoration of the family wage.
DD: You even argue that Nancy Fraser falls in to a similar line of argument, though without directly calling for the revival of the Fordist family wage. This reads Fraser a bit differently than I have, though I’m sure you’ve read more of her, so I’m going to let Kate Doyle Griffiths, who published a response to your critique of Fraser and social reproduction theory––I’m going to let her ask my question through me. She wrote a critique, or a response to you, on the Verso blog. First, she argues that your argument that social reproduction theory naturalizes a feminine reproductive sphere is the opposite of the social reproduction theory that that she is familiar with, and then she argues that, with regard to your critique of Marx along these lines, that you take his family analysis at its worst, which certainly exists, and neglect his call for the abolition of the bourgeois family. What’s your take on her response to your work on the social reproduction debate?
MC: So there is a lot of indecision in Marx’s work, but I do think that the passage in Volume I of Capital, where he’s talking about the working day and the Factory Acts and he’s very much in favor of Tory paternalistic moves to get women out of the factories…I think that’s very significant and telling about his stance on the male breadwinner wage, and it’s extremely uncritical. What I find interesting about that passage is that earlier in the book, he has a kind of ideal typical account. He sets up this conceptual division between production and reproduction, and I think that a lot of the feminist theorizing around social reproduction actually comes from that, rather than Volume II of Capital. That in itself to me is interesting, that Marx is working with this conceptual ideal division between production and reproduction that he takes as given in the first part of Volume I, and then in the second part of Volume I, you discover that, in fact, women at the very time he is writing are employed en masse in the factories, and that precisely what one part of the male trade union movement, including Marx, is up in arms about, and what they share with Tory paternalists, is the idea that the fact of women’s labor is undermining the reproduction of the working class family. You can see that the problem for them was the fact that women’s work was dangerously unreproductive, or anti-reproductive, and that a lot of work had to be performed to instate this division between production and reproduction that Marx offers up as if it was some kind of fait accompli in the beginning of the same book. I should be clear that I’m indebted to a lot of Marxist feminist literature, and a lot of the work that flies under the banner of social reproduction theory is extremely interesting in the details of analysis, but I think there’s something about the term and the framing of the idea of social reproduction that is limiting, because it makes it difficult to theorize these moments when the division between production and reproduction is set up, and it’s continuously being set up and reimposed, and it also makes it difficult to understand women’s labor as anything but reproductive––and that’s not at all self-evident. The moments when women’s labor is most politicized and most politically fraught is when it’s perceived as being unreproproductive or anti-reproductive, and that can be any kind of labor. It can be care work, it can be being an engineer, it can be…it seems to me that the very framing of social reproduction, the terms of analysis, are unnecessarily confining and seem to posit that something has been accomplished where we should actually be theorizing the process of accomplishment, if you like.
DD: The roots of what you describe as this left misanalysis of the relationship between the family and neoliberalism, you find those in Karl Polanyi and his famous argument about capitalism’s double movement, which is that capitalism, and I’ll quote from you here, “strives to include what was once inalienable within the ambit of exchange value.” And you argue that the double movement that Polanyi describes is in fact internal to capitalism, that “economic liberalism and political conservatism, even when the latter speaks the language of anti-capitalist critique, are equally constitutive expressions of modern capitalism.” Can you explain the distinction that you’re drawing between something that moves against capitalism, as Polanyi would have it, versus a contradiction that is imminent to it, and how that distinction elucidates your take on Marxist theories of fundamental value, about the fundamental importance that entails this reinventing of the traditions, of the institutions, of race, family, and nation?
MC: These things that people call the “inalienable” or the “non-contractual,” these are not outside of capitalism. You can’t harness them as a way of hauling yourself outside of capitalism. And when people make nostalgic gestures towards the unalienable or the non-contractual, or even the non-commodified, you need to be very skeptical. What I find really fascinating and exciting about Marx’s quandary is the fact that in various suggestive, if very abstract, ways, he provides us with the means for understanding how capitalism is both anti-foundational and foundation-forming––constantly foundation-forming. And he presents this in terms of an analysis of limits. And so in a very abstract way, he tells us that, yes, capitalism is this boundless movement to overcome the limit, the border. But at the very same time, it needs to impose it. Now that sounds extremely abstract, but what I think it helps us to think is that…take a conversation that has been very…to the fore recently, is capitalism about dissolving national borders? Is capitalism a threat to the nation state, and should we contest it on that grounds? Because once we’ve set up the question in that way, the only response is nationalism. And the only response is border protection. And so the capitalism of the right and the far-right is to say that the migrants are a symptom of capitalism; therefore we need to expel migrants. We need to reinstate the border. And that is anti-capitalism. But of course, the status of migrants as cheap labor––and they’re certainly used as cheap labor and leveraged as cheap labor, in exactly the ways that trade union movements have identified. But the fact that migrants become cheap labor has nothing to do with any natural qualities inherent in the migrant but through the very fact of the imposition of the border. So it’s as if this positing of the nation as foundational, at the same time as migration and movement across borders is permitted, is what constitutes the migrant as cheap labor. So you have this double movement of imposition of the border and facilitation of free movement. Relatively free movement, I should put it. So I think there is a same kind of dynamic with the family. There’s one argument, and it’s certainly true in specific historical moments, that, say, industrialists have wanted women in the factories because women are cheap. But why were young women such cheap labor? It was because there was a general social consensus that, in fact, they should be in the home and that they had no right to be in the trade union movement. So in fact capitalism is constituted both by the kind of deterritorialization of women from the home––the departure of women from the home––and this general social consensus, insistence, that they should be in the home. There’s a movement to unmake foundations and to reassert them at the same time. And I think what’s so difficult about left critique, like a true left critique is very uncomfortable because you have to be anti-liberal and anti-conservative at the same time, and I think it’s very dangerous at a moment like this to be mimicking the conservative critique of capitalism. So to get all nostalgic about the family or the nation. I would have said a different thing in the 90s, you know when I say, I have a critique of Nancy Fraser and Boltanski and Chiapello implying that queerness is somehow expressive of capitalism. I don’t mean that there isn’t a neoliberal queer movement and a neoliberal queerness, and that that wasn’t dominant in the 1990s––of course it was. It’s just that I don’t think queerness in itself is symptomatic of capitalism any more than I think Jews are symptomatic of capitalism. In the 90s I would have thought that a lot of academic queer theory was dangerously uncritical of liberalism. I think there’s almost a kind of pendulum movement, dare I say, a double movement between the left either cozying up to liberalism or cozying up to conservatism, whereas a left critique needs to be a double critique, if capitalism’s tendencies are kind of a double tendency, this simultaneous liberalism and conservatism.
DD: I want to ask about the familial political-economic politics underlying Trump’s victory and governance. There’s a lot to work with here: we have the miner and factory worker as symbolic of the lost Fordist family wage. We have this instrumental incorporation of religious conservatives who were eager to put women back in their place and ensure religion’s place as an institutional force backed by the state. And then there’s this more basic familiarity of Trump’s nationalism, with him as this belligerently protective patriarch. Where does Trump fit into your history?
MC: It’s true that his appeals to Fordist familialism turn out to be purely symbolic, which is not so surprising. I think that he does exemplify this alliance between neoliberalism and conservatism that I identify in my book, but not the specific currents. He’s kind of invigorated…with what we were just talking about, this very extreme and hitherto-marginal strand of American neoliberalism, which even people like Friedman consider loonies, and that is the American-Austrian neoliberals––so the Americans who were inspired by von Mises. So Murray Rothbard, who in turn is like a, he’s not at all a neoconservative, he’s a paleoconservative. He’s going back to that pre-civil rights, anti-civil rights, deeply anti-Semitic, white supremacist genre of conservatism that the neoconservatives, as secular Jews, thought was anathema. I think there’s that particular current that perhaps hasn’t been analyzed enough yet and that has all kinds of connections to the old right. But there’s also the fact that Trump just revived a very basic kind of supply-side economics. In those terms, he’s true to form, he’s just accelerated a tendency for extremely regressive tax cuts that you saw under Bush and Reagan. And in terms of familial politics, there is the religious influence too, and he’s obviously kept the evangelicals on board. I don’t think that they’ve triumphed in the way that they have wanted to. And I think perhaps the lasting influence of Trump in terms of gender and sexual politics will be to have enabled the old right to sow a far-right inflection to conservatism, if you can even call it conservatism at this point, because it has a kind of libertarian edge as well.
DD: My last question is: your book consistently notes the convergence of people who believe that market discipline binds the family and those who believe that state support does, but your normative argument gets a little buried, maybe. So I wonder, what’s your normative ideal of the family or must it be abolished? And if the family need be abolished, must kinship relations as we know them be abolished as well? And whatever the case may be, what’s your vision of a left politics that in practice does what your analysis does, which is obviate the distinctions of superstructure versus structure and identity versus economic location? And as a result, attempts to transform the totality.
MC: I don’t have a normative politics of the family. I don’t want to abolish it or anything. I don’t care enough. But I guess my grievance is that there’s this extreme economic weight on the family, which means that those who want to or have to escape it can’t anymore. And so I do need to write something, I feel, because a lot of the questions about this book have pointed to my position on welfare. I feel that there are questions about welfare and what revolution means. I feel that there is a question of what revolution means that needs to be rethought, post-fiscal state, and that hasn’t quite been rethought post-fiscal state. It seems to me that our intuitive understandings of revolution are pre-fiscal state, so pre the massive redistribution of incomes and wealth. And I don’t think you can get around that. So I do have a lot more interest in welfare and fiscal policy as sites of radical left politics than others do. But I need to clarify that, I think, because I do think generous and explicitly redistributive public spending is necessary to lift this weight off the family.
DD: Melinda Cooper, thank you very much.
MC: Thank you.