Social Democracy and Family Values

By McKnight, David | Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics, April 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Social Democracy and Family Values


McKnight, David, Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics


Why worry about the family? To many in social democracy and the left, issues surrounding the family are of secondary importance to those of the economy and equality. Moreover, public debate around the family is part of the discourse of social conservatism and the Right. In the United States and Australia 'family values' is seen as part of a conservative 'culture war' against the values of the labour movement and as a code for attacks on feminism, on single mothers, on gay men and women.

I want to argue that a renewal of progressive politics depends in part on a rethinking of the role of family, particularly in relation to the workplace and working time but also in relation to the growing commodification of family life. There are two strategic reasons for this. The first is that today it makes less and less sense to act as if the world of paid work and production is a separate sphere to that of the family and community. The former is encroaching on the latter in ways that undermine the historic assumption of many on the left: that a movement based on the workplace and economic exploitation is an adequate foundation for a political movement. Second, within advanced industrial countries, some of the most destructive effects of globalizing capitalism are felt in the sphere of social life including the family. Traditionally social democrats and the left assumed these were largely if not wholly confined to the economic sphere. On this basis they criticized the market for generating material inequality. The political significance of these social effects is that they provide a powerful new basis for mobilizing popular support in order to restrain and civilize capitalism.

Globalisation, the free market and the family

If any one thinker can be said to be the intellectual architect of neo-liberalism it is Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian economist whose vast intellectual output and theoretical system helped give the neo-liberal movement its resilience and depth. Awarded the Nobel prize in 1974, Hayek inspired many economists and politicians. Among the latter was Margaret Thatcher who told the House of Commons in 1981 , 'I am a great admirer of Professor Hayek. Some of his books are absolutely supreme - The Constitution of Liberty and the three volumes of Law, Legislation and Liberty - and would well be read by almost every honourable member' (Tomlinson, 1990, x-xi).

But Hayek was much more than an economic thinker. His elaborate system of ideas gave a central role to cultural and social evolution and to notions of human nature. Hayek argued that modern societies have evolved to such a degree of individual variation that there are almost no common or shared values (i.e. ends) - material acquisition was the only exception. This variation among humans makes the market all the more necessary. He argued that the value on which markets are based - liberty -is not 'given' in the nature of human beings, like, say, the value of survival or of material comfort. Rather, it is acquired and developed in the cultural evolution of the 'institutions of liberty'. Liberty, and the discipline that it requires, is something we must learn. Liberty as a value, then, has been 'selected' by cultural evolution. Free markets are therefore justified in a moral-historical sense because they represent the product of social-cultural evolution which, like biological evolution, had selected the characteristics best adapted to the environment. Societies employing the most successful cultural institutions (such as the market) prospered and their population grew. (Population growth was one of his key measures of success.) His views on morality gave central and over-riding importance to the rules of the market - that is, good conduct and fair dealing by all people towards anonymous others who are rarely met face to face. Good conduct concerned rules about 'several [i.e. private] property, honesty, contract, exchange, trade, competition, gain and privacy' (Hayek, 1998, 12). …

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