Family, Capital and the Left Now

Julie Torrant



"Family," as the moving frontier of social relations, has always had a significant place on the left.  Unlike transformative theories of family (that sought to change the family by changing its material conditions), however, contemporary left theories of family are theories of adjustment.  They, in other words, unlike, for example, Engels, accept that capitalism is here to stay and then attempt to find ways to reform the family not by its "outside" but within family relations.  The "end of family" theories are, in a sense, then not theories of the "end" but of modifications, reforms and adjustment to make its relations less tensionful.  Thus, my paper does not limit itself to the discussion of the dominant, pragmatic theories, but goes beyond these theories by putting them into contestation with Marxism and its theory of the family.  Engaging this contestation must be a priority in the struggle for social and economic justice because "the family" is a key site wherein worker-citizens come face to face with the contradictions of the social under capitalism in the form of struggles over healthcare, childcare, education. . ., and thus theorizing family either works to explain "away" the contradictions through "false solutions" or it enables positive knowledge of the material conditions that produce these contradictions as a necessary step in intervening in their (re)production and building a society based on economic equality.

Bourgeois theories of the family conceal class contradictions by presenting the family as based on "affinity" (whether such affinity is theorized as "desire," "taste," "love," etc.).  Affinity substitutes subjective relations for objective ones, and posits the family as a realm of "liberation" and "free choice."  In doing so, affinity-based theories obscure the fact that the family in capitalism is an economic unit of reproduction (of labor power) based on the social relations of production.  That is, the family is a subset of relations, which is held together by economic necessity—by the necessity to meet needs under the exploitative relations of wage-labor, which increasingly renders the vast majority of the people unable to meet their basic needs.  The family, in other words, is not the effect of individual choice; it is the effect of unequal production relations, which leave workers to shoulder the economic burden for meeting their needs apart from the social collective.

Theories that posit the contemporary family as a "post-economic" (post-class, post need) space are what I call "post-materialist" theories.  These are theories that (unlike the classical poststructuralist and postmodernist theories which explicitly focus on "desire") formally "acknowledge" the question of "need," but, in the tradition of a Feuerbachian, mechanical materialism, obscure the praxis of labor underlying the production of "needs," and thus de-historicize social "need," rendering it a matter of individual desire.

Exemplary of the post-materialist theories of the family is Michele Barrett and Mary McIntosh’s The Anti-Social Family.  Like all post-materialists, Barrett and McIntosh take as their starting point (what they understand to be) the problem with Marxism.  Specifically, they claim that Marxist theory of the family is insufficient because it cannot explain the "popularity" of the family, particularly among the working class.  The family, they contend, is "popular" because it meets "real needs," such as those for "affection, intimacy, sexual love, parenthood, and so on" (133).  On the one hand, this issue points to the highly contradictory nature of Barrett and McIntosh’s text, since elsewhere they "answer" their own question in a significantly different way by arguing that people turn to the family to meet such needs because that is the only space available within capitalism to attempt to meet these needs.  If, as Barrett and McIntosh claim, taking up the family is a response to "real" needs, then how is it at the same time that the family is considered "popular" among the working-class (which implies not a relation of need but a matter of "choice")?  However, there is much more underlying this argument than its immanent contradictions.  At stake here, for one, is a common claim about Marxism being too "abstract" (that is, that its emphasis on the mode of production, and the family as shaped by property relations, does not allow it to explain the more specific, or "concrete" aspects of the social and its particular effects for specific persons).  For Barrett and McIntosh, Marxism is too "abstract" because it does not account for the "concrete reality" of the family, which, for them, is the individual's experience of the family and "real" (by which they mean affective) "needs."  Thus, this provides an instance in which to unpack this general claim about "concrete material reality" and in particular its relevance for theorizing "family."

At stake here is the contestation between Barrett and McIntosh’s exemplary empiricist theory of the concrete (i.e. exemplary of post-materialism) and Marxism’s dialectical approach to "the concrete."  Barrett and McIntosh, in framing the question as a matter of "real needs" imply that Marxism simply dismisses such (affective) needs as "unreal" or "imaginary."  Marxism, however, does not "dismiss" the concrete.  Rather, it argues that "the concrete" (such as a family) is not simply an empirical "fact" which, in itself, provides the basis for understanding the world, but rather that the concrete (appearances) are that which need to be explained.  In other words, historical materialism insists on a rigorous historicization of the existing relations which are manifest in the concrete as "a rich totality of determinations and relations" in order to understand the historical production of "the concrete" (Grundrisse 100).  This project of historicizing the concrete as it appears is a crucial aspect of Marxism’s interventionist project and contribution to changing the material conditions of inequality.  In contrast, for post-materialists such as Barrett and McIntosh, "the concrete" or empirical "reality"—as it "appears" at a single moment—provides an alibi for the existing conditions of inequality and dire economic need.

Take, for instance, Barrett and McIntosh’s defense of "the family" on the basis that it meets "real needs" such as those for intimacy and sexual love.  In defending what they themselves call "the anti-social family" in/of capitalism on the basis that it meets "real needs" such as those for intimacy and sexual love, Barrett and McIntosh are assuming a subject whose basic needs (for food, clothing, shelter) are already met.  This assumption (and not that they "take seriously" issues such as sexuality and intimacy) constitutes a break from rather than (as they claim) an extension of a historical theory of "need."

Marx and Engels theorize "need" as historical in texts such as The German Ideology.  In the opening section of this text Marx and Engels theorize "the first historical act," "a fundamental condition of all history," as having three aspects or "moments"—the production of the means to meet basic needs, the production of new needs, and reproduction (procreation) (42-43).  In their discussion of "real needs," in contrast, Barrett and McIntosh posit as pre-historical all three aspects of what Marx and Engels call "the first historical act," which marks the philosophical "idealism" of Barrett and McIntosh’s theory.  In other words, they ignore the (transhistorical) necessity of production for meeting basic needs.  In doing so, they also ignore the way that the development of specific historical relations of production provide (or do not provide) the conditions for meeting people’s basic needs.  Moreover, they sever the production of "new needs" (which they take as a transhistorical "reality" instead of a historical and historically conditioned "act" or "event") from the material (re)production of human (social) life through productive and reproductive labor. 

To be more specific, Barrett and McIntosh (who claim to be representing the interests of workers) take as their starting point the position of those wage-workers who have (for the moment) been able to meet their basic needs within capitalism—that is, workers as (relatively privileged) consumers.  However, within capitalism, not all members of the proletariat are able to sell their labor(-power) on the market, and not all those who do are able to meet even their (family’s) basic needs with the wages they receive much less the historically produced needs such as those for "intimacy." The "real," in other words, from this view is the consumer subject abstracted from the social relations of production, which, in capitalism, are private property or "class" relations.  Thus, in the name of a more "concrete" and "materialist" theory of the (real) family, Barrett and McIntosh articulate an ahistorical and idealist, ruling class theory of the family (for people whose needs are already met) which is generalized to ALL. 

In contrast, for Marxism, "concrete reality" is itself the product of underlying social relations of production that must be explained, in order to change them and bring about social justice and economic equality (freedom from necessity for all).   Marxism, therefore, takes as its "root understanding" not the effects of these relations but the underlying relations themselves.  The historical starting point of Marxist critique for explaining the "concrete" of the family (including its critique of the "anti-social family") is, therefore, an examination of the social relations of production and their structural contradictions—contradictions that are evidenced by their inability to meet the needs of the majority, despite the enormous gains in the productivity of labor that have been enabled under capitalism.

On the issue of "intimacy," for instance, Marxism provides a historical analysis of this "new need."  "Intimacy," at least in its current, "bourgeois" form, is a product of the contradictions of capitalism in its "advanced" stage.  The privatized family based on the monogamous couple, Marxism argues, developed on the basis of private property relations.  That is, the purpose of the "monogamous" family is to produce legitimate heirs for the transmission of property.  The idea of marriage (and family) as a site of "intimacy" or "love" is, on the other hand, quite a new development in social history.  The possibility of such a family form arises as kinship relations are separated from production relations.  Lindsey German, for instance, writes that "[t]he main difference between the capitalist and pre-capitalist family lies not in their size and composition but whether they were units of production" (17).  A family that is not a structure of production opens the possibility of forming family relations that are not defined or restricted by economic necessity, and this is a moment of significant historical progress.  However, the realization of this historical possibility is blocked and distorted in capitalism because, as Engels argues, this process of "separation" of the family from production has (thus far) taken place alongside and as an effect of the development of social relations of production that are private property relations.  Thus, as the family emerges as a distinct site of the social, what is produced is not "free" family relations, but "a society in which the system of the family is completely dominated by the system of property" (36).  To be clear, what Marxism argues is that it is for the "proletariat," who have no private property to pass on, that marriages have the potential to become marriages of "love" and "intimacy."  However, this possibility is blocked and distorted on two levels—the objective and the subjective levels  (these levels are of course not separate in the working out of these issues for daily life, but for the purposes of analysis can be distinguished).

First, there is the issue of the directly "material" conditions of the proletariat.  That is, the working-class family is a site of reproductive labor whose material basis of survival and reproduction is the wage.  In other words, for many people (particularly infants and children, but also many adults), the family provides them access to (part of) a wage, and thus is essential to their survival.  The wage, however, is only that portion of the total labor of the worker(s) that is paid to the workers as means of subsistence, while the portion of surplus-labor represents the labor that is "extracted" from the worker under the exploitative relations of wage-labor and capital.  In other words, the worker is made to work for the profit of capital and this necessarily limits the material resources that the worker is able to contribute to her/his family (in terms of time and energy as well as material goods).  Thus, the kind of "intimacy" one has is a class issue:  it depends on the work one does, how tired one is, what hours one keeps, if one is employed or not, etc. 

There is also, however, a "subjective," or ideological, side to this de-limitation (or, one might say "distortion") of "intimacy" within capitalism’s private property relations.  That is, "family life" and "marriage" is posited, by bourgeois ideology, as the realm of personal fulfillment and "romance" and thus as a compensation for the (effects of) alienated labor under capitalism.  The "privacy," however, of this bourgeois model of emotional relations between couples (wherein couples are isolated from the social collective and expected to meet all their partner’s emotional and psychic needs) sets up expectations about marriage that cannot be fulfilled.  As Alexandra Kollontai argued in the beginning of this century, capitalist relations of production work to produce "intimacy" as a form of "possessive individualism" where the ideal is "absolute possession of the contracted partner’s emotional as well as physical ‘I’" (242).  In its most extreme form in the family, this possessive individualism manifests in domestic violence.  The United Nations, for instance, has reported that in "both developed and developing countries over half of all murders occur in the family."  In addition, the UN cites recent studies that examine the prevalence of the "dominator model of family life," indicating that "[s]ome estimates suggest that almost all Western families (97 percent) contain some elements of this model of family life" (172).  The family and "emotional needs" such as "intimacy," in short, are not in a post-class space free from the contradictions of the social relations of production under capitalism, but rather are sites in which "the nature of the oppositions and contradictions fully active in that society can be studied" (Engels 96).

Historical materialism, in other words, provides a critique of the political economy of what I am calling "surplus need"—that is, the needs of the majority that are excluded by the existing social relations of production—by explaining that these "unmet needs" are rooted in the private property relations of capitalism.  The family in capitalism is not outside of the relations of exploitation, but is an articulation of them.  That is, both traditional and non-traditional families in capitalism are fundamentally divided between families of the bourgeoisie and families of the proletariat.  For the bourgeois family, the means of subsistence is a portion of the profit that is extracted from workers.  In contrast, workers’ means of subsistence is the value they produce MINUS the value that is produced for profit; that is, they receive "necessary labor" (in the form of wages) whereas the ruling class family receives all of the surplus labor.  Moreover, the laws of motion of capital —including the structural tendency towards increase in the organic composition of capital through technical developments designed to increase productivity—determine that the portion of the total value that is produced by workers that comes back to them as means of subsistence decreases through the development of capitalism.  Such an increase in rate of exploitation constitutes a decrease in the proportion of wages/necessary labor to profit/surplus labor and thus marks an increase in the contradiction between what is possible given the development of social production and what is under existing social relations of private property.  With the decline in the proportion of wealth that is available to the proletariat to meet their basic and historical "new" needs, there is increasing inequity and the production of "surplus need" in the form of absolute and relative poverty.  What is crucial in this conceptualization is that it provides the basis for solidarity within a diverse, global working class as against the highly concentrated ruling class of transnational capital. 

In contrast to the materialist theory of "need," Barrett and McIntosh perform ideological work for capital by positing all subjects as bourgeois subjects of "desire" and thus erasing the class contradiction inherent in the family under capitalism.  However, in order to be ideologically effective—since the effects of the historical class contradiction cannot be simply wished away—they must also displace the actual (class) contradiction onto one or another secondary contradiction.  They do so by arguing that it is not capitalism (and its social relations) that are contradictory, but rather that people’s ideas about the family "unity" contradict the actual diversity of the family.  They write:

We need to ask, however, whether such contradictions are generated within the dynamic of capitalist production relations or whether they are a consequence of perceiving the family as a unified category.  Put another way, if ‘the family’ is an ideologically constructed unity imposed on heterogeneous arrangements, it is not surprising that we find contradictions in the action of capitalism on such arrangements. (91) 

In short, they argue that to resolve the inequalities in the family, what is required is diversifying our ideas of the family.  From this (discursive) frame the "cause" of the "problem" (of unmet needs) is "wrong," exclusionary, (or outdated) ideas or attitudes about the family, rather than, as Marxism argues, capitalism’s social relations of exploitation and the subsequent prioritizing of profit over need. In other words, "cause" and "effect" are reversed in Barrett and McIntosh’s theory.  That is, according to Barrett and McIntosh, exclusionary ideas about "family" and not the material relations of exploitation, explain why some workers’ basic needs are not met.  However, such exclusionary ideas are an effect of the social relations of exploitation and the economic injustice these relations produce, and while these ideas work to legitimate and therefore maintain the unjust system, they are not the cause of injustice.  In short, this theory reduces the family to a sign unit.  In the name of putting forward a "more concrete" and "materialist" theory Barrett and McIntosh actually put forward an idealist mode of "symbolic change" completely divorced from material conditions of necessity brought on by capitalism and its regime of profit—that is, divorced from the economic necessity from which workers cannot be freed without transforming the relations of production and socializing reproductive as well as productive labor so that the aim of production is meeting needs not accumulating profit. 


In the nearly two decades since Barrett and McIntosh published The Anti-Social Family, there has been significant movement not only demographically towards "non-traditional families" but also towards the social acceptance of family diversity as marked by cultural texts such as the film Erin Brockovich and the television show Once and Again.  In the same time frame, however, inequities in wealth and standard of living world wide have rapidly increased.  Nevertheless, the dominant theories of the left—the "new" post-materialist theories of the "postmodern" family—do not provide an explanation of the connection(s) between these cultural changes and the material conditions of the family. 

Take, for example, Judith Stacey, who is the most cited and anthologized of  "post" family theorists, on what she calls the "postmodern family revolution."  According to Stacey the family has undergone a basic transformation from the "modern" to the "postmodern" family.  For Stacey, the "modern" family is "an intact nuclear unit inhabited by a male breadwinner, his full-time homemaker wife, and their dependent children" (7).  By contrast, she argues that the "postmodern family" marks the end of the modern "gender order" and opens the prospect for "greater democracy, equality and choice than ever before [in] our most intimate relationships" (9).  In short, the "family" has undergone a "fundamental break" from old inequalities and is no longer held together by "compulsion" (e.g. survival to meet needs) but is now held together by "choice" and "freedom."

Here, we see that Stacey puts "gender" at the core of her theory of the modern family.  However, not only does she put "gender" at the center, she also posits "gender" relations as autonomous from "class" (relations of production) since she sees ALL modern families as the same (rather than, as I discussed earlier) divided by "class."  This conceptualization of gender as primary and autonomous underpins her claim that with the end of the modern family structure, we are seeing the end of the "gender order."  This argument severs the relation between the gendered division of labor (which has been reproduced in the wage-workplace) and gender relations within the family. 

"Gender," however, changes with the changes in the division of labor.  What Stacey calls the "postmodern family revolution" is in actuality, an articulation of the shifts in labor relations (such as the increased labor market participation by middle-class women), which have produced a new "flexibility" in the superstructural relations.  Her argument to privilege the postmodern family as the "vanguard" presents capitalism is the space of plurality, freedom and democracy and, in doing so, it conceals its fundamental class contradictions. 

Crucial to the changes in the family has been the movement of women into the wage-work force.  While Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, another "post-family" theorist, theorizes this move among women as a matter of "individualization" wherein now women, like men, live on the basis of "the logic of individual design" rather than that of the "obligation of solidarity" (59), Marxism theorizes this movement as a matter of proletarianization—especially the proletarianization of relatively privileged women of the middle-class fraction who had been contributing to the household only their domestic labor.  Thus, in this view (as opposed to that of Beck-Gernsheim), these women are not "released" from the family as "free" subjects of "desire" or "choice," but rather are now directly articulated into the relations of wage-labor/capital and its working day wherein workers are compelled to perform "surplus labor" for the sake of profit.  Moreover, while for a small segment of women, expanded "opportunities" for women in the public sphere means "release" from the family (i.e., from domestic labor), for the vast majority of women, the lack of "family wage" means a double-shift (they still must perform domestic labor, but now after a full day of wage-work).

What this points to is that the economic conditions that have not merely "enabled" women to join, but rather have compelled (more and more) women into the labor market also determine that the "postmodern family" cannot meet the basic and historically produced (or "new") needs of workers.

What is at issue, then, between such "post" theories of the family and the historical materialist theory of the family, is the question is what kind of freedom exists, for whom, and why?  Stacey’s advocacy of the "postmodern family" is an argument for tolerance and acceptance of "different" (by which she means various post-nuclear) family forms.  In other words, she advocates acceptance of "the postmodern family condition" as an extension of political freedom, though she does not, in fact, specify the kind of freedom she is advocating by advocating "the postmodern family."  What this leaves out is that such political freedom as the existing social relations make possible structurally exclude the economic freedom (freedom from necessity) which, as I have argued, provides the material conditions for realizing the potential of such political freedom.  

Stacey’s argument regarding the recent emergence of "gay and lesbian families" is particularly useful for demonstrating the limits of the "freedom" Stacey advocates.  In her recent work, Stacey argues that gay and lesbian families—as opposed to working–class and African-American families—represent the "vanguard" and "paradigmatic illustration of" the "postmodern family revolution" because they are "[f]ree" of the restrictions [as well as the benefits] that prescribed forms of kinship confer" and thus "creatively devise forms of their own" (15).  In other words, Stacey is arguing that gay and lesbian families are "free" to make their families what they like because they are "free" from social norms.  What is occluded in Stacey’s argument is how economic necessity, resulting from class relations and the exploitation of labor, structures "access" to "democracy."  Her argument for the "democratic possibilities" of the postmodern family and the "vanguard" position of (what turns out to be only some) gay and lesbian families, is itself haunted by these structuring "effects" of class relations.  For instance, she notes that "Partly because fertility and adoption services are expensive and often difficult to attain, intentional gay parents are disproportionately better educated and more mature than other parents" and that gay and lesbian parents who, in contrast, came out after marriage and having children within that marriage "continue to comprise the vast majority of contemporary gay families and [they also] manifest greater income and ethnic diversity than other categories of gay parents" (110).  What Stacey's discussion is haunted by is the fact that access to "other" sexualities and family forms is dependent on the structure of people’s insertion into capitalism: on their position within the social relations of production and division of labor.  To put this another way, "freedom" in sexual, emotional, and familial relations for all is not based on an (imaginary) independence from class relations (whether one owns the means of production or whether one's labor is exploited) but requires material conditions of economic equality for all to be in place.  Yet by celebrating the "postmodern family" as a potential site of increased liberation, freedom, and choice for all, Stacey conceals the fundamental conditions of inequality in private property relations behind the family that prevent the majority from access to the resources necessary for "freedom" and that subordinate their relations to financial considerations.

From a materialist view, the emergence of "gay and lesbian families," as well as the gains in political freedom for women within the family mark the way in which, through its imperialist expansion, capitalism works to "swe[ep] away" "[a]ll fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions" (The Communist 58).  Changes in production relations, such as drawing more and more women into the wage-labor force, work to undermine "traditional" forms of sexism and heterosexism, in other words.  From the materialist view, such extensions of political freedom and equality are important not only because they significantly alter the material conditions of many people’s everyday lives, but also because they work to provide a "clear field on which the fight [between the classes] can be fought out" (Engels 105).    This is, however, a dangerous situation for the bourgeoisie, since the private property relations it benefits from block the realization of the political freedoms that "democracy" offers, hence the emergence of "new" forms of bourgeois ideology.

The fundamental consequence of Stacey’s theorization of the postmodern family condition is, in short, to ideologically "muddy" the "clear field" of class antagonism that is emerging (if unevenly) under the conditions of late-modernity.  One of the ways that Stacey obscures the class contradiction at the root of the "flexible" (post)modern family is to posit the postmodern family as capable of resolving the contradictions of capitalism.  She writes, for instance, that "postindustrial conditions have compelled and encouraged us to craft a wide array of family arrangements which we inhabit uneasily and reconstitute frequently as our occupational and personal circumstances shift" (7).  The implication here is that if families are "flexible" enough, they can meet their members’ needs.  Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim makes the same basic argument in her essay, "On the Way to a Post-Familial Family:  From a Community of Need to Elective Affinities."  Beck-Gernsheim argues, for instance, that the reduction of "economic constraints" (which in the past, according to Beck-Gernsheim, led to forced participation of women in the family) leads to greater "scope for individual action and mobility" (Mayer and Miller quoted in Beck-Gernsheim 58).

These theories, like Barrett and McIntosh’s, perform ideological work for capital by representing increased exploitation of the family as a matter of "flexibility" and thus naturalizing the instabilities of the world economy and the disruptions that this instability causes in contemporary families.  The notion of family as a site of "elective affinities" is particularly helpful to capital because it reflects capital’s contradictory relation to the working class family.  That is, the bourgeoisie, as a class, needs the privatized working-class family of capitalism because it depends on the reproductive labor of the proletariat in order to keep the cost of wage-labor down.  However, capitalists also, increasingly, need workers who aren’t constrained  (in terms of their mobility and availability for wage labor) by the family or any other commitment.  Thus, the notion of bonds of "affinity" which are still bonds, but bonds that are not necessarily permanent and which are relatively easy to break and/or reconfigure works to "manage" this contradiction.  In the frame of the "post-family" theories, the "flexibility" of the postmodern family (as a site not of production but of distribution) is posited, like the more rapid circulation of commodities enabled by computer technologies, as a solution to the crises of capitalism.  However, these crises originate in the production practices of capitalism.  Thus, while increased "flexibility" within the family (i.e., increased exploitation of the family/its members) can, in the short run, stave off and/or mitigate the crises of capitalism, in doing so, the underlying contradiction (and their effects) are not only not resolved, but heightened.


One of the questions this critique of "post-family" theories raises is how it is that such a theory of the family can appear to be "radical," or even "progressive," particularly given that the development of the "postmodern family" coincides with deepening inequities.  Central to this appearance is a post-materialist theory of the "redistribution" of wealth founded on a Weberian theory of class. 

Weber pluralizes "class" by theorizing "the economic" exclusively in terms of the market.  For Weber, the economic is a "mode of distribution" and class is an effect of that distribution (181).  What Weber does is equate "capital’ (or "that kind of property which exploits wage-labor") with "personal property" and thus with the wages of workers which are means of subsistence NOT means of producing more property (The Communist 68).  From this perspective, "education," or "skills," in particular, are posited as forms of "property" and "class" becomes essentially a series of individual attributes rather than a (necessary and conflictual) relation.  In other words, Weber’s gradational/plural model of classes obscures the class antagonism embedded in the wage-labor/capital relation of "exploitation."

By positing "class" founded on "distribution," Weberian theories ideologically explain away the class contradiction at the site of production.  That is, these theories imply that the redistribution of the goods that are currently being produced within capitalist relations can resolve the inequities and dire needs which are also produced within capitalism.  In arguing for "redistribution" at the same time they erase the basic class contradiction, these theories can appear to be quite "progressive."  What this leaves out, however, is the way that production for profit structurally blocks production for need.  Marx theorizes this structural limitation when he argues that what distinguishes capitalism from previous modes of production is that the primary, driving aim of production becomes the production of "exchange value" (or "value") rather than use-value.  Marx writes:  "The division of a product into a useful thing and a value becomes practically important, only when exchange has acquired such an extension that useful articles are produced for the purposes of being exchanges, and their characters as values has therefore to be taken into account, beforehand, during production" (Capital 84).  In other words, the profit motive embedded in the priority of production of "exchange-value" rather than "use-value" determines not only the distribution of goods and services, but also what is actually produced (and what is not produced).  If a production of a particular commodity does not provide sufficient "profit," it is simply not produced.  Thus, while millions of people around the world are starving, luxury hotels and mansions for the rich are built. 

To be clear, the issue here is not, from a historical, materialist perspective, simply the inequities in people’s material circumstances "in themselves."  Rather, these inequities in terms of access to goods and services are symptoms of the exploitative relations of production. Distribution is not the fundamental problem.  Rather, the production relations are the fundamental problem.  This is because "private property" (as historical materialism explains) is not possessions or "things" which people purchase (out of either wages or a portion of the profit), but rather a relation.  That is, since the bourgeoisie holds monopoly ownership of the means of production and workers must work for one or another owner in order to survive, the bourgeoisie has command over the labor-power of the workers and over the ends toward which that labor is put.  Thus, capital, which is fundamentally a structure of labor relations (and all its effects), cannot be altered without abolishing private ownership of the means of production.

Moreover, while transformation of the social relations of production is rendered unnecessary by the Weberian theory of "class," and the way in which it severs "distribution" (i.e., consumption) from production, such transformation is also rendered impossible by the Weberian theory of class, because it works to displace the class contradiction of "exploitation" onto the intra-class differences, or "status" differences.  Again, this displacement of the "cause" of inequities is enabled by the Weberian theory of class because this construction of "class" denies the difference between "private property" in means of production (land, factories, labs, etc.) and "wealth" in the form of possessions (clothes, house, family car).  This blurring of the distinction between "property" and "possession" works to posit all people (capitalists and workers) as workers and implies that "the problem" of unmet material needs of the unemployed and poor workers is "caused" by the "overconsumption" of some, relatively privileged workers. 

Exemplary of such a Weberian theory, which posits consumption, or "lifestyle" differences (intra-class differences) as the "cause" of poverty and want, is Anthony Giddens’ theory of class.  In The Class Structure of the Advanced Societies Giddens writes:

I shall define "exploitation" as any socially conditioned form of asymmetrical production of life-chances.  "Life-chances" here may be taken to mean the chances an individual has of sharing in the socially created economic or cultural "goods" which typically exist in a given society.  Now in these terms it is clear that every society, with the possible exception of the most primitive band societies, embodies exploitative relationships.  (130-31).

What is at stake in such a rejection of "emancipation" is rendering "emancipation" (as the end of exploitation) impossible.  In addition, Giddens provides lifestyle/consumer "difference" as an alibi for maintaining the existing, exploitative relations.  In other words, unless one rejects the possibility of "different" (social) needs—and, as I have argued, under the current social relations the uneven production of needs is necessary—then one must, in this frame, accept not only that the end of "exploitation" is not necessary or possible, but also that such an end is "oppressive" of cultural/consumer "difference."  For instance, a computer programmer in California who buys a car in order to get to work is, in this frame, "exploiting" migrant farm workers from Mexico who cannot buy a car.  What is left out of this theory is the way in which the labor-power of both of these workers (though in quite different circumstances) is exploited for the production of profit. 

In other words, this Weberian theory of class is very useful for capitalists because it implies that relatively privileged, or "skilled" workers are "exploiters" of unskilled workers and, since workers, by definition, only receive the value equivalent to that which is necessary to reproduce their labor-power, this means that any "redistribution" of their wages (and/or any increases in the intensity of their labor) means a reduction of their ability to meet their (family’s) basic and historically produced needs.  Thus, this theory of class posits high-status "labor" (skilled workers) within the international division of labor as the obstacle to meeting the needs of the global proletariat because it constructs these workers as the beneficiaries of exploitation of "other" workers. 

In actuality, however, it is capital that benefits from the exploitation of all workers.  Thus, the Weberian theory of class, in effect, works to ideologically "incorporate" workers in the "North" who are "taught" that they benefit from the private property relations of capitalism.  It is this sort of reformist "logic" that Marx critiqued as "vulgar socialism" in Critique of the Gotha Program when he argued that the redistributionist program is aligned with bourgeois ideologists who work to convince workers that "socialism cannot abolish poverty, which has a basis in nature, but can only make it general, distribute it simultaneously over the whole surface of the globe!" (Tucker 535).

In contrast to such reformist, Weberian theories, historical materialism theorizes all differences within the classes as "secondary" contradictions, or effects at the site of distribution of the underlying private property relation.  One of the most profound of these "secondary" contradictions is the contradiction between "North" and "South."  At the core of this contradiction, which is manifest in the differences in wealth and opportunity between the people of poor versus rich countries, as with the contradictions that are manifested in and between individual "postmodern" families in the "post-industrial North," is the fundamental (class) contradiction of capitalist relations of production which determine that production for profit (exchange-value), versus production for need (use-value) is the aim of production.  Thus, the relations between Big Business (which has historically been based in the North) and the peoples and governments of the "South" are shaped, at every turn, by the interests of capital (in the form of multinational enterprises) in extending their profits through their various (international) relations. 

The example of the relations between multinational corporations and the nations and peoples of sub-Saharan Africa is perhaps the most glaring example of the exploitative relations of capitalism on a global scale.  Historically, Africa has been a source of cheap natural resources (especially oil and minerals) and "low-tech" agricultural products for "Northern" capital.  This kind of (capitalist) "development" (such as mining) however, does not require and thus does not enable the type of broad development of industry and infrastructure that have been produced historically (if unevenly) in the "advanced capitalist" states over a relatively long period of capitalist development.  What we might call "maldevelopment" in sub-Saharan Africa is aimed, in other words, at large, short term extraction of resources at high rates of profit which has had a destructive impact on the people and land in this region.  In their article on "Sub-Saharan Africa in Global Capitalism" at the beginning of the millennium, John Saul and Colin Leys conclude, for instance, that this region is exemplified by

…a profile of "crude, neo-imperialist" capitalism, exploiting people and resources, but often not needing—and usually incapable of building—the wider social, economic, and political structures required for the development of capitalist production relations and sustained, broad-based capital accumulation. (16)

In other words, Saul and Leys argue that the imperialist relations of multinational capital, which  are primarily based in the United States, Europe and Japan, and sub-Saharan Africans is oppressive not only because of the exploitation of people and resources of this region, but also because of the marginalization of this enormous region of the world within the global capitalist system.  In other words, in these nations, production for need (even in its limited form as "wages") is structurally blocked (even more so than, on average, in the "Northern" nations) by the highly contradictory form of "development" that global capitalism enables.  That is, besides a handful of local "compradors," this type of "development" works to bring nations and peoples into the circuits of global capitalism, but does not provide the circumstances (i.e., economic development) that will enable even the stabilization of the rate of absolute poverty in this region. This is because the resources and profits are taken by multinational capital rather than remaining in the region and benefiting the people of the area, which leads to instability in the political structures of these societies, which further diminishes the possibilities for economic development in this region.  Making a similar argument, in "Marxism and Imperialism Today," Alex Callinicos argues that imperialism within the "post-colonial" era has been largely a matter of "malign neglect" as well as partial industrialization (30).  In short, because the possibilities for enabling the accumulation of profit is the determinant of where capitalism "invests," the material conditions of sub-Saharan Africa (themselves the product of profit-driven capital) have made it, at least for the short to medium term, the site of an extremely limited, and destructive, form of (capitalist) economic development.  As a result, the vast majority of the people of sub-Saharan Africa have been rendered "surplus population" by multinational capital.

If, in light of this dynamic of global capitalism, we return to the question of the "postmodern family" in/of the "post-industrial" nations such as the United States, what is evident (through materialist critique) is that the dominant, "post-family" theories not only obscure the class contradiction manifest in this family form.  They also work, on the basis of their Weberian theory of "class" and "redistribution," to ideologically "incorporate" the relatively privileged workers within the "North." 

Judith Stacey, for instance, more or less consciously "displaces," the class contradiction onto the secondary contradiction between "North" and "South" when she argues that redistribution of "wealth" (while maintaining the capitalist relations of production/private property) within the "post-industrial" nations, can "resolve" the problem of "child poverty" in the nations of the "North."  Stacey indicates that she is taking up a "Weberian" theory of class when she writes:

While my ethnographic research demonstrated the demise of the working-class family, in no way did it document the emergence of the classless society once anticipated by postindustrial theorists.  On the contrary, under postindustrial occupation and income distributions, the middle classes have been shrinking and the economic circumstances of Americans polarizing. (32)

 Here, we see that Stacey understands "class" as a matter of "occupation and income distributions," which, from the Marxist view, are effects of the underlying relations of production based on exploitation.  From this view, as I have argued, the deepening inequities within the "post-industrial" (as well as "other" countries) is an effect of increased exploitation of workers of these countries, and this deepening exploitation is not produced simply by a sadistic or "selfish" whim on the part of capitalists.  Rather, such increased exploitation works, on the part of capitalists, to counteract the pressures of the falling rate of profit as a "secular" tendency within capitalism (wherein the falling rate of profit is a product of competition-induced increases in the rate of investment to labor).  Capitalists, in other words, are compelled to increase the exploitation of the labor it employs because (surplus) "labor" is the source of all profits and competition between capitalists, which leads to the introduction of new labor-saving machinery, also leads to the "unintended" consequence of excluding vast numbers of the global proletariat from employment within the relations of wage-labor and capital.  In other words, Marxism presents a labor theory of class and its production of deepening inequities.  These inequities, founded on the exploitation of workers surplus-labor, are also exacerbated by the exclusion of a reserve of workers from wage-labor (i.e., "privilege" in this "backwards" system of production for profit is, in part, merely the "privilege" of being exploited).

The consequences of taking up the Weberian theory of "class" and "redistribution" are evident in Stacey’s theorization of "redistribution" via the structure of national government policies as a solution to poverty.  She writes,

A comparative perspective on global family change could be quite useful here.  The most cursory cross-national glance reveals that the postmodern family condition is endemic to all postindustrial nations in the era of global capitalism, but that national responses to its challenges, and therefore its human consequences, vary considerably.  In the Scandinavian nations, for example, social democratic policies continue to enjoy much greater popularity than family-values rhetoric.  Consequently, even though Scandinavian marriage rates are far lower than in the United States, and unwed motherhood is much less stigmatized, nonetheless teen pregnancy and child poverty are practically unknown.  (11-12)

Here, Stacey suggests that it is not the (exploitative) production practices of capitalism, but rather "conservative family rhetoric" which is the cause of child poverty in the (postindustrial) United States.  She in fact makes this argument explicit when she argues, further, that "This [cross-national study] suggests that the collective challenge that citizens of postindustrial societies must confront is to accept, if we cannot embrace, the reality of family diversity and flux with as much grace, wisdom, tolerance, and compassion as we can muster.  Otherwise, we must resign ourselves to ceaseless family-values wars that encourage policies destructive to most real families of all kinds" (12).  This argument obscures the actual cause of child poverty in production for profit, locating it, instead, in backwards ideas (which, as I have argued in relation to Barrett and McIntosh’s post-materialism, are themselves effects rather than the cause of the incapacity of capitalism to meet the needs of people).

Again, what is at stake, in particular, in Stacey’s pragmatic politics of "redistribution" is presenting a "false" solution to the problem of unmet needs to the relatively privileged workers in the United States and, in doing so, positing an opposition between their needs and those of "other" workers, particularly those in the "Southern" regions and nations of the world (including the "Southern" regions of the United States such as east Los Angeles).  The ideological nature of this argument is marked by the way in which Stacey limits the "global" to the "post-industrial" nations.  In doing so, she leaves out the way in which global competition and neo-liberalism (and not simply "mean-spiritedness" as Stacey suggests) has, in the last twenty years, led to (largely successful) attempts to "dismantle" the social safety net in these post-industrial nations (37).  Moreover, it leaves out entirely the situation in the "underdeveloped" nations where the debt burden makes it impossible for these nations to provide a social safety net for their citizens at all. 

Compare, for instance, Stacey’s "rosy" picture of the possibilities for redistribution of wealth within the United States and other postindustrial nations to the assessment of the possibilities for a similar policy worldwide in Stella R. Quah’s introduction to  The Family as an Asset:  An International Perspective on Marriage, Parenthood and Social Policy.  Quah outlines the types and level of social benefits in West Germany, which "include health-care, employment, surviving dependents, old-age pensions, housing education and other measures that directly and indirectly improve the well-being of the family."  She then goes on to cite the costs of this system’s benefits, which in 1987 was "$635 billion or 31.4% of the gross national product" and then concludes that "[i]n terms of worldwide comparisons, an annual bill of that magnitude can only be afforded by wealthy countries with an ideology that justifies it" (14).  In other words, while "ideology" is one of the determinants within wealthy countries, such a redistribution is only possible in a small section of the world’s nations.  Moreover, the global inequities have only grown since 1987. In other words, the historical development of capitalism, globally, is increasingly contradictory.  It has produced tremendous increases in terms of the productivity of social labor, but its private property relations now, increasingly, fetter production because gains in labor productivity (as a whole) undermine the conditions for producing profit, which requires putting more and more labor to work.

In contrast to these "post" theories of the family, Marxism provides a theory of the relation between changes at the "superstructural" level such as those in "family" and the material conditions (of family) in late-capitalism.  Marxism argues that changes in the family are determined, if in complexly mediated ways, by the development of the social forces of production (including both means of production and labor-power) and their resulting contradiction with the relations of production.  Thus, as this class contradiction in transnational capitalism increases, out of economic necessity, families have had to "adjust" and develop new relations (such as the "divorce-extended family") in order for members to survive.

Bourgeois theories of the family, in contrast, block knowledge of the (changing) family, in order to represent capitalism as "progressive" and able to meet workers’ needs.  It is not "progressive"; while it potentially opens up new possibilities, its class structure prevents these from being realized—thus both BASIC NEEDS (food, shelter. . .) and HISTORICAL NEEDS (free sexuality, intimacy. . .) go unmet.  Profit, or congealed surplus labor, is the other of these unmet needs.  To produce a historically "new" family based on collectivity and not economic necessity, what is necessary is not ruling class "adjustment"; rather, what is necessary is to abolish wage-labor—the appropriation of the labor of the many for the benefit of the few—so that the "freedom of each becomes the condition of possibility of freedom of all."

Works Cited

Barrett, Michele and Mary McIntosh.  The Anti-Social Family.  London, Verso, 1982. 

Beck-Gernsheim, Elisabeth.  "On the Way to a Post-Familial Family:  From a Community of Need to Elective Affinities."  Theory, Culture and Society. 15.3-4:  53-70. 

Callinicos, Alex.  "Marxism and Imperialism Today."  London:  Bookmarks, 1994. 

Engels, Frederick.  The Origin of the  Family, Private Property and the State.  1972. Introd. Michele Barrett.  London:  Penguin, 1986. 

German, Lindsey.  Sex, Class and Socialism. London:  Bookmarks, 1989. 

Giddens, Anthony.  The Class Structure of Advanced Societies.  London:  Hutchinson, 1979. 

Kollontai, Alexandra.  Selected Writings.  Trans, Alix Holt.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 1977. 

Leys, Colin and John S. Saul.  "Sub-Saharan Africa in Global Capitalism."  Monthly Review 51 (July/August 1999): 13-30. 

Marx, Karl. Capital:  A Critique of Political Economy.  Vol 1.  Collected Works.  Vol. 35  New York:  International Publishers, 1996.   

___.  The Communist Manifesto.  Ed. Frederic Bender.  New York:  Norton, 1988. 

___.  Critique of the Gotha Program.  The Marx-Engels Reader.  Ed. Robert C. Tucker.  New York: W. W. Norton, 1978.  525-541.

___.  Grundrisse.  Trans.  Martin Nicolaus.  London:  Penguin, 1973. 

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels.  The German Ideology.  In Collected Works.  Vol 5.  New York:  International Publishers, 1976. 

Quah, Stella.  "Family as Hindrance or Asset?  An Overview of Current Controversies." The Family as an Asset:  An International Perspective on Marriage, Parenthood and Social Policy.  Ed. Stella Quah.  Singapore:  Times Academic Press, 1990. 1-22. 

Stacey, Judith.  In the Name of the Family:  Rethinking Family Values in the Postmodern Age.  Boston:  Beacon Press, 1996. 

United Nations.  Family:  Challenges for the Future.  New York:  United Nations Publications, 1996. 

Weber, Max.  "Class, Status, Party."  From Max Weber:  Essays in Sociology.  Trans. H.H. Gerht and C. Wright Mills.  London:  Routledge, 1961.  180-195.

THE RED CRITIQUE 2 (January/February 2002)