Ideology and the Question of the "Single-Parent" Family

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Along with the concept of "class", the concept of "ideology", largely banned for the greater part of the last twenty years, is recently making a comeback. Whereas this concept was thought to be too polemic, as outdated as the idea that there are separate classes and as "quaint" as the idea of revolution, with the increase in the divide between the "haves" and the "have-nots" in "globalization" now you see it popping up even in the most mainstream of news organs. The issue is this: in a world that is as divided as ours, there is an urgent need for a theory and concept of ideology, a concept that helps us to understand and critique the relationship between our ideas about the world and (the inequalities of) that world. We need, that is, concepts for determining what are effective ideas—versus ineffective ideas—for intervening in the reproduction of these inequalities. So the return of "ideology" is an important marker in the struggles to end inequality. However, the concept of ideology as it has returned in contemporary cultural commentary is a reformist theory of ideology that is more interested in not only maintaining but extending the social (class) relations that have produced the inequalities than actually changing these social relations and ending the inequalities they have produced. This reformist theory of ideology has completely abandoned—in fact turned on its head—the understanding of ideology as it was developed by Marx, who was the first theorist to develop this concept in its modern sense: as ideas as they are rooted in a particular set of social (class) relations.

Marx theorized "ideology" in this materialist sense in his text The Poverty of Philosophy when he wrote: "The same men who establish their social relations in conformity with their material productivity, produce also principles, ideas and categories, in conformity with their social relations" (Frederick Engels and Karl Marx, Collected Works Vol. 6, 166).  This passage exemplifies Marx's materialist theory of ideology/ideas because here Marx argues that ideas, and the various forms they take, are ultimately an effect of the social relations within which people "earn their living", or work to meet their basic and historically produced needs, social relations which, in turn, are a product of the social forces of production. People's ideas, that is, according to Marx, are neither individual nor idiosyncratic but are, rather, historical and historically produced. They change alongside of (and as an effect of) the changes in social relations. In contrast to this materialist theory of ideology, the concept of "ideology" that we see returning in the mainstream media and cultural studies is an idealist theory of ideology which understands "ideas" to be independent from (and ultimately determining of) the history of people as they (re)produce themselves (or "earn their living") under determinate conditions. The assumption that lies underneath these "new" theories of ideology, however, is the idea that there are no longer class relations, and if there are no longer any class relations, there can't, in fact, be any "ideology" in the sense that Marx theorized it (as ideas rooted in class relations). What these theories of "ideology" do, in other words, is work to obscure class relations and the working of class relations and, having obscured class as the cause of social contradictions such as the contradiction of poverty alongside wealth, they posit instead changing our "ideas" as the solution to the contradictions of the social.

It is such an inversion of "ideology"—an ideological concept of ideology—that is put forward, for instance, by Al and Tipper Gore in their new book, Joined at the Heart: The Transformation of the American Family. They write: "We want to help dispel a lot of mythology about family that is sometimes promoted as part of some ideological agenda. There are all kinds of families—and no one has the right to tell you that your family isn't the right kind" (2). From this view, the ideology of the family is limited to conservative views on the family which argue that the problem of families today is that people have turned away from traditional, nuclear families headed by a mother and father in a state-sanctioned relationship (a marriage). From the Gores' view, this is an "ideology" of the family, by which they mean a narrowing of the definition of the family that excludes many different families from the category of "family". Specifically, what the Gores see as ideological is excluding the "new" "post-nuclear" families (such as single-parent families, divorce-extended families and gay families) from the category of (acceptable) "families". What this discursive exclusion does, according to the Gores, is to deny these families access to the normative cultural institutions of the family and, in doing so, prevent these families from meeting their needs. According to the Gores, by labeling these new, non-traditional families as "bad", and the cause of the problems they face, conservative ideas about the family work to block programs from being put in place that will help these families (and particularly the more needy of these families) to meet their needs.

The implication of the Gores' argument against conservative "family values" discourse, in other words, is that if we accept these new families, then it will be possible, without any fundamental social change, for all families to meet their needs. What is blocking this enormously positive social progress from being realized is merely the conservative family values discourse. Get rid of this discourse and (through some tweaking of the system—some social assistance programs) the contradictions of the social that manifest at the site of the family, such as lack of access to adequate food, healthcare, childcare, quality educational opportunities, etc., will disappear.

This is, as I have suggested, an idealist rewriting of the question of the "ideology" of the family. As Marx argued, "ideology" is the ideas that correspond to a particular set of social (class) relations, and thus these ideas are the ideas that work to reproduce these relations. This is of course true of the ideology of the family in capitalism as a "private" zone set apart from public life. Capitalism is a system of private property ownership where one class (the capitalists, or "bourgeoisie") have a monopoly of ownership of the means of production in the form of capital. On the basis of this monopoly ownership, the bourgeoisie is able to extract "surplus labor" in the form of "profit" from the working class, or the "proletariat," who own no means of production and thus must sell their labor on the market to the capitalist. Within capitalism, as a system of private property relations, the family is the basic economic unit of social reproduction. That is, each family is responsible for the economic well-being of its family members, and this responsibility is written into modern law. The "ideology" of the family is the ideas about the family that correspond to this system of private property. Thus nothing seems more natural to people within this social system than the idea that a parent is ultimately responsible—and only responsible—for his or her own children. However, this idea is not natural. There have been family systems in the past (such as the family system of the Iroquois, which did not place strict boundaries around the family, and in particular a small nuclear family, but where responsibility for children was shared in a much broader kinship arrangement) which would have seen this "privatized" family as strange and unnatural.

The important point to be made here, though, is that this "ideology" of the privatized family is a way of thinking which arises out of particular private property (class) relations and as such works to reproduce these class relations. In short, the idea that the parents (biological or adoptive) of a child are the ones responsible for the economic well-being of that child works to reproduce all the inequalities of class society. That is, by limiting children's access to social resources based on their parent's insertion into the private property relations (the relations of production of wage-labor/capital), the ideology (and institution) of the family not only works to reproduce the status differentials between and among members of the working class (so that, for instance, upper-middle class suburban children get access to better education than poor urban children), but it also works—through inheritance laws—to reproduce the fundamental division between the classes where one class owns the means of production and thus commands the labor of the other class that does not own the means of production. As such, the Gores' reformist ideas about the "new" family are not a fundamental break from the bourgeois ideology of the (privatized) family, but are instead a new version of this ideology. These ideas are a new version of this same ideology because they are not arguing for an end to the privatized family and its systemic inequalities; rather, they are arguing for reforms so as to be able to keep the privatized family and the system of property relations it reproduces from going under in the changed and changing conditions of the 21st century. Their arguments do this, for instance, by redefining "family" so that diverse groupings of people can be considered "families" and thus be held responsible, as private citizens, for each others' well-being.

The Gores do not, they might argue, simply argue for redefining the family in order to end the inequalities of the family. Rather, they argue for redefining the family because they think that it is the narrow definition of the family that is blocking putting in place programs of social reform that will (according to their logic) enable all families to meet their needs without any fundamental social change. The limits of this view can be seen if we look at the kind of programs the Gores argue for and the implications of such proposals for the "single-parent" families.

The question of the single-parent families has particular relevance to the question of the ideology of the family and the underlying question of how to intervene in the social inequalities as they are manifested in the family because the single-parent families, and particularly the "female-headed" families, are the families that are the poorest, that is, that have the highest level of unmet needs.

One of the most progressive proposals the Gores put forward in their book is for a universal preschool supported by the federal government which would "help working parents of young children" (197). As they note, providing such a program as part of an overall attempt to address the crisis of (lack of) affordable, quality childcare is especially significant for low-income single-parent families, the majority of which are headed by women who, though least able, spend a much higher proportion of their income on childcare than other families. What, then, is the broader social significance of such a program? Would it--could it--bring the end to the contradictions and inequalities experienced at the site of the family?

It could not because the significance of such a program is that although it works to reduce (if not end) gender discrimination in the workforce, it does not end the competition among workers in general which is an integral part of capitalist social relations. In other words, programs which work to reduce the particular obstacles for women in the competition to participate in wage-labor do not put an end to the contradictions of a free labor market (or the commodification of labor) that makes disparities among workers necessary in order to make profits rather than meeting the needs of all.

To explain, take the issue of the relationship of "gender" and "the family" and the question of participation in wage-labor. The crucial role of the family in gender oppression is this: women's role has traditionally been conceived of in terms of her role in the family as wife and mother. Women have, in other words, been relegated to the family labor of housekeeping and childcare. This role has structurally blocked women from full and equal participation in the wage-labor force. It has, in other words, made women "bad" competitors in the labor-market. At a time when a "family-wage" was the norm (that is, when the norm was that the husband would be the breadwinner and his wage would support the entire family and thus women did not "have to" compete on the market to sell their labor), a system of social welfare was put in place that worked to (at least) alleviate the hardship this norm placed on women who did not have access to such a male wage. Thus, while many see the dismantling of "welfare" as simply "ideological" in the sense of mean-spirited, in actuality the undermining of "welfare" (and the movement of welfare-to-work) is underpinned by a shift in labor relations wherein the norm for all (working) families now is that both parents will wage-work. But how can a single-mother work in the wage-labor force if she is also charged (as all parents are) with taking care of her children and (in part because she has been kept out of the wage-labor force by her child-rearing duties and thus is not a highly skilled worker, and in part because of gender discrimination in the workforce), she cannot afford childcare? What affordable public childcare for such single mothers would do is to remove the extra burden on these mothers which makes it difficult, if not possible, to participate in wage-labor.  What the Gores are saying, in effect, is that "competition" is good, but it should just be "more" equal. They are saying, in other words, that capitalism and its social relations of commodification is, in the main, a "good" foundation for society, it is just that this system needs some modifications such as reducing the added barriers like gender discrimination that lead to hardship, particularly among women and children, when women have to compete with men to sell their labor on the labor-market.

If we examine the economic dynamic that has led to the "new" families, however, it becomes clear that the capitalist social relations of private property cannot in actuality provide the conditions for meeting people's needs (in fact, this is less and less possible) and that this notion of accepting the "new" families (alongside some reforms of the system) that the Gores are putting forward is, in fact, a way to convince working people to continue to accept the privatized family and the social relations of inequality upon which it is based that are only working for the benefit of a few rich families.

As the Gores (and many other writers, including conservatives) have argued, the most important change in terms of the impact on the family in the last fifty years has been the increase in the participation of women, and particularly the increase in the numbers of mothers of young children, in wage-labor. But, and in this way they are typical of bourgeois ideologists in general, while making a few "gestures" to history, the Gores do not explain why this change has occurred—what has brought about this change, this increase in women's participation in the wage-labor force? It is necessary to know why this change has occurred in order to produce knowledge of the significance of it in terms of both its historical possibilities and limits. Without such knowledge of the significance of the change, we are left with moralism—either we morally reject it because it has some negative effects, as in the conservative view, or we morally celebrate it because it has some positive effects, as in the liberal view. Either way, without knowledge of the significance of the change in its totality, we cannot determine the most effective response to the change.

The Gores point to the explanation for women's increased wage-labor participation when they indicate that one of the "factors" contributing to this increased participation has been the decrease in earning power of men. They write: "the average earning power of working-class men actually declined in the 1970s, and in the 1980s that trend of falling average earnings extended across the board" (17). The Gores do not, however, explain why the earnings of men have decreased, nor do they point out that while earnings of workers have decreased, corporate profits have skyrocketed. In other words, what needs to be explained in order to understand the recent changes in the family is the dynamic of capital--why it leads to a greater gap between the classes--and how the family fits into this dynamic.

At the crux of capitalism is the commodification of labor. As a commodity, the market value of labor-power ("wages"), within the fluctuations of supply and demand, equals the cost of production of the commodity. What this means is that as the productivity of labor increases, this works to reduce the cost of production of labor-power, or the cost of the means of subsistence. Such increases in the productivity of labor, it should be noted, are potentially a very positive historical development because they mean being able to produce the means of subsistence (food, clothing, housing, etc.) with less labor and thus less labor time. This should mean that people can work less hours as well as producing a surplus of goods (a stockpile in case of emergencies or luxury items, etc.). However, increases in productivity in capitalism do not benefit workers, because the commodification of labor means that once wage-laborers have sold their labor-power for its market-value ("wages"), all the products of their labor belong to the capitalists. In fact, capitalists do not hire workers unless these workers produce "surplus value"—that is, wage-laborers don't get hired unless they produce more value than they receive back in wages. As such, the working day is split into two portions—the part of the day devoted to producing the value-equivalent of "wages" (which is called "necessary labor") and the portion of the working day devoted to producing surplus value, which is the source of profit (which is called "surplus labor"). Increases in productivity are a boon for the capitalist because they allow for an increase in the portion of the day devoted to producing surplus value, or "profits", as compared to "wages". In essence, then, through the commodification of labor, increases in productivity do not benefit workers but actually constitute an increase in exploitation (as the taking of surplus-value produced by workers for accumulating owners' profits). What this means, in effect, is that the increases in productivity of labor over the last several decades have actually meant a decrease in "relative wages", or wages in comparison to profits, and thus an increase in the inequality between the owners and workers, the "haves" and "have-nots". This dynamic of increasing exploitation and the increasing gap between the "haves" and "have-nots" that results from this increase in exploitation has pushed women into the wage-labor force in order to try to make up for the declining relative wages.

But this is not all, the dynamic of capital, wherein labor-saving machinery is introduced by individual capitalists in order to better compete for profits creates a situation in which, as Marx explained, there is a "tendency for the profit rate to fall". This is because the introduction of labor-saving machinery introduced by one capitalist in order to get more profits must be taken up by all the capitalists in that industry in order to compete with the capitalist with the new machinery. The result of the introduction of this machinery across the industry, however, is to increase the proportion of investment to labor (what Marx called "the organic composition of capital") and thus to decrease the rate of profit because it is (surplus-)labor that is the source of profits. In order to combat this falling rate of profit, and the crisis of profitability it produces, capitalists work to increase the rate of exploitation (or the portion of the working day devoted to surplus versus necessary labor). One way of doing this is of course to introduce even newer labor-saving machinery. However, this has the drawback of producing the same problem all over again. Another way of doing this is to immiserate workers absolutely—to cut their wages. In the face of a structural (ongoing) crisis of profitability, this is what capital has been doing over the last few decades—it has, as the Gores point out, been working to immiserate workers—reduce their real wages. This reduction of real wages on top of the ongoing reduction of relative wages has provided a quite powerful push for women to enter the wage-labor force to make up this two-fold shortfall in wages. This profound shift in the participation of women in wage-labor, in turn, has had a profound impact on families.

One of the effects of this dynamic of capital and the way it has pushed down wages has been to draw women into the labor-force and to call attention to the way women's role in the family has been a barrier to their full participation in the wage-labor force and thus to full personhood within capitalism. Marxism does not deny that this is a progressive historical development which must be defended. However, unlike the reformist position represented by the Gores, Marxism shows that this progressive development is not separate from and cannot be separated from the dynamic of capitalism and the way in which it leads to greater and greater exploitation of the working class. The Gores, that is, by suggesting that women's right to work be defended while also (only) reforming the inequalities of capitalism by redistributing some of the wealth back to the workers who it has been stolen from are saying, in effect, that you can have the "good" parts of capitalism while rejecting the bad. However, this has proven to be impossible because these "good" parts (such as the rapid development of the forces of production and the positive impact this has, such as the breaking down of the patriarchal family) are connected to the "bad" parts. Nothing demonstrates this more than the "new" families.

On the one hand, the new families such as the single-parent families, divorce-extended families and gay families represent and are an effect of an increase in "liberal" freedom of women, who, less and less, are forced into dependence on a male wage. On the other hand, because this shift in wage-labor participation has been compelled by capital's need for cheap labor, the way women have been drawn into wage-labor, which has reproduced gender discrimination in the workplace, has meant that women's autonomy from the male wage has, in actuality, been only partial. This (only) partial independence from a male/family wage is marked by the high rates of poverty among female-headed, single parent families, which is much higher, for instance, than male-headed single-parent families. To put this another way, the single-parent families are representative of the new families because what these new families represent, taken as a whole, is a profound increase in the exploitation of workers. This is because, at one time, it was an expectation (and largely the rule) that only one adult family member would work in the wage-labor force, particularly when the children where young. Now, the expectation (and largely the rule) is that all adult family members will work in the wage-labor force. However, these family members are, no less than before, responsible for not only economically supporting, but also providing for all the other needs of their children (such as supervision, or "childcare"). This means, particularly when wages are falling, that families, as a unit, have to work many more hours than they used to in order to provide for even their basic necessities. It is no wonder, then, that single-parent families, particularly those headed by women (who tend to get paid less for their wage-labor) cannot make ends meet and at the same time provide the resources for round-the-clock childcare for their children. However, this "needy" situation of the single-parent families is not exceptional (as the Gores imply) and thus representative of a (minor) "flaw" in the system. Rather, these families are a sort of "canary in a coalmine" which show just how untenable the level of exploitation of workers by capital has become.

The Gores, in fact, cite a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute which found that from 1979 to 1998, the combined number of hours worked annually by middle-income mothers and fathers in two-parent families with children at home went up by 613 hours or "nearly four months of full-time work per couple each year" (169). This increase in wage-working hours does not, however, represent the total increase in the exploitation of working-families because unpaid "family labor" is, if indirectly, a form of exploitation of these families. This is because the unpaid "family labor" that (mainly women) perform in the home such as cooking, cleaning, and childcare, also works to enable the lowering of wages (necessary labor) versus surplus labor (profit). "Family labor" is, in effect, a corporate subsidy.

Thus, what the Gores' argument for accepting the "new" families—and reforming the system in ways that enable extending it further—amounts to is an argument that workers continue to accept the privatized family which works to reproduce—and extend—the inequalities of capitalism. But there is another way besides this endless spiral of increasing exploitation and need. What the Gores erase, when they argue, in essence, that we have to accept the "bad side" of capitalism, is that as a mode of production, capitalism has a progressive historical aspect. That is, capitalism has enabled an enormous development of the productive forces. In other words, as I have argued, capitalism's dynamic is one that rapidly develops the productivity of labor. The global labor-force of men and women that has been developed under capitalism, using the most advanced instruments of labor, has the capacity to produce enough wealth to meet (and extend) the needs of all people across the globe. The reason this potential has not been realized is that the social relations of capitalism structurally limit production to meet needs (in the form of "necessary labor") in order to maintain and extend profits for the few. In short, as Marx argued, the forces of production ultimately determine what are the appropriate social relations of production, and given the development of the forces of production under capitalism, what is necessary now is for workers—men and women together—to seize the means of production so that their labor can be put to use for meeting the needs of all people rather than for accumulating profits. As the contradictions of capital develop, and at the same time the global wage-labor force expands, this transformation of the relations of production becomes not only increasingly necessary, but increasingly possible. Only after such a social transformation can our family relations truly be transformed into "free" relations among individuals whose feelings for one another are not harnessed to the aim of producing more profits for a few.

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