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How Neoliberalism Reconfigures the Family

In Viewpoint Magazine, Ben Mabie interviews Melinda Cooper, author of the recent book Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and New Social Conservatism. As Mabie states, Cooper’s book “argues that the recom­po­si­tion of the fam­i­ly is at the heart of the neolib­er­al rev­o­lu­tion from above.” In the interview, Cooper highlights the differences between neoliberal and right-wing conceptions of the family, and argues that some currents of socialism have very traditional gender roles at their core. Read an excerpt from the interview below, or the full text here.

MC: Neolib­er­als had a more min­i­mal­ist under­stand­ing of fam­i­ly respon­si­bil­i­ty. For them, fam­i­ly respon­si­bil­i­ty meant that the fam­i­ly or the cou­ple should be the pri­ma­ry source of eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty and in this way func­tion as a sub­sti­tute to the wel­fare state. They were in gen­er­al much less nor­ma­tive about the par­tic­u­lar form of these rela­tion­ships and as I detail in my analy­sis of the neolib­er­al response to the AIDS cri­sis, were some of the first advo­cates of same-sex mar­riage, which they under­stood as a kind of mutu­al insur­ance con­tract. Alter­na­tive kin­ship rela­tions were not a prob­lem for them as long as these rela­tion­ships could suc­cess­ful­ly inter­nal­ize the health and wel­fare costs of part­ners and chil­dren. When peo­ple failed to inter­nal­ize these costs, the neolib­er­als thought that kin­ship rela­tions should be legal­ly enforced in the form of fam­i­ly respon­si­bil­i­ty rules. Fou­cault was half right: neolib­er­als were not at all attached to the nor­ma­tive dis­ci­plines that grew up around the 20th cen­tu­ry wel­fare state, the sci­ences of deviance and per­ver­sion that informed every­thing from eugen­ics to psy­chol­o­gy and crim­i­nol­o­gy. They were var­i­ous­ly in favour of decrim­i­nal­iz­ing pros­ti­tu­tion, sodomy and recre­ation­al drugs. But Fou­cault miss­es the big pro­vi­so that goes along with all of this. All social costs (the costs of rais­ing chil­dren, the eco­nom­ic fall­out from divorce, health care costs, STIs) need to be inter­nal­ized by the par­ties to the sex­u­al con­tract – kin­ship rela­tions, mar­riage and par­ent­hood, are the legal means through which the state can enforce these costs. What Fou­cault called “care of the self” is a cen­tral imper­a­tive of neolib­er­al­ism, but it would be bet­ter defined as “care of kin.”

Image: Heather Ben­ning, Doll­house. Via Viewpoint Magazine.