Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Historical roots of "family values"

Eli Zaretsky's concise broad-stroke account of capitalism's effect on the family, Capitalism, the Family, and Personal Life, contains one of the most lucid explanations of emergence of private life as a kind of trap for workers in capitalist society and why "family values" are always embraced by the most repressive and reactionary forces in society. Zaretsky argues that the development of all vs. all capitalism, which eroded home production (the basis of the family in the pre-Industrial period), transformed the family into the haven where one could escape the alienation incipient upon the division of labor and production of profit supplanting the production of man (to paraphrase Marx). Women were expected to epitomize all the "humanizing" values that capitalism had eradicated from society at large, which had been reduced from a civic sphere to a merely commercial one. Woman became the guarantors that capitalism wasn't evil and alienating, that it was in fact producing a noble creature like the all-sacrificing, super-sympathetic, ultra-mothering woman, and the domestic sphere in all its pieties. These domestic values are often represented to be eternal, universal, but they develop as a response to capitalism's dehumanizing propensities. So in defending woman's place in the home, and all the suffocating "family values" and anti-abortion planks and the "defense of marriage" and so forth, reactionaries are trying to protect the haven that has for them lost its historicity and has become the only possible haven available in our world. Without women as domestic mavens, everyone will be in the midst of the dog eat dog competetion that capitalism promotes. As Zaretsky explains, "The emancipation of women threatened to degrade all society to a common level of cynical manipulation." This is helpful, I think, in trying to understand what animates the right in their cultural war, to see their actions as something other than a backward prudishness and prejudice.

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