When a book bears a blurb by Bethany Moreton, I take notice. (Her To Serve God and Wal-Mart, like William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, crosses over from the category of “favorite history books” to “favorite books full stop.”) And when that blurb from Moreton is as enthusiastic as “This is the book I’ve been waiting for,” then I’m certain to rush to get a copy.
That book is Melinda Cooper’s Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism, and it lives up to Moreton’s hype. I flag it here because Cooper’s work is primarily in cultural theory, and this book may thus slip by intellectual historians’ notice. That would be a major loss; it is one of the most important intellectual histories of this year, or of recent years for that matter. Below the fold I’ll try to explain how it positions the three terms of its title—“family values,” neoliberalism, and “new social conservatism”—but for now I’ll finish Moreton’s quote to give you a sense of the book’s intervention: “This brilliantly argued synthesis leaves no room for left critique that cannot recognize sexual normativity as the keystone for both neoliberal and socially conservative efforts to contain the most radical redistributive potential of liberation movements.” Put somewhat more simply, Family Values proves that we can only understand neoliberalism and social conservatism when we observe that both fixate upon the “traditional” family as the necessary and fundamental unit of a properly functioning community. Or, as Margaret Thatcher famously said, “who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families…” with families playing fully as central a role in neoliberalism as homo economicus. Continue reading