U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism

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.

That notion—that neoliberalism has as one of its objectives the shoring up of the “traditional” family—may strike the reader as not quite on the mark. Most critics have tended to see the party of “human capital” and austerity as basically inimical to the family, as families and the space of the household surely has stood as a bulwark against the full extension of market logic into every nook and cranny of our lives. Our relations with our families, one would think, are among the few uncalculated, even altruistic connections left. They are durable and long-term in a world where other relations—especially the employment relation—are increasingly contingent, precarious and, to use the preferred nomenclature of the neoliberal, “flexible.” Or in the language of contracts, “at will.” What could be less “at will” than family?

I ask that question with a kind of droll bitterness, for of course estrangement or disowning can be as shattering—more—as being fired or seeing one’s contract not renewed. Or, in happier terms, we might think of adoption or even of marriage itself as a kind of voluntary permanence… or we might as long as we are coloring in the lines of the “traditional family.”

And that is where we see neoliberalism and what Cooper calls the “new social conservatism” overlap. Cooper refers to neoliberalism’s partner here as the “new social conservatism” because she wants to include not only neoconservatism—which she, like Andrew Hartman, argues began primarily as a reaction to domestic social issues and only later became a foreign policy position[1]—and evangelically-inflected traditionalism but also various strains of left or leftish communitarianism, perhaps of the Christopher Lasch variety.[2]

What all these new social conservatisms have in common is a deep reverence for the “Fordist family wage,” or the mid-century social contract which Robert Self, in his book All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy since the 1960s, calls “breadwinner liberalism,” the ideology that tied so much of the welfare state and so many civil rights to the “traditional family”: the man who works outside the home, the woman who works inside the home, and the children that they share.

Because Cooper’s and Self’s projects are so similar, I’ll run a bit with the comparison to try to clarify some parts of Cooper’s book that I find especially provocative and especially exciting. Self’s book is about the transformation of “breadwinner liberalism” into “breadwinner conservatism,” which he argues was a kind of insidious mutation that recoiled from the liberation movements of the 1960s (especially feminism) and the Great Society and their supposed marriage in the 1972 McGovern candidacy by viscerally and vigorously rejecting a state role in the home. “Breadwinner conservatism” shattered “breadwinner liberalism” by petulantly asserting the family’s independence from state-provided services and welfare programs, a reaction that in some ways was a classic—and tragic—case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

Although All in the Family’s epilogue is titled “Neoliberalism and the Making of the Culture War,” his story is still, I think, less one of neoliberalism’s rise to power than of neoliberalism as an attempt by centrists to retain some kind of control over the way “breadwinner liberalism” mutated into “breadwinner conservatism.” Figures like Jimmy Carter, he suggests, morphed into neoliberals half out of this kind of survival instinct, and half out of opportunism. They saw in the rise of “breadwinner conservatism” an almost miraculous opportunity which they stumbled upon: just as they were articulating a platform for privatizing all kinds of state services, here was a chaotic social movement—or really, a congeries of angry social movements—in the process of rejecting the state as overreaching, intrusive, and actively antagonistic to morality and decency. Neoliberals rejoiced: here was a ready-made constituency for a program of rolling back the state: although neoliberals preferred deregulation and these social movements mostly wanted to see power devolve to religious institutions and to male heads-of-households (the “breadwinners”), they could agree that “Big Government” was “the problem.”

So one way to see neoliberalism—Self’s way, I think, although he uses the term surprisingly sparingly—is as the center-left playing catch-up with a rapidly changing political climate being remade by the coalescence of a new social conservatism occupying much the same class position as the former breadwinner liberalism that mostly supported state intervention in the economy and state provision of basic services as far as public welfare was concerned. But in some senses neoliberalism was playing catch-up with the new liberation movements as well, and it capitalized especially eagerly on the feminist rhetoric of “choice” but also more generally on the rhetoric of personal freedom. In either case, what we see above all is neoliberalism acting opportunistically and a little belatedly: a response to other ideological transformations, a secondary ideology whose only true innovation was the formula of deregulation and austerity. And, moreover, neoliberalism was relatively ambivalent about the place of the family—traditional or not—within the broader social structure; it either presumed that the market would supply anything that was truly necessary for social order and personal well-being.[3] Neoliberalism, in a word, slides in as a kind of vulture capitalist, buying up ideologies in a distressed market, spinning off certain ideas and asset stripping the rest, making a killing on the re-sale.

This is not the picture we get from Cooper. Instead, Cooper sees both neoliberalism and neoconservatism arising in parallel in the early 1970s, both launched intellectually from the same cause: the erosion of the Fordist family wage. Neoconservatism (or the “new social conservatism”) began in revolt from the new emancipatory energies of the women’s movement, the welfare rights movement, Black Power, the counterculture, and the gay rights movement, but those movements were deeply embedded—as we have seen especially clearly in new histories of Black Power and the welfare rights movement—in radical claims for economic redistribution, not just in radical claims for cultural recognition. Cooper shows that neoconservatives like Moynihan, Glazer, Kristol, and Bell, among others, were deeply concerned that these new claims intended to bypass the “traditional family” as the chosen instrument for the state’s redistributive machinery: in simpler terms, they wanted welfare without getting properly married. (AFDC—Aid for Dependent Children—plays an especially large role here.) Something like no-fault divorce or the rise in rates of common law marriages or even just simple cohabitation was not “merely cultural,” therefore, in the sense of just being about “alternative lifestyles.” What it portended was a unilateral withdrawal on the part of these rebels from the social contract, and the neoconservatives believed that all other parties would quickly follow suit: if individuals absolved themselves of the obligation to live in chaste and orderly heterosexual nuclear families, then why would employers pay anyone decent wages or treat their workers with dignity?

As you can see, that last argument is not alien to precincts of the left—and that is Cooper’s point that there are a number of left communitarians who stand quite close to neoconservatives and even traditionalists on certain social issues. All are afraid that capital will seize on any opening to withdraw from the Fordist social contract—and so the burden devolves to individuals to live and behave in such a way that employers have no choice but to pay family wages and so on. But Cooper’s other point is that neoconservatives did not reject the welfare state as such; most instead wanted to save it along with the traditional family, for they believed that the two were linked intricately and ineluctably. Most remained for many years quite confident that the welfare state could work quite adequately—just so long as people behaved themselves.[4]

That was not the case for neoliberals, whose response to the erosion of the Fordist family wage under the political and intellectual assaults of the new social movements revealed a far more profound loss of confidence in the state and its capacities. It was more truly the neoliberals who decided that welfare, at least after the Great Society and the inflationary period of the late Sixties/early Seventies, was wholly unworkable. (Here figures like Milton Friedman and Charles Murray are the key players.) Neoliberals were therefore convinced that the Fordist family wage was dead, and if they wanted to salvage the social order, their choices were either a commitment to shoring up a bloated and capsizing state or to double down on the traditional family as a bulwark of social order. Neoliberals swung towards the family.

They did so, however, in a very different but mostly complementary way to the new social conservatives. Where the new social conservatives believed that a set of ethical values were intrinsic to proper family life, neoliberals believed that the market and the family operated in harmony to establish an ideal balance of market and non-market values. Cooper’s reading of Gary Becker is excellent here. Becker, she says,

argues that the familial incentive toward altruism is as central to the constitution of the free market as the utilitarian incentive of self-interested exchange. The nature of the family altruism in some sense represents an internal exception to the free market, an immanent order of noncontractual obligations and inalienable services without which the world of contract would cease to function. This premise is so constitutive of economic liberalism, both classical and neoliberal, that it is rarely articulated as such. Yet it explains why, in Wendy Brown’s words, private family values constitute the secret underside of liberal contractualism. (57-58)

(We might also flag Carole Pateman and Amy Dru Stanley here.)

I’ll stop there, as I’ve already written quite a bit, but I hope that I’ve whetted your appetite and that you’ll check out the book. As I said before, I think the project is one that should have considerable appeal to intellectual historians but it is also indicative of a development of which we should be more aware. Critical theorists like Cooper are increasingly, it seems to me, writing books that—by name or not—are intellectual histories.[5] In terms of their bibliographies and methods they seem more to be operating in parallel rather than in conjunction to our own work. This is an opportunity for us to see some familiar problems from wholly new vantage points, but it also may prove to be, I hope, an opportunity for productive collaboration. Certainly I am learning more from this book than from any other I have read in quite a while.

[1] Cooper does not, however, cite Andrew. See above for some more thoughts on the “missed connection” of this book and (U.S.) intellectual history.

[2] This is a report from the field, as it were: I have only begun reading the book, so it is possible she spells out her targets here more clearly, though Lasch is not listed among them (at least he is not in the index). Wolfgang Streeck, however, is named early on as one of these leftists who share a subterranean affinity with social conservatives, as is (some of the writings of) Nancy Fraser.

[3] These last sentences are not necessarily Self’s views on neoliberalism; I’m filling in a bit here from other accounts given the relatively slim treatment of neoliberalism in his book.

[4] Cooper’s treatment of Moynihan is especially interesting.

[5] Another recent example is Ange-Marie Hancock, Intersectionality: An Intellectual History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Very interesting stuff!, Andy. I’ll definitely check out Cooper’s book.

    I know you’re still reading it and so maybe she addresses this later in the book, but I’m wondering if she has any analysis of how this neoliberal embrace of the traditional family squares with and intersects with gay marriage/rights, since many people see neoliberalism’s focus on personal freedom to be integral to the political forces that eventually culminated in gay marriage being legalized. Of course I know that there is a lot of work in queer theory that looks at the heteronormativity, despite the same-sexness of them, of the families imagined and invoked in the fight for gay marriage, and how that connects back to the free market; so I’m wondering what she thinks of that, if she adds to it or takes it in a different direction.

  2. Great point, and it definitely comes up. I think there’s a certain parallel (not a flattering one, for sure) to the way neoconservatives–or those people who would become neoconservatives–were willing to tolerate and even meet African American demands for equal rights and equal access to federal services as long as those services and rights were channeled through the “traditional family.” Demand protection/welfare outside that structure, though, and you were a threat to the social contract.

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