While attempting to clean up my computer, I came across an essay that my daughter wrote earlier this year. I would like to share an excerpt from it.
Marxists see the conflict between the bourgeoisie (those that own the means of production) and the proletariat (those who sell their labour) as crucial to the maintenance of capitalism. Its function is to create an obedient, docile, uncritical workforce who will work to support the upper-class’s lifestyle and the economy. Keeping wages low, or debt pressure high, means workers will be less likely to complain or make demands. As workers struggle to provide their families with all the temptations that a capitalist society offers, they become far less likely to risk their employment, and less able to improve their situation. Even in the unlikely event that an opportunity for advancement should arise, it would often mean abandoning family and friends in order to pursue it. These factors, along with a tendency to marry within one’s own circle, combine to make movement between social classes difficult.
The current political debate surrounding the power of unions, work choices, and the importation of workers on 457 visas, could be regarded as an attempt to disempower employees thus maintaining a compliant workforce. It is difficult for an individual to risk complaining about wages or working conditions, so removing the collective voice and protection of unions means people are unlikely to make waves if, by so doing, they risk unemployment or deportation.
The process of industrialisation in the 19th century led to major changes in family life. Many things that had formerly been produced at home were now produced more cheaply in factories and families eventually became units of shared income and consumption rather than production, private and separate from the public world of business and politics. Men’s place of work was removed from the home and women’s and children’s unpaid domestic labour kept wages low allowing companies to increase profits. Women were increasingly isolated from society and children learned to obey.
Max Horkheimer regarded the family as an essential part of the social order in that it adapted every individual to conformity to authority. He argued that if men are the sole breadwinners, this ‘makes wife, sons and daughters “his”, puts their lives in large measure into his hands, and forces them to submit to his order and guidance’. Marx felt the same way stating that “Marriage is…incontestably a form of private property”. The economic dependence of the family on the father made men more conservative about radical social change which might undermine their ability to provide for their families, while the development of obedience to the authority of one’s own father was a preparation for obedience to the authority of the state and one’s employer.
During the 1960s and 70s the Western world saw a rapid period of social change in which the traditional understanding of the family began to be questioned. Feminist writers such as Christine Delphy, argued that in a capitalist society there are two modes of production: an industrial mode which is the site of capitalist exploitation; and the domestic mode which is the site of patriarchal exploitation. Marxist writers such as Juliet Mitchell examined the exploitation of workers under capitalism, pointing out that women, as they slowly entered the workforce, were doubly exploited through lower wages and unpaid labour at home. Contemporary Marxist writing argues that the family structure socialises children ‘into capitalist ideology’, which ‘prepares them to accept their place in the class structure, provides an emotionally supportive retreat for the alienated worker and so dissipates the frustration of the workplace, and impedes working class solidarity by privatising the household and generating financial commitments which discourage militant activity’ .
The role of the nuclear family in providing, perpetuating and indoctrinating a docile workforce is summarised by the following quotes. Meighan suggests that “For men, the denial of opportunities for excellence under capitalism leads…to a search for power and self-esteem in the sexual arena” Ainsley goes on to explain that “When wives play their traditional roles as takers of shit they often absorb their husband’s legitimate anger and frustration in a way which poses no challenge to the system”, and Cooper states that “The child is, in fact, primarily taught not how to survive in society, but how to submit to it”.
Changes in society have blurred these stereotypical roles. Many more women now are entering the workforce and are far less likely to marry for economic security. The availability of quality education and the explosion of information provided by the internet have made people more informed and less willing to blindly accept what they are told, and for some, it has also provided the opportunity to move from the social class into which they were born. The traditional structure of the nuclear family is also changing with much more diversity in family groups due to such factors as divorce, same sex couples, extended families, and many women choosing not to have children.
There have been other criticisms of the materialist perspective in that its focus was too limited to economic aspects, neglecting the value of and support provided in a loving intimate union, instead concentrating on the oppressive and controlling aspects of families and relationships. It tends to portray people as capitalist dupes without freedom of thought assessing them purely from a labour perspective.
While many of the bourgeoisie would still prefer, and in fact depend on, a malleable, uncomplaining workforce, family power structures are becoming less a factor in achieving this. However, our seemingly endless desire to consume and update means that economic pressures still play a large role. Even with, in many cases, both parents working, employment security usually takes precedence over job satisfaction or working conditions. Children are better informed and largely better educated and therefore have more opportunity to achieve economic independence and possibly change their social class but the rising cost of tertiary education, possible reductions in funding, and competition from overseas students limits the number who can attempt this. The burden is perhaps better shared but the outcome is in most cases the same – be happy with your lot.
Engel’s spoke of the evolution of the family as being both a catalyst for and result of the growth of capitalism. As mankind’s standard of living has improved, our desire to accumulate possessions and wealth to pass on to our families has only increased, as has our willingness to go into debt to satisfy it. Power and control is still exerted by those that own the means of production and they readily use this power to manipulate public opinion. Concentration of the media in the hands of a few like-minded individuals has led to misinformation campaigns that have amazingly ignited the workers to fight for the rights of the rich to get richer at their own expense. Family dynamics may have changed but the willingness of the proletariat to support the bourgeoisie seems alive and well.