You can always rely on the Tories to blame anyone and anything for a systemic crisis, other than the system of capitalism itself. In the Victorian era it was the rabbit-like sexual promiscuity of the working classes undermining bourgeois stability, under Thatcher it was feckless single mothers getting pregnant to obtain a council house. Now we have the new leader, David Cameron, pointing the finger at family breakdown as the cause of the malaise in society.
Cameron was mildly criticised recently for allowing television cameras to film his wife and children at breakfast. Like a genuine hard-working father, he could say: ‘Everyone feels they can’t cope any more with getting up at 4am. Everyone runs around in a panic in the morning getting the kids ready while making breakfast and ironing a shirt.’
He went on: ‘I know what some of you might be thinking: “All this family-friendly stuff he’s going on about, it’s not really very Conservative, is it?” But it is. It’s seriously Conservative. If we Conservatives want a smaller state and lower taxes we have to have a serious plan for making it happen … The real costs of government are the social problems that cause public spending and the state to grow and grow.’ He then cleverly wove together the repugnant example of bankers’ greed with the small guy fiddling a few pounds from the benefit system, as if they are the same, saying that the culture of relying on others and thinking only of oneself ‘must end’.
In a speech to the Welsh Conservative conference in Cardiff, he expanded on his new ‘family-friendly’ policies: ‘We’ve seen too many of the ugly things that happen when people duck responsibility: the father who leaves a mother and child to fend for themselves, the banker who clamours for his bonus when he’s bust the bank. The healthy welfare claimant who thinks it’s OK to live off benefits paid by others or the businessman who puts profits before the planet. All this irresponsibility must end. Families are the most important institution in our society. We have to do everything in our power to strengthen them.’ His short memory allows him to forget the attacks made by previous Tory administrations on benefits, the virtual abolition of council housing and state aid for nurseries, all prime contributing factors to social breakdown.
As if that were not enough, we then had Tristram Hunt in the Guardian wading in and taking a side-swipe at the left for its traditional ‘hostility to family and marriage’ which has, he announces, produced ‘some profoundly unprogressive results’. It was because the Tories and Labour had similar policies, he continues, that there was a ‘reaction to such institutionalised sexism that many on the metropolitan left embraced a Marxist hostility to marriage and the family as a political end in itself…in doing so it aligned itself with an ethos of social hedonism with profoundly unprogressive consequences for the offspring of generations of unstable households.’ No that’s not a Cameron quote, it’s Hunt.
Throughout history the socialist movement has always had its advocates of ‘free love’ and relationships based on personal choice rather than state or church sanction. However, extreme examples of this – communal living, children cared for in the community, polygamy – have always only been advocated by tiny minorities. What most socialists, men and women, have argued for has been freedom from state or church interference in matters of personal relationships and for relationships to be based on free choice not financial necessity. People choosing to live in a partnership or not should not be subject to sanction or force. To sweepingly accuse ‘the Left’ of hostility to marriage is simply inaccurate and hardly based on historical evidence.
As Engels pointed out for the first time in his seminal work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, the oppression and subjugation of women came about and was reinforced by the rise of the concept of private property. In order for fathers to pass on their wealth to their children, they had to be sure they whose they were, thus women were corralled into restrictive family structures to ensure monogamy. Of course, the church played its part too in providing the philosophical and religious underpinning of such policies. In the sixties, the new feminist movement took up Engels’ theories and used them to demand economic and personal freedom for women.
Interestingly in the former socialist countries, although marriage was the norm, sexual relationships outside formal marriage were not condemned, nor was illegitimacy, and divorce was made easy and affordable; in fact many chose to ignore formal marriage structures and neither they, nor their children suffered any discrimination as a result. Given that most women worked and enjoyed pay parity with men, the situation allowed women a greater degree of freedom than most of their sisters in the West. Women in the West had been traditionally, and still are, often trapped in unhappy marriages for lack of the financial means to escape.
In the end the essential discussion on family and marriage comes down to economic security. Cameron and the Tories pontificate about social breakdown and blame the Left’s opposition to ‘family values’, but it is precisely Tory (and sadly new Labour often following in their footsteps) policies which have made family breakdown inevitable. Any marriage counsellor will tell you that financial problems are the root cause of a large proportion of family breakdowns. We can be certain that Cameron’s new interest in and support for families will not include better state benefits, help for single parents or a continuation of Labour’s excellent Sure Start schemes, but these are the sort of policies which will prevent family breakdown not rhetorical appeals to ‘traditional values’.
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This post was written by John Green