Nannies and imperialism

ermadog at ermadog at
Wed Dec 19 00:23:50 MST 2001

On Tue, 18 Dec 2001, Henry C.K. Liu wrote:

> The "family value" of US society is repugnant, with open neglect of the
> aged and the young, regardless of income.
> People are the greated wasted resource in the world today, much worse than the
> environment.

 "Come away, Oh, human child,
 With a Faerie hand in hand;
 For the world's more full of weeping,
 Than you can understand."

Jim Drysdale has been reminding us all of the social reality behind
today's stupendous material success of the capitalist system. Much of that
success can be attributed to the undpaid and underpaid work of women and
children.  The spectacular rise of the bourgeois class - the middle
classes of Marx's day - is due, in part, to the fact that property-owning
men had proprietary rights to the creative power of wives and children,
designated as part of the "household chattel". To this day, small
businessmen and independent tradesmen depend on wives for bookkeeping and
on children for unpaid after-school help.

In previous centuries, the term "household chattel" referred to the
ownership of all household dependants - household retainers, servants,
dogs, as well as wives and children. In the book _Traffic in Innocents_,
which details the history of the child sex trade in Victorian England, we
are told of an incident designed to raise awareness of this problem, which
reformers blamed, in part, on lack of sex education for young people. The
editor of "The Pall Mall Gazette" arranged to buy a young girl from her
parents in order to show his readers how easy this transaction could be.
He bought her for the price of an evening's drink and lodged her with the
then nascent Salvation Army. When the story broke, he was arrested and
tried - not for white slavery, but for the crime of having bought the girl
from her mother, by which act he had deprived the father of his legal
rights of ownership.

By all accounts, family values are something of a modern invention. The
marriage ceremony was not an official sacrament of the Christian Church
prior to the beginning of the second millenium (oddly enough, "The Office
of Same-Sex Union" was recognized from the earliest centuries - see "The
Journal of Higher Criticism online). In earlier societies, the express
purpose of the family unit was "preservation of the patrimony", usually,
the land. In _The Kindness of Strangers_, John Boswell has detailed the
practice of child abandonment as a means of limiting the number of
inheriting children in a family. Excess children were left in public
places - markets, garbage heaps, crossroads - to be taken in by strangers,
who often saw these children as a source of extra income. Adoption by this
method was referred to in legal documents in the ancient world as adoption
"by the kindness of strangers". Two stories in the Old Testament
illustrate the function of children as support for the family: Nehemiah,
Chapter 5, tells us of children being sold into bondage in order to pay
off family debts; and II kings 6:24-30 tells us of children boiled and
eaten during a time of famine (although this latter does have an air of
apocryphal telling about it).

In _Intimate Matters_, we learn from Freedman & D'Emilio that the Cult of
the Mother was the invention of the 19C. upper middle class, whose wives
were freed from domestic labour by the hiring of servants. For these
women, the industry of "charitable works" was invented, giving them a
respectable outlet for their newly-discovered "female sensibilities"; and,
not uncoincidentally, giving their husbands a reputation for philanthropy.
Prior to this time, it was fathers, not mothers, to whom children would
turn in the middle of the night for comfort from nightmares. In the lower
middle classes, wives often did the work of several domestic servants in
an effort to "keep up with the Joneses" and lend an air of respectability
to the family name. We are told that an estimated one third of working
class women were forced to turn to prostitution from time to time during
downturns in the economy.

Capitalist economy, with it drive to rationalize production, tends to
atomize society and highlight individuallity. At the same time, however,
the logic of the profit motive serves to pauperize the working class,
leaving the individual with less and less to live on. In an effort to
stave off social unrest, capitalists use a "divide and conquer" tactic -
dividing the working class into the relatively privileged and the
relatively less privileged, usually along lines of race, gender,
ethnicity, and so on. The modern cult of family values serves several
functions today. In offering the illusion of Utopia within the Sacred
Precincts of the Family Hearth, it has taken the place of nearly defunct
organized religion as an opiate of the masses, and preserves what remains
of the "ancient bunk" - the content of what Victor was referring to as the
ideological unconscious (or Jung's collective unconscious). In its
function as socializer of children, the family normalizes divisions of
gender and class. By subordinating women's work to that of men, it ensures
the unpaid labour of women as homemakers and caretakers of children and of
the elderly. It also serves as the Great Discipliner of the working class
- as Charles de Talleyrand said, "A married man with a family will do
anything for money".

In reality, in can be easily seen that the family is regarded as an
alternative to the social safety nets which the working class has built
for itself over the past century. Contrary to what Joe Freeman was
suggesting, the private sphere, represented in the capitalists' accounting
by women and the family, does stand in an antagonistic relationship with
the public sphere, represented by men and their accomplishments. In a
previous era, this antagonism was expressed by the likes of Carrie Nation
and her Temperrance League. Smashing whiskey kegs was seen as the only way
to make husbands bring home the grocery money. Prior to the development of
reliable birth control technology, it was simply unthinkable to demand
economic independence for women at that time.

"Ah, you are a mucky kid, Dirty as a dustbin lid. When he finds out the
things you did, You'll get a belt from your da'.

Ah, you have your father's nose, So redly in the dark it glows. If you're
not asleep when the boozers close, You'll get a belt from your da'."

That the cult of family values is nothing but a cynical sham can easily be
seen by the statistics on the feminization of poverty, as seen in the
information in the hunger report posted here a few days ago. That the Bush
administration's concern for the rights of women in Afghanistan is nothing
but crocodile tears can be seen in its disdainfull treatment of women and
children living in poverty in America.

The following is from a Znet commentary posted by Cynthia Peters in
September. The full article is available at

* The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWOA) leads
with the "finding" that "Marriage is the foundation of a successful
society." The Act goes on to enforce marriage by requiring single mothers
to work, but not necessarily married women. The PRWOA requires a
two-parent family to work only 35 hours weekly (except when they receive
federally funded child care, in which case they must work 55 hours per
week).  Meanwhile a single parent must spend 30 hours per week in the
labor force.  Gwendolyn Mink argues that despite what you may have heard
about moving women from "welfare to work," the Temporary Assistance for
Needy Family (TANF) regime treats wage work as the alternative to
marriage, not to welfare -- as punishment for mothers' independence.

Joan Cameron

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