The myth of personal life under capitalism

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(398)

In the first part of a two-part series, Canadian socialist Susan Rosenthal takes apart the liberal notion of personal choices and shows how profoundly capitalism shapes our private lives.

As children, we count each birthday, eager to become adults so we can do what we want and make our own decisions. Once arrived, we discover that adult freedom is an illusion. Our childhood dreams of an exciting life are replaced with never-ending work and little to show for it. We feel like failures. What did we do wrong? The answer is — nothing. We did nothing wrong. This is how capitalism functions.

Like a giant casino, capitalism promises much and delivers little. A few strike it rich, re-enforcing the myth that you can do the same. But the game is rigged by the capitalist class. The harder we work, the richer they get, and the sicker we become. As in every con, capitalism must resign the losers to their losses so they do not organise to end the con. Promoting the fiction of personal choice misdirects us to blame ourselves.

Capitalism has perfected the art of making things appear different from how they are. It appears that work and life are two separate spheres: the economic sphere of work where we meet our material needs; and the personal sphere of family, friendship, love, interests and hobbies where we meet our emotional needs.

It also appears that different rules apply in each sphere. The sphere of work is shaped by the economics of capitalism, while the personal sphere seems to be shaped, not by capitalism, but by psychology and interpersonal dynamics. This dual-sphere model leads to dual solutions: an economic revolution to transform work; and a separate personal revolution to transform our relationships.
In reality, there is only one sphere, capitalism, that we experience socially and individually — one sphere with one solution. The liberal emphasis on personal choice hides the impact of capitalism as a social system and deflects workers from our common class interests.

Under the feudal agricultural system, work and life were integrated for the labouring classes. They lived with the people they worked with. Capitalism physically removed production from the family, creating a space away from work that we call “personal life” or “free time”. In fact, there is nothing free about it, because workers’ lives are dominated by the demands of capitalism: to prepare ourselves to work, to commute to and from work, to recover from the workday, and to raise the next generation of workers.

These reproductive tasks are not profitable for capitalism, but production ceases without them. This became clear during the Industrial Revolution, when round the clock factory work sent death rates soaring, and the life expectancy of factory workers in England dropped to 18 years. Something had to be done to protect the supply of labour.

Workers
The capitalist class could have ensured a steady flow of new workers by funding infant and childcare centres, collective kitchens and shared living arrangements. But there is no profit in providing social services, and the working class was not strong enough to insist on them.

The alternative was to make individuals responsible for reproduction. Laws were passed to limit the ability of women and children to work. Men were paid a “family wage” and made legally responsible for supporting women and children. These measures placed men at the head of the family. Parents were made legally responsible for their children. Divorce was restricted and male homosexuality was outlawed.

The church backed the state by condemning adultery, divorce, sex outside of marriage, children out of wedlock, contraception, homosexuality, and by sanctifying the subordination of wives to husbands and children to parents. In effect, the modern family was constructed by prohibiting any alternative.The working class family has one function, reproduction – the daily reproduction of workers’ energy, and the reproduction of the next generation of workers. When you strip the romantic veneer from marriage, it is basically a contract where two people agree to take care of each other and their offspring, because society will not.

The reproductive functions that the village used to provide (emotional, social and material support) are now the responsibility of the marriage partner. The concept of “romantic love” was created to support this shift. The first romance novel appeared in 1740, and Jane Austen popularised the genre in the early 1800s. Today, promoting romantic love is a multibillion-dollar industry. However, the high rate of divorce and relationship breakdown proves how nearly impossible it is for one person to meet all the needs of another.

Capitalism does not require workers to be replenished and reproduced in families. This can be done by other means. Slaves can be exploited to death and replaced by new slaves. Many agriculture, lumber and mining companies establish camps to care for workers whose families live far away. And the reproduction of prison labour is fully funded by the state. However, capitalism prefers the family
system for its financial and political advantages. Financially, the global value of unpaid work performed in the home has been estimated at more than £7 trillion per year. Politically, the family serves as an important socialising unit for capitalism.

The modern family is maintained at the expense of working women. Just as capitalism required racism to promote African slavery, it requires sexism to deny social support for child-rearing.
Sexism dictates that woman’s primary role is to bear children, and to enforce that working class women are denied the right to control if, when and under what conditions they have children. Lack of reproductive control, inadequate maternity leave, no job security after pregnancy, and lower wages combine to keep most women financially dependent on higher-waged men.

Sexism also binds men to the family system. “Family obligations” tie men to jobs they might otherwise leave. Men are expected to support women and children, even after they have left one family and formed another. And “dead-beat dads” in North America can land in prison for not paying child support. Just as women are tied to their roles as in-house parents, men are tied to their roles as out of the house bread winners. A recent US survey found that two thirds of fathers would prefer to split childcare duties with their spouse. However, only 14 percent of American men are entitled to paid parental leave.

Denying men paid parental leave alienates them from their children and forces women to shoulder more of the childcare burden, with the lower wages that result. It is a myth that we choose to live in families; we are locked into them. To drive that home, the legal system punishes those who try to escape the iron grip of the family. Divorcing couples are forced through expensive and gut-wrenching legal obstacles. Parents who neglect their childcare duties can be legally prosecuted. Youngsters who run away from home can be forcibly returned to their families, placed in alternate families or confined in detention centres. Gay people continue to be victims of discrimination, violence and murder.

A lack of social services forces a life-long dependence on the family. Those who are sick, injured, unemployed, broke or in trouble are expected to rely on their families. Social supports are deliberately inadequate and punitive so that only the desperate will use them. As a result, most of us are compelled to provide personal-care services for children or parents our entire lives.

Romance
To make the lack of alternatives more palatable, romance, marriage, and family are promoted as the best way, the only way, to live. As children we all learn the song:
“John and Mary sitting in a tree. K.I.S.S.I.N.G. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage.” (In that order.)

Of course, the reproductive family can take different forms: blended families composed of separated parents, single parents, gay parents. We used to think that gay marriage threatened capitalism, but it does not. US Republican billionaire Paul Singer calls gay marriage “an augmenter of social stability, family stability, and stability in raising kids.”

The family reproduces class roles and expectations. It also reproduces gender roles. The first question asked about a new baby is whether it is a boy or a girl. The answer will determine how that child will be treated, and be expected to behave, for the rest of its life. Because woman are the primary child-rearers, little girls are socialised to be kind, gentle, patient, affectionate, nurturing, receptive, altruistic, invested in their appearance, submissive to men, sexually modest and sexually faithful.

Because men are expected to be the family bread winners (and fight in wars), little boys are socialised to be disciplined, strong, competitive, ambitious, logical, independent, ready to fight, protectors of women, and not homosexual. The male gender role encourages competition and combat, leaving men ill-equipped for intimate relationships and parenting. Gender roles are inescapable even among gay people, who are pressured, and pressure each other, to adopt these roles.

Roles
Male and female gender roles are complete opposites. Men are expected to have hair on their bodies; women are pressured to remove their body hair. The man with a robust sexual appetite is a stud; his female counterpart is a slut. Virtually everything in life, from the colours we like, the clothes we wear, the gifts we’re given, the hobbies we enjoy, is gender-defined, so that women will reject any part of themselves that is considered masculine, and men will reject any part of themselves that is considered feminine.

Restrictive gender roles make it impossible for anyone to be a full human being. The emotionally sensitive boy is shamed as a sissy, a wimp, or a wuss. The confident, assertive girl is shamed as bossy, a bitch, a dyke, or a ball-buster. After squishing ourselves into these crippling gender roles, we are expected to partner with someone from the opposite sex who displays characteristics that we have spent a lifetime rejecting in ourselves. That is not a recipe for success.

Impossible gender expectations create crushing disappointment. The woman is raised to see the man as a champion and a prince who will make her dreams come true. When she discovers that he cannot do this, she expresses her disapproval or withdraws in despair. The man gets the message that he is not measuring up. How could he? The man is raised to expect a warm attentive partner who is always ready for sex. What he gets is an overworked, exhausted and frequently irritated partner. Both of them blame themselves, and both of them blame each other. But neither is to blame.
Capital is most effectively extracted from workers who do not question their exploitation, who “mind their betters” and “keep their noses to the grindstone”.

For the majority working class, obedience is demanded, questioning is forbidden and defiance is punished. Children present a problem for capitalism, because children are natural scientists. They want to know “Why?” about everything. And when they don’t like the answer, they keep asking “Why?” The relentless inquiry of each new generation is a gift, an opportunity to rethink everything. Nothing is more subversive.

For children to accept the unfairness of capitalism, their inquiring spirits must be crushed into submission. This process begins in the family, is reinforced at school and consolidated at work.
When confronted with the child’s “Why?” most adults are too stressed, too fearful or too ashamed to answer. Adult frustration tells children that questioning is not acceptable. Things are the way they are...because.

Natural
When questioning is not acceptable, we conclude that the questioning part of ourselves is not acceptable. After a lifetime of suppressing our own questioning, it feels natural to suppress our children’s questioning. They must do as we say and not “talk back”. After all, it is “for their own good”.

As children, we learn that we are “good” when we obey and “bad” when we disobey. Love and acceptance become conditional on serving the people who have power over us. Boys and girls receive this message through the filter of different gender expectations, but it applies to both. Girls are expected to put others’ needs before their own; boys are expected to “take what’s handed out” to the point of risking their lives for employers and superior officers.

Transforming inquisitive children into obedient, producing and reproducing machines requires a persistent shaming process that compels us to reject every part of ourselves that might rebel: our curiosity, our need to be heard and valued, and our need to actively shape our lives and our world. As a result, we cannot be complete human beings. When we believe that parts of ourselves are unworthy, we are ashamed to show ourselves, and our relationships remain superficial and insecure.

When we cannot show who we are, we cannot believe that we are loved for who we are. Attempts to earn love through appearance, accomplishments or status are doomed to fail because conditional love is, by definition, insecure. And insecurity in our worth and in our intimate relationships makes us miserable. When we feel empty and lonely, we blame ourselves, and we blame each other. Blaming ourselves causes more shame, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and addictions to numb the pain. Blaming each other creates another form of hell.

Next Issue: Part 2 reveals the systemic roots of family violence which are hidden by the liberal moralism that dominates the personal sphere. Susan Rosenthal is a retired physician and a life-long socialist based in Canada. She is the publisher at ReMarx Publications www.remarxpub.com and more of her writings can be found at www.susanrosenthal.com