Capitalism, alienation and the family

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In the second part of her two-part series on the family, Canadian socialist Susan Rosenthal explains how families can trap men, women and children in violent and abusive relations.

Stripping the romantic veneer from the typical family reveals two people who are socialised to be opposites, crammed in a box, subjected to falling living standards, rising debt and social insecurity. They are expected to raise children, who have lots of needs, and to do this with no outside support. Add bouts of unemployment, injury, or illness. Add some dependent relatives. Then make it difficult for these people to leave. Insist that they solve their own problems, and if they cannot, then it must be their fault or their partner’s fault. This is a recipe for disaster, as unrelenting stresses build to the point of explosion.

It is widely assumed that family violence is caused by men dominating women and children. This is partly true. Daily humiliation on the job generates anger that can release at home. The role of provider causes resentment when men are working too hard for too little reward. Gender roles dictate that men should never be needy. The accumulation of unmet needs causes some men to explode in frustration or in drunken rages that mask their underlying depression and despair.

While sexist stereotypes portray women as victims rather than aggressors, women are equally capable of attacking their partners. Between 17 and 45 percent of lesbians report at least one act of physical violence perpetrated by a female partner. A recent US survey found that one in four women and one in seven men have experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner, that is being hit, beaten, or slammed against something. A Canadian survey found that men and women faced the same risk of violence from an intimate partner. The legal system denies the reality of domestic violence, imprisoning partners who assault or kill each other, even in self-defence.

While the women’s movement provides victim services for women, it refuses to acknowledge male victims of domestic violence. The mistaken belief that only women are victims makes it harder for male victims to come forward. Men who are assaulted by women are ridiculed. The false belief that women are violent only in self-defence means that men who call the police on violent women are likely to be arrested themselves. There are virtually no shelters for battered men. And many men will not leave violent female partners for fear of never seeing their children again.

Families propagate violence. Sons of violent parents are 1,000 times more likely to batter their adult partners, and daughters of violent parents are 600 times more likely to batter their partners. Children who are bullied at home are more likely to bully and to be bullied at school.

Child abuse is rampant in the capitalist family system. We cannot know how rampant, because it goes on behind closed doors, most is never reported, and adults tend to normalise what they experienced as children.

When neglected, they conclude that they did not deserve better. When physically terrorised, they will rationalise: “Sure, I was hit. But I deserved it.” According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, more than one in four American adults lived with alcohol or drug addiction in their childhood homes, 28 percent were physically abused as children and 21 percent suffered sexual abuse.

The burden of childcare can be overwhelming. American mothers are responsible for at least 60 percent of child deaths caused by abuse and neglect. Fewer than 40 percent of such deaths are perpetrated by the father alone. Adults who were harmed in childhood experience more health problems including: alcoholism; addiction; diabetes; obesity; heart, lung and liver disease; all forms of mental illness; more bone fractures; higher unemployment; higher cancer rates; chronic pain; and a shorter lifespan. The likelihood of suffering these problems increases with the number and severity of adverse experiences.

Capitalism promotes sympathy for child victims and prosecutes adult perpetrators. But today’s perpetrators are yesterday’s victims. While only a small minority of child victims become adult perpetrators, studies of those who do perpetrate reveal that almost all were traumatised as children. Capitalism cannot acknowledge that most perpetrators are former victims, because it cannot admit that families transmit trauma from one generation to the next.

Some sexually-abused girls become adult sexual predators. The sexist belief that women would never violate children means that female perpetrators are rarely caught, their victims are not believed, and neither is provided with effective treatment. Adult perpetrators can be treated, not by punishing them but by connecting them with their own painful experience of victimisation, experience that they have buried. While capitalism feigns support for child abuse victims, the abuser is rarely removed from the home. The abused child is removed instead. This sends the message that the child is the problem, and does nothing to protect any remaining children. Removing the abuser would require a social investment in residential treatment and family support to replace what the abuser provided. In order not to “burden” society with these obligations, child victims lose their families and suffer the guilt of believing that their family would still be together if they had not “told”.

The legal system actively discourages child abuse victims from coming forward. Those who do are re-traumatised by lawyers and judges who disbelieve them, minimise their suffering and blame them for causing their own misery. The system cannot support these victims for fear of releasing a flood of law suits that would expose how many children are being harmed in their families. Child abuse and elder abuse are connected. A lack of social support compels adults who were abused as children to become caregivers for aging parents. The stress of care-giving is multiplied by the deep resentment of having to provide for those who treated you badly. This resentment can explode into violence, as aggrieved children give their former abusers a taste of their own medicine.

The family is a violent institution that serves a violent capitalist society. Yet the epidemic of misery that capitalism produces is falsely presented as a collection of individual, personal problems best treated by individual doctors, therapists and charities. Under capitalism, social problems are treated as individual difficulties caused by bad choices, poor parenting, wonky brain chemistry, faulty genetics, or “accidents”. In reality, the greatest predictor of illness, injury and premature death is your position on the social hierarchy. The lower your position, the more you suffer.

One study found that the additional deaths caused by income inequality in 282 American cities exceeded the loss of life from lung cancer, diabetes, motor vehicle crashes, HIV infection, suicide, and homicide combined.

Despite overwhelming evidence of how much damage capitalism creates, we are lectured that health is an individual responsibility. When we get sick or become disabled, then we must have done something wrong, and it is our responsibility to fix it. To help us fix it, the pharmaceutical industry will sell us a pill for every ill. And a billion-dollar self-help industry will sell us advice on how we can be healthy in a sick world. The message is that anyone who is unhealthy or unhappy must be doing something wrong.

In reality, capitalism makes life unbearable. An estimated 800,000 people around the world kill themselves every year, and millions more attempt suicide or wish they were dead. Being unhappy is a reasonable response to being exploited and oppressed. However, we do not live in a reasonable society; we live in a blaming, shaming society where those who cannot cope, those who fall outside the expected norms, and those who rebel are stigmatised as defective.

You have to admire capitalism for its ability to deceive. We are born into a repressive family structure where, as children, we have absolutely no power and no choices. The adults who control our lives are overwhelmed and deprived, so they cannot give us what we need. Our traumatic experiences as children mark us for life. However, we are told that our problems are our own fault and that we are responsible for solving them. And when we inevitably fail, insult is added to injury. We are blamed.

The “personal sphere” is dominated by liberalism — the belief that individuals can change society by changing their behaviour and that social problems persist because not enough people care. “Be the change you want to see in the world” means that if you care about hunger, you should feed someone. As Mother Teresa instructed, “If you cannot feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” In fact, we can feed a hundred people. We currently produce more than enough to feed everyone in the world. People do not starve because there is no food; they starve because they are poor; and they are poor because the capitalist class hoards wealth at the top of society.

Most people care about others and want to reduce their suffering. Capitalism transforms this caring into a profitable charity industry that appears to address social problems without challenging the system that creates them. Individuals are urged to contribute to food banks, raise money for disease research, donate to children’s sports programmes, collect for school computers, and so on. The net result is to lower expectations of what can be achieved. Only some people get fed, only some diseases are researched, only some children get to play sports, and only some schools get computers. That is not good enough in a world that produces more than enough to meet everyone’s needs.

The annual income of any one of the top ten richest Americans could pay for a year’s accommodation for the estimated 663,000 homeless people in the United States. Walmart is the largest grocery retailer in the United States. Its 2013 profit of $16 billion (£11bn) could eliminate hunger in America. And the trillions of dollars spent annually on war could ensure clean water, healthcare, education and housing for everyone on the planet.

The capitalist emphasis on personal choice is not about who we are or who we want to be. It is a political ploy to divert us from our common class interests. The key to fighting deprivation is class solidarity, not charity. When the ruling class fails to meet our needs, we must hold it accountable, organising in every neighbourhood, school and workplace until we get what we need. The liberal strategy for ending bigotry and interpersonal violence is to purge ourselves of unwanted thoughts and behaviours. This moralistic approach increases interpersonal antagonisms by shaming those who fail to behave correctly. And everyone inevitably fails.

Capitalism is a social system that seeps into every fibre of our beings; there is no part of our lives or our relationships that it does not touch. From birth to death we are immersed in racist, sexist, homophobic and class ideology. No one is immune to the impact. It is impossible to eliminate bigotry and interpersonal violence without politically challenging the social system that breeds this behaviour. A socialist is not a morally superior being with no flaws. A socialist challenges divisive beliefs and behaviours in order to increase cooperation inside the working class. However, it is impossible to create consistently cooperative behaviour under capitalism. If it were possible, we would not need a socialist revolution.

Capitalism emphasises personal life, but it cannot deliver. Personal life requires time away from work and the means to use that time how we choose to. Capitalism creates the opposite conditions: overwork and deprivation. It appears that there are two distinct spheres in life because maximising capital accumulation requires production to be socialised and reproduction to be privatised. In reality, there is only one sphere, capitalism, an all-embracing, thoroughly destructive social system. And there is only one solution.

Human beings thrive in societies based on mutual care-giving. When we share the work, everyone has more free time. And when we share what we produce, everyone has access to what society has to offer. Socially integrating production and reproduction would create a space for personal life that is free from the demands of both. This is the socialism that we long for. Collective care-giving is the child’s best protection. Surrounded by caregivers, no child would ever be trapped in a box with a needy or raging adult. And when raising children is a social responsibility, no one will be forced to live with anyone else. Socialism would enable women to control if, when and how they bear children. Socialised childcare coupled with reproductive control would free women to be the social equals of men.

Replacing the individual-family system with a socially-caring system would end the need for gender caricatures. Children could develop into full and complete human beings who shape their relationships as they please. The way that human beings organise life shapes all of their relationships. Replacing capitalism with a socialist society will change much more than the economy; it will change the people who create that social revolution, and it will change their relationships in ways we can only imagine. It will transform what it means to be human.

Capitalism has made the world a terrifying place. As a shield against the horrors of war, exploitation, oppression, slow death through climate change, or quick death through nuclear holocaust, we are offered the refuge of “personal life”. While the world burns, we are directed to hunker down in our individual homes, where we have the least power to challenge capitalism. We do not have to comply. We do get some personal choices under capitalism. We can choose to despair or we can choose to hope. We can choose to accept the world as it is or we can choose to struggle against it. We can blame ourselves and each other for our misery or we can pull together to meet everyone’s needs. We can hide in our homes or we can fight with our class. What we choose will determine the fate of the world.

Susan Rosenthal is a retired physician and a life-long socialist based in Canada. She is the publisher at ReMarx Publications and more of her writings can be found at www.susanrosenthal.com.
Part 1 is available here.