What’s the link between “family values” social conservatism and right wing anti-worker economics?

The World Congress of Families (WCF), which is holding a regional “Life, Family and Freedom” conference in Melbourne on 30 August, argues that “the natural family is the fundamental social unit, inscribed in human nature, and centred on the voluntary union of a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage”. It is “essential to good society”.­

The conference is to be opened by federal social services minister Kevin Andrews, an international ambassador for the organisation. Andrews, previously in the role of workplace relations minister selling the Howard government’s WorkChoices legislation, is currently leading the charge to gut social welfare. He is a tireless campaigner for increased restrictions on unions, greater powers for bosses and lower wages for workers.

There seems to be a contradiction here. On one hand, “defending the family” is a mission statement of the WCF. On the other, those associated with the group generally want to undermine the living standards of the majority of families.

There is more to it than hypocrisy. Nor is it simple coincidence. There are several motives for the political right, the rich and their allies to embrace and promote the family.

Self-reliance or social control?

One is to wed workers to the capitalist ethic of self-reliance and thereby encourage stable work habits that benefit the upper classes. In earlier times, ruling class figures were more explicit about this. For example, British politician Henry Dundas in 1794 encouraged New South Wales lieutenant governor Francis Grose to increase the rate of family formation in the fledgling colony. “There can be no doubt that [female convicts] will be the means by inter-marriage of rendering the men more diligent and laborious”, he reasoned.

Family relations became a battleground in the colonial class struggle. It took nearly 50 years of legal sanctions and rewards, plus a great deal of middle and upper class proselytising, to establish this so-called “natural” union. Former attorney general Roger Thierry, in his 1863 memoir Reminiscences of thirty years’ residence in New South Wales, lamented that not until the 1840s was a marriage ceremony “regarded as an indispensable preliminary to the union of man and woman”.

It wasn’t just an early Australian conflict. In Britain, fear of the unruly masses, provoked by the French Revolution and rebellions in Ireland – as well as the social decay resulting from rapid industrialisation – moved the upper classes to look for ways to reinforce social and ideological control. Philanthropic movements, often associated with evangelical Christianity, sought to raise the moral standards of the populace, particularly the working classes, and consolidate family structures and values.

A second motive relates to the way marriage, as a legal agreement that regulates the inheritance of private property, mirrors and helps naturalise the contractual nature of capitalist life. In our society individuals appear and are treated simply as buyers and sellers of labour or capital, and of services and consumables. The family is yet one more contract – an economic unit in its own right, which is expected to provide, at a minimal cost to the capitalists, the next generation of workers from whom profit is extracted.

A third aim of the family project is related to the second: the subordination of women (tying them to the home to raise kids and cook for their laborious man) and the sexual and gender oppression which flows from that. This isn’t simply about economics, but controlling the most intimate aspects of people’s lives – their sexuality and sexual identity – in order to disempower them socially as well as create divisions within the working class.

More generally, the family unit is about social control under the guise of self-reliance (and self-protection from an unpredictable world). The domestication of the working class and its subordination within a system run for profit is partially achieved through a multitude of loving yet self-policing and disciplinary “partnerships”.

Cohesion or fragmentation?

The family, through these means, is claimed to create social cohesion. “Chaos and suffering”, the WCF counsels, are the inevitable result of the erosion of the institution. Many people sincerely believe this – and find verification in the great comfort their own family provides or, negatively, in the cruelty and hurt that can be associated with family breakdown.

In reality, however, “the family” undermines the community of interests that otherwise tie working class people together. That is precisely one of its aims. Marriage creates a union, but each union remains differentiated from and set against all others within a chaotic and competitive capitalist system. The more that people view “family” as the primary focus of their duties and allegiances, the less loyalty there often is to the working class and its struggles.

This fragmentation of loyalties undermines social solidarity. This is a good thing only for the political right and the capitalists, who want to undermine conditions for the whole working class. For example, the idea that our primary responsibility is to family can be a strong inducement, both ideologically and in reality, to respect and uphold the contract we enter with an employer. That can mean putting up with the wages and conditions offered: “Sure, this job is horrible – but I’ve got a family to think about …”

And the more the bosses can get people to accept their lot, the harder it is for anyone else to stand against exploitation and oppression in the workplace.

Further, the family unit is used as a justification for attacking social welfare. That’s particularly true of the entitlements of women and their children, who can find it incredibly difficult or impossible to survive on the paltry assistance offered if they leave their husband or partner. But it flows through to the working class more generally, such as with the Abbott government’s plan for everyone under the age of 30 to be eligible for the dole for only six months a year. Implicit in the proposal is the idea that young adults too should be the responsibility of their family, rather than society.

The undermining of welfare in turn means that people increasingly are forced to rely on their family for shelter, food and comfort. This dynamic produces even greater social fragmentation. The more that people come to rely on relatives, the less confidence they end up having in themselves, the less relevant are ideas about collectivity and solidarity and the lower are their expectations of the world. Certainly it can make people – both those who are dependants and those who are providers – more desperate for work and thereby, again, more cautious about rocking the boat when employed. All that is good news for the political right, who want to smash unions and abolish penalty rates.

So “family values” appears as simple social conservatism, but it is actually a quite elaborate and historically based right wing project to control and fragment the working class. That’s why the most economically right wing government ministers are so often devout family men.