Socialist Worker

Is the family a haven or a hell?

The media and politicians hold up the nuclear family as the ideal way to live our lives. But, as Lindsey German writes, this vision is far from the reality for most of us

Issue No. 2129

Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher famously said, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.

“And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves.”

This statement is not a bad place to start when discussing the case of Baby P.

Thatcher’s policies ushered in an era of rampant individualism. Whole communities were destroyed, the welfare state came under attack and increasing pressure was put on individual families.

This neoliberal ideology has continued under New Labour, where dog-eat-dog capitalists are TV heroes and where everything from children’s education to cooking programmes on television is organised on the basis of aggressive competition.

This will produce not just more cases like that of Baby P but also the moral outrage and blame culture that accompanies it.

The case is horrific. The systematic abuse and killing of a defenceless child by three adults produces a sense of revulsion that leads us to ask why these things happen and how can they happen in any society which calls itself civilised?

The kneejerk reaction of the media has been to heap blame on the heads of social workers. But the case has raised questions about the institution of the family and highlighted how much violence there is inside it.

Life for many families continues to get harder.

Child poverty in Britain has doubled over the last generation. Some 3.4 million children are in poverty – 43 percent of them in single parent families. There is much poverty in working families, where wages are so low they can’t cover basic costs.

The home under capitalism is a centre of consumption. Happiness is equated with consumer durables that are beyond the reach of millions.


Domestic violence accounts for nearly a quarter of all recorded violent crime in England and Wales. Children do not escape the direct and indirect consequences of this violence and are often the victims.

The most common scene of murder is the home. Most women who are raped are raped by someone they know – often within the home – and physical and sexual abuse of children in the home is common.

None of this is so surprising. The family is an institution based on hierarchical relationships and sexual repression.

The family promises happiness and safety, but frequently it delivers insecurity and sadness.

It is seen as a haven from the outside world but it cannot be a genuinely secure retreat. Pressures on the family, from unpaid bills to unemployment, from problems of parents working shifts to difficult relationships, all impinge upon it.

So the ideal of the family – the Kellogg’s cornflake packet image of husband, wife and two adoring children – does not match the reality.

While most families do not descend to anywhere near the horrors seen in the Baby P case, they are also incapable of truly fulfilling the potential of each family member.

Yet the ideological and economic role of the family remains of central importance to capitalism.

It is the place where the next generation of workers are fed, clothed, socialised, educated, loved and cared for to ensure that they turn into young adults fitted to sell their labour power to capitalists.

This is why the family is idealised by politicians. The Tories’ Iain Duncan Smith has used the Baby P case to talk about using the law to “discourage informal relationships” and trying to force people in failed relationships to stay together.

Politicians believe a marriage certificate will make the difference between “good” and “bad” families.

This is also why there is so much concern over “family breakdown”. The capitalist state intervenes to prop up the family, financially through family credits and other allowances, and directly through an array of professionals connected to health, education and welfare.

The ideological onslaught on supposedly “failing” families has been deafening for too long.

The pernicious use of the term “hardworking families” immediately sets up a division between those who have money and deserve it – and those who don’t and deserve that too.

The “breakdown of the family” – the rise in statistics for divorce, the decline of marriage and the increase in women having children outside marriage – is decried as the reason for many problems ranging from gun and knife crime to obesity.

It is well known that real problems exist within families – that there are some people who shouldn’t be allowed to care for children who may nonetheless be in a caring position.


There are many more who face a struggle in caring for their children – because of physical or mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction or because they have rejected the child and are incapable of caring for it.

In cases where there is suspected abuse, social workers have powers to control what happens to the child, including putting them into “care”. Why does this system sometimes fail?

Firstly, very few resources are put into the care that working class families receive. Social workers, as trained professionals, are not particularly well paid, have increasingly heavy workloads and sometimes are simply not in a position to assess a case properly.

Secondly there are many class prejudices and assumptions on the part of the authorities that may lead them to a particular course of action.

Thirdly many people who are visited by social workers resent the intrusion and prejudices, and may therefore sometimes cover up things that they think will be disadvantageous to them.

At fault here is the way that capitalism organises the family and childcare. The privatised family means that most people don’t know what goes on behind the four walls of the family home.

It is the sphere of the private that means that childcare remains the prerogative of the parents, especially the mother, other close relations and professionals who are paid.

In any rational society, caring for children would be one of the most valued jobs and would be shared among a range of people as well as the biological parents. This would enable parents to have some space and it would also enable the many people who love children to take a share in this role.


If the money and care that is currently lavished on executive first class travel, multi-million pound office buildings in the City and on the finest, most exclusive meals prepared by top chefs were instead spent on the most vulnerable children there would be far fewer cases like that of Baby P.

If we stopped spending on war and Trident missiles we could fund proper services where people were not overworked and undervalued.

The priorities of capitalism stop us from doing that. And all the while, the prejudices of this society put the blame for failings on individuals, especially the poorest and least adequate individuals.

Some of the headlines about the people in the Baby P case used words like “evil” and “monsters”.

Some months ago a respectable married businessman set fire to his house having killed his wife and daughter, their horses and dogs, because he could no longer finance their expensive lifestyle.

Unfortunately such cases are far from rare. But this case was described as a tragedy, not as monstrous or evil.

The real tragedy is that capitalism distorts the behaviour of human beings in this way.

As the late David Widgery, a socialist GP in the East End of London, wrote in the mid 1980s, “to believe these inequalities are inevitable is to believe working class children somehow need less fresh air and fewer books and smaller bedrooms.

“That they are in some way less human than the children born elsewhere. And to accept that, especially if you are in a position to do something about it, would require a terrible cruelty.”

Violence and the family

  • Domestic violence accounts for one quarter of all recorded violent crime in Britain
  • On average two women a week are killed in Britain by a partner or former partner
  • At least 750,000 children witness domestic violence every year
  • Children who live with domestic violence are more likely to experience behavioural problems, emotional trauma and mental health problems
  • Most rapes take place in the victim’s home and most are perpetrated by the victim’s partner

Lindsey German is the author of Material Girls, an excellent account of how women’s lives have changed over the past few decades, current debates on women’s liberation and the barriers that remain. It is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. »

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Tue 25 Nov 2008, 18:29 GMT
Issue No. 2129
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