Socialist Worker

Love and marriage

Fewer people are getting married in Britain and politicians are worried. Amy Leather looks at how the family has changed – and why it remains a central part of capitalism today

Issue No. 2190

Politicians and sections of the media are panicking about the decline of marriage. If fewer people marry, they say, it will be harmful for their children. And they also go further and say that a decline in marriages will be bad for society as a whole.

The Tories have a remedy. If elected, they propose to bribe people into wedlock by giving married couples tax breaks.

Of course, many people find comfort in the family. But for most, it is far from the idealised vision that those at the top of society constantly promote.

And for others, it is a place of fear, abuse and violence.

So why do our rulers remain so obsessed with pushing one version of how we should live our lives?

The recent panic is the latest in a long line of attempts by the state to bolster marriage and the “nuclear family”.

The state puts enormous economic and ideological pressure on people to conform to a stereotypical ideal.

Massive changes have taken place in how people live and the structure of family life over the past few decades.

More women go out to work. More people live alone. And the fight against homophobia has meant that more gay couples feel able to live together openly.

Yet the family continues to play a key role in the workings of the capitalist system. This is why threats to “the family” are often treated as threats to society as a whole.


Of course this isn’t without contradictions – capitalism is a dynamic system that is constantly changing.

In poorer countries many workers are forced to migrate – which tears families apart.

But such changes have brought benefits to capitalists. However, changes which don’t help profits are condemned.

Just witness how single parents are demonised, or the prejudice still suffered by gay people.

Understanding the role that the family plays is at the heart of understanding sexual and women’s oppression.

The monogamous, heterosexual family unit we are presented with today is not some natural phenomenon that has always existed.

For over 90 percent of the 200,000 years modern human beings have existed, we lived in “hunter gatherer” societies. These were small, collective and egalitarian nomadic groups of around 40 people.

There is much evidence to suggest that childcare was the responsibility of the whole group, not just two individuals.

There was no male dominance or class hierarchy. Women played a key role in production as well as reproduction.

The family grew out of wider changes in society, emerging at the same time as class divisions, private property and the state.

Over thousands of years improvements in productive methods and agricultural changes led to some hunter gatherer groups settling in one place. They cultivated land and domesticated animals.

Technical changes, combined with the need for more children to work, led to women being increasingly pushed into the sphere of reproduction.

For the first time society produced more than what it immediately required – a surplus. Who controlled this surplus became important. Over time, hierarchies developed.

The family became the mechanism for passing on private wealth to the next generation. This meant that being sure that your child was biologically your own became crucial.

So the family is a product of class society, but over time its form changes.

At some points in history it seemed that the family might disappear completely. In the tumult of the industrial revolution, the old peasant family was ripped apart.

People were driven off the land­ – the new industrialists needing workers for the new mills and factories.

Everyone worked – men, women and children – for extremely long hours in harsh conditions, collapsing afterwards in shared hovels.

Women often gave birth as they stood and worked. There was no concept of “childhood” or “housewife”.

Two sets of pressures developed that led to the resurgence of the family.

On the one hand, more far-sighted capitalists began to worry. In 1843 the average age at which workers died was 17 in Manchester and 15 in Liverpool.

Bosses needed a more secure supply of workers to protect their profits. For these capitalists there was a growing recognition of the benefits of workers being integrated into family units.

The burden of feeding and caring for the next generation of workers could be transferred to women – and performed for free.

It could serve an ideological purpose too. With society in a state of flux, the family unit provided stability.

At the same time, working class men and women were campaigning for shorter working hours and better conditions. The idea that a man could earn a “family wage” was immensely attractive because workers saw it as a way to release women and children from the workplace.

The notion of “family” appealed to workers in other ways too. It seemed to offer a place of rest and comfort, a respite from the brutal reality of work.

The modern family took shape out of the misery of industrialisation.

Despite massive changes over the last century, it continues to play a key role for the system.

Most families are no longer units of production. Instead, capitalism is a system of commodity production where nearly everything is produced outside the home, to be bought and sold on the market.

But the family still fulfils the crucial function of reproduction and the socialisation of the next generation of workers.

Individuals, mainly women, perform billions of pounds’ worth of care in the home.

Some reports have worked out that if women were paid for housework, its value would be over £700 billion a year.

Production is social but reproduction remains private.

The ideal of family life often bears little resemblance to the reality. But that ideal can still have a real attraction. This isn’t because people are deluded – it is because of the circumstances of our lives.


Long working hours, bullying bosses, money worries, job insecurity and powerlessness means the family is often seen as an “escape”.

Particularly in difficult economic times, it seems to provide a safety net against the worst aspects of capitalism – and indeed it sometimes does.

As council and welfare services are cut, caring for the sick, old, disabled and unemployed is increasingly thrown back onto the family, rather than being paid for by society.

This burden usually falls on women.

The contradictory nature of the family is shown by the gap between the real situation and people’s ideas. Despite the decline in marriage rates, many people still aspire to marry.

This year’s British Household panel found that 75 percent of people aged under 35 expected to marry, 80 percent of people living together wanted to marry and 90 percent of young people wanted to marry.

And capitalism has an immense ability to adapt to real changes in people’s lives. The growth of civil partnerships and gay adoption enable some gay people to “join” the family.

Yet a very narrow vision of how people should conduct their relationships remains at the heart of the system.

Socialists want something very different. We are fighting for a world where men and women have a genuine choice about how they live their lives.

We want to end the economic constraints that can make people stay in relationships they’d rather leave, and the oppression that still puts the burden of care onto women.

Once the economic basis for the ideology of the family has gone, that ideology will melt away. The demonising of single mothers and of gay people will no longer make sense.

The revolutionary Frederick Engels gave a good answer when asked about what relationships would be like under a socialist society:

“That will be settled after a new generation has grown up.

“A generation of men who never have had occasion to purchase a woman’s surrender either with money or with any other means of social power, and of women who have never been obliged to surrender to any man out of any consideration other than real love, or to refrain from giving themselves to their beloved for fear of the economic consequences.

“When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual – and that will be the end of it.”

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Tue 23 Feb 2010, 19:25 GMT
Issue No. 2190
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