A Site of Family Disintegration and Revolutionary Personal Change

First published in Transform! European Journal for Alternative thinking and Political Dialogue, March 2008

Post-Bush America is a land of personal suffering, family disintegration, and desperation for women and children. The US family has experienced a class revolution in family and personal life. In fact, that revolution in family and personal life is the only class revolution occurring. It is not recognised as such because class is the most repressed discourse in America. Race, gender and ethnicity are recognised, class is not.

Conditions for US women and families began deteriorating in 1970. Under Bush that deterioration increased dramatically. In 1970 real wages froze for the first time in more than a century. For the previous 150 years, between 1820 and 1970, every generation benefited from higher wages than the previous generation had. Even in the Great Depression, real wages increased because prices fell faster than wages. That was the basis of the “American Dream.” All this stopped in 1970. From that time forward, workersʼ productivity kept rising while real wages froze1. The American family wage for white male workers had basically supported dependent wives and children until 19702. Before 1970, every generation was able to increase their consumption. Americansʼ sense of self worth was in large part dependent on their increased ability to consume. Net worth and self worth were commingled. By the time Bush took over in the year 2000, Americans had become increasingly desperate. Their sense of personal value was cut with their salaries. Consumption was undermined and with it self worth.

What Produced the Crisis in Personal and Family Life? Family desperation pushed women into the labour force to increase household income. Adolescents began to work to afford the ever-increasing consumption pushed by American culture. In 1970, 40 % of US women were in the labour force, many part time3. By the year 2000, 77 % of US women were in the labour force, most full time with ever scarcer governmental support for day care, after-school programmes and elder-care social programmes4 Womenʼs work outside of the home helped, but it could not make up for what was lost. Womenʼs work has its own costs: not only the obvious expense of additional clothing and of transportation, but also the costs of purchasing some of the goods and services that women produced at home, free of charge The latest figures indicate that if a stay-at-home mother in the US were replaced by paid services the cost would be $116,805 a year. The domestic services provided by a mom who works outside of the home would cost $68,406 per year. (CNN, 2008, CBC News, 2008). Families were still financially hurting. Their standard of living sharply deteriorated. Working women were now unable to perform household and emotional labour full time and there was still not enough money for consumption. Families became dependent on credit card debt in order to live. Since productivity increased sharply while wages froze, the wealthiest Americans were appropriating vast amounts of surplus labour for themselves. As one illustration of what that means, Americans went from being the Western nation with the most equal distribution of wealth in 1970 to the Western nation with the least equal distribution of wealth in 20085. Basically, the capitalist class then issued credit cards in order to loan to the workers the money appropriated from their surplus labour. The interest on credit cards is from 17 % to 22 %6. By the time Bush took power in 2000 there was a crisis of the volatile combination of reduced salaries and accelerated debt. Bush won the elections of 2000 and 2004 in part by selling the fantasy that the US was king of the world and the US male king of his household. This fantasy was offered when the US economy was no longer singularly dominant and the family was already falling apart. These fantasies are now much more difficult to sustain. Bush has cut many of the already hobbled social programmes that allowed families to survive. We are now losing two wars. The precarious house of credit card debt has fallen.

Families are in trouble. US family life depended on womenʼs full-time domestic labour to physically maintain home life, and on womenʼs emotional labour to emotionally sustain family security and emotional well-being. At present, three quarters of US women work outside the home. They return from work in the paid labour force to work a second shift of emotional and domestic labour7. Sixty percent of American women with children under two are in the paid labour force. Women with children under one year old who work full time are twice the number of those working part time (US Department of Labour, Bureau of labour Statistics, 2005). Almost 80 % of mothers with children from 6 to 11 years old are in the labour force. Because there is no government support for American working mothers, 85 % of US infants are in substandard day care while their mothers work. During these formative years the children may spend their days crowded into small spaces sitting in front of televisions in soiled diapers. They may have neither adequate toys, nor play space or supervision. The first two years are crucial years for brain formation8. There is no federal regulation of day care centres9. Only 15 % of US children receive quality childcare. Quality care is very expensive10.
Eighty-two percent of childcare and 70 % of housework is still done by women alone. Because of their work at home, married womenʼs work week is 7 hours longer than their husbands11. Married women who are employed outside of the home do, on average, more household labour than their unemployed husbands12.
The family as we knew it is over. American men cannot and do not sufficiently support their wives and children. Women are overworked and miserable. In a new development, US women are now rejecting marriage. For the first time in American history, the majority of women are single13. Two thirds of divorces are now initiated by women14. Half of first marriages and 60 % of second marriages end in legal separation or divorce. This does not take into account all of the people who end their marriages outside of the legal system15. Women are deserting marriage because the division of labour on which marriage was previously based, with women performing domestic, sexual and emotional labour in households economically sustained by men, has come to an end.

Women are no longer as willing to maintain menʼs domestic sexual and emotional lives as a “second shift.” In fact, now women are willing to take a financial hit in order to escape exploitation in the home. US women without children earn as much or more money than their husbands. They can and do leave marriages without financial privation. Women with children suffer financially. Alimony payments are rarely granted and full child-support payments are not delivered in full16.

What Does This Have to Do With A Class Revolution? As we have said, Americans are overwhelmingly unaware of class, while these changes in households and family life represent the only class revolution occurring in the US. What kind of class transformation is happening? In a nutshell, the celebrated and ostensibly “traditional” nuclear family consisted of a feudal arrangement. The woman produced domestic use-values – cooked food, order, cleanliness – and use-value services such as childcare, care for the sick, emotional services, and sexual services. Her husband, by virtue of his birth right as a male, was obliged to financially support his wife and children in this feudal household. The man, by virtue of maleness, had the right to appropriate and distribute the domestic use-values and emotional use- value services his wife produced. These patterns have changed. The womenʼs liberation movement has eroded the legal basis of menʼs rights in the household. For example, spousal violence is no longer legally tolerated. However, male feudal privilege lingers. Domestic violence is still the leading cause of injury and homicide for women between the ages of 15 and 44 17 (97). Spousal rape is now illegal in all 50 states. However, even today there are lighter penalties for spousal rape than for stranger rape. In 20 states it is still legal for a man to have non- consensual sex with his wife if she is mentally ill or physically incapacitated18. Laws have been passed that make it harder for divorced fathers to abandon their children financially. More fathers are now legally mandated to contribute to their childrenʼs support; however, women rarely receive even the full amount of the inadequate support granted to them.

As the feudal family slowly withers it is replaced by other family forms with other prominent class processes. The fastest growing family form is Marxʼs “ancient” form of household which I call the individual form in which an individual, a man, a woman or a person with dependent children, or unrelated individuals live in a household where each individual produces, appropriates and distributes her/his own domestic surplus. Twenty percent of Americans never marry. Individual households are Americaʼs fastest growing family form. Most children will spend at least part of their childhood outside of a family with their 2 biological parents. The individual family form is fast becoming the dominant form of US household. It is encouraged by American individualistic ideology, feminists stressing female independence and males who want an escape from financial obligations to women and children.

In addition, two other class forms of households are emerging. One is a communist household of adults and or adults and children. These households operate according to the communist precept “from each according to his/her abilities, to each according to his/her needs.” Domestic tasks and emotional work are shared as is work outside of the home when appropriate. This family form is encouraged by many family therapists, feminists, progressive people, and working couples without children as well as some with children. It is a slowly growing family form. There is another form proselytised and reinforced by forces that vigorously resist the collapse of the feudal household. They sustain a necrophilic romance with a dead family form. This is the family of the religious right which captures around 40 % of Americans. It is what I call the fascist feudal family, so named because of its similarity to families in the Third Reich. In the Third Reich women were to preoccupy themselves with “Kirche, Küche and Kinder” – church, kitchen and children. They were denied control over their own bodies through the prohibition of birth control and abortion. The Führer was the leader of the man and the man was the leader of the woman19. Women were to remain as subordinate as they are within the Southern Baptist Convention on men and women in which God is the leader of men who ordains males to lead females. Women are in charge of hearth and home20. In the Third Reich women worked up to 60 hours a week in munitions factories but they earned low wages ostensibly because factory work was not their life mission. Taking care of men and children was their gender mission and was constant regardless of their long hours in labour outside the home. This is the family model advocated by James Dobsonʼs Focus on the Family, the Southern Baptist Convention and by fundamentalist churches throughout America. It is the family of Sarah Palinʼs financial backers and promoters. This model is difficult to maintain in todayʼs world which is why the divorce rate in red states and amongst fundamentalists is even higher than it is in the less fundamentalist blue states21. American women are less likely to remain submissive while working to support themselves and their children along with a man who alone cannot provide for them.

Secure marriages belong to the past. Families and individuals are fracturing under the pressures of transformed landscapes of economic and intimate life. Secure families have been a basic personal support system for all Americans, particularly women. Womenʼs emotional labour connecting with children, relatives and friends has meant emotional survival and sustenance for children, men and other women. It was these networks of women at home which, in hard times, allowed families to take care of an extra child when a woman went to work or to move in together in hard times, or bring over extra food when a neighbour, friend or relative lost a job or was ill. All of these crucial primary networks are breaking up. American women who try to keep their families happy and healthy must now work outside the home while there is criminally inadequate childcare for their children. Exhausted women return from their jobs to households needing domestic labour and to both men and children desperately needing attention. Men whose working conditions and salaries have deteriorated want women to take care of them when they return. They are reluctant to help with childcare. They want to be cared for as their fathers were which may explain why 70 % of housework is still done by women. Womenʼs lives are ever more demanding, exhausting and lonely. They initiate divorces to rid themselves of menʼs demands, feeling that the greater incomes men generate do not compensate them for the extra burdens men represent. Married women are now the most emotionally depressed people in America22. Their lives have become immeasurably more difficult. Their struggles are invisible both to their husbands and to their government. There is no acknowledgement of the unique and ravaging set of problems they face.

The American left is not a unified vital alternative force. It presents nothing but action around particular feminist issues. It lacks a revolutionary programme addressing the interconnected issues of national priorities and family disintegration. The family and personal life, which are central parts of peopleʼs and particularly womenʼs lives, are parts of life that the left has left alone. The religious right focuses on the family. “Focus on the Family” is one of the nations richest, most powerful right-wing fundamentalist institutions replete with radio programmes, a publishing house, a church and a religious estate for the whole family to attend. Fundamentalist churches support womenʼs traditional feudal domestic producer roles in the home and reinforce the importance of womenʼs jobs as child nurturers. At the same time, they passionately oppose every social support that women need such as quality child and after-school care, free health insurance, abortion rights and maternity and paternity leaves.

Sarah Palinʼs popularity is that of the impossible fantasy of fulfilling all of womenʼs obligations at once. Palin presents herself as a hockey mom, doting on her children while running the state of Alaska and at the same time looking like a sex symbol. Women, and particularly the minority who remain married, want so badly to believe that they can do the impossible that many do not interrogate her impossible claims. A slight majority of married women voted for McCain/Palin. Even though Palin does nothing to address womenʼs concerns and much to deny them, she vowed to break the glass ceiling holding women down, protect special-needs children and run the nation. Unmarried women who reject the feudal family, who are suffering, and who want real change voted for Obama en masse. Unmarried women with children voted 74 to 25 in favour of Obama. Unmarried women without children voted 69 to 31 for Obama. Unmarried women gave Obama his victory with 12 million votes. They saw in Obama hope in the only nonsexist candidate America has ever had. McCain was enraged. He shook his fingers at the audience insisting that he had the answers. His platform relied on fear mongering and war. In contrast, Obama was quiet and thoughtful. He opposed the war in Iraq. He advocated negotiation, consideration and hope. Twelve million single women chose Obama and rejected the military swagger and impossible certainty of machismo.

What can the left offer to these 12 million women? I will present some ideas that can serve as the beginning of a relevant left programme. We need to begin by elaborating the skills and knowledge involved in emotional labour. At present womenʼs emotional labour is so undervalued that it is unrecognised. There is no vocabulary to define the knowledge and name the skills that enable women to anticipate and meet peopleʼs emotional needs from infancy through adulthood. There are no accessible definitions of that body of knowledge that emerges from attuning oneself to meeting otherʼs needs, and caring for them physically while letting them know that they are valued and loved23. The left needs to design and explicate a way to reward skills of empathy and connection. We should also elaborate the jobs that domestic work involves, then cite their crucial importance and then create programmes to ease womenʼs domestic labour burden.
A few ideas for platforms that stem from the recognition and amelioration of womenʼs exploitation in domestic labour are providing:

  • low-cost nutritious family restaurants
  • options for healthy nutritious take out food
  • subsidised house-cleaning and laundry services
  • child-care provision modelled on the French Child Care System
  • quality after-school programmes in education, sports and the arts

We also need programmes that could help ameliorate womenʼs burdens of emotional labour in addition to acknowledging all the skills and labour involved in caring for others. Some ideas for programmes are: l    providing extra income for jobs that require emotional labour and explicitly rewarding the emotional services provided. These are usually female jobs such as nursing, social work, and teaching infants, toddlers, and children from 5 to 8 years old. These are currently some of the least well paid positions in the US.

  • creating an explicitly acknowledged financial incentive to compensate service workers for the part of their jobs that requires emotional effort directed at the customer. These incentives might operate for such jobs as health care personnel, social workers, counsellors. Emotional helpers would earn a supplement for providing emotional caring on the job.
  • creating free counselling centres for couples and families where the explicit labour of understanding and emotionally serving others is valued and taught.
  • mandating that ubiquitous, popular 12-step programmes such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Adult Children of Alcoholics, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Anorexics Anonymous, Bulemics Anonymous, Child-Abuse Anonymous, Sex-Abuse Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and Relationships Anonymous all include a 13th step which looks at the conditions of existence of addictions in oppressive, authoritarian families and profit-hungry corporations such as the liquor interests, the diet and fashion industries, the pharmaceutical industry, the pornography industry and the industries producing junk food.

Other parts of a left programme built on the above analysis could be:

  • organising to end gender discrimination in all kinds of labour in both the home and the workplace.
  • mandating adequate and equal wages for men and women.
  • work to end hiring discrimination against all women and particularly mothers.
  • a comprehensive birth control curriculum beginning in the early grades stressing respectful honest decisions about creating a life for which men and women will share equal responsibility. Scandinavians already have comprehensive birth-control curricula that begin in the early grades with studying plant reproduction which can be stopped if any step in the process is eliminated. As children get into higher grades the curriculum could stress personal relationships and sexual responsibility. In higher grades education might include teaching responsibility for the needs of the other person who may be created as well as the crucial importance of planning if one wants a family.
  • providing courses throughout peopleʼs life span for both children and adults to teach skills in working out difficulties in relationships with respect and consideration for the other whether that other is a child or an adult. These courses could give ample opportunities for discussion of strategies for creating egalitarian, communist emotional relationships.

In summary, it is crucial for the left to create a language for and an appreciation of womenʼs domestic labour, our emotional labour and our labour in caring for other people. An explanation of what that labour entails is a crucial step in enhancing womenʼs positions at home and in the workplace. The class analysis presented here is a basis on which to create such a language, awareness and action. Post-Bush America is a land of personal crisis and family disaster. Obama cannot address the hopes he raised. It is time for the left to address the problems, literally where we live.


1    Resnick, S. and Wolff, R. 2003. “Exploitation, Consumption, and the Uniqueness of U.S. Capitalism. Historical Materialism V.11 N.4.p.209-226 Wolff, R. 2008. “When Capitalism Hits the Fan.” Lecture video.

2    Minority males never earned a family wage that could support dependent wives and children. White males were, in effect, granted a wage supplement for their white race and male gender.

3    Lee, M. and Mather, M. 2008. “U.S. Labor Force Trends.” Figure 1. “U.S. Labor Force Participation of Men and Women 1970-2007. 5. Population Bulletin. V.63 N.2.2008. Population Reference Bureau.

4    In the year 2000, 77 % of US women were in the labour force (Babcock, L. and Laschever, S. 2003. Women Donʼt Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press 2003, 41-62.) By the year 2006, the percentage of women in the labor force decreased to 75 % because womenʼs burdens of childcare and eldercare increased with the drastic cuts in social services for the elderly and children under Bush ( Porter, E. 2006.”Women In The Workplace: Trend Is Reversing.” San Francisco Chronicle. March 2, 2006.

5    OECD.

6    Wolff, R. 2008. “When Capitalism Hits the Fan.” Lecture video. 7    The term “second shift” is adopted from Arlie Hochschildʼs excellent book of that name (1989, New York: Viking.) 8    Fraad, H. 2008. “American Children- Who Cares?” The Journal of Psychohistory. p. 394-399.

9    The US demands licensing for manicurists, pedicurists and hairdressers but not for personnel in childcare centers and for day care workers.

10    The fortunate few who receive quality care are from privileged homes or are in the one excellent national programme, Head Start. However, more than half of the preschoolers who qualify for Head Start are turned away for lack of places. Child care costs are unaffordable for most families. The average annual cost for placing one four- year-old child in day care ranges from approximately $4,000 to $8,500 per child per year, the equivalent of state college tuition. One out of three families with young children pays $25,000 a year or more for childcare for their children. Most families have more than one child. Childcare costs for a single mother can consume up to 50 % of her income ( Fraad, footnote 8, p.397).

11    The US Bureau of Labour (2006) in its survey of time use in households provides a chart showing that married women who were employed full time outside the household and had young children spent on the average an additional 3.4 hours per day on household activities and caring for household members. In a chart ”Weekday Time Use of Married Women Living with Young Children, by Employment Status,” the US Department of Labor reports in 2006 that married women who were full- time homemakers and cared for young children performed household labor on the average eight hours per day. Some female responsibilities were not counted in any of the surveys, such as the time spent in arranging childrenʼs schedules, taking them to play dates, dentists and doctors, preparing for school projects, arranging for sitters. We can assume that those activities would add, to give the most minimal estimate, one hour a week. According to the average given in the US Department of Labor statistics and in other studies, unemployed women spend at least forty-three and a half hours a week in household labor.

12    Uchitelle, l. and Leonhardt, D. 2006. “Men Not Working and Not Wanting Just Any Job.” The New York Times, July 31, 2006. p.D1.

13    Roberts, S. January 16, 2007. “Most Women Now Live Without A Husband.” The New York Times.

14    Brinig, M. and Allen, D. 2000 “ʼThese Boots Are Made For Walkingʼ: Why Most Divorce Filers Are Women” American Law and Economics Review 2-1 (2000): p.126-169.

15    Divorce statistics are based on predictions and are not precise. However, all but the most politically and religiously conservative statisticians agree that 50 % of first marriages and 60 % of second marriages will end in legal divorce “Divorce Rate USA” 2008. Of course many people separate without legalizing their separations or their divorces. Therefore the rate of de facto ended marriages is higher than the divorce rate. The above-cited article in Divorce Magazine provides the latest statistics on divorce based on the National Center for Health and US Census reports

16    Womenʼs fears of losing economic security are well founded. It is remarkable that so many are willing to risk poverty in order to avoid domestic and emotional exploitation. After divorce, womenʼs standard of living now is now declining at a rate between 29 percent and 36 percent, (Bennett, L. 2007. The Feminine Mistake. New York: Hyperion, 2007. 97-125; Grall, T. 2006, “Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Supports.” Census Population Reports. United States Bureau of the Census. July 2006; Garrison, M. 2001.”The Economic Consequences of Divorce”. Duke University Journal of Gender Law and Policy.V.8. p. 119-126; 128, Hamilton, V. 2004.”Mistaking Marriage for Social Policy.” Virginia Journal of Social Policy and Law.V.11 p.306-362. The deterioration for mothers and children reflects the impact of no-fault divorce laws. These laws set new standards for alimony and property awards based on treating both sexes „equally“ rather than taking into account the economic realities of womenʼs and childrenʼs actual financial opportunities and needs. The laws ignore the impact on womenʼs lifetime salaries of maternity leaves that are unpaid for almost all women and still damaging to the earnings of those who do receive some compensation. They also ignore the time spent on home and children which keeps women from opportunities for advancement through overtime, after-work socialising and out-of-town or after-hours work assignments. They ignore the incapacity of older women who must return to the job market without up-to-date job training, skill, or experience. By the year 2004, 64.2 % of American mothers were awarded support. However only 45.2 %, less than half of them, ever received the child support that was legally granted. (Grall, 2006 cited above). Although there is improvement the situation is dire.

17    Centres for Disease Control (CDC) and National Committee on Violence Against Women. 2000. “Findings from the National Committee on Violence Against Women Survey, July, 2000.” US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs. NCJ 181867 p.97.

18    Stritof, S., and Stritof, B. 2008. “An Evolution of Law: Spousal Rape Recently Prosecutable.” Times Standard. March 23, 2008. p.101.

19    Koontz, C. 1987. Mothers in the Fatherland. New York: Saint Martinʼs Press.

20    Baptist Faith and Message. June 13-14, 2000. “Southern Baptist Cnvention on Men and Women. Orlando, Florida.

21    Belluck, P. November 14, 2004. “ To Avoid Divorce Move to Massachusetts. The New York Times Week in Review.

22    Americans are now in a period of intense misery. More than 11 % of women and 5 % of men are taking anti-depressants (Barber, C. 2008. Comfortably Numb: How Psychiatry Is Medicating A Nation New York:Panthon Books, 2008). This illustrates that more than twice as many women as men are desperate enough to seek psychiatric help.

23    The closest thing that exists is in the scientific fields of mother-child attachment. And studies of the importance of connection in brain development and human well-being. Sterling new examples in the field are the following books: Daniel Stern 2004. The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. New York: W.W. Norton, and John Cacioppo and William Patrick.2008. Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. New York: W.W. Norton

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