Market and Family

Wendy Brown counts marketization and “familialization” as two processes with a shared goal.

They work together conceptually and practically: dismantling public provision is routinely coupled with extended private sphere norms to delegitimize the concept of social welfare provision and the project of democratizing the social powers of class, race, gender, and sexuality. As everyday life is marketized from one direction and “familialized” from the other by neoliberal rationality, these twin processes challenge principles of equality, secularism, pluralism, and inclusion, along with democratic determination of a common good.

Brown, Wendy. In the Ruins of Neoliberalism (The Wellek Library Lectures) (p. 108). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.

Herein, Brown reproduces a theoretical trope more often found among less critical Marxian theorists who suppose that “the social” is a quality absent in capitalism that the vanguard aims to make explicit. Here Brown is taking aim at Hayek, who, curiously, like Brown, believes that “the social” is a surface form that it is possible to administratively add, supplement, or eliminate. But “the social” only captures in the most abstract and general way that our relationships with one another are shaped. How are they shaped? Socially.

Again, curiously, just as Hayek believes that the properly administered community has no need for “the political,” so Brown believes that the political is a quality that can be “added to”; but added to what? The social? The moral?

The correspondence between Brown’s and Hayek’s frameworks — the manner in which each mirrors the other — is not coincidental, for each take as their points of the departure the abstract value form of the commodity. To be sure, Hayek believes he is simply taking human nature, as it has been historically elaborated, as his point of departure; and Brown believes that she is simply taking the emancipatory impulse, also displayed historically, as her point of departure. In each case, however, the value form of the commodity lurks in the wings. And this explains why the expansion of the value form lends itself to “familialization” (and racialization, genderization, and classification).

Unlike the young and immature Marx preferred by college students and often by their professors, the mature Marx already recognized the signature of the value form in the democratic trope:

The sphere of circulation or commodity exchange, within whose the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. It is the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equaiity, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, let us say of labour-power, are determined only by their own free will. They contract as free persons, who are equal before the law. Their contract is the final result in which their joint will finds a common legal expression. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to his own advantage. The only force bringing them together, and putting them into relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interest of each. Each pays heed to himself only, and no one worries about the others. And precisely for that reason, either in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an omniscient providence, they all work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal, and in the common interest.

Capital, volume one, part two, chapter 6.

Admirers of the young Marx — the Marx of the 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and Manifesto (1848) — are inclined to fault private property and the market for the evils of capitalism; and they are inclined to feel that “the people, united, can never be defeated.” Yet, the abstract social subject embraced by the young Marx, whether “species being” (1844) or “proletariat” (1848) the mature Marx recognized as equally and narrowly as much products of the abstract value form as the private property and markets against which they bristled.

For a society of commodity producers, whose general social relation of production consists in the fact that they treat their products as commodities, hence as values, and in this material form bring their individual, private labours into relation with each other as homogeneous human labour, Christianity with its religious cult of man in the abstract, more particularly in its bourgeois development, i.e. in Protestantism, Deism, etc., is the most fitting form of religion.

Capital, volume one, part one, chapter 1, §4

Two points are clear from Marx’s significantly more rigorous grasp of abstract value. The first point, obviously, is that, unlike Brown, Marx was no longer inclined to universalize or transhistoricize “religion,” even “Christianity,” but was ready to appreciate how the abstract value form of capital had shaped and reshaped “traditional” values. The second, less obvious, point is that Marx counts abstract, homogeneous, undifferentiated social being another expression of the abstract value form of the commodity. For this reason it is important that we appreciate why Marx’s more rigorous grasp of abstract social being falls under the heading “Der Fetischcharakter der Ware und seiners Gehemnis” (The Fetish character of the commodity and its Secret).

The body — all bodies — is the perfect expression of the commodity. It enjoys an outward form of appearance by which it is differentiated from and therefore differentially valued from other bodies. And, yet, underlying all of these bodies is their abstract value. Because but only insofar as commodities are differentially valued they also all are related to one another in a community of surface forms. Does class have value? Does race? Does gender? Does sexuality? Yes. All are differentially valued within capitalism. But so too do equality, secularism, pluralism, inclusion, democracy and the common good. Anyone familiar with the social democratizing of capitalism in the twentieth century cannot help but have noticed that social democracy demanded de-differentiation, homogenization, the elimination of difference; but this was always already, as Marx noted in 1867, a capitalist project: a project of value expansion through fetishization. Can capitalists be secularists? Can they promote a plurality of highly differentiated product lines? Can they promote consumer democracy and democratic consumerism? Can they embrace highly differentiated gender lines for their products? But, finally, as in the case of fascism, can the abstract value form find expression in nations, ethnicities, races, flags, anthems embraced, if not by a majority, then at least by a plurality?

But this means that “familialization” entails not so much the privatization of the household — which is already despotic (ruled by a δεσπότης) and private (οἰκονομία) — but the commodification of the private sphere and therefore its incorporation into the commodity form, which is socially composed by abstract labor and abstract capital.

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