What Really Undermines Family Life?

The moment we really commit ourselves to building a program for support of the family, we are in a dramatic position to fundamentally challenge the analysis and policies of the Right. Once we ask ourselves, ‘How do we create a society within which long-term commitments to love, intimacy, security, safety, being seen as valuable and emotional nurturing are really possible?” we see that it is precisely a progressive program that makes most sense.

The Right is in an impossible contradiction, because in fact the destruction of the potential for a loving, creative family life has been a product of the values that govern the economic market that the Right is committed to defending.

Consider the world of work. Most workers face jobs that are increasingly stressful, particularly as human satisfactions decrease and opportunities for real human interactions are diminished. The fragmentation of work, the de-skilling of the work force, the difficulty of maintaining working-class solidarity, and the overt attacks on trade unions all combine to create conditions in which the individual worker experiences stress—and typically interprets this as a personal problem instead of a collective dilemma for all workers to solve. Because stress takes different forms for different workers (for some it is headaches: for others, neck or back tensions: for others, high blood pressure: for others, colitis, insomnia, depression, withdrawal, alcoholism, drug abuse, or frantic activity), few people understand that they are facing a shared work-related experience and problem. Instead, they feel guilty for having stress symptoms.

Many workers compound these sources of self-blame with a feeling that they should be tougher in dealing with the stress they are experiencing. To acknowledge one’s stress is perceived as showing lack of strength or ability to handle the demands of the competitive marketplace. Even those who recognize that the stress is not their own fault but built into the way their particular workplace is structured nevertheless blame themselves for having been unsuccessful in finding another job in a workplace they imagine might be less stressful. This stress and self-blaming is then brought home, manifesting in family tensions and eventually in divorce.

In short, many of the problems that people face in their personal lives, in their key intimate relationships with spouse, partner or children, are frequently rooted in the inner tensions and upsets that people bring home from the work world. When one finds oneself expressing anger to a child or loved one that seems out of proportion to the irritant that provoked the struggle with them, very often we have found that these incidents are rooted in tensions that have been brought home from the world of work and displaced on one’s partner, spouse or children.

When progressives have addressed these issues at all, it has usually been in a way that suggest that the people involved need therapy or some form of government-supported counseling, whether that be in the form of community mental health clinics or state sponsored rehabilitation for addicts or, more recently, in employee assistance programs. Unintentionally, they convey the message that the worker has a personal problem.

On the other hand, the right-wing insistence this all these personal issues are a reflection of a common social problem, “the breakdown of the family,” while insidious because of whom it pins the blames, has actually been empowering to many working people because it alleviates the sense of personal guilt or failure.

The obvious move now is for progressives to identify the source for this breakdown in the current organization of the workplace and the values that people absorb from their participation in the dynamics of the economy and from the media and political institutions that are largely shaped by those who have overwhelming power in the economy. This analysis leads us to believe that the number-one priority for supporting the family is to humanize the workplace in such a way that people come out of it strengthened in their ability to participate in loving and intimate relationships, rather than emerging emotionally wrecked. This, in turn, raises the issue of democratic control of work as a necessary part of family support, the issue of health and safety at work, a “living wage” rather than a “minimum wage,” and even consideration of the 30-hour work week and strict prohibitions on forced overtime (policies that are already in place in most industrialized countries in Europe).

The competitive marketplace whose workings are seen by the Right as sacrosanct, actually generates a mind set of “looking out for number one” that infuses the consciousness of many in capitalist societies, undermining people’s abilities to trust others, undermining solidarity, and ultimately weakening loving connections in family life. Schooled from earliest times in the message that everyone around us is a potential adversary, and seeing this confirmed by the constant struggle to get ahead in the world of work, and reconfirmed by the way the media tells the stories of others as being primarily narrowly self-interested (watch any sitcom and you get the message), increasing numbers of people enter into relationships scared and distrusting or simply refuse to enter into marriages at all. The continual need to keep one’s distance from other people and to be on constant alert for the ways in which they will take advantage of you as well as the constant injunction of the “common sense” of capitalism to “look out for number one” creates a personality type that finds it hard to abandon his or her emotional armor and connect in deep and intimate ways.

The movement of “born-again” Christians is a reflection of this contradiction in the position of the Right. Born-again Christians want to establish the Gospel as the guiding force of their lives. The mass base for this kind of a move is grounded in the daily reality of the capitalist market and the systematic dehumanization and degradation of human values that takes place there. The impulse to seek religion as a counter set of values (because religion tends to put a higher value on love than on individual success and power) makes a great deal of sense. Moreover, by re-crediting love as a value, religion offers an ideological support to what people are seeking in family life, and an alternative to the cut-throat competition of the economy. The genius of the Right has been to cover up the reality that there is a contradiction between these valuable goals upon which the new religiosity is born and the realities of capitalism that religion has tended to support and justify.

These contradictions offer the basis for progressives to win to the side of social justice and social transformation the very people who today vote for conservative ideologies.

However, this can’t be done by a contemptuous dismissal of born-again Christians as “the enemy” or as “patriarchs in sheep’s clothing.” Rather, the impulse to religion, in that it expresses a vision of people’s most humanistic and moral goals, must be credited as a valuable and worthwhile pursuit. It is precisely the religious values that people hold most dear that can lead them to an understanding of the necessity of economic democracy and social equality and to support a politics based on compassion and a hatred for injustice. It weakens the Left when it allows itself to be perceived as hostile to religion.

Even in the constituencies of religious organizations who have aligned themselves with the New Right, there are many moral and righteous people whose religious vision would actually lead them to a more progressive politics if the caricatures about what progressives really stand for could be broken through. The Network of Spiritual Progressives poses the possibility of making that kind of a breakthrough, one that might also have profound ramifications for realigning the religious community itself, if our Friends of Families perspective can get adopted by the progressive world. This is why “consciousness raising” by spiritual progressives is such an important priority for building a progressive movement in the Western world.