C'est nous qui brisons les barreaux des prisons, pour nos frères, La haine à nos trousses, et la faim qui nous pousse, la misère. Il y a des pays où les gens aux creux des lits font des rêves, Ici, nous, vois-tu, nous on marche et nous on tue nous on crève.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Free Markets and Families - A Look at Anne Manne

In the latest edition of the Quarterly Essay, Anne Manne has written a provocative piece entitled 'Love & Money'. When the latest polling from around the world informs us the unpopularity of free market solutions to social problems, Manne argues that the invisible hand is failing us when it comes to raising children.

In a nutshell, Manne's thesis is as follows. Australia's population, like that of many other developed nations, is rapidly aging. To the extent that the aged require various kinds of support, it is essential that Australia's women produce offspring, to both provide this support, and to contribute indirectly by way of income tax.

In contrast to this, however, politicians of various stripes, both in Australia and elsewhere, have argued that it is essential for women to be part of the workforce as much as possible, and the value and productivity of women has tended to be linked to their employment, and consumption and spending power, rather than for motherhood.

Manne argues that policy-makers have attempted to reconcile this contradiction by way of a largely market-based solution: child-care. Yet the forms of child-care that have tended to prosper have been cheap and corporate, and Manne cites some reasonable evidence to suggest that their use is not necessarily in a child's best interests. In other countries, particularly in Northern Europe, the solution to this problem has been to amplify welfare state measures, such as providing relatively generous packages of maternal (and even paternal) leave. When given the option, Manne argues that parents would rather stay at home than be forced to participate in the workforce, and place children in care.

The net effect of this, according to Manne, is that motherhood has been devalued, in some cases quite explicitly. Fertility rates are too low, and financial pressures are compelling women to either delay or forgo motherhood. It should be noted that Manne is strictly not attempting to villify those parents who place children in child-care. Nonetheless, maternal love has been reduced to a salable commodity, namely, 'care'. But, as Manne puts it:

Commercialising care cannot always ensure loving attentiveness, which is embedded in particularity and a shared history. Turning care over to the market - commodifying it - has inherent problems. To begin with, all the assumptions about the well-informed purchaser who can withdraw patronage from inadequate services fall down in the case of caregiving services. If people don't thrive in care, it can be difficult to find an alternative. Care services may be in such short supply, or so expensive, that the purchaser settles out of panic on the first, rather poor option they can find. Since services are always labour-intensive, any attempt to lift the quality of care raises the cost. (p. 65).

In short, Manne argues that there exists a 'shadow economy' consisting of (mostly female) carers tending to the needs of the aged, sick, children, and disabled, whose labour is necessary in order for the productive consumers to work extended hours in paid employment. Whilst John Howard told Australians that, economically speaking, they have never had it better, the fact remains that Australians work longer hours than ever, and are up to their eyeballs in debt. Manne concludes with a range of recommendations to address these issues, mainly involving increased Government support for parents who wish to stay at home.

I largely agree with Manne's sentiments, with one major quibble. In an otherwise excellent essay in The Monthly, Manne discussed the pornification of our culture but again, as with 'Love & Money', she situated this phenomenon largely within the context of feminism having taken a wrong turn somewhere along the line. Whilst it is perfectly true that there are feminist apologists for 'raunch culture', as well as feminists who attack motherhood, it is surely more pertinent to point out that capitalism has very successfully co-opted various elements of feminism. When the likes of Peter Costello, or, indeed, Tony Blair, have exhorted women to return to the workplace, it is most definitely not in the name of feminism that they speak. Again, when manufacturers market g-strings for tweens, it is in the service of capitalism, not feminism.

This is one of the chief contradictions of much of today's conservatism in Australia - whilst phenomena such as the devaluing of motherhood, and the rise of raunch culture are deplored, and whilst feminism is scapegoated for this, conservatives fail to see how the pervasive influence of neo-liberal policy has contributed to the situation. Whilst the neo-liberals attempt, with some success, to dismantle Australia's welfare state, it is the role of leftists to continually point out these contradictions, to challenge such a dismantling, and to highlight the the growing evidence that demonstrates that it is unfettered capitalism and 'market solutions' that are chiefly responsible for a range of social problems, and not, as in this case, some feminists on the fringe of public discourse.