Capitalism and the American Family

The expansion of the Child Tax Credit, recently included in a major stimulus package passed through Congress, is justified by the conditions under which families have lived for the last several decades of American capitalism. The assault on the family by late capitalism is hardly new. In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx remarked upon the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie who feigned to uphold the dignity of the family, observing that nothing had so undone the family as capitalism itself. In Marx’s words, “the bourgeois claptrap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parent and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of modern industry, all family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labor.” (Communist Manifesto, 27.)

In other words, Marx regarded the family as subject to the same mechanisms of exploitation which he himself identified and analyzed in the text of Capital. He also saw the undoing of the family as part-and-parcel of capital’s assault upon disposable time in general, reducing the worker’s experience of time to the exclusive preoccupation with wage-labor. A glance at the empirical evidence in the current economy, as well as a serious reflection upon the concrete lived experience of American families, shows this to be truer than ever. In these conditions, the renewed discussion of family policy, and the expansion of the Child Tax Credit, should be a welcome development for conservatives and socialists alike.

The Exploitation of the Family

The evidence of exploitation has been amply collected by Oren Cass, now the president of the conservative think-tank, American Compass. About a year ago, Cass produced a study on “the cost of thriving” for families in the U.S. economy. Cass’ study provides empirical confirmation of the growing sense among populist-leaning conservatives that this economy is simply not favorable to family life. Cass articulates this problem in the following terms:

In 1985, the COTI [Cost of Thriving Index] stood at 30 — it would require 30 weeks of the median weekly wage to afford a three-bedroom house at the 40th percentile of a local market’s prices, a family health-insurance premium, a semester of public college, and the operation of a vehicle. By 2018, the COTI had increased to 53 — a full-time job was insufficient to afford these items, let alone the others that a household needs. (The Cost of Thriving Index: Re-evaluating the Prosperity of American Families, 4.)

In other words, where the “COTI” stands for the monetary “costs of thriving” over a period of one year for a family of four, the average family in 1985 could afford a year’s expenses with less than a year’s income, namely 30 weeks’ worth of income. By 2018, this had changed dramatically. It now takes 53 weeks’ worth of income to support a full year of family expenses. For women, the number is up to 66 weeks. In other words, it now takes more than a year of wages to support a year of expenses — which is simply another way of saying that wages no longer support the expenses of family life in the modern economy.

Although Mr. Cass may not have had this in mind, this is the problem which Karl Marx identified as the length of the working day. While Cass expresses the problem in terms of weeks (or the year) rather than days, the root of the matter is a problem of labor-time. According to Marx’s “labor theory of value,” the value of any commodity is determined by the labor-time which goes into producing it. This includes the commodity of labor-power, which the worker sells to the capitalist for a wage: the value of labor-power is determined by the time that goes into its own reproduction. The labor by which labor-power is reproduced consists in nothing other than the ordinary activities of human subsistence; and thus the value of labor is determined by the time spent in those activities of human subsistence. Thus Marx: “Therefore the labour-time necessary for the production of labour-power is the same as that necessary for the maintenance of its owner.” (Capital Vol. I, 274).

The maintenance of the laborer thus consists in the fulfilment of his natural needs, e.g. food, clothing, and housing, without any of which he could not work. It also includes cultural and civilizational goods, e.g. levels of education and other goods, which are historically specific and socially conventional — factors which may be included in historically defined “standards of living.” Moreover, in addition to such individual goods, “the seller of labour-power must perpetuate himself ‘in the way that every living individual perpetuates himself, by procreation’… Hence the sum of means of subsistence necessary for the production of labour-power must include the means necessary for the worker’s replacement, i.e. his children…” (278.) In other words, even from the point of view of commodity exchange, it is possible for the laborer as owner of labor-power to claim a certain value from the capitalist in return for the expenditure of his labor-power. That value, even according to the dehumanizing logic of an economy which commodifies human labor-power itself, includes the value necessary for the reproduction of the species and the rearing of children.

In sum, according to Marx, the value of labor-power corresponds to the time that must be spent in the activities required for human subsistence, which are partly natural and partly conventional. Now, if the laborer is paid this value in a time that exceeds the time required for the reproduction of his labor-power — in other words, if the value paid falls short of what is needed for subsistence and human reproduction — then this is the very definition of exploitation, according to Marx. Consider the hypothetical example offered by Marx himself, in chapter 10. Speaking in the voice of the laborer, addressing the capitalist, he writes:

[By] means of the price you pay for [my labour-power] every day, I must be able to reproduce it every day, thus allowing myself to sell it again…. [But] by an unlimited extension of the working day, you may in one day use up a quantity of labour-power greater than I can restore in three… If the average length of time an average worker can live (while doing a reasonable amount of work) is 30 years, the value of my labour-power, which you pay me from day to day, is 1/365x10, or 1/10,950 of its total value. But if you consume it in 10 years, you pay me daily 1/10,950 instead of 1/3,650 of its total value, i.e. only one-third of its daily value, and you therefore rob me every day of two-thirds of the value of my commodity [labour-power]. You pay me for one day’s labour-power, while you use three days of it. (343)

In this example, the capitalist pays the laborer over three days of labor a value which is sufficient to replenish only one day of labor-power. This is exactly analogous to Cass’s discovery of the average value of men’s wages in 2018: the average man received in fifty-three weeks a value that is sufficient to replenish only fifty-two weeks of labor-power, at least according to a certain standard of the “cost of thriving.” For women, again, this number is up to sixty-six weeks. In other words, the value paid to the average worker falls short of the value, expressed in terms of labor-time, required for the maintenance of the laborer. Keep in mind, moreover, that Cass’s numbers refer only to averages, which means that for a significant portion of the population, especially those with more children, wages fall even further short of what is necessary for the reproduction of labor-power. Mr. Cass has rediscovered the Marxist law of exploitation.

The Loss of Disposable Family Time

In addition to the problem of the value of labor-power, Marx also takes care to draw attention to the more practical and qualitative dimensions of the length of the working day. Again in chapter 10 of Capital, he describes the attitude of capital towards the laborer’s disposable time: “Time for education, for intellectual development, for the fulfilment of social functions, for social intercourse, for the free play of the vital forces of his body and his mind, even the rest time of Sunday (and that in a country of Sabbatarians!) — what foolishness!” (375)

This is a dimension more accessible to the immediate experience of contemporary American workers. In an economy where the working day is firmly set by legal convention, families often find it necessary for both parents to work for the set length of time (typically 8 hours per day, or 40 per week) in order to cover the costs of family life. This leaves a limited amount of time outside the workplace, i.e. time in the home and in community, etc., for the needs of family life to be met directly. Work itself is, of course, a way of meeting the needs of family life; but it meets these needs indirectly, by acquiring the wages necessary to purchase basic goods. Needs are met directly only in those portions of time which the parents spend with their children in person, either in the home or in the local community. Besides acquiring wages, parents provide for their children by activities such as nursing them, cooking their meals, playing with them, taking them to parks, educating them intellectually and artistically, spending time with extended family, spending time with friends, going to church, going on vacation, etc. It is a telling sign of our condition that our children spend more of their time in childcare or in school than directly with their parents — largely because their parents cannot afford the time to educate or care for their children in person.

The psychological burdens of such an arrangement on all parties involved are only just beginning to be understood. A host of natural relationships are destroyed to such a system, and a host of artificial relationships set up in their place. As Mark Fisher noted in Capitalist Realism,

with families buckling under the pressure of a capitalism which requires both parents to work, teachers are now increasingly required to act as surrogate parents, instilling the most basic behavioral protocols in students and providing pastoral and emotional support for teenagers who are in some cases only minimally socialized. (Capitalist Realism, 26.)

Furthermore, in a capitalism where disposable time is relentlessly subordinated to labor-time, the contradictory pressures to which the family is subject become increasingly intolerable. Too many families can attest to the truth of Fisher’s words:

The situation of the family in post-Fordist capitalism is contradictory, in precisely the way that traditional Marxism expected: capitalism requires the family (as an essential means of reproducing and caring for labor power; as a salve for the psychic wounds inflicted by anarchic social-economic conditions), even as it undermines it (denying parents time with children, putting intolerable stress on couples as they become the exclusive source of affective consolation for each other). (Ibid, 33.)

This is not just a theory of how capitalism works. Rather, it is a description of what many people directly experience in their daily lives, leading to much emotional frustration, family dysfunction, cycles of abuse, depression, and addiction.

The problem of the working day, as articulated by Karl Marx, was meant to express in theoretical terms this very experiential conundrum which many people find themselves in, where they spend most of their time working for the wages necessary to afford basic goods, and have little time left over to spend in the free development of their intellectual, moral, artistic, and social inclinations. Among those inclinations are those associated with family life and the rearing of children. One need only read, for example, chapters 6 and 10 of Capital, Vol. 1 to find that even Karl Marx included among the needs of human subsistence the inclination to procreate and educate children, as well as the general inclination to develop intimate communal relations with other people. These inclinations can only be truly fulfilled given adequate time to do so.

The origin of all class-struggle, as described in chapter 10 of Capital, is the desire of the working-class to allocate more time to activities that can only be pursued outside the process of wage labor — in other words, the shortening of the working day. The capitalist class, who personify capital itself, have no interest per se in the ability of working people to develop their “non-productive” capabilities. Capital as such is only interested in its own expansion, by means of the accumulation of surplus-value or profit.

This is not to say that under capitalism there will never be any concessions made to labor, or that the working-class can never succeed in shortening the working day. Marx himself was perfectly aware that the working-class can and has accomplished this — and whenever this happens it is to be counted a victory for labor. Marx was also aware that the historical and civilizational “standards of living” are highly flexible, and that the political task for the working classes was to pressure capital to accept higher social standards of living for labor. Whenever such improvements in standards have been accomplished, as they surely have been at many points in U.S. history, again this is to be counted a victory for labor. But the fact that victories are won presupposes that there is indeed a struggle in the first place; and for the working-class it is a struggle against a force that is uninterested in making family life easy or desirable for them.


In the period between 1985 and the present, when standards of living (or “thriving” in Cass’s terms) have ostensibly fallen, it should hardly be surprising that populist resentment appears to be on the rise — the class-struggle itself may be resurfacing. This struggle should not be understood along conventional partisan lines: the fight for the rights of the family is not simply a “conservative” or a “right-populist” struggle, but a struggle that should be of interest to all working-class families. In this context, it is refreshing to see both leftists and conservatives, including Cass’s own organization, bringing the question of family policy back on to the table. With the passing of an expanded Child Tax Credit in the recent $1.9 trillion stimulus package, and the possibility of extending it into a permanent program, the popular struggle for a family wage may at last be bearing some fruit.

I write about Philosophy, Politics, Economics, Culture, and Religion.

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