Feminist Theory Week 4: Melinda Cooper’s FAMILY VALUES

I’m blogging my way through the course texts for my grad feminist theory seminar in Spring 2018. This week we’re reading Melinda Cooper’s book Family Values.


  1. What is the relationship between neoliberal notions of responsibility (see Cooper, but also Lester Spence’s Knocking the Hustle) and Cathy Cohen’s definition of respectability politics? In both Cooper’s and Cohen’s analysis, the figure of the “welfare queen” symbolizes the most threatening deviant in need of policing. How does neoliberalism tie sexual respectability to economic responsibility?
  2. Pateman compares the marriage contract to the employment contract, arguing that they are different articulations of the way contract creates relations of subordination–the marriage contract creates subordination for women, whereas the employment contract creates subordination for white men. Cooper makes a parallel move, comparing welfare policy to the prison industrial complex (PIC). For example, Cooper argues that “the formal victories of the civil rights movement have been rapidly qualified by the legitimation of various forms of unfree labor, again justified by the criminalization of impoverished minorities….[through] both feminized workfare and prison labor” (103). Could we see welfare policy and the PIC as gendered variations of the same system of domination? How is feminized workfare related to prison labor? I’m not sure how incarcerated women fit in here…?
  3. Cooper explains how neoliberals like Becker thought the family served a “natural insurance function (60) against market forces (and, uh, life’s randomness). The insurance industry effectively began to ensure slave ships as they crossed the ocean. Slaves were insured property–they didn’t themselves need insurance, they were the property whose loss insurance covered. If we suppose that insurance is a racialized and racializing practice, how does that translate into the family’s role as insurance provider? Whom does it insure? (MC argues in a chapter that we didn’t read for class that student loans constitute a form of intergenerational debt, like a negative inheritance, and that this mainly impacts non-white families…so here family ties bring not insurance but kinda the opposite…?)

The main focus of Melinda Cooper’s Family Values is the commonality between two apparent opposites–neoliberals, who want to deregulate everything, and neoconservatives, who want to bring back old forms of regulation. Like liberal feminists and the religious right uniting in their objection to pornography, these two unite in their objection to the dissolution of the Fordist nuclear family. As Cooper argues, “it was only when the liberation movements of the 1960s began to challenge the sexual normativity of the family wage as the linchpin and foundation of welfare capitalism that the neoliberal–new social conservative alliance came into being” (FV 21). As the welfare state increasingly took on the responsibilities once shunted to the private sphere–care and reproductive work–both neoliberals and neoconservives sought to re-establish the domestic private sphere in its more or less traditional form, even if it meant loosening that form a bit to include, say, married gays and lesbians and black homeowners.

Building on Pateman

They do this because the concept of freedom they use is a racialized, cisheterogendered one that relies on domestic subjection. Though she doesn’t explicitly frame it this way, Cooper takes up Pateman’s claim that “the freedom of contractual relations in the marketplace cannot be sustained without the existence of noncontractual obligations in the family” (FV 106). Pateman focuses on the classical contract, but Cooper’s focus is 20th century revisions of that, revisions that shift contracts from exchanges to investments. For example, Cooper argues that “the nature of family altruism in some sense represents an internal exception to the free market, an immanent order of non- contractual obligations and inalienable services without which the world of contract would cease to function” (48). The kinds of entrepreneurial freedoms neoliberalism promises cannot be sustained without the existence of the subjection of too-femme, too-black, too-queer people in the domestic sphere. For example, the freedom to take big risks that could bring great rewards generally requires a place to crash-land if you fail; working for a few years without pay can land you big opportunities, but you have to have family wealth to be able to do that in the first place.

Cooper also implicitly builds on Pateman’s argument that social contract theory posits domestic/civil distinction and remakes it as the both corporate private/civil public distinction, thus hiding the latter behind the former, so that “private” means business not family. One of neoliberalism’s defining features is its imperative to privatize everything and evacuate the public sphere of basically everything (except, as Cooper shows, it leaves the state as a mechanism to both crate families and enforce their responsibilities). And while we mostly understand “privatize everything” to mean foisting civil responsibilities on to the corporate private/business (like charter schools), Cooper shows that this also applies to the domestic private/family. When neoliberals say “privatize everything,” they mean both private spheres. Or rather, privatizing everything means offloading public responsibilities to both the corporate private and the domestic private. They think the only legitimate role for the state is to enforce domestic obligations (like creating kinship relations among welfare recipients where none existed by consent/choice). Both private spheres have to be in play, because the unequal relations in the domestic private ensure the unequal distribution of wealth in the newly liberated corporate private sphere. Though some (such as David Harvey) frame neoliberalism as primarily a class-based project of wealth distribution, Cooper’s analysis shows that the distribution follows multiple axes–all the axes that intersect in the patriarchal nuclear family, such as gender, race, and sexuality. Neoliberalism is a project that distributes wealth–and thus personhood–to those who can successfully form and stay in those kinds of families. It also uses the family as a tool for dispossessing non-white/cis/homolegitimate/men of weath and personhood (e.g., student loans create intergenerational debt).

Hiding liberation behind intensified inequity

The nuclear family is the only way to make sure the changes that come with neoliberal capitalism (e.g., the use of securitized debts, which makes credit available to populations traditionally seen as bad credit risks, like black people and gay men) continue to distribute wealth and whiteness as property in the ways they basically always have. One way Cooper frames this is via Marx’s idea of the double movement of capital (liberalization/restriction). OTOH, capital requires ever-expanding and ever-intensifying production: “In its efforts to overcome all quantitative barriers to the generation of wealth, Marx observed, capital transgresses all established forms of reproduction—that is, all customary or religious strictures on the organization of gender, all status-like constraints on social mobility, and all national restrictions on the circulation of money” (16). But those barriers had a function–keeping people out of production (white women), or at least in a subordinate relationship within production (nonwhite women). Because capitalism won’t work without the white supremacy, patriarchy, and so on, it has to re-make those relations of subordination in ways that don’t serve as barriers to advancing forms of production/accumulation. “But is it not also compelled to reassert the reproductive institutions of race, family, and nation as a way of ensuring the unequal distribution of wealth and income across time? Isn’t it compelled, in the last instance, to reinstate the family as the elementary legal form of private wealth accumulation?” (16; emphasis mine). The good ol’ sphere of reproduction comes in to tame the wild and lawless sphere of production. The family is a relation of subordination (both within itself, and as something that various populations have differential access to). So, relations of subordination that are liberated in the realm of production are double-down on in the realm of reproduction. (This basically parallels Marx’s distinction btw political emancipation and human emancipation: political emancipation liberates the public sphere without liberating the private sphere.)

Neoliberalism both subsumes traditionally deviant behaviors into capitalist production and doubles-down on the logics that produced those forms of deviance. As Cooper puts it,

neoliberals are interested in subsuming the newly liberated labor of former housewives within an expanded market for domestic services and are intent on devising new mechanisms for pricing the risks of (for example) racial discrimination or unsafe sex. There is no form of social liberation, it would seem, that the neoliberal economist cannot incorporate within a new market for contractual services or high-risk credit (8).

Basically, anyone can do whatever they want as long as they assume private responsibility for any negative consequences that arise from those choices. Effectively, this means people with more wealth and privilege get more leeway, but people with less wealth and privilege get less than they had before under existing relations of domination.

The classical contract uses consent to misrepresent relations of subordination as freely-chosen relations: I consent to give you a part of me, not all of me, so it doesn’t look like I’ve subordinated my whole self to you. Neoliberalism also uses consent to pass off domination as freedom, but it changes the mechanics of it. First, it replaces labor-power with human capital: I’m not consenting to give my employer 40 hours of labor power every week, but making an investment of my time and my human capital. Investments are inherently risky: just as betting on the longshot horse brings you a greater rate of return on your bet because the poor horse has less chance of winning, betting on your ability to be a celebrity of some sort brings a greater return on your investment because you, bless your heart, have less of a chance of becoming a wealthy celeb than you do of becoming, say, an hourly retail or service worker. In the neoliberal framework, risk is what we consent to. As Cooper explains, “Neoliberal legal theorists explicitly revive the notion, foundational to classical tort law, that freedom of contract implies the voluntary assumption of risk” (FV 179). It’s significant that one of the first ways this translates into policy is as a response to the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s. The original contract treats sex as the exchange of bits of ourselves that are consumed and used by other people for their pleasure. Here, sex is explicitly reframed as an investment in my own pleasure, which is also a cost:benefit analysis of risk and reward. Cooper summarizes this view: “apart from the limit cases of rape and contaminated blood transfusion, the HIV virus is the result of voluntary sexual contact between consenting adults and thus represents the very prototype of the rational transaction and the freely assumed risk” (171). This is a fundamentally different way of thinking about sex: it’s modeled not on the exchange of property-in-person, but on the investment in my human capital (which includes health).

The problem is that structural inequities disproportionately distribute risk to traditionally oppressed groups. (Think, for example, of Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s famous definition of racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.) The idea that we consent to any and all risks we take elides the fact that structural and institutional forces differentially expose us to varying levels and kinds of risk–i.e., we don’t choose all the kinds and degrees of risk we face. For example, I did not choose to be more vulnerable to sexual assault than my brother is, nor did I choose to be less vulnerable to criminalization than my black neighbors are. Risk-assumption is mostly involuntary. For whom is sex most risky these days?

In a context where tons of involuntary risk is involuntarily foisted upon us, neoliberalism forces individuals to personally or privately bear responsibility for risks they didn’t consent to in the first place. Cooper calls this “transforming public risks into private responsibilities” (174). The domestic sphere thus becomes the place to address and remedy those obligations. That’s why neoliberalism is interested in the family: it needs people to take risks (it needs people to practice the forms of production it demands, like investment), but it doesn’t want to invest anything in the people that make those risks. Where do those investments come from? The private realm, i.e., the domestic, i.e., the family. “The neoliberal critique of normativity ends up endorsing an alternative form of moral philosophy—one that restores the private family and its legal obligations of care to a foundational role in the free-market order” (174).

This argument is then the foundation for Cooper’s claim that the opening of credit markets to white gay men was what made marriage the spotlight issue for decades of LGBTQ activism. For most of the 20th c, white gay men were seen as uncreditworthy–too high a risk for creditors. But then once securitized debt could be sold off and made profitable for both the original creditor and the new investor regardless of debtor default, credit markets opened to them (and a lot of other people). Now that white gay men could assume the the kinds of risks that go with consumer debt, they wanted insurance against those risks. And that insurance had to come from the private sphere; that includes both inherited/heritable wealth and access to the reproductive labor that’s always taken place in the domestic sphere. This is just one example of how the inclusion of traditionally oppressed groups in neoliberal markets motivates these newly-included groups to buy into respectability politics (for how this works wrt race, see Lester Spence’s Knocking the Hustle).


Back to the Future

[I have about as good a grasp on the math here as someone whose last encounter with academic math was a high school pre-calc class in 1994. I am happy to revise this account as I learn more.]

One of Cooper’s more interesting claims is that neoliberal market logics, though they have commonly used the same math that’s behind biopolitical normalization (i.e., Gaussian distributions/normal curves), are actually adopting a new and different mathematical model. For example, she argues that

if we take normativity to refer to the precise forms of statistical exclusion that accompanied and shaped the Fordist family wage, along with their epistemological expression in the biological, psychological, and social sciences, where different kinds of sexuality were once overwhelmingly defined in terms of pathological deviance. In this sense, perhaps, Foucault was right to see the advent of neoliberalism as marking the passage toward a postnormative formation of power, where we find “an optimization of systems of difference” rather than their subordination to the norm.” (164)

So that statistical exclusion was normalization, which works more or less like audio compression does: it determines which range of values promote the most efficient transmission and reproduction of a structure (like speech or patriarchy), and then tries to either (a) bring outliers back within that distribution, and/or (b) discard and eliminate outliers that can’t efficiently be normalized. These stats put everyone on a continuity and then mark a break in that continuity; that break is a point of diminishing returns where reforming outliers costs more than it benefits.

The math behind securitized debt is different than the math behind biopolitical normalization. Statistical normalization is a mathematical relationship: it creates a distribution around a norm. Biopolitics takes this distribution and uses it to define and police populations. There are some parts of the population that are so far off the norm that the investments required to bring them back within an acceptable range of deviation would cost society more than it would benefit society. This is the math used to justify white gay men’s and black people’s exclusion from credit markets: normalized distributions of risk determined who was worthy of investment. But securitized debts slice risk levels into things called “tranches” and then rank tranches hierarchically from least to most risky. (I don’t understand the math behind these tranch things in any technical way, just the general form). The higher-risk tranches come with higher interest rates, so the higher risk comes with higher reward, thus making the risk economically rational. As the above-linked Wired article explains, “Investors like risk, as long as they can price it. What they hate is uncertainty—not knowing how big the risk is.” The individual levels or “tranches” represented different levels of risk, which could then be priced accordingly. Basically, tranching lets investors distinguish among different intensities of risk. The tl;dr here is that tranching uses probabilities to create hierarchies instead of distributions.

Tranching stacks risk pools in a hierarchically ordered series of probability ratios (100% unlikely to default, 80% unlikely to default, 60% unlikely to default, etc.). This is the same form Plato gives to the True–the divided line is a hierarchically ordered series of ratios. Plato obviously didn’t have probabilistic statistics, just geometry; his ratios were geometric proportions of the relative length of line or string (they were grounded in Pythagorean music theory, which measured vibrating strings). This was also the order the Republic seeks for the city: the myth of the metals is one example of this, but the text also constantly talks about a moderate and harmonious order (sophrosyne). Tranching groups people into the same kind of order that Plato’s Republic does. This is one way of interpreting Cooper’s claim that neoliberals “expect the strictest of virtue ethics to arise spontaneously from the immanent action of market forces.” (60): figuring out the best way to bundle and price risky debt leads finance professionals to organize people into an order that is basically identical to the one Plato describes as the virtue of moderation.

This move from distributions to hierarchies is interesting because hierarchies are usually understood as older models of social exclusion. Statistical distributions put everyone on the same continuum, eliminating hierarchical status differences such as class. This is why it can appear more progressive and inclusive. But the math involved in securitized debts breaks that continuity back down into a hierarchy. This is related to Cooper’s claim that normalization is giving way to a new version of sovereignty, aka legitimation. She argues that “here again it is a question of legitimacy and its sources, divine or secular, rather than the distribution of norms.” (165). Historically, Western culture uses kinship relations to determine sovereign legitimacy. Neoliberalism likewise uses kinship to determine legitimacy:

non-normative sex- uality is now much more likely to be accepted, as long as the attendant transmission of biological and economic assets —that is, children and wealth —is appropriately legitimated within the form of marriage. The socially meaningful dividing line, in other words, appears to have shifted from the normative and non-normative expression of sexuality to the legitimate or illegitimate relationship” (165).

So instead of including everyone on a continuity and then using normalization to mark a break in that continuity, nü legitimacy politically emancipates legitimacy without ‘humanly’ emancipating it. Though the law no longer prevents people from accessing legitmiating institutions like marriage, the world we live in makes these institutions differentially accessible.

So, new articulations of systemic domination look remarkably like…old articulations of those same systems: we’re back to sovereignty and status hierarchies.

Preemptive Temporality

Cooper argues that neoliberals and neoconservatives were united in their “preemptive” approach to social revolution: “neoliberals and neo-conservatives sought to contain the antinormative and redistributive promise of these [20th century liberation] movements by capturing them within the horizon of reinvented tradition” (312). This is a fundamentally different attitude toward the future than we see in modernity. Modernity frames the future as revolutionary newness–that’s literally what the idea of an avant-garde is. Citing Hayek, Cooper explains that classical liberalism understands the future as a site of revolutionary newness:

“Economic liberalism, by contrast, ‘has never been a backward-looking doctrine.’ By its nature, it is oriented to the new: ‘There never has been a time when liberal ideals were fully realized and when liberalism did not look forward to further improvement of institutions.’ This future orientation can be described as speculative in the sense that it appeals to no prior distribution of historical probabilities and thus makes no claims to prediction: If “one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such…the liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead.’” (311).

Even the neoliberals understood classical liberalism as positively oriented toward the future, which brought unanticipatable difference. (One place to look for this would be Rousseau’s idea of perfectability: humans are always either getting better or getting worse. Think also about the “It Gets Better” campaign from a few years ago.) But all this unpredictability makes Hayek nervous: how can you make good investments if you can’t hedge future risk?

Neoliberals want a future where new things happen but do not fundamentally change the basic parameters of their forecasts/predictions/etc. New things must subordinate themselves to existing if evolving relations of domination and subordination (like the racialized distribution of wealth as policed by the patriarchal nuclear family). Those relations pre-empt any developments that would upset the distributions of risk and reward that most efficiently transmit wealth, life, privilege, all that stuff to the people who have historically been rewarded with it. As Cooper explains, “Hayek’s political philosophy of neoliberalism could usefully be described as preemptive in the sense that its first instinct is to accommodate the future” but this “will to adapt exists side by side with an unwavering deference to historical selection—the social conventions of religion, family, and inherited wealth that are thrown up as if by chance but subsequently validated by the weight of social norms” (312). This is basically social Darwinism: new developments have to fit with patterns of living that have evolved to be most successful. These ‘proven’ traditions are the past behaviors on the basis of which one can make predictions and speculate–without those past patterns, there’s no way to predict or speculate the outcome of things. “Thus, Hayek combines a speculative orientation toward the future with an unshakeable respect for the traditions that are periodically validated or, in his words, selected in the process of spontaneous social evolution” (312). The point is Hayek chooses very specific past patterns–patterns that optimize specific distributions of personhood-as-property. In this preemptive approach to the future newness must be subordinated to ‘evolutionary’ selection; only randomness that is consonant with and amplifies existing patterns of social inequity are acceptable. The point of newness isn’t to change the distribution of wealth and personhood, but to change how those institutions work so they keep pace with the evolving world.  I am unclear how this preemptive approach to the future is different than normalization–accepting new/random occurrences that fit an established distribution is basically how normalization works.