Last week the biggest riots in Britain for decades saw thousands of people take to the streets after the police killed Mark Duggan. Much of the commentary has focused on weakened parental authority, lack of family values, and a “broken Britain”. The vile Melanie Phillips, in an article in the Daily Mail, blames “not poverty….but moral collapse”, and a Senior Tory asked for Cameron to consider introducing tax breaks for married couples. Insufficient respect for ‘authority’ has been a constant refrain, and many have lamented that children no longer seem to fear their parents. They have tried to place the blame on individual families, rather than looking at what their attacks have done to communities across the country.
In Tottenham, where the riots started, 8 out of 12 youth centres have been closed in the last year under the Tories. The council has cut its youth budget by 75%. This meaning that caring for young people increasingly falls back onto families. Tottenham has the highest level of unemployment in London, and the Tory cuts mean many more people in Tottenham, London and across the country face job losses in the near future. Within families there is a constant pressure to buy the latest trainers, television or games console. Unemployment and job cuts make this difficult for most parents, and those who can find work often find themselves working exceedingly long hours for low pay.
Why is the family so important to the ruling class? To answer this it is necessary to look at the role that the family plays under capitalism. The family has enormous financial benefit for the system as individual families bear the burden for bringing up the next generation. Families, and mainly women within them, care for the young, old and the sick, meaning that the cost is borne by the individual, rather than the state. These costs are huge, meaning that many people could not afford to work, as childcare is too expensive; it can cost in the region of £800/month for a nursery place.
The family also plays an important ideological role for the ruling class. It is the place where most of us are socialised, learning the rules of society, including, they hope, a respect for authority. It also encourages people to think of themselves as an atomised, self-contained unit, where if you are poor, unemployed, or can’t afford to buy something, then it’s your own fault, not the fault of cuts, racism or the economic crisis. This view of the family has come out very clearly in the last week.
These twin economic and ideological roles are important under capitalism to produce the next generation of healthy and educated workers. For the ruling class it is important that workers respect the authority of the boss or the police, and the financial burden of the caring for a family can act as a factor that limits workers from taking action, such as strikes, as may mean that their family doesn’t have enough to eat.
However, people do not enter into family relationships because they consciously think that they are producing the next generation of workers. For many people the family is the centre of care and emotion in society, somewhere we can experience unconditional love and is a place to turn to in times of trouble – a haven in a heartless world.
We can also imagine a different type of family. If the roles that the family currently undertakes, such as childcare and cooking are socialised, and the economic considerations within a family are removed, then we could have families that are based on “a union of affection and comradeship”, where relationships are not based on children being afraid of their parents.
We must resist attempts by the right, and some who would describe themselves as being on the left, to try and say that the riots last week were caused by a break down in so called ‘family-values’. The ‘family-values’ that they promote are in the interests of the ruling class, who have demonstrated by their assault on welfare and public services that they do not care about the conditions that most working class people live in. We have to argue strongly that the riots were caused because the deep and growing inequality, poverty, police harassment and racism, and many young people feeling that they have no future.