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This essay will begin by describing the three spheres that tie society
together. The main institution of society is the family or household which
is broken up into thousands of units. Secondly, it will discuss the economic
institution and its ties to the family. The use of labour power and how
that effects the power struggle with the capitalist marketplace will also
be discussed. Lastly, the political institution of government will be shown
along with its relationships to the family and the families ability to
create reform and change regulation.
One of the main institutions in society in the household or family.
It is here that almost all the consumption in society takes place. It is
also here that almost all the labour power in society originates. The make-up
of the family is not as “cut and dry” as it once was. The nuclear family
is dead and what has replaced it has put all old theories about the family
to the test.
One major change has been the rise of the dual-earner family. In 70%
of households today there is no single breadwinner. (Burggraf, 1997:54)
Women’s position in the family has been changed radically from that of
one-hundred years ago. Three important issues have been raised about women’s
position in the family. One is that the development of gender inequality
within the family is a result of the changing economy. This being the extra
accumulation of property in private households. The second issue is that
capitalism being the only form of economy we are familiar with pushes for
the working of every family member to create a strong economy. Lastly,
the evolution of the family dispersed from economic development and instead
become a more social issue. (Wilson, 1982:37)
Because the position of women in the family has been so altered from
past history, projections made, even forty years ago, are increasingly
wrong. Though, even with the changing structure of the family the economic
labour power has not significantly increased. The role of housewife in
the post-industrial age was just as important to women as today’s dual
earning household. The housewife was the counter-part to the husbands role
of breadwinner. It was the wife who cleaned the husbands clothes, prepared
his food and provided emotional support, without which he could not fulfill
his role as breadwinner. (Burggraf, 1997:174)
With the evolution of the labour market and capitalist economy with
the ever increasing consumption of the family unit the homemaker was called
to enter the workforce. In 1901 only 12% of Canadian women were economically
active, however, in 1961 there were 29.5% economically active. (Wilson,
1982:71). This percentage has gotten exponentially bigger with time. In
1981, 54% of women with dependent children were economically active.(Purdy,
Another facet of the economic family unit is reproduction. The goal
of the family unit is to produce children, which in turn expands the labour
force, which creates a larger economic base. In Canadian families the emphasis
is on quality not quantity and because of this there are gaps in the unskilled
labour force. It is only through immigration that the capitalist economy
has been able to keep up with the demand for cheap unskilled labour. (Purdy,
So the value of labour power is determined outside capitalism, in non-capitalist
units that maintain and reproduce labour power…families. Corporations
produce wealth in the form of goods and services and a can last well beyond
an individuals life span. Capitalism is a powerful institution with holds
on the economy, political state and family as well. The payment of wages
allows the corporations to grow and continue to produce goods and exploit
workers. (Bailey, 1974:127)
Families consume. In the modern era, most families are not units of
production and consumption, mainly just consumption. They do not accumulate
wealth, but simply take the wage and spend it on commodities that satisfy
their needs. As Karl Marx put it, “if I exchange a commodity [labour power]
for money, buy a commodity for it and satisfy my need, then the act is
at an end.” (Smith, 1982:29) Families have a limited life span, related
to the cycle of growth and decline of individual family members. The family,
unless it has property, will inevitably decline to be replaced or reborn
in new formations down the generations. Wages earned allow families to
survive and reproduce labour power, in the form of children. It is the
children that will outlive the family and become the new labour power.
Working for wages allows those with economic activity to support the
non-wage-earning members of the household, young and old, caring and dependent.
In the spirit of support the family acts with altruism to aid reproduction
and in turn this aids the reproduction of the capitalist enterprise. (Smith,
1982: 105) Marx put it like this :
The maintenance and reproduction of the working-class is, as must ever
a necessary condition to the reproduction of capital. But the capitalist
may safely leave its fulfillment to the labourer’s instincts of self-preservation
and of propagation. (Smith, 1982:106)
If Marx is correct in his ideology then the family will be forever in
the service of the controllers of the economic and political states. Already
the family is related to these two institutions in a number of ways.
The economy and household/family are seperated easily in the modern
era. As already stated above, the family of today is primarily a consumption
unit, while the economic state is filled with units of production and consumption
as well, it produces wages and employment.
Other creations of economy are; capitalist welfare programs (company
housing, welfare, pension programs), corporate taxes and employer contributions.
The families main tie to the economic state is through labour power.
Jack Wayne, in his essay “The function of Social Welfare in a Capitalist
The reproduction of labour power is, however, private; it generally
takes place outside the jurisdiction of capital, in families and households,
and is separated from the circuit of capital. The use value of labour power
is, of course, of interest to the capitalist, but it is determined by processes
and undertakings that occur behind ‘closed doors’. The only point of intervention
available to the capitalist is the wage. (Dickinson/Russell, 1986:79)
It is the wage that ties the economic state and family together, and
allows the corporations or as Marx calls them capitalists to harness the
labour power for their own needs. There is only one form of labour that
is not totally governed by the capitalist market and that is domestic labour.
Domestic labour is characterized by a very low level of division of
labour. The same person (usually the housewife) does a range of activities
which, in the social spheres are carried out by specialists. Some examples
of this are catering, education and health businesses. Secondly the products
of domestic labour do not have to be sold on the market for the labour
to be recognized at useful. This makes domestic labour a non-market production.
Lastly the labour-power is not offered on a market and therefor makes up
(housework is non-paid). (Gouverneur, 1983:7)
Closely tied in with the economic state is the political state. The
taxes from the economic market feed the collective consumption of the government
and legislation and boards from the government provide occupational health
and safety standards. The government also provides a stabling influence
on the changing economy.
As far as the family is concerned the State provides redistribution
of transfer payments and substitute wage programs. The government also
strengthens the social welfare net and provides charity and philanthropy
to those in need. Labour market regulation allows the regulation of child
labour laws and gives more bargaining power to families and wage earners.
One major form of this is the ability to strike and discuss minimum wage
legislation. (Dickinson/Russell, 1986: 17) Saskatchewan, under the first
socialist government in North America the CCF, was the first to give wage-earners
the right to go on strike in 1944. It took Ontario twenty years to give
its provincial residents the same right.
Households and families units of ,individual consumption, use this increase
in labour power to provide more taxes, if not out of the good of their
hearts then for government stability, to the political state. Thus, the
family unit helps balance the power struggle the government has with the
ever increasing economic sphere in a symbiotic relationship.
In “The State and the Maintenance of Patriarchy: A case study of family,
labour and welfare legislation in Canada”, Jane Ursel writes:
An important role of the state in class societies is to ensure a balanced
allocation of labour and non-labour resources between the two spheres of
production and reproduction so that the system is maintained both in the
long and short term….the state is the guarantor of the rules of class
and the rules of patriarchy and must insure that one system does not disrupt
the other. (Dickinson/Russell, 1986:154)
The government uses its control to regulate and perpetuate the status
quo and the family is a part of that. However, she does not believe that
the patriarchal system is all bad. She continues to write:
Patriarchy is important because the state cannot (inspite of some ill-fated
attempts) legislate procreation. It must instead set up a system via family,
property and marriage laws which will serve to translage social and economic
requirements into compelling household imperatives. The characteristic
feature of familial patriarchy is its pronatalist dynamic. This results
from the nature of the interaction between class and patriarchy which creates
a dterminant relation between productivity and procreation at the household
The family can change these regulations as well.
According to what has been discussed so far the definition of a family
would be a non-capitalist unit in which the maintenance and reproduction
of labour power takes place. (Bailey, 1974: 34) The Websters Dictionary
describes a family as “a group of related things or people”. (1990) However,
the Canadian government defines the family as “now-married couple (with
or without never-married sons and/or daughters of either or both spouses),
a couple living common law (again with or without never-married sons and/or
daughters of either or both partners) or a lone parent of any marital status,
with at least one never-married son or daughter living in the same dwelling.
(Statistics Canada, 1994:10)
Because the governments definition of family lets several groups that
may still be considered families “slip through the cracks”, this gives
bargaining power to the family unit yet again to change government regulation.
The Canadian government still does not recognize same sex couples, three
generations living in the same household and individuals living apart from
spouses and children. In 1991, 424,950 individuals aged 18-25 lived with
non-relatives, in institutions, or by themselves. This represents over
20% of the age group. (Statistics Canada, 1994:19)
One aspect of the political sphere that the family continually challenges
is gender equality. Starting with the latter part of the nineteenth century
where waves of feminist protest
began throughout the western world. Women organized in groups starting
at the family level and gaining support from other women’s groups. One
of the first cases early feminists argued before the government was their
collective right to vote. As early as 1916 in Alberta, Saskatchewan and
Manitoba women were given the right to vote, this increased the families
power with swaying the political sphere…it essentially doubled it. (Wilson.
The women’s movement appeared to lose its momentum after women gained
the right to vote. But although women’s groups were no longer held together
by a single goal. They continued to fight for women’s rights on several
fronts. The YWCA and Canadian Business and Professional Women remained
active in support of women’s issues. However, it wasn’t until the 1960’s
that the movement regained its previous strength. (Wilson, 1982:125)
Women in families are not the only ones who have argued with the political
sphere and won some political rights. Some Gay families or same-sex couples
have won the right to adopt children and in some American states get married.
The Modern family depends heavily on the all the institutions of society
for support. Where in the past the family was independent, now it needs
the bonds created through long access to each sphere either political or
economic. The labour power generated by the family unit gives it he bargaining
power to compete head to head with the ever growing and dominant labour
market and government bureaucracy.
But because the family is the smallest group and is based on individual
consumption it can seem over-taxed when dealing with mighty corporations
and large political states. However, in the global market-place the power
lies in the hands of those that control the labour and the consumption.
Currently, the family institution relies on the economy and political state,
but as the bargaining for labour power continues the family is emerging
as the dominant force. As new evolutions of families are being allowed
to participate in our culture, more power will create more labour and more
reproduction. It is a basic fact that history repeats itself, maybe the
family will gain the dominant role it had before the industrial revolution
Bailey, Reed J. The New State: Capital Family. Oxford. Oxford Press
Burggraf, Shirley P, Ph.D. The Feminine Economy and Economic Man: Reviving
the Role of Family in the Post-Industrial Age. Addison-Wesley Publishing,
New York. 1997
Dickinson, James and Russell, Bob. Family, Economy and State: The social
Reproduction Process Under Capitalism. St. Martin’s Press, New York. 1986
Gouverneur, Jacques. Contemporary Capitalism and Marxist Economics.
Martin Robertson, Oxford. 1983
Purdy, David. Social Power and the Labour Market: A Radical Approach
to Labour Economics. Macmillan Education, England. 1988
Rueschemeyer, Dietrich. Power and the Division of Labour. Polity Press,
Smith, Ciaphus. Marx, Capitalism and the Family:Production and the reproduction
of labour power. Masters Press, London. 1982
Statistics Canada. Canadian 1991 Census Results Statistics Canada, Toronto,
Wilson, S.J. Women The Family and the Economy. McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd.
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