Sunday, September 06, 2009

Review: Private Lives, Public Policy

[Jane Ursel. Private Lives, Public Policy: 100 Years of State Intervention in the Family. Toronto: Women's Press, 1992.]

In the last several years, over the course of writing reviews (or, really, responses) to quite a number of books, I have become increasingly convinced that it makes much more sense to relate to books as interpenetrating puzzle pieces than it does to treat them, as some on the left do, as thrusts and parries in some sort of intellectual political combat.

Which isn't to say that pointed and emphatic commentary is never appropriate. It also isn't to claim that I never get on a roll and go overboard saying critical things rather than exploring that which is useful. And most especially it is not favouring a kind of mushy pluralism when it comes to analysis, as some devotees of "correct line" politics might claim. Rather, it is an approach that starts from how little we really know and how we need to wring whatever insight we can from every available source. It understands knowing as a process that happens where we are, a journey in which our vantage at every moment is invariably situated and partial. Even the most troubling and flawed account of the world or some phenomenon within it may have have insights to offer.

Note that I'm not recommending relating books to one another in simply additive ways -- I'm not dismissing "A or B" in favour of "A and B." Rather, the "interpenetrating" part of the image above is meant to get across the idea that B may transform your reading of A and vice versa -- it may shift what you think is valuable, what you retain for your own analysis, what you actively read into a slightly different frame, all that stuff. Your reading of B may reach deep into your understanding of A, and yank it around by a quarter of a turn. But where you have ended up still required both A and B.

I raise what may appear to be a strangely abstract point about reading strategies because it is particularly relevant to my experience of this book. There are a number of things about this book that are, based on the place it is coming out of, quite predictably present and politically limited/limiting. Yet it remains a very important book that deserves to be one piece of any significant synthesis around themes of Canadian history or the Canadian present.

Private lives, Public Policy is an examination of the development of the welfare state in Canada. It looks to build on a number of sources: Canadian, male-dominated, political economy Marxism and its accounts of the welfare state which examine only the relevance of production; older Marxist feminisms which admit the relevance of both production and reproduction but tend to subordinate the latter to the former in accounting for change and often reduce patriarchy to capitalism; and older radical feminisms which admit the relevance of both production and reproduction but tend to subordinate the former to the latter and often reduce capitalism to patriarchy. This book takes the position that both the productive and reproductive spheres are relevant, and that capitalist social relations and patriarchal social relations exist and interact yet are not reducible to each other. Ursel's thesis, in fact, is that the best explanation for how the Canadian welfare state developed was as part of ongoing attempts to mediate between contradictory pressures exerted by the capitalist imperative to maximize the utilization of human beings in the productive sphere as part of accumulation, and those exerted by the patriarchal imperative to advance and control reproduction. In tracing this history, part of her intent is to develop a historical sense of the possible range of relationships that the state can have to feminist struggle -- when is it potentially a tool, and when is it only a danger?

The areas where I find the above lacking are, as I said, pretty predictable. The book's rooting in political economy Marxism, for instance, carries with it the tendency of that tradition to underemphasize the role of struggle in driving processes of historical change and to see far too much historical agency in the hands of elites. It also, despite its stated intent to materially ground analysis, also tends to reify what it is talking about, sometimes in ways from which a careful reader can decode what a given generalization likely means in terms of actual people engaging in actual actions, but not always. Also, while this book takes an important step in its commitment to analyzing history in ways that see capitalist and patriarchal social relations as having both extensive autonomy and extensive interaction, it stops there -- while there are occasional minor references to race, nation, sexuality, and colonization, none of these things are analyzed as axes for relations of oppression and resistance the way that capitalism and patriarchy are. Sunera Thobani's Exalted Subjects illustrates the crucial importance of relations of oppression and resistance along axes of race, nation, and colonization in understanding the ways in which the Canadian welfare state developed (though it too omits much discussion of relations of heterosexism). This lack in Ursel's book not only results in a partial picture of the welfare state, but also leads to evaluating the possibilities for feminist use of the state with an incomplete set of data -- i.e. one that doesn't attend to the role of the Canadian state in the ongoing colonization and genocide of indigenous peoples, and in relations of white supremacy more broadly.

Yet with all of those things laid out on the table, this is still a very important book that delivers some very important insights. It distinguishes among different modes of patriarchal relations (that is, different forms of domination in the context of relations of reproduction), which are tied to different relations of production. Communal patriarchy, in which production and reproduction were largely the same, involved the organization of society largely through kinship systems. In this mode in European history, women were not necessarily subjected to the authority of an individual patriarch, but women in general became subordinated to male decision-making about reproduction. As class societies developed, primarily in the form of feudalism in the European context, patriarchy shifted to a familial mode -- individual women subjected to the authority of individual men who were legally supported in their near absolute control over their dependents. Finally, the rise of industrial capitalism was interrelated with a shift to social patriarchy.

In the feudal/familial mode, there was significant coincidence of interest between patriarchal control of reproduction, which was decentralized, and class control of the means of production (i.e. land), which was highly centralized. Both benefited from rigid male control of large families. However, with the rise of industrial capitalism, the individual patriarch's control of the family was undermined in significant ways because he no longer controlled access to productive resources; rather, employers did. Capital was driven to wring the most productive use out of any bodies it could gain access to, yet this had the effect of disrupting the patriarchal family as it had existed to that point, and also threatened capital in the long term because it ultimately depends on labour being reproduced. This has lead to a number of different phases of activity in the context of the Canadian state, which Ursel traces through looking at shifts in in family law, labour law, and welfare law at the federal level and in Ontario and Manitoba. She describes four different periods: pre-WWI, 1914-1939, 1940-1968, and, in a less rigorous way, the era since then. The welfare state represents social patriarchy, in which many of the legal mechanisms enforcing individual subordination of women have been removed but socialization of many of the costs and much of the regulation of reproduction amounts to a socialization of patriarchy. In the neoliberal era, of course, the state is attempting to reprivatize many of the costs of reproduction, and at least some elements are pushing for a return to a strengthened familial patriarchy.

My brief summary hasn't done the argument justice and it is worth digesting in full. It is certainly a piece worth adding to your puzzle, worth transforming and being transformed by. And I just have a couple of parting comments beyond that. One is to reiterate that the conclusions the book draws about the state are skeptical about its potential as a potentially liberatory social form, but not nearly skeptical enough, because certain key evidence on the question is simply not considered. The other is to reflect on the faintly pessimistic taste that the book left in my mouth. It's probably just a product of the tendency I mentioned above of political economy analysis to make it look like all power and all possibility for initiative rests with capital, but accepting the world this book describes at face value does not give one a lot of hope that pushing for a break with the logics of exploitation and patriarchal domination might be possible. Yet I suppose that often enough with left books this sort of hope is another of the things that must be read in from other sources.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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