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  • Daniel Bell's Dilemma:Financialization, Family Values, and their Discontents
  • Stefan Eich

Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (Basic Books, 1976).

Melinda Cooper, Family Values. Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism (Zone Books, 2017).

Amassing a mountain of etymological conjectures and anthropological reports that ranged from Iroquois family structures to the communal land ownership of archaic Russian villages, in the last years of his life Karl Marx concluded that Charles Fourier had been right. The modern family, Marx explained in his ethnological notebooks from the early 1880s, "contains in itself in miniature all the antagonisms that later develop widely in society and its state."1 Indeed, the patriarchal family itself had developed historically on the back of slavery. "In its primary meaning," Marx excerpted from the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan's Ancient Society (1877), "family had no relation to the married pair or their children, but to the body of slaves and servants." Just as Fourier had argued, the status of civilization was mirrored by its family structures and the rise of capitalism had gone hand in hand with a patriarchal revolution against matriarchy and common ownership. This meant inversely, as Fourier concluded, that the surest and most rapid path to social progress was the march of women toward their liberty.

In 1968, four years before excerpts from Marx's late ethnological notes were first published, Daniel Bell also turned to Fourier. Bell, like Marx, acknowledged Fourier's prophetic quality. Referring to the sexual revolution [End Page 241] sweeping through American campuses and bedrooms, Bell worried about what he dubbed the "psychological utopia of individual release."2 The prophet of such "orgiastic chiliasm," he declared in the American Scholar in the fall of 1968, had been Fourier. "Family life, the key social institution of the civilized state," Bell explained, "was Fourier's most compelling example of an unnatural institution, holding men in its iron grip, bringing misery to all its members."3 As the journal announced, Bell's next, long-awaited monograph would dissect Fourier's untimely anticipation of the utopia of sexual liberation.

Bell was far from alone in his concern about the state of American sexual mores and family structures at the time. Already in 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan's report on "The Negro Family" had caused a stir by reframing black urban poverty around "the deterioration of the Negro family."4 Moynihan, a sociologist then serving in the Johnson administration as Assistant Undersecretary of Labor, argued in the report that "the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is to out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well."5 By the early 1970s anxieties about the counter-cultural sexual liberation directly echoed Moynihan's account of black family breakdown. It was during these years that the economist Gary Becker began to extend his account of human capital from education into reproduction to develop an "economic theory of marriage."6

Throughout the 1960s Becker had been Bell's colleague at Columbia, but in the wake of the student protests on Morningside Heights in the spring of 1968 both turned their backs to Columbia. Bell moved on to the sociology department at Harvard. Becker returned to the University of Chicago. In his theoretical papers Becker had largely refrained from spelling out the political implications of his theory of family economics, but as the introduction to his unifying Treatise on the Family (1981) made clear, his account self-consciously tapped into anxieties about divorce [End Page 242] rates and single mothers that had been building up in the course of the 1970s. As Becker declared in the book's opening sentence, "the family in the Western world has been radically altered, some claim almost destroyed, by the events of the last three decades."7


Becker's hyperbolic assessment forms the opening epigraph of Melinda Cooper's brilliant Family Values.8 As Cooper shows in her important revisionist account, financialization and neoliberal depoliticization were never opposed to family values...


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