Babies and business, prams and politics, are thought to lie at opposite ends of the social spectrum. Not so, Laura Briggs argues in How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics. Her book addresses “the ferocious rise in business’s power to define how we live”, and above all how – or whether – we can attend to those in need of our care. In the West, especially in the United States, it is likely that the parents of young children will both be working vastly long hours in paid employment, with childminders imported from other parts of the globe. These migrant careworkers usually have children of their own, now farmed out to others in poor countries. Briggs maps out the personal miseries and economic and political mayhem this generates, while wondering why reproductive politics is rarely even addressed today.
Behind the crisis lies the untrammelled rise of neoliberal ideology and policies. First Margaret Thatcher, then Ronald Reagan, epitomised the belief that only markets matter. Both implemented policies of shrinking welfare budgets, taxing business less, while allowing commercial enterprises free reign. Focusing on the US, Briggs highlights the role of enduring and vicious racism in smoothing the passage of cruel welfare reduction, forcing mothers, even of babies, to do jobs with pitiful wages, while childcare and any other resources for assisting families disappeared. Politicians and press alike spread an intensely racialised mythology of black “welfare queens” and Latina “breeding machines”, serving to “shame” young mothers out of staying home with their kids. After 1990, writes Briggs, “being a mother without a job – the statistical norm just over a decade earlier – suddenly became the most shameful of moral failings”.
Meanwhile, as American women, even middle-class mothers, were soon working overtime, often on average 50 to 55 hours a week, immigrants were fleeing deepening global inequality, agreeing to take up any jobs, however low paid, in order to send money home to their families. That most ended up as illegal domestic helps only made it all the easier for employers to impose abysmal conditions. Adding insult to injury, the conservative Right has been busy blaming feminists for sending mothers into the workforce: earlier feminist calls for shorter working days to enable shared domestic labour, and the struggle for family policies that valued both carework and community building, were to be erased from public memory.
Finally, Briggs clarifies why she believes the failure of any adequate reproductive policies lies behind the overall sense of crisis in America today. Offshoring reproductive labour fuels fears of migrants, the majority being domestic workers; withdrawing social support and assisted housing entails longer hours in paid work, wage stagnation and the further privatising of responsibility for dependency, while undermining most forms of creative community life. Indeed, the desperation to maintain households lay behind the global meltdown 10 years ago, as predatory lenders “sought out Black, Latinx, and female-headed households for mortgages, while charging them excessive interest rates”. Turning Marxist truism on its head, Briggs concludes, dramatically, that “in the USA…there is no outside to reproductive politics”. Until governments and business pay attention to this, the crises of our time will only deepen – and not just in the US.
Lynne Segal works at Birkbeck, University of London. Her new book, Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy, will be published next month.
How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump
By Laura Briggs
University of California Press, 304pp, £24.95
Published 12 September 2017