Reinforcing misery

Carey Davies reports on the Conservative 'remedies' for a 'broken society'

The Tories' response to the departure of Tony Blair and the efforts of the Brown government to re-christen the New Labour project - not to mention the mild surge in support for Labour owing to what the press has dubbed the 'Brown bounce' - has taken the form of the tried and tested tactic long favoured by Conservative politicians when their party finds itself in need of a popularity boost: the Appeal to Traditional Values. In other words, the reaffirmation of the virtues of deeply reactionary social institutions, the invocation of Victorian standards of morality, scare-mongering about the poor, and ideological attacks on the welfare state.

A report drawn up by a policy group headed by former leader Iain Duncan Smith and given the revelatory title 'Breakthrough Britain' centres on what the Tories identify as the problems of Britain's "broken society". It points to a number of scourges, chief amongst them being massive private debt, increasing drugs and alcohol abuse, welfare dependency, the growth of an "underclass", and "family breakdown". By way of remedying these ills, the proposals argue for a veritable cornucopia of backward-looking recommendations: reaffirming the institution of marriage, backed by significant tax breaks (presumably by cutting back those currently enjoyed by single parents, which the report claims the tax system currently favours); raising tax on alcohol by up to 10% to "combat binge drinking"; reclassifying cannabis as a class B drug; forcing heroin users to go 'cold turkey' rather than be given substitutes such as methadone; and so on.

The same social agenda the Tories have always promulgated, in other words, albeit one given a superficial gloss to make it look new in order to fit with the rebranding of the party that has gone on under David Cameron. Cameron himself endorses the new proposals, and in particular has sought to stress the significance of the decline of the traditional family in allegedly causing Britain's society to become "broken". Indeed, the supposed corrosive effects of the decline of marriage feature heavily in the rhetoric accompanying the report. Labour's policies, he claims, encourage couples to split up by discriminating against two-parent families.

In Britain, like any other capitalist society, social malaise runs deep. Impoverishment, both economic and cultural, is tangibly real, and its social effects are plain to see. But these proposals amount to little more than a cynically-minded attempt to exploit real social problems for the electoral benefit of a political party with no real interest in solving them. Conservative governments through the years have in fact been on the very front line of causing many of the problems they identify. It should not come as a surprise, then, that the Tories' proposed 'solutions' are nothing of the sort: in fact, they would serve to compound and reinforce division, alienation and misery.


The Conservative defence of the institution of marriage is a good example. The origins of modern marriage are in patriarchy, and to a very great extent it has served as the legal contract which has ratified men's claims to possess women, and thereby an institution sanctifying the broader oppression of women by men.

Aspects of marriage vows which were once commonplace reflect this: the pledge of the bride to "love and obey" her husband; women symbolically being 'given away' by their fathers; or the groom removing his bride's garter to symbolise his claim on her sexuality. One particularly grisly ritual which was observed in some parts of Europe until the 20th century involved the newly-wed couple hanging the blood-stained bed sheets from their wedding night on the side of their house to show that the woman was a virgin before her marriage. And in many cultures marriage as an instrument of oppression manifests itself in things like punishments for adultery, which are often much harsher for women - stoning to death being the most extreme example.

Many progressively-minded people still choose wedlock as merely a  way of expressing commitment. The Tories' vision of marriage is, however, thoroughly patriarchal: "The evidence [for the beneficial social effects of marriage] is incredibly strong. We need a big cultural change in favour of fatherhood, in favour of parenting, in favour of marriage" (my emphasis). The sort of marriage arrangement Cameron and his party advocates is bound up within the context of the 'traditional' nuclear family: the male 'breadwinner', two children, a 'stable home' - and domestic servitude on the part of the woman.

This, argue the Tories, is the way to mend Britain's "broken society". They posit the existence of a link between increased crime, alienation and other social afflictions and the break-up of the traditional family. This is an essentially baseless claim. In Britain for most of the 19th and 20th century, for example, marriage as a social institution was endemic - as was crime, poverty and general deprivation. But fighting these evils is not in fact the Tories' main concern. Impoverishment and alienation (and crime, which results from these things) are caused by capitalism itself, and the inequality between classes which capitalism creates. Maintaining this state of affairs - the real source of Britain's "broken society" - is the raison d'être of the Conservative Party.

For the sake of taste we will skip over the obvious irony of politicians from a party famed for its propensity for sleaze and auto-asphyxiation harping on wholesomely about old-fashioned married fidelity (although there is a point there about how healthy marriage is for people's sexual lives). Suffice to say that, so far as the Conservatives do in fact want to 'mend' society, it is from the point of view of capital.

Tory rhetoric about the family is revealing of this. The family is the basic unit of capitalism. In order to ensure that workers are fed and clothed, and available and fit for work each day, the family set-up - which has traditionally involved domestic slavery on the part of women - is encouraged, through legal sanctioning and ideological crusading. This is where the Tories' real concerns lie. The traditional family is a stifling and repressive institution, but one which serves the interests of capitalism - itself a stifling and repressive system.


Communists want to see the traditional institution of marriage positively superseded, just as we want to see the system of capitalism positively overcome. Indeed, marriage and the repressive domestic arrangements that come with it can only be got rid of by fighting against the system that causes them. To this end, we advocate the socialisation of housework, in order to free women from the ties of private labour which underpin women's status in capitalist society. As first steps, for example, laundry and house-cleaning services should be undertaken by the state; high-quality canteens with low prices should be opened. In this way, the burden of domestic duties could be lifted off the shoulders of private individuals - usually women - and the capacity of society at large could be utilised for domestic tasks.

This includes the upbringing of children. Single-parenthood is neither better nor worse than marriage - it can be an atomised arrangement which often brings drudgery and extreme difficulty to the parent. But rather than advocate a return to the parallel drudgery of marriage, communists argue that single parents, like couples, should be supported and every step taken to assist them in raising children - as a minimum, 24-hour crèches and kindergartens to facilitate full participation in social life outside the home, provision for either parent to be allowed paid leave to look after sick children, and a maximum six-hour working day for all nursing mothers.


Another section of the Tories' proposals attack the 'culture of welfare dependency'. It is argued that the system provides a "free ride" to too many people through benefits and in particular tax credits. Naturally, this provides the justification for measures designed to restrict tax credits and make benefits harder to obtain.

Again, the Conservatives mirror the needs of capital. Economic and political attacks on the welfare state are accompanied by ideological ones. Welfare is derided as productive of laziness and scrounging. The way to get out of poverty, according to Iain Duncan Smith, is through work. In other words, every person should fend for themselves in the struggle to escape misery and should expect little to no help from the state. In this way, a society can be created which is free from the moral decay and degeneration fostered by the 'scrounger's paradise' of welfare.

Of course, the result of this would never be the harmonised, happy society the Tories profess to want to create. But again, this is simply a foil: an ideal Tory world would be one in which there were no obstacles to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a small minority at the expense of the vast majority of people, whose lives would be inescapably impoverished. The welfare state, and indeed the very notion that human beings should receive help and support in their lives, is one such obstacle. The Tories' wish to recreate the conditions of pre-1945 capitalism in Britain: an even more class-stratified, wretched and destitute society than the one we see today, where systematic poor relief was non-existent and millions were condemned to live the harshest of lives.

Therefore, bizarrely, a system created to help the poor is attacked on the grounds that it produces poverty. Spurious connections are made between the 'culture of dependency' and evil vices. The series of historic triumphs of the working class represented by the welfare state is made the scapegoat for problems of society which are entirely endemic to the system of capital.


Similar reactionary attitudes abound in the Tories' proposals for tackling the issue of drugs. The Conservatives have long been committed to a 'war on drugs' mentality. Indeed, any retreat from this hard-line position is considered to be politically risky. Drugs, according to the proposals, are a scourge on society - all forms of illegal drug use should be heavily punished, and alcohol and tobacco consumption should also be strongly discouraged.

Drug use has been an endemic feature of human existence from its very beginning, and continues to be, whether in the form of illegal or legalised substances like alcohol and tobacco. The key to solving the social problems caused by drugs is not through prohibition, but to remove the stigma attached to their use - often hypocritically - and make all of them legal. This way, drugs can be subject to quality control and inspection: but more importantly, they can become socialised and incorporated into the fabric of people's social lives.

In this way, the harm caused by drugs will be minimised, as control over their production and distribution will be taken away from criminal cartels who are interested only in shifting their supplies as quickly as possible and are sometimes prepared to distribute all sorts of rubbish, mixed in to lessen costs. Moreover, consumption of drugs will not occur furtively and in out-of-reach places but openly and in such a way that treatment in the case of overdoses, etc can be easily administered (and the possibility of this happening will be lessened, as in all probability people will consume drugs relatively moderately).

Declaring war on drugs is futile. There is no better example to highlight this than the prohibition of alcohol in America in the last century. Of course, the law did not stop people drinking: it simply made the whole experience a lot more dangerous, as what was produced often induced horrible illnesses and ailments, including blindness.

Communists therefore advocate the legalisation and - crucially - socialisation of all drugs, within the context of a humane and civilised society, in which the desire to seek oblivion in drugs due to the dehumanising pressures of alienated work is non-existent, and people can focus on living enriched, fulfilled lives and cultivating their humanity.

But do not wait for the Tories - or any of the mainstream parties - to advocate such radical measures.