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Do Socialists Believe in a Family Wage?

By Suzanne Kahn

At the start of The Socialist Manifesto, by Bhaskar Sunkara, which seeks to reclaim the history of socialism as a rallying call for a new generation (see book review by Emma Teitelman in this issue), the author argues, “Socialism is not so much about trading freedom for equality but rather positing the question, ‘Freedom for whom?’”1 Sunkara uses this question to call attention to the fact that guaranteeing freedom for working people will likely mean limiting the freedom of the wealthy—freedom currently predicated on limits placed on workers. Sunkara is asking an important question, but it is one the left must grapple with more broadly than The Socialist Manifesto proceeds to do. As Sunkara (and almost everyone else on the left) would quickly acknowledge, class is far from the only axis on which power, resources, and freedom are distributed. Yet, even as discussions on the left have broadened to include an analysis of gender and race, too often we see these axes slipping out of policymakers’ central analysis.

History suggests that when policymakers bring in race and gender only as an afterthought rather than a central principle, the policies that result often fall back on old structures and patterns that ultimately exacerbate inequalities along these axes. At a moment when the Democratic Party is having a serious debate about how to broaden America’s patchy social safety net, there are signs that this slippage has already begun. For example, Bernie Sanders’ campaign website promises, “When we are in the White House, we will create millions of union, family-wage jobs through the Green New Deal.”2 Anyone with a background in American history should pause a minute on the term “family wage.” A generation of historians have documented the development of the family wage ideology over the course of the nineteenth century, showing how this idealized wage structure rationalized capitalism for workers, captains of industry, and reformers alike. What is Sanders, the standard-bearer for American socialism, doing invoking an ideology embraced by none other than Henry Ford to keep his workforce under control?

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