What is a child worth? Well, it depends on who’s paying. Photo: Getty
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Is having children about to become a vanity project for the rich?

How George Osborne's two-child benefit limit is making building a family into a class issue.

The Conservative government have decided to cut tax credits and housing benefit for families with more than two children. Should we be surprised? Powerful people have long sought to control the reproductive lives of those with less power than them. Sometimes this has involved restricting the number of children the latter may have, for instance through forced sterilisation, contraceptive implants or economic sanctions. At other times, it has involved allowing or even encouraging a higher birth rate but not allowing birth mothers to care for and pass on their own culture to their children. It all depends on the priorities of the group dominant at the time.

Do they wish to stockpile human beings as a future military or economic resource? Is it important to out-breed competitor nations while passing on one’s own “superior” values? Or would a restriction on reproduction be more beneficial as a means of social control, sending the message that if some people are suffering, it is their own fault for existing in the first place?

Iain Duncan Smith complains that tax credits have “distorted the system” (one dreads to think what “the system” is supposed to be). He seeks to play off those with “larger families subsidised by the state” against “the vast majority of families in Britain” who “make decisions about how many children they can have and the houses they can live in” (yes, Iain. Most of us, before we have unprotected sex, are sure to ask ourselves “what would IDS do?”). According to Duncan Smith, the children who will be affected by the tax credits changes are children who would, in any case, “grow up with no sense of work as a way out of poverty.”

Perhaps, ideally, they won’t now be born at all, but in case they are, it has been made clear in advance that whatever happens to them and their families, they have brought on themselves (in 1997’s Killing the Black Body, Dorothy Roberts makes the point that “the objective of reproductive control has never been primarily to reduce the numbers of Black children born into the world. It perpetuates the view that racial inequality is caused by Black people themselves and not by an unjust social order.” If oppressed people continue to exist, think the privileged, then they can’t say we didn’t warn them).

What the Conservative government are proposing with their effective two-child policy – and what Labour are failing to stand up to – is the demonization of poverty itself. Moreover, as they are well aware, it will be women and children who bear the brunt. The bodies of fertile women, already reduced to moral battlegrounds as far as abortion and contraception are concerned, are to become even more contested spaces. You do not have an uncontested right to abort your child but you do not have the right to bear it, either. It matters not that bearing and raising children could be conceived of as valuable projects in their own right. After several millennia of patriarchal dominance, the rules are clear: humankind’s key reproductive resource is not the womb, but the wallet. This is not just a social class issue but a feminist one.

The problem is not simply that the powerful harbour some bizarre envy of those whom they exploit (although it seems to me that they do). Those with power – and many of those without – perceive the cost but not the value of human reproduction and human life. They think, “well, in the past people needed children to work the land or sweep chimneys or something. Why bother now?”

Why indeed? What is the point of other people unless they are in some way a reflection of you, a vanity project, a continuation of your precious genetic heritage?

As Meghan Daum’s recent anthology, Shallow, Selfish and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers On The Decision Not To Have Kids, shows, even those who do not want children of their own lean towards this way of thinking. Tim Kreider muses on whether, “we childless ones, whether through bravery or cowardice, constitute a kind of existential vanguard, forced by our own choices to face the naked question of existence with fewer illusions, or at least fewer consolations, than the rest of humanity”. Well, good for him. I’m sure Jean-Paul Sartre would be proud. But for many people such decisions are not self-contained.

What about the broader function of the communal family? What about the transmission of values between those whose cultures are denigrated in the public sphere? What about, if we’re still allowed to mention it, the right to love? (Less sexy than the “right to sex,” I know, but surely it has to count for something.)

Many people on the left may decry the current Welfare Bill but when it comes to reproductive realities, they too prioritise choice and identity (“the right to be you”) over liberation and redistribution. This ignores the fact that choice and “being you” (and replicating this you-ness) require resources that most people do not have.

What is a baby worth? Well, it depends on who’s paying. Certainly, the means of reproduction – the female body – is far too inefficient to gain any political recognition in its own right. The left does not care and in not caring it too devalues flesh and blood.

Right now privileged westerners pride themselves on how much more sophisticated their understanding of sex and gender has become, while across the world, poor women of colour remain “under supervision” in surrogate hostels and 800 women die daily of preventable complications of pregnancy. Reproductive technology may have reduced, ever so slightly, patriarchy’s obsession with compulsory heterosexuality as a means of legitimising the male line, but let’s not pretend that this has convinced your average patriarch that women and children are human. Who needs traditional gender roles when economic inequality and the test tube can liberate the dominant class from the norms they themselves created? There are other ways to treat female people as walking wombs. There are other ways of maintaining hierarchies based on reproductive difference and access to material resources.

Ah, but sex is a construct, the sophisticates will say. Yes, of course. Sex is a construct. Babies? A construct. 800 deaths a day? A construct. Only money – a symbolic mechanism for exchange – is allowed to be real.  

We cannot talk about class and reproduction if we are not prepared to talk about women as a reproductive class and the way in which their subjugation shapes our concepts of ownership, bodies and work. If children are becoming a luxury item, it is not least because our current definition of what “having children” is – a form of possession, not a constantly renewed act of care – is so utterly bankrupt, affecting the value of all. Everyone has a price tag. The rich see the children of the poor as, by definition, worthless. A poor woman’s womb can only be put to good use gestating the “superior matter” of the rich. If you accept the neoliberal principles which legitimise this, I cannot see why you should then complain about Conservative politicians seeking to dictate how many children each of us may have.

Individualism, greed and the sheer bloody cowardice of the left could have us heading towards a future in which the ideal person – the one who is granted the means to thrive and grow – is an Iain Duncan Smith clone, endlessly reproduced for the rich in the wombs of the poor. Bodies can be sold and life itself can be outsourced. Meanwhile the poor child – the unlucky third – will continue to go without. I’m not a believer but God help us all.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Commons Confidential: Dave's picnic with Dacre

Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

Sulking David Cameron can’t forgive the Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, for his role in his downfall. The unrelenting hostility of the self-appointed voice of Middle England to the Remain cause felt pivotal to the defeat. So, what a glorious coincidence it was that they found themselves picnicking a couple of motors apart before England beat Scotland at Twickenham. My snout recalled Cameron studiously peering in the opposite direction. On Dacre’s face was the smile of an assassin. Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

The good news is that since Jeremy Corbyn let Theresa May off the Budget hook at Prime Minister’s Questions, most of his MPs no longer hate him. The bad news is that many now openly express their pity. It is whispered that Corbyn’s office made it clear that he didn’t wish to sit next to Tony Blair at the unveiling of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memorial in London. His desire for distance was probably reciprocated, as Comrade Corbyn wanted Brigadier Blair to be charged with war crimes. Fighting old battles is easier than beating the Tories.

Brexit is a ticket to travel. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is lifting its three-trip cap on funded journeys to Europe for MPs. The idea of paying for as many cross-Channel visits as a politician can enjoy reminds me of Denis MacShane. Under the old limits, he ended up in the clink for fiddling accounts to fund his Continental missionary work. If the new rule was applied retrospectively, perhaps the former Labour minister should be entitled to get his seat back and compensation?

The word in Ukip is that Paul Nuttall, OBE VC KG – the ridiculed former Premier League professional footballer and England 1966 World Cup winner – has cold feet after his Stoke mauling about standing in a by-election in Leigh (assuming that Andy Burnham is elected mayor of Greater Manchester in May). The electorate already knows his Walter Mitty act too well.

A senior Labour MP, who demanded anonymity, revealed that she had received a letter after Leicester’s Keith Vaz paid men to entertain him. Vaz had posed as Jim the washing machine man. Why, asked the complainant, wasn’t this second job listed in the register of members’ interests? She’s avoiding writing a reply.

Years ago, this column unearthed and ridiculed the early journalism of George Osborne, who must be the least qualified newspaper editor in history. The cabinet lackey Ben “Selwyn” Gummer’s feeble intervention in the Osborne debate has put him on our radar. We are now watching him and will be reporting back. My snouts are already unearthing interesting information.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution