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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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.