Family breakdown and the riots: Neal Lawson

Capitalist greed is the cause of social breakdown.

“Family values", like other rather elusive terms such "Britishness" and "Englishness", is a notion we need to support rather than talk about. As soon as you start to try to define it, a range of other difficult questions emerges - obviously including this one: what sort of family? Much more fertile ground for the left lies in the creation of the economic and social conditions in which families can flourish. They can't flourish if both parents are at work all hours on the "earn to own" treadmill. They can't flourish in such gut-wrenching poverty that children start their first day at school not knowing they have a name. They can't flourish where flexible labour markets push down on wages and close workplaces on a global whim. They struggle where fast-food diets and fast fashion use up the cultural oxygen of so many young people. They are made nigh-on impossible if there are no jobs, no hope and no public services to paper over the cracks of hopeless lives.

There is a further problem for the left with family and this is the trap the right wants to spring. They will load everything on to families. Responsibility becomes all and context takes a distant back seat. Yet families and individuals, with the best will in the world, cannot bear the strain of everything that is thrown at them in terms of the insecurity, anxiety, humiliation and exhaustion caused by trying to survive alone in a world dominated by global competition. Swimming eventually turns to sinking when there is no dry land on which we can seek collective rest and shelter.

The problem for families is, in essence, capitalism, or at least a type of capitalism that has no respect for family, community and social fabric. The young people have not yet, I see, started looting in Stockholm or Copenhagen. It goes back to Margaret Thatcher, with her infamous "there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families." What we have seen in English cities in the past few weeks is the result of the systematic hollowing out of society by consecutive Conservative and New Labour governments in the name of "economic efficiency". Families could no longer take the strain.

So let's be careful not to moralise about what sort of families we want, but start instead a huge transfer of wealth and power to enable all families to flourish and to stop the intrusion of the market into every aspect of our lives. Let's give families a chance to get on with it in whatever shape or form they choose.

Neal Lawson is chair of Compass and the author of "All Consuming" (Penguin, £8.99)

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This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?