The Welfare State and the Bourgeois Family-Household — Kirstin Munro

[This is the sixth post in a symposium on the Marxist tradition of state theory and its contemporary lineages. Authored by Kirstin Munro, this post raises a host of questions about social reproduction under capitalism, particularly the structural role of the bourgeois family-household. For the first post in the symposium, authored by Chris O’Kane, see here. For the second, authored by Rob Hunter, see here. For the third, authored by Stephen Maher and Rafael Khachaturian, see here. For the fourth, authored by Coel Kirkby, see here and here. For the fifth, authored by Nate Holdren, see here.]

In an era of painful austerity and cuts to social services, it can be tempting to look back on the Keynesian welfare state fondly and to view its restoration as a worthy goal. In his introduction to The State Debate, Simon Clarke quotes the pleading postscript to the second edition of In and Against the State: “We must not let go of the understanding of capitalism and the state that we acquired so painfully during the Keynesian decades.” [1] This post attempts to answer this call through a discussion of two important but largely forgotten Marxist-feminist books of the late 1970s–Elizabeth Wilson’s Women and the Welfare State (1977) and Cynthia Cockburn’s The Local State: The Management of Cities and People (1977). [2] These books examine the many ways in which the state works on and through women and families, showing that the welfare state’s provision of goods and services was ultimately a form of state control rather than an expression of the social power of workers. I conclude by drawing out the implications of these books for present-day debates.

What I mean by “state welfare” is government policies and programs at the local, regional, and/or federal levels that purport to promote the well-being of the working class—direct provision programs such as public education, housing, social work, and healthcare, as well as transfer payments such as food stamps, unemployment benefits, old age pensions, and monetary support for those with children or disabilities. While they make up a large portion of overall government spending in advanced industrialized countries, welfare-state goods and services have never been sufficient to meet the needs of the people they were designed to “help”. Furthermore, state welfare programs are at all times coupled with the constant threat of benefit withdrawal for insufficient budgets or non-compliance with bourgeois codes of conduct. The imposition of the bourgeois family-household ideology and its living arrangement on the working class lies at the heart of these efforts. As I have argued elsewhere, welfare-state goods and services may increase the material well-being of the working class to some extent, but under capitalism will be provided only to the extent that the taxes to fund these programs do not interfere with the imperative of accumulation. [3] Thus, while state welfare programs do indeed improve the material well-being of beneficiaries, they do so only to a limited extent and come with major strings attached.

A multitude of kinship and household arrangements have existed historically and continue to exist. Previous Marxist-feminist research has shown that the bourgeois-family household–that is, the co-habitating heterosexual nuclear family with a male breadwinner and dependent children–is an historically specific arrangement and ideology that emerged as part of the process of the historical development of capitalism. [4] It is worth pointing out that working-class families have not always lived according to this model, and that this arrangement of people and (re)production in space does not represent the majority of working-class households today; in fact, it represents only roughly a quarter of all households, and about half of all households with dependent children, in the United Kingdom. [5] Despite all of the other ways in which people can live, meet their needs, and care for each other, Women and the Welfare State and The Local State argue that the modern welfare state has strangely but persistently promoted and enforced just one, with enforcers–teachers, social workers, health workers–who are disproportionately women. [6]

I hope the questions raised in this brief post will contribute an additional layer of analysis to Legal Form‘s ongoing state theory debate. This series–and subsequent conversations with its contributors and readers–have enriched my understanding of the capitalist state, and inspired me to continue building on my own previous efforts to develop a Marxist-feminist theory that demonstrates the indissoluble connections between the state, capitalist firms, and working-class households. Wilson and Cockburn’s books provide a feminist perspective that puts women at the centre of state power–as both employees and clients of the welfare state–by investigating the ways in which the capitalist state exerts its dominating force over everyday life. I would like to offer the following provocation: Even if it were possible to restore the Keynesian welfare state [7], the understanding of capitalism and the state developed during the “Golden Age” (i.e. 1945–73) [8] and articulated in these two books demonstrates that doing so may not be desirable, due to the loss of autonomy working-class households experienced during this period at the hands of the welfare state.

Women and the Welfare State

Wilson’s book provides an historical analysis of the administration and enforcement of welfare policy by professional social workers and social reformers in the United Kingdom. On her reading, the welfare state is not a neutral or benevolent purveyor of social necessities. Welfare-state provision takes place because “a part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances, in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society”. [9] Thus, in Wilson’s view, while some redistribution of resources occurs in the welfare state, this is carried out without any accompanying redistribution of power to the working class. However, Wilson also argues that the traditional Marxist argument that the Golden-era Keynesian welfare state represents a concession to the working class is fundamentally incomplete. While there may have been concessions for white working-class men, such as full employment policies, only meagre welfare support was provided by the state to working-class women, and even then only in exchange for new forms of intrusion by the state into day-to-day life–a reduction in “the control we have over our lives”. [10]

The administration of these new forms of state control took the form of health inspectors, school inspectors, and social workers–largely women–who enforced social reformers’ bourgeois notions of morality, hygiene, appropriate social roles for working-class people, and, most centrally, acceptable family-household configurations. Wilson argues that the welfare state is oriented around family policy, with a primary goal of imposing the bourgeois family-household–a hard-working male breadwinner, an unwaged female housewife, and biological children all living under one roof–on working-class households that had never really lived this way. The task of dealing with the state on behalf of the working-class family is assigned to working-class women–“Who answers the door when the social worker calls? Who talks to the head teacher about the truant child? Who runs down to the rent office? The woman, wife, and mother.” [11] Thus, professional women act as the intermediaries between the state and working-class households, while working-class women act as the intermediaries between their households and the state. In this manner, Wilson shows that the welfare state consists of women on both sides.

The Local State

Cockburn’s book is a sociological case study of the local council of the London Borough of Lambeth in the 1960s and 1970s, a period during which the borough, along with other local councils, began to rack up vast amounts of debt and underwent transition to a corporate management structure. For Cockburn the primary role of the capitalist state is “to reproduce the conditions within which capitalist accumulation can take place”, and it does this by contributing directly to the “productive economy”, as well as the reproduction of capitalist social relations more generally, through various coercive and ideological means of repression and violence. [12] Crucially, Cockburn urges us not to “underestimate the repressiveness of many agencies that appear to have only welfare functions”, as repression is carried out by police and the military but also by state employees such as teachers and social workers. [13] The central focus of this state control and repression is the working-class family. Thus, when the local council in Lambeth adopted a corporate management structure, the working-class family was integrated into this structure.

Because the object of Cockburn’s study is a local council, her book focuses on housing policy; policing, schooling, and healthcare were all administered by other levels of government. This investigation into council housing offers important insights into the ways in which shelter is provided or withheld based upon one’s adherence to the ideology of the bourgeois family-household that the welfare state wishes to enforce, as well as the mounting costs and debts of the Lambeth council in administering housing stock. Cockburn reports that by 1974 the Lambeth council’s total debt had grown to over £1 billion in 2019 GBP, with an annual debt service payment of £91 million in 2019 GBP. And even in 1969–several years before the recessions that marked the end of the Golden Age–the waiting list of households in need of a council flat was 11 500. The method of allocating available properties is, of course, based in family policy–the council is only obliged to house families with children present, and any co-habitating men are presumed to be the breadwinner for women and children.

Despite this shortage of public housing and the debts that were accrued in part to pay for it, Cockburn provides shocking anecdotes about the deliberate vacancies of council flats, schemes to provide properties to investors and private landlords, and the deliberate destruction of habitable dwellings by the council in order to keep out squatters. Housing was available, but the Lambeth council did not want people living in it. If the purpose of the welfare state is to provide essential welfare goods and services like public housing, how can we understand the physical destruction of vacant housing by the state to prevent its occupation by the “wrong people”? At the same time the council was paying its workers to render available public housing uninhabitable, local squatters formed their own council to advocate for people in need of accommodations and allocate the available housing in the district. In doing so, the squatters threatened the ideology of the bourgeois family-household, as people began to live and care for one another in more communal configurations against the wishes of the state.

The Bourgeois Family-Household, “Public Servants”, and the Welfare State

Some Marxists may see in the history of the welfare state some evidence of a victory, however small, for the working class. However, these two books indicate that, far from representing a concession from capital or the state to the working class, the creation and expansion of the welfare state in the twentieth century should instead be understood as a concession on the part of the working class, which is required to give up its autonomy and submit itself to inspection in exchange for paltry support. While the books reviewed here focus on the British case, Melinda Cooper shows that the imposition of the bourgeois family-household on the working class has likewise been a persistent objective of social policy and reforms (from both the right and centre-left) for over a century in the United States. [14] It would be incorrect to claim that the working class made no gains through association with the welfare state, but, as these books demonstrate, such gains were not universally enjoyed and came at a high price.

We can see in these histories numerous repressive efforts on the part of the welfare state, with special scrutiny reserved for Catholics, immigrants, people of colour, queers, single parents, the childless, and others who are unwilling or unable to conform to social norms related to the bourgeois family-household. Furthermore, we can see that this repression is carried out by public servants who are disproportionately female. Women remain overrepresented in UK public sector employment as teachers, cleaners, social workers, and in healthcare professions other than physicians. [15] While some feminist scholars may ennoble these occupations as “caring professions”, or waged workers involved in the reproduction of labour-power, Wilson and Cockburn challenge readers to see teachers, healthcare workers, and social workers as more akin to the police–tasked by the state with the enforcement of laws and norms, and guilty of inflicting psychological and sometimes physical violence on the working class.

Thus, Women and the Welfare State and The Local State suggest a set of questions that warrant further scholarship and debate. Is it possible to divorce the welfare state from its fixation on the bourgeois family-household? Is it possible to separate the state’s social-provisioning functions from its functions related to violence and repression? If teachers, nurses, and social workers are more like police than caregivers, what does this mean for social reproduction theory? What kind of care do “caring professions” provide to the working class? Have contemporary social reformers conflated increased consumption with improvements in well-being and human flourishing? To what extent are the redistributive policies advocated by progressives and some heterodox economists implicated in state violence? Finally, is it even possible for the state to provide abundant social necessities to the working class in a non-repressive and non-hierarchical manner? Or is the provision of these necessities, as Marx and Engels argued, integral to the reproduction of the working class and the perpetuation of capitalist society?

[1] Simon Clarke, “The State Debate: Introduction”, in The State Debate, ed. Simon Clarke (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1990), 1, at 3; London-Edinburgh Weekend Return Group, In and Against the State, 2nd edn. (London: Conference of Socialist Economists, 1979), 143; also available at

[2] Elizabeth Wilson, Women & the Welfare State (London: Tavistock Publications, 1977); Cynthia Cockburn, The Local State: Management of Cities and People (London: Pluto Press, 1977). Another book, this from a slightly later date but also worth reading for those interested in this topic, is Jennifer Dale and Peggy Foster, Feminists and State Welfare (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986). The first chapter of In and Against the State is also valuable, and has contributed much to my thinking.

[3] Kirstin Munro, “‘Social Reproduction Theory’, Social Reproduction, and Household Production”, 83 (2019) Science & Society 451.

[4] Michèle Barrett, Women’s Oppression Today: Problems in Marxist Feminist Analysis (London: Verso, 1980); Amy Swerdlow, Renate Bridenthal, Joan Kelly, and Phyllis Vine, Household and Kin: Families in Flux (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981).

[5] UK Office for National Statistics, Families and Households: 2018; available at

[6] Both Michèle Barrett and Michael Heinrich point out that it is not obvious why the configuration of people and production in space that bourgeois family-household would be one favoured by capitalists. See Barrett, Women’s Oppression Today; Michael Heinrich, Die Wissenschaft vom Wert (Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot, 2011 [1999]). So while there is strong evidence that a central objective of social policy and welfare programs in the United States and Britain is the enforcement of working-class adherence to the bourgeois family-household and its attendant ideology, I am not sure that there is an entirely satisfactory economic answer as to why. As Cockburn puts it, “when we identify the advantages to the state and capitalism in a certain course of action, when we look for possible motives, it seems to imply that some mastermind is at work–foreseeing, planning, and pre-empting.  The truth is not like this, as daily practice makes more than clear”. Cockburn, The Local State, 102.

The imperative of accumulation means that capital must “tend to socialise (that is turn into a collective activity) the general conditions of capitalist accumulation”. Cockburn, The Local State, 63. It is clear that working-class families have been assigned the task of reproducing the labour force under capitalism, with some help from the welfare state.  Ricardo and Marx both defined wages as the amount necessary to “enable the labourers, one with another, to subsist and to perpetuate their race”, which later scholars have argued includes both state inputs and the unwaged work of household members. David Ricardo, On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951 [1817]), 93. And while it might be prohibitively costly for capitalist firms to internalize the costs of reproducing the labour force entirely, they do so at least in part directly through family wages and indirectly through taxes–that is, the social wage. Even the 1942 Beveridge Report acknowledges that without women’s unwaged work in the family-household, “husbands could not do their paid work and without which the Nation could not continue“. William Beveridge, Social Insurance and Allied Services (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1942), para. 107 (emphasis added). We can see that capitalist firms and the state clearly benefit from the work that is carried out when the working class adopts the bourgeois family-household. But none of this explains why some other configuration of people and production in space would not contribute to accumulation more efficiently. A fundamental question remains unanswered: why does the capitalist state seem to be so obsessed with where people live and with whom?

[7] Some Marxists, such as Eric Hobsbawm (Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991 (London: Michael Joseph, 1994)) and Paul Mattick (Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism (London: Reaktion Books, 2011)), have argued that the Keynesian welfare state is not a magical arrangement that we can return to–… and that it never worked. After all, the state “has no money of its own; it pays with tax money or with borrowed funds that will eventually have to be repaid out of taxes”. Mattick, Business as Usual, 81. In the Keynesian welfare state, you really do eventually run out of other people’s money.

[8] The typical periodization of the twentieth century points to the end of the Keynesian era as the twin economic crises of the early 1970s and the end of the Bretton Woods monetary system. Intriguingly, these two books place that date much earlier, in the late 1960s.  

[9] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party” [1848], in The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Political Document, ed. Phil Gasper (Chicago: Haymarket, 2005), 37, at 80–81; also available (in different translation) at

[10] Weekend Return Group, In and Against the State, 8.

[11] Cockburn, The Local State, 58.

[12] Cockburn, The Local State, 51.

[13] Cockburn, The Local State, 56.

[14] Melinda Cooper, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism (Cambridge: Zone Books, 2017).

[15] UK Office for National Statistics, Who Works in the Public Sector? (2019); available at

Kirstin Munro is Assistant Professor of Economics and Finance at St. John’s University, Queens, New York. She serves on the editorial boards of the Review of Radical Political Economics and Science & Society.