Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Neoliberalism Is Anti-Family

As a follow-up to my August 06, 2011 post on family policy, I want to point out that the Japanese economist Makoto Itoh wrote an excellent article in the April, 2005 issue of the Monthly Review. While it is an old article, Itoh does an excellent job describing how neoliberalism has damaged family life and helped to drive down the birth rate in Japan. Much of what Itoh writes also applies to other nations. Itoh writes:

Another important symptom of deteriorating social conditions for Japanese working people is a sharp decline in the average birth rate. Needless to say, the average birth rate needs to be more than two per woman if population is not to decrease. It remained above two for Japanese women at the beginning of the 1970s, but thereafter fell continuously to 1.29 in 2003. Thus it is estimated that the Japanese population will begin to decline after 2006. Speculative long-term extension of this trend shows Japan’s population halved by the end of this century and back to the size of the feudal Edo period toward the end of the next century.

A fall in birth rate is more or less common in many advanced countries (excepting a few such as the United States), but Japan is among those with the highest rapidity of change. A prompt shift to an aged society upsets all the relatively stable proportions of Japan’s postwar economy. The shift threatens to undermine accustomed expectations for pension plans, medical public insurance, and educational institutions; the budget crisis of the state; and national economic vitality in relation to prospects for the growth of both consumption demand and the supply of labor-power. Thus, this aspect completes a vicious circle of the Japanese economy in structural difficulties.

Marx in Capital (vol. 1, chap. 25, sec. 4) formulates as “a law of capitalist society” that “not only the number of births and deaths, but the absolute size of families, stands in inverse proportion to the level of wages, and therefore to the amount of the means of subsistence at the disposal of different categories of workers.” He quotes Adam Smith’s statement “Poverty seems favorable to generation,” as well as Samuel Laing’s prediction that “If the people were all in easy circumstances, the world would soon be depopulated.” This law may well apply to the pressure of population explosion in many of the developing countries in the contemporary world. However, the depopulation trend in Japan and other advanced countries is not a result of easy circumstances among working people.

On the contrary, marriage has been delayed by the massive mobilization of relatively cheap female workers into automated workplaces equipped with various information technologies (IT) in the process of capitalist restructuring under the pressure of continuous depressions and neoliberal ideology. Social care systems such as access for young people to reasonably priced dwellings, guarantees for child-bearing leave, and public child-care centers, have remained quite insufficient and unimproved by neoliberal “reforms.” Under the pressure of long hours and poor wages in not very promising jobs (or the greater pressure of unemployment) the traditional pattern of raising a family in a home of one’s own has become harder for a large portion of the younger generation.

Capitalism has developed on the ground of commodification of human labor-power by disintegrating communal social units and formations. Starting with the destruction of communal feudal social orders, Japanese capitalism mobilized more and more workers into the urban labor market. The total population quadrupled since the Meiji Restoration in 1868, as a result of the abolition of feudal demographic restrictions. Especially in the postwar period of high economic growth until 1973, large families (typically with three generations) were broadly divided into nuclear families with two generations as the younger generation moved into urban capitalist work places. Thereafter under the influence of both IT in a capitalist firms-centered society and the pressure of neoliberal initiatives to meet global competition, nuclear families seem to have been further fragmented so as to expand the supply of single workers’ cheaper labor-power, as well as the demand for those highly profitable consumer goods and services—such as cell phones, personal music players, and computer games—which, by their nature, are not sold to the whole family, but to individuals.

Thus, in a sense, contemporary advanced capitalist societies like Japan are paradoxically undermining their own social foundation in the reproduction of human beings, as a result of the excessive success of the commodification of labor-power, by the formation of an extremely individualistic market society. Depopulation in Japan thus does not at all signify the easy circumstances of working people, but it is rather a symptom of a deep structural disease rooted in the basic historical tendency of a capitalist market economy, tendentiously driving societies toward atomistic individualism.

Please read the rest of the article for Itoh's detailed description of the worsening fortunes of Japanese workers and other problems associated with neoliberalism in Japan, much of which is still relevant in 2011 and not just for Japan.


Itoh, Makoto. "The Japanese Economy in Structural Difficulties," Monthly Review Volume 56, Issue 11 (April, 2005).


  1. Good find. He is dead on about the commodification of human labor.

    What I think is also causing the drop in birth rates (I've heard no one else mention this) is that parenthood lacks value in Western neoliberal society. To put it in a nutshell, an individual has tremendous value when he/she is professionally "successful" (working full-time, makes plenty of money, has a career deemed prestigious, etc.), but there is no value on personal life. In other words, when one works 60 hours a week, has a PhD (or two), and makes 5 or 6 figures a year, then this person is seen as "successful"; when a woman (or man) raises 5 kids (when one kid is enough to be a full-time job), she/he gets no pay, no thank you, no congratulations, and is seen as "weighed down from having a career". This society makes people see children, even those who want children, as secondary or even the lowest priority if not a luxury.

    When I hear colleagues talk about working so much non-stop and loving it, I like to go against the workaholic trend and tell them "You're weighed down from having a family." After all, this is parents are told when the shoe is on the other foot! But they say they don't care, because children are second. They are fully taken into this neoliberal society that values consumers, bankers, and businessmen, not families or communities.

  2. Hello CA,

    Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I agree.

    I think it is odd that certain strands of feminism are branded as “left-wing” when they seem to exalt the same values as individualistic capitalism, namely, a focus on individualism and individual happiness achieved via personal success, with personal success defined as economic success, i.e. a “successful career.” Of course, the same thing goes for male lifestyle philosophies as presented in magazines such as "GQ."

    In any event, being a family man or woman is no longer attractive in our culture, although there may be signs of a comeback of traditional family life, although only among the affluent, i.e. among those who can afford to have a more sane work- life balance or afford to have one parent stay home and mind the children full-time.