On the domestic as violence

Nicki Smith


The day after the General Election, one of the parents from my son’s school invited me over to lunch and so I went, feeling utterly dejected, for a bit of human contact on such a profoundly depressing day. My son has only recently started school and it has left me feeling a bit anxious and rudderless and needing him (and me) to feel as if we ‘fit’. So, I was utterly thrilled to be invited, plus I really like the other mums. So we sat, ate ham, drank wine, and talked. We talked about a whole load of stuff – an actual dead horse, a much-loved old car, a too-long wrap dress – but the one thing we didn’t talk about was what had happened the night before. It was like David Cameron was there, in the corner, obscenely drunk and loudly snoring, and all of us were just politely pretending he wasn’t there. I think that we were all just too afraid of him. If we woke him up, he could smash up the plates. Or, we didn’t know what he would do, what he could do. We all felt the violence, the structural violence, that we knew was on its way. But we didn’t want to talk about it. We just wanted to chat.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the domestic as a site of violence, and in particular how we worship ‘the family’ and how that is helping to produce systemic material oppressions. Michel Foucault talked about how neoliberalism operates not as a set of policies or even as a political project but rather as a governmentality or, put another way, a governing logic that structures how ‘we’ think and act. For Foucault, all aspects of life – including in the family, domestic, intimate and sexual spheres – are increasingly being defined in terms of market rationalities. As neoliberal subjects, we understand our ‘selves’ as rational, autonomous individuals for whom success and failure is determined by our own individual attributes and qualities.  Neoliberalism, then, is about the turn inwards to the individual rather than outwards to the social.  But Margaret Thatcher said: ‘There is no such thing as society.  There are individual men and women and there are families’. And that latter point is crucial. Neoliberalism isn’t just about turning inwards to the ‘self’; it is also a turn inwards to one’s own family, so that the self become defined in terms of the family – to be a ‘good’ and ‘successful’ person is to be a ‘good’ and ‘successful’ parent or spouse in neoliberal discourse.  And so the social becomes written as the domestic, so that lines can be drawn between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ families that trace, in turn, on to lines between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor.  Structural violence is felt by families but it isn’t felt only by families and we can’t focus only on our own families in order to resist it. We need to turn outwards, for collective action.  Being a ‘good parent’ isn’t enough.

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