The Myth of Personal Life Under Capitalism

The Myth of Personal Life Under Capitalism

First published in Socialist Review as a 2-part feature: The myth of personal life under capitalism and Capitalism, alienation and the family.

As children, we count each birthday, eager to become adults so we can do what we want and make our own decisions. Once arrived, we discover that adult freedom is an illusion. Our childhood dreams of an exciting life are replaced with never-ending work and little to show for it. We feel like failures. What did we do wrong? The answer is — nothing. We did nothing wrong. This is how capitalism functions.

Like a giant casino, capitalism promises much and delivers little. A few strike it rich, re-enforcing the myth that you can do the same. But the game is rigged by the capitalist class. The harder we work, the richer they get, and the sicker we become. As in every con, capitalism must resign the losers to their losses so they do not organise to end the con. Promoting the fiction of personal choice misdirects us to blame ourselves.

Capitalism has perfected the art of making things appear different from how they are. It appears that work and life are two separate spheres: the economic sphere of work where we meet our material needs; and the personal sphere of family, friendship, love, interests and hobbies where we meet our emotional needs.

It also appears that different rules apply in each sphere. The sphere of work is shaped by the economics of capitalism, while the personal sphere seems to be shaped, not by capitalism, but by psychology and interpersonal dynamics. This dual-sphere model leads to dual solutions: an economic revolution to transform work; and a separate personal revolution to transform our relationships.

In reality, there is only one sphere, capitalism, that we experience socially and individually — one sphere with one solution. The liberal emphasis on personal choice hides the impact of capitalism as a social system and deflects workers from our common class interests.


Under the feudal agricultural system, work and life were integrated for the labouring classes. They lived with the people they worked with. Capitalism physically removed production from the family, creating a space away from work that we call “personal life” or “free time”. In fact, there is nothing free about it, because workers’ lives are dominated by the demands of capitalism: to prepare ourselves to work, to commute to and from work, to recover from the workday, and to raise the next generation of workers.

These reproductive tasks are not profitable for capitalism, but production ceases without them. This became clear during the Industrial Revolution, when round the clock factory work sent death rates soaring, and the life expectancy of factory workers in England dropped to 18 years. Something had to be done to protect the supply of labour.

The capitalist class could have ensured a steady flow of new workers by funding infant and childcare centres, collective kitchens and shared living arrangements. But there is no profit in providing social services, and the working class was not strong enough to insist on them.

The alternative was to make individuals responsible for reproduction. Laws were passed to limit the ability of women and children to work. Men were paid a “family wage” and made legally responsible for supporting women and children. These measures placed men at the head of the family. Parents were made legally responsible for their children. Divorce was restricted and male homosexuality was outlawed.

The church backed the state by condemning adultery, divorce, sex outside of marriage, children out of wedlock, contraception, homosexuality, and by sanctifying the subordination of wives to husbands and children to parents. In effect, the modern family was constructed by prohibiting any alternative.

The working class family has one function, reproduction – the daily reproduction of workers’ energy, and the reproduction of the next generation of workers. When you strip the romantic veneer from marriage, it is basically a contract where two people agree to take care of each other and their offspring, because society will not.

The reproductive functions that the village used to provide (emotional, social and material support) are now the responsibility of the marriage partner. The concept of “romantic love” was created to support this shift. The first romance novel appeared in 1740, and Jane Austen popularised the genre in the early 1800s. Today, promoting romantic love is a multi-billion-dollar industry. However, the high rate of divorce and relationship breakdown proves how nearly impossible it is for one person to meet all the needs of another.

Capitalism does not require workers to be replenished and reproduced in families. This can be done by other means. Slaves can be exploited to death and replaced by new slaves. Many agriculture, lumber and mining companies establish camps to care for workers whose families live far away. And the reproduction of prison labour is fully funded by the state. However, capitalism prefers the family system for its financial and political advantages. Financially, the global value of unpaid work performed in the home has been estimated at more than £7 trillion ($11 trillion) per year. Politically, the family serves as an important socialising unit for capitalism.

The modern family is maintained at the expense of working women. Just as capitalism required racism to promote African slavery, it requires sexism to deny social support for child-rearing.


Sexism dictates that woman’s primary role is to bear children, and to enforce that working class women are denied the right to control if, when and under what conditions they have children. Lack of reproductive control, inadequate maternity leave, no job security after pregnancy, and lower wages combine to keep most women financially dependent on higher-waged men.

Sexism also binds men to the family system. “Family obligations” tie men to jobs they might otherwise leave. Men are expected to support women and children, even after they have left one family and formed another. And “dead-beat dads” in North America can land in prison for not paying child support. Just as women are tied to their roles as in-house parents, men are tied to their roles as out-of-the-house bread winners. A recent US survey found that two thirds of fathers would prefer to split childcare duties with their spouse. However, only 14 percent of American men are entitled to paid parental leave.

Denying men paid parental leave alienates them from their children and forces women to shoulder more of the childcare burden, with the lower wages that result. It is a myth that we choose to live in families; we are locked into them. To drive that home, the legal system punishes those who try to escape the iron grip of the family. Divorcing couples are forced through expensive and gut-wrenching legal obstacles. Parents who neglect their childcare duties can be legally prosecuted. Youngsters who run away from home can be forcibly returned to their families, placed in alternate families or confined in detention centres. Gay people continue to be victims of discrimination, violence and murder.

A lack of social services forces a life-long dependence on the family. Those who are sick, injured, unemployed, broke or in trouble are expected to rely on their families. Social supports are deliberately inadequate and punitive so that only the desperate will use them. As a result, most of us are compelled to provide personal-care services for children or parents our entire lives.


To make the lack of alternatives more palatable, romance, marriage, and family are promoted as the best way, the only way, to live. As children we all learn the song:

“John and Mary sitting in a tree. K.I.S.S.I.N.G. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage.” (In that order.)

Of course, the reproductive family can take different forms: blended families composed of separated parents, single parents, gay parents. We used to think that gay marriage threatened capitalism, but it does not. US Republican billionaire Paul Singer calls gay marriage “an augmenter of social stability, family stability, and stability in raising kids.”

The family reproduces class roles and expectations. It also reproduces gender roles. The first question asked about a new baby is whether it is a boy or a girl. The answer will determine how that child will be treated, and be expected to behave, for the rest of its life. Because woman are the primary child-rearers, little girls are socialised to be kind, gentle, patient, affectionate, nurturing, receptive, altruistic, invested in their appearance, submissive to men, sexually modest and sexually faithful.

Because men are expected to be the family bread winners (and fight in wars), little boys are socialised to be disciplined, strong, competitive, ambitious, logical, independent, ready to fight, protectors of women, and not homosexual. The male gender role encourages competition and combat, leaving men ill-equipped for intimate relationships and parenting. Gender roles are inescapable even among gay people, who are pressured, and pressure each other, to adopt these roles.


Male and female gender roles are complete opposites. Men are expected to have hair on their bodies; women are pressured to remove their body hair. The man with a robust sexual appetite is a stud; his female counterpart is a slut. Virtually everything in life, from the colours we like, the clothes we wear, the gifts we’re given, the hobbies we enjoy, is gender-defined, so that women will reject any part of themselves that is considered masculine, and men will reject any part of themselves that is considered feminine.

Restrictive gender roles make it impossible for anyone to be a full human being. The emotionally sensitive boy is shamed as a sissy, a wimp, or a wuss. The confident, assertive girl is shamed as bossy, a bitch, a dyke, or a ball-buster. After squishing ourselves into these crippling gender roles, we are expected to partner with someone from the opposite sex who displays characteristics that we have spent a lifetime rejecting in ourselves. That is not a recipe for success.

Impossible gender expectations create crushing disappointment. The woman is raised to see the man as a champion and a prince who will make her dreams come true. When she discovers that he cannot do this, she expresses her disapproval or withdraws in despair. The man gets the message that he is not measuring up. How could he? The man is raised to expect a warm attentive partner who is always ready for sex. What he gets is an overworked, exhausted and frequently irritated partner. Both of them blame themselves, and both of them blame each other. But neither is to blame.

Capital is most effectively extracted from workers who do not question their exploitation, who “mind their betters” and “keep their noses to the grindstone”.

For the majority working class, obedience is demanded, questioning is forbidden and defiance is punished. Children present a problem for capitalism, because children are natural scientists. They want to know “Why?” about everything. And when they don’t like the answer, they keep asking “Why?” The relentless inquiry of each new generation is a gift, an opportunity to rethink everything. Nothing is more subversive.

For children to accept the unfairness of capitalism, their inquiring spirits must be crushed into submission. This process begins in the family, is reinforced at school and consolidated at work.

When confronted with the child’s “Why?” most adults are too stressed, too fearful or too ashamed to answer. Adult frustration tells children that questioning is not acceptable. Things are the way they are…because.


When questioning is not acceptable, we conclude that the questioning part of ourselves is not acceptable. After a lifetime of suppressing our own questioning, it feels natural to suppress our children’s questioning. They must do as we say and not “talk back”. After all, it is “for their own good”.

As children, we learn that we are “good” when we obey and “bad” when we disobey. Love and acceptance become conditional on serving the people who have power over us. Boys and girls receive this message through the filter of different gender expectations, but it applies to both. Girls are expected to put others’ needs before their own; boys are expected to “take what’s handed out” to the point of risking their lives for employers and superior officers.

Transforming inquisitive children into obedient, producing and reproducing machines requires a persistent shaming process that compels us to reject every part of ourselves that might rebel: our curiosity, our need to be heard and valued, and our need to actively shape our lives and our world. As a result, we cannot be complete human beings. When we believe that parts of ourselves are unworthy, we are ashamed to show ourselves, and our relationships remain superficial and insecure.

When we cannot show who we are, we cannot believe that we are loved for who we are. Attempts to earn love through appearance, accomplishments or status are doomed to fail because conditional love is, by definition, insecure. And insecurity in our worth and in our intimate relationships makes us miserable. When we feel empty and lonely, we blame ourselves, and we blame each other. Blaming ourselves causes more shame, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and addictions to numb the pain. Blaming each other creates another form of hell.

Stripping the romantic veneer from the typical family reveals two people who are socialised to be opposites, crammed in a box, subjected to falling living standards, rising debt and social insecurity. They are expected to raise children, who have lots of needs, and to do this with no outside support. Add bouts of unemployment, injury, or illness. Add some dependent relatives. Then make it difficult for these people to leave. Insist that they solve their own problems, and if they cannot, then it must be their fault or their partner’s fault. This is a recipe for disaster, as unrelenting stresses build to the point of explosion.


It is widely assumed that family violence is caused by men dominating women and children. This is partly true. Daily humiliation on the job generates anger that can release at home. The role of provider causes resentment when men are working too hard for too little reward. Gender roles dictate that men should never be needy. The accumulation of unmet needs causes some men to explode in frustration or in drunken rages that mask their underlying depression and despair.

While sexist stereotypes portray women as victims rather than aggressors, women are equally capable of attacking their partners. Between 17 and 45 percent of lesbians report at least one act of physical violence perpetrated by a female partner. A recent US survey found that one in four women and one in seven men have experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner, that is being hit, beaten, or slammed against something. A Canadian survey found that men and women faced the same risk of violence from an intimate partner. The legal system denies the reality of domestic violence, imprisoning partners who assault or kill each other, even in self-defence.

While the women’s movement provides victim services for women, it refuses to acknowledge male victims of domestic violence. The mistaken belief that only women are victims makes it harder for male victims to come forward. Men who are assaulted by women are ridiculed. The false belief that women are violent only in self-defence means that men who call the police on violent women are likely to be arrested themselves. There are virtually no shelters for battered men. And many men will not leave violent female partners for fear of never seeing their children again.

Families propagate violence. Sons of violent parents are 1,000 times more likely to batter their adult partners, and daughters of violent parents are 600 times more likely to batter their partners. Children who are bullied at home are more likely to bully and to be bullied at school.


Child abuse is rampant in the capitalist family system. We cannot know how rampant, because it goes on behind closed doors, most is never reported, and adults tend to normalise what they experienced as children.

When neglected, they conclude that they did not deserve better. When physically terrorised, they will rationalise: “Sure, I was hit. But I deserved it.” According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, more than one in four American adults lived with alcohol or drug addiction in their childhood homes, 28 percent were physically abused as children and 21 percent suffered sexual abuse.

The burden of childcare can be overwhelming. American mothers are responsible for at least 60 percent of child deaths caused by abuse and neglect. Fewer than 40 percent of such deaths are perpetrated by the father alone. Adults who were harmed in childhood experience more health problems including: alcoholism; addiction; diabetes; obesity; heart, lung and liver disease; all forms of mental illness; more bone fractures; higher unemployment; higher cancer rates; chronic pain; and a shorter lifespan. The likelihood of suffering these problems increases with the number and severity of adverse experiences.

Capitalism promotes sympathy for child victims and prosecutes adult perpetrators. But today’s perpetrators are yesterday’s victims. While only a small minority of child victims become adult perpetrators, studies of those who do perpetrate reveal that almost all were traumatised as children. Capitalism cannot acknowledge that most perpetrators are former victims, because it cannot admit that families transmit trauma from one generation to the next.

Some sexually-abused girls become adult sexual predators. The sexist belief that women would never violate children means that female perpetrators are rarely caught, their victims are not believed, and neither is provided with effective treatment. Adult perpetrators can be treated, not by punishing them but by connecting them with their own painful experience of victimisation, experience that they have buried.

While capitalism feigns support for child abuse victims, the abuser is rarely removed from the home. The abused child is removed instead. This sends the message that the child is the problem, and does nothing to protect any remaining children. Removing the abuser would require a social investment in residential treatment and family support to replace what the abuser provided. In order not to “burden” society with these obligations, child victims lose their families and suffer the guilt of believing that their family would still be together if they had not “told”.

The legal system actively discourages child abuse victims from coming forward. Those who do are re-traumatised by lawyers and judges who disbelieve them, minimise their suffering and blame them for causing their own misery. The system cannot support these victims for fear of releasing a flood of law suits that would expose how many children are being harmed in their families.

Child abuse and elder abuse are connected. A lack of social support compels adults who were abused as children to become caregivers for aging parents. The stress of care-giving is multiplied by the deep resentment of having to provide for those who treated you badly. This resentment can explode into violence, as aggrieved children give their former abusers a taste of their own medicine.


The family is a violent institution that serves a violent capitalist society. Yet the epidemic of misery that capitalism produces is falsely presented as a collection of individual, personal problems best treated by individual doctors, therapists and charities. Under capitalism, social problems are treated as individual difficulties caused by bad choices, poor parenting, wonky brain chemistry, faulty genetics, or “accidents”. In reality, the greatest predictor of illness, injury and premature death is your position on the social hierarchy. The lower your position, the more you suffer.

One study found that the additional deaths caused by income inequality in 282 American cities exceeded the loss of life from lung cancer, diabetes, motor vehicle crashes, HIV infection, suicide, and homicide combined.

Despite overwhelming evidence of how much damage capitalism creates, we are lectured that health is an individual responsibility. When we get sick or become disabled, then we must have done something wrong, and it is our responsibility to fix it. To help us fix it, the pharmaceutical industry will sell us a pill for every ill. And a billion-dollar self-help industry will sell us advice on how we can be healthy in a sick world. The message is that anyone who is unhealthy or unhappy must be doing something wrong.

In reality, capitalism makes life unbearable. An estimated 800,000 people around the world kill themselves every year, and millions more attempt suicide or wish they were dead. Being unhappy is a reasonable response to being exploited and oppressed. However, we do not live in a reasonable society; we live in a blaming, shaming society where those who cannot cope, those who fall outside the expected norms, and those who rebel are stigmatised as defective.

You have to admire capitalism for its ability to deceive. We are born into a repressive family structure where, as children, we have absolutely no power and no choices. The adults who control our lives are overwhelmed and deprived, so they cannot give us what we need. Our traumatic experiences as children mark us for life. However, we are told that our problems are our own fault and that we are responsible for solving them. And when we inevitably fail, insult is added to injury. We are blamed.


The “personal sphere” is dominated by liberalism — the belief that individuals can change society by changing their behaviour and that social problems persist because not enough people care. “Be the change you want to see in the world” means that if you care about hunger, you should feed someone. As Mother Teresa instructed, “If you cannot feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” In fact, we can feed a hundred people. We currently produce more than enough to feed everyone in the world. People do not starve because there is no food; they starve because they are poor; and they are poor because the capitalist class hoards wealth at the top of society.

Most people care about others and want to reduce their suffering. Capitalism transforms this caring into a profitable charity industry that appears to address social problems without challenging the system that creates them. Individuals are urged to contribute to food banks, raise money for disease research, donate to children’s sports programmes, collect for school computers, and so on. The net result is to lower expectations of what can be achieved. Only some people get fed, only some diseases are researched, only some children get to play sports, and only some schools get computers. That is not good enough in a world that produces more than enough to meet everyone’s needs.

The annual income of any one of the top ten richest Americans could pay for a year’s accommodation for the estimated 663,000 homeless people in the United States. Walmart is the largest grocery retailer in the United States. Its 2013 profit of $16 billion (£11bn) could eliminate hunger in America. And the trillions of dollars spent annually on war could ensure clean water, healthcare, education and housing for everyone on the planet.


The capitalist emphasis on personal choice is not about who we are or who we want to be. It is a political ploy to divert us from our common class interests. The key to fighting deprivation is class solidarity, not charity. When the ruling class fails to meet our needs, we must hold it accountable, organising in every neighbourhood, school and workplace until we get what we need.

The liberal strategy for ending bigotry and interpersonal violence is to purge ourselves of unwanted thoughts and behaviours. This moralistic approach increases interpersonal antagonisms by shaming those who fail to behave correctly. And everyone inevitably fails.

Capitalism is a social system that seeps into every fibre of our beings; there is no part of our lives or our relationships that it does not touch. From birth to death we are immersed in racist, sexist, homophobic and class ideology. No one is immune to the impact. It is impossible to eliminate bigotry and interpersonal violence without politically challenging the social system that breeds this behaviour.

A socialist is not a morally superior being with no flaws. A socialist challenges divisive beliefs and behaviours in order to increase cooperation inside the working class. However, it is impossible to create consistently cooperative behaviour under capitalism. If it were possible, we would not need a socialist revolution.

Capitalism emphasises personal life, but it cannot deliver. Personal life requires time away from work and the means to use that time how we choose to. Capitalism creates the opposite conditions: overwork and deprivation. It appears that there are two distinct spheres in life because maximising capital accumulation requires production to be socialised and reproduction to be privatised. In reality, there is only one sphere, capitalism, an all-embracing, thoroughly destructive social system. And there is only one solution.

Human beings thrive in societies based on mutual care-giving. When we share the work, everyone has more free time. And when we share what we produce, everyone has access to what society has to offer. Socially integrating production and reproduction would create a space for personal life that is free from the demands of both. This is the socialism that we long for.

Collective care-giving is the child’s best protection. Surrounded by caregivers, no child would ever be trapped in a box with a needy or raging adult. And when raising children is a social responsibility, no one will be forced to live with anyone else. Socialism would enable women to control if, when and how they bear children. Socialised childcare coupled with reproductive control would free women to be the social equals of men.

Replacing the individual-family system with a socially-caring system would end the need for gender caricatures. Children could develop into full and complete human beings who shape their relationships as they please. The way that human beings organise life shapes all of their relationships. Replacing capitalism with a socialist society will change much more than the economy; it will change the people who create that social revolution, and it will change their relationships in ways we can only imagine. It will transform what it means to be human.

Capitalism has made the world a terrifying place. As a shield against the horrors of war, exploitation, oppression, slow death through climate change, or quick death through nuclear holocaust, we are offered the refuge of “personal life”. While the world burns, we are directed to hunker down in our individual homes, where we have the least power to challenge capitalism. We do not have to comply.

We do get some personal choices under capitalism. We can choose to despair or we can choose to hope. We can choose to accept the world as it is or we can choose to struggle against it. We can blame ourselves and each other for our misery or we can pull together to meet everyone’s needs. We can hide in our homes or we can fight with our class. What we choose will determine the fate of the world.

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3 Comments For This Post

  1. Andrew Says:

    I was looking up some stuff for a school project and I stumbled upon this.. masterpiece. I’ll need to reread it a few times to really decide what I think but you’ve got an incredibly compelling way of writing that makes me not mind that too much. Kudos. Keep it up!

  2. Kristi Says:

    Very beautiful work. You are exactly right, and your lucid writing makes a tangled set of social relations clear and easy to understand and critique. Thank you!

  3. Steven Barnes Says:

    Phenomenal literature Susan!

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