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Issue #1889      October 9, 2019


“Men at Work” by Annabel Crabb

I began reading Annabel Crabb’s Quarterly Essay “Men at Work” with rather low expectations whilst trying hard to keep an open mind. My view of Crabb has always been that she is a sycophant, cosying up to Canberra powerbrokers to further her career, presenting basic liberal technocratic political analysis without ever explicitly giving her opinion on things. Her goal as a journalist has always been to humanise our political elite, contributing to the Americanisation of our democratic process by focussing heavily on personality and style over any form of substance.

Her ABC show Kitchen Cabinet is the most hideous example of this where she made a curry with PM Scott Morrison, fawning over him when he talks of his devotion to family, never even questioning him over his treatment of other people’s families suffering under his fascistic immigration policies, or budgets that delivered tax cuts to the wealthy at the expense of the already disadvantaged.

Despite this, Crabb’s essay exploring Australian working culture and its expectations on male parents did manage to provide a couple of interesting insights.

Even with improved access and offerings of paid parental leave, men are still reluctant to take time off when their partner gives birth, and the number of men acting as primary carer of their child has risen from four percent to just five percent in over 20 years.

Canada and The Netherlands have managed to implement policies that have successfully encouraged men to take more parental leave by basically offering free money that if not taken by the man, would be lost.

Australian workplaces and the legal system still view men’s right to access flexible workplace arrangements as a luxury, or something that must be “earned” with years of strong performance and relationships, whereas for women it is a given in theory if not always in practice.

The third point listed above is the one I found most interesting but it’s also completely unsurprising. Take a cursory look around any workplace and you will find at least a few women working part time or with highly flexible schedules to accommodate childcare or other family commitments, it’s banal.

I struggled to think of even one man, from my various places of employment over the last 11 years, who has worked part time or flexibly, by choice. It could be that I have often found myself in female dominated organisations, but these places have also tended to offer quite generous leave and flexibility arrangements where I would not anticipate the same cultural barriers to men working flexibly or on reduced hours that they face within corporate hierarchies.

Crabb provides some examples of men who simply couldn’t comprehend the idea of working flexibly or part time, not because of financial need or workplace policies, but because their identity is so closely tied with their occupation, with their place within this capitalist system.

This idea of an occupation or position within a company serving as a man’s sense of identity is one I wish was interrogated in further detail because it really goes to the heart of the matter. Workplaces are increasingly offering up better opportunities for parental leave and flexible work arrangements for men, and men are wanting to be more involved in the care of their children especially in the early months and years, but men’s identity comes from the work they do and their perception as being a provider and hard worker which prevents them from taking the leap. What conditions exist within our society that make a man’s job description so vital to his sense of who he is?

Under capitalism, and especially within the recent period of neoliberalism masculine ideals have become detached from family, friends and community, becoming a narrow identity of worker and provider. As we move into the late stages of capitalism with ever-increasing alienation, women still produce children, whereas for men capital is what they make and in turn what makes them.

Women now represent almost half of the Australian labour force (47 percent) and I would hypothesise that this has had an impact on men’s sense of their place and identity as providers for their family and community. When women go on maternity leave to assume their more “traditional” role as primary carer of the family, men are able to re-assert their place as financial provider, being responsible for the safety and security of his household.

I can see why men are loathe to give up this feeling in order to go on parental leave, they would be in a way giving up the thing that is just theirs, at least for a short time. Crabb gives an example of this in her essay, a man who did not want to take on the primary carer role for his newborn even though it would have been a more rational financial decision because he had “worked hard to get where he was” and didn’t want to give that up because it was important for his self-esteem etc.

These cultural norms would be almost impossible to overthrow under a capitalist system which relies on both men and women putting such importance on their individual role within a company, rather than as a worker and member of the proletariat. On this issue of identity Crabb had little to offer as a solution, and changes to our sense of identity alone are not going to bring about gender equity or change the way we raise our children. So how should we raise our children?

Crabb points to some well implemented social democratic policies of Europe and Canada that have managed to rapidly increase the number of men who take extended leave or move to part-time work to supplement their partner’s maternity leave. This is progress of a sort. While the nuclear family remains the dominant economic unit it’s important to try and make sure the burden of child rearing, housework and paid labour is shared equally, however this is still an individualistic and liberal approach to childcare and its importance in society.

The liberal approach favours the capitalist class and the petty bourgeois by making each individual family solely responsible for the health and wellbeing of our next generations. Viewing it this way creates competition for resources, funding and access which leads to resentment between fellow working-class families, benefiting those who seek to divide us.

Related to this, Crabb highlighted an example of a male blue-collar worker in Sydney’s Western suburbs, who expressed resentment and anger at the thought of his tax dollars going to a high earning female lawyer from the North Shore for maternity leave. This example perfectly illustrates the entirely predictable outcomes of liberal, means-tested policy implementation to benefit individual families as opposed to universal state provisions that benefit the collective society.

Engels predicted long ago that the nuclear family as the main social and economic unit would wither away under socialism. Kollontai in 1920, further explained that the nuclear family would no longer be a necessity for the raising of the next generations as it would be the State’s responsibility to care for children, allowing adults to focus on work, leisure and their relationships.

The responsibility for the children would fit in around all work and social commitments leading to a happier population. The Soviet Union put in place an array of programs to shift the burden for child rearing away from mothers and the nuclear family, to become a shared responsibility with the state providing nurseries for young children, providing food, childcare, early education at little to no cost.

Similar policies exist in Cuba today with universal childcare from 12 months old, weekly nurse home visits pre and post birth. The Cuban state have made it a high priority to ensure all children have access to healthy food and environments and have implemented programs to develop and nurture all children within their first 1,000 days, which has been identified as a key developmental stage. This program has been extremely successful with 99.5 percent of all Cuban children attending nursery, with over 90 percent of Cuban children meeting or exceeding all development indicators at the 12-month mark.

I would never expect Crabb to offer up socialist examples of the Soviet Union or Cuba to contrast with Australia’s current attitude to child rearing, and I have ventured somewhat from my original intention of looking at cultural attitudes that prevent men from taking parental leave when their children are born, but I think the examples are relevant.

As I’ve discussed above, Australian men have so much of their sense of self, their identity, tied to their occupation and the way they are perceived within their workplace. This is a natural outcome of living in an individualistic capitalist society. However if we were to propose a universal policy such as a 30-hour work week (or less), this would firstly allow men and women alike to spend more time at home with their children, secondly it would not single out new parents and result in the perception of “slacking off” that men named as a reason for not taking parental leave or working flexibly. Finally it also recognises that those of us who aren’t parents to children can also benefit society by working less by caring for our older generations or building communities to assist in the development of the children around us.

Universal policies that do offer massive benefits to new parents whilst also positively impacting all workers build comradery amongst the working class and remove the sense of antagonism, competition and resentment of the technocratic, piece-meal offerings of Australian political parties. A nice side effect of universal socialist policies for the whole working class is that we would probably have no need for an Annabel Crabb to explain them to us. I’m sure that is something we can all get behind.

Next article – GIG economy – Part 2

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