Home Economics: What is the Difference between a Family and a Corporation?
RETHINKING COMMODIFICATION: CASES AND READINGS IN LAW & CULTURE, Martha M. Ertman and Joan C. Williams, eds., New York University Press, 2005
21 Pages Posted: 13 Sep 2004 Last revised: 28 May 2014
The spread of the rhetoric as well as practice of commodification have been subject to many critiques. While the critiques of commodification are myriad, there have been far fewer attempts at envisioning what the world would look and feel like if the rhetoric of commodification should give way - to what? What would be an alternative to the way we currently organize the marketplace? In our present economic and legal understanding, the family is at least in theory the last surviving haven from the relentless spread of markets and commodification. Whether the family in fact constitutes such a haven is an entirely different question, as most contemporary observers recognize, yet conceptually we do not seem to have many other alternative paradigms for economic organization - except for the socialist model of a planned economy, and that paradigm certainly seems to have exhausted its political appeal for now.
Yet the notion of arranging an entire society on the ideological model of the family is in fact not simply an intriguing thought experiment. I first rehearse briefly a claim I have made in greater detail elsewhere, arguing that in late imperial China extended families often constituted what I call clan corporations. After de-naturalizing traditional Chinese kinship structures, I then consider the investment of Anglo-American liberal theories in the integrity and distinctiveness of the corporation and the family, which I treat as paradigmatic units in the economic and intimate spheres, respectively. The governing logic of the economic sphere is that of reciprocity, while the intimate sphere operates - at least ideally - on the basis of altruistic kinship norms. I draw on Gary Becker's economic theory of the family as well as anthropological work on the distinction between gift economies and market economies to suggest that, prevailing ideologies aside, we can indeed interpret the modern American nuclear family as a kind of family corporation as well. In the end, there is no firm boundary between the family and the corporation.
Just as the family is not oppositional to the corporation, the corporation is not oppositional to the family. Neither model represents a truth about social and economic organization, and whichever model we choose, we must not think that we have made an ontological discovery about the nature of either the family or the corporation. Moreover, exploitation is possible everywhere, both in the institutionalization of altruism in the family and in the institutionalization of profit in the corporation. As social and economic locations, both the family and the corporation are ambiguous, complex, and risky. Commodified or not, neither location constitutes a safe haven.
Keywords: Commodification, corporation, family, market, state, contract, trust, altruism, ideology, China, liberalism, Confucianism
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