Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation
By Sophie Lewis
Verso, 128 pages, $16.95
'Mom’s talking to herself again.” There’s no easy way to hear those words, especially when they’re coming from your 8-year-old sister. Harder still when your other sister’s eleven, and at only fifteen, you’re the only “adult” around.
My mother is schizophrenic. People on the television tell her secrets, and beings no one else ever has ever seen command her to drown her children by driving off a bridge. Also, she’s developmentally disabled, with a functional intelligence varying between your average nine-year old and your average twelve-year old. From the time I was 12 until I was 18, it was just us three children and our mother. She couldn’t cook, couldn’t hold down a job, was often suicidal, and occasionally abusive.
During my adolescence, I was the de facto caregiver for my family. I took care of my sisters, my mother, and myself, cooking, cleaning, buying groceries, and paying rent. I had to start working before I was 14. Working was illegal for someone that age, but I didn’t have much of a choice. Fortunately, the boss who hired me knew my situation and decided breaking the law was worth the risk. Somehow, I also managed to go to school. Usually we had enough to eat, though there were times when we didn’t.
I mention all this because I’m the sort of person you might think Sophie Lewis’s new book Abolish The Family: A Manifesto For Care and Liberation was written for. But I’m not.
Family abolition is one of those concepts relegated to the fringes of politics that re-emerges every few decades. Lewis’s heavily publicized book is the latest attempt to resuscitate this proposal, which has its origins in the earliest socialist thought. Emerging out of the same currents which brought us “fully automated luxury space communism” and Chilean cyber-socialist happiness meters, family abolition asserts that we not only can, but must, get rid of the family.
Why would anyone want to do that? Well, supposedly, for the sake of people like my sisters and me—victims of what Lewis describes as a “lottery that drops a neonate arbitrarily among one or two or three or four individuals (of a particular class) and keeps her there for the best part of two decades without her consent.”
The family, the author assures us, is an unfair setup. Not only for children, but also for the adults whose sexual activities (at least for now) lead to the gestating and birthing of those unlucky neonates. Parents, she writes, are burdened with an “absurdly unfair distribution of labor … a distribution that could be changed.” In short, she argues that the family is a site of capitalist social reproduction based upon patriarchal cultural and political forms. The overthrow of capitalism thus requires destruction of the family.
People who want to abolish the family have a certain image of it in mind. The institution they want to destroy has a father at the head, the dutiful and subservient wife at his side, and the children he’s sired struggling against his authoritarian impulses while becoming socialized into the very system that creates him. The son hates him, yet learns to become like him, to treat women as objects or servants. The daughter learns from the mother how to please a man like her father, how to become a fragile pretty thing that puts out and doesn’t argue. The mother, of course, is both burdened and elevated by her role as lady of the household. It is her role in society to clean, feed, discipline, train, and socialize the children through the tyranny of maternal love.
I’m sure such families exist, because film, publishing, and other industries seem to make a lot of money telling us they do. But I’ve encountered very few of them. This may be because, unlike Lewis, I lived well below the poverty line for my entire childhood and adolescence. Until I was 12, I didn’t know anyone whose parents had a college education. Not unrelatedly, I knew hardly anyone whose parents both lived at home.
In other words, I was part of a class that Lewis is not really addressing: the poor. For the poor, family is all you’ve got. Sure, that’s a raw deal, but so was living in a house with a septic tank that flooded the yard when it rained. Welfare helped, but Reagan made sure we didn’t get too much of it.
Marx and Engels played with the idea of family abolition, because they saw how both the declining aristocracy and the rising bourgeoisie of their era seemed to be able to maintain a grip on their capital through inheritance: passing their estates, factories, and other properties on to their children.
But an earlier French socialist philosopher, Charles Fourier, was the main progenitor of the family abolition concept. Fourier, like the other socialists derided by Marx and Engels as “utopian,” believed that humanity could be completely remade if we just arrange things the right way. The right sort of housing or city design, for example, could turn humans from unhappy unequal subjects into enlightened polyamorous hedonists who need never work because it’s all done for them by machines.
Dozens of communes inspired by Fourier's theories were founded in the United States in the 1840s, but most of them collapsed within a few years. Meanwhile, far from seeking family abolition, the left-wing movements that gathered force in subsequent decades fought quite hard to ensure the viability of the family and particularly its economic security. That was the point of the “family wage” and the successful fights against child labor and other sites of capitalist exploitation. This history seems to irk Lewis, however, because in order to argue for family abolition and her broader vision of “trans communism,” she need to belittle such gains, dismissing the labor movement’s victories on behalf of the male breadwinner as the product of a “romantic” ideal of patriarchy.
Today, of course, you can’t go on social media without encountering some variation of the lament that a person’s parents or grandparents were able to support a family, live in an adequate home, and send their children to college on just one person’s wage. Now, even relatively well-off people find it difficult even to get married, let alone buy a home, or raise children.
In other words, the real work of abolishing the family is not being done by activist intellectuals like Lewis, but by capitalists and the state. Perhaps, then, the appeal of Lewis’s revival of family abolition is that it recasts what for many is a harsh reality of contemporary life—the increasing unviability of sustaining families—as a desirable outcome.
No attempt to remake social relations and cultural forms can even begin to imagine something better without first understanding why those forms have arisen. For instance, those who fought for the abolition of slavery understood slavery was something that people had instituted in the first place: It wasn’t a natural condition, nor was it a default condition.
“Family” in the broad sense of the term is not an institution in this regard. The more specific modern phenomenon of the nuclear family was built from the ruins of earlier arrangements, in part an attempt of the family to survive capitalist restructuring of economic and social conditions.
We can see this clearly now because the specific circumstances that made it possible have shifted in such a way that it is no longer the default. This is only the latest restructuring of the family in accordance with economic arrangements. Before the rise of capitalism, which displaced people from the land and turned them into wage laborers, families encompassed more than mother, father, son, and daughter. Several generations shared a home.
The family is not just a factory for bourgeois subjects. It is also an independent realm of social life, distinct from the state. Looked at this way, the family is a human relationship that capitalists and the state are always trying to capture and control—through tax policy and family courts as well as marketing and media propaganda. But there is always a dimension of our relations with our kin, both unchosen and chosen, that can escape these encroachments. This is what family abolitionists seem incapable of grasping.
Family abolitionists believe the family reproduces capitalist property relations and bourgeois subjectivity, but they mistake effect for cause. Based on this inverted logic, they conclude we can fix everything by getting rid of the family and making us all collectively responsible for care.
I once believed something like this, and then I realized I was wrong. Perhaps Sophie Lewis might one day have a similar change of heart. After all, she laments that many of her family-abolitionist heroes—Alexandra Kollontai, Shulamith Firestone, Donna Haraway—flagged in their zeal or even changed their minds. Other feminists, such as Gloria Steinem and the late Barbara Ehrenreich (whom Lewis derides as “cowardly”), assured people they didn’t want to destroy familial relations, but rather to expand and support them.
For all of my 20s and much of my 30s, I didn’t want to have anything to do with the idea of family. I moved far away from my family. I felt guilty about abandoning my mother and my sisters, though at that time my grandparents had finally decided to intervene. I was resentful for years. I felt like I’d been a victim of what Lewis describes as the “lottery,” with no chance to draw a new number.
What changed me was an evening I cannot fully describe. After years of keeping my distance, I had finally visited my youngest sister. She’d just had her second child, and I met him and his older brother, my two nephews, for the first time. The evening was cool, and I went out to the back yard to look at the stars. Through an open window I heard my sister singing to her sons. I started crying. As a young girl she had come to me in tears to tell me that “mom is talking to herself again.” Seeing what she’d become—not despite our sorrow but because of it—made me realize, with joy, how wrong I’d been.