Which Family?

Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation, by Sophie Lewis (Verso, 2022)

The nuclear family was a crucial target of women’s liberation in the 1970s and 80s. The question of women’s oppression—its origins and sources for renewal—that were then orienting the movement could not be addressed without an analysis of the patriarchal family and women’s functions within it. A flourishing of left-wing feminist writing identified the ways in which ‘family values’ had become a conservative touchstone that not only kept women at home but pacified social calls for change. Since women’s mass entry into the labour market in the post-Fordist era, however, this focus on the family has all but disappeared. The dominant strands of feminism today show so little interest in the politics of the family that beyond the current reactionary wave of attacks on reproductive rights, the family has become almost depoliticised.

A noble exception to this vacating of the field is US-based queer theorist Sophie Lewis. Her newly published manifesto Abolish the Family returns the family to political critique by refurbishingarguments against it for a new generation. Rejecting its status as a natural refuge from a cruel world, her book takes swingeing aim at the sacred hearth, characterising it as a site of exclusivity, private property, cruelty and, in many instances, violence. If women have been its historical victims, however, questions of gender are almost absent from Lewis’s book. It is all of us, she argues, who need liberation from the shackles of the family, which is itself ‘a microcosm of the nation-state’ in so far as it ‘produces chauvinism and competition’. In bright and breezy prose, she unpicks boilerplate justifications of the family as the ‘place where people are safe, where people come from, where people are made, and where people belong’. Rather, it is ‘predicated on the privatisation of what should be common, and on proprietary concepts of couple, blood, gene and seed’.

Once this has been identified, it is our shared task to overturn it, confronting though that may well sound even to those already attuned to the horrors of family life. ‘The family is a shield that human beings have taken up, quite rightly, to survive a war’, she writes. ‘If we cannot countenance ever putting down that shield, perhaps we have forgotten that the war does not have to go on forever’. What this would actually look like—what comes after the family—for the most part goes unexplored, beyond some basic premise of collectivity and non-proprietary love. With the details to be worked out, Lewis promotes an experimental, prefigurative politics to develop ‘microcultures which could be scaled up if the movement for a classless society took seriously the premise that households can be formed freely and run democratically’. At its heart, it would be governed by ‘the principle that no one shall be deprived of food, shelter or care because they don’t work’.

A key objective of Lewis’s manifesto is to return to cultural memory the long history of family abolitionism as an idea within feminist thought and organising. The central chapter of her slender book is dedicated to reassembling this history, which in the modern era began with the first self-declared feminist, the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier. For Fourier, permanent marital monogamy was a fundamental source of misery, social chaos and despair, and he argued that the isolated household introduced only ‘dullness, venality and treachery into relations of love and pleasure’. Marx and Engels, too, deployed the language of family abolition as part of their war on bourgeois society and private property, but Lewis takes her most serious inspiration from contemporary feminist efforts in the Americas—both the opposition to colonial-era policies that forced marriage and the imposed the European family form on First Nations populations, and the history of those emancipated African Americans who, after the Civil War, maintained a ‘diversity of relationship and family structures greater than their white contemporaries on farms or in factories’. Another touchstone of abolition is second-wave feminist Shulamith Firestone, who located the roots of women’s oppression in their biological capacity to bear children. Her techno-utopian proposal was the generalised reproduction of the species in labs, and with it the abolition of both family and gender.

Put together, these dissident voices and movements are represented by Lewis as a history of abolition—precursors to the renewed call within some corners of feminist and queer thought to finally do away with the family as the basic unit mediating between the individual and society.

If it’s an entertaining whistle-stop tour through some of the more radical sources of feminist thought and organisation, on closer inspection one wonders how many of these thinkers can be claimed as abolitionists. Fourier and Firestone may well have planted the flag for doing away with the family, but as for the rest, their arguments tend to be more cautious and complex—critical of a particular, historically rooted version of the family rather than of the family as such.

This was the case for Marx and Engels, for whom the family’s overcoming was(to the extent that it was elaborated) part of a larger movement against the bourgeoisie and supposed to be accompanied by the withering of both church and state. While they certainly did have a commitment to women’s emancipation, their concern for women’s morality—better preserved in the home than in the factory—would not resonate with most feminists today. In the context of Bolshevik revolution, Alexandra Kollontai too heralded the end of the family, but it was the ‘old family’, the ‘typical family’, one in which ‘the man was everything and the woman nothing’ and where ‘the woman had no will of her own, no time of her own and no money of her own’, at which she took aim. Six decades later, as Lewis points out, second-wavers Michéle Barrett and Mary McIntosh polemicised against the ‘anti-social family’, but if they did look towards a revolutionary horizon beyond families as they were then known, the vast majority of their book-length critique was spent analysing the inequalities within the family unit of 1980s England. Their call was for feminists and socialists to build more of their lives outside the privatised space of the home, releasing the pressure on the family as the single site of emotional and economic security—a proposition echoing that of the Marxist feminist critic Juliet Mitchell who a decade earlier had called for feminists to fragment the family. This entailed combating its status as a ‘simple whole’ in order to unearth the various structures and functions that comprised it, and in so doing drawing away from its monolithic status and the social imperative to reproduce the nuclear family.

Lewis’s method stands in contrast to this: it is the family in its most general terms that is the object of her analysis. If there’s a polemical power and simplicity to her choice, it nonetheless puts her at some distance from several of the critics she attempts to enlist as abolitionists, or as fellow travellers of the abolitionists. Her hypostasised concept of the family also separates her from many feminist critics who have stressed the family’s contradictions, characterising it as a site of women’s oppression and fulfilment, of disappointment and love, of ambivalence and desire. Registering these contradictions, and with them the genuine obstacles to bringing people over to the cause of transforming the family was an essential contribution of second-wave feminism even as it agitated in various ways for broad social change. Although Lewis does at times point to the contradictions of, for example, the Black family in the United States, which functions as both protection from the predations of the market and the racist state and as a conservative institution, she does not draw such complexity into the structure of her argument. Designated as bad, the family must be abolished.

This leads Lewis to some strange readings, such as her discussion of science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s short essay ‘All Unhappy Families’, which she enlists on the side of abolition. Le Guin’s essay is a response to Tolstoy’s famous opening line in Anna Karenina: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. Taking issue with Tolstoy’s dismissal of domestic harmony, Le Guin’s point is to show that happiness and unhappiness always mingle, even within the happiest families:

The enormous cost and complexity of that ‘happiness,’ its dependence upon a whole substructure of sacrifices, repressions, suppressions, choices made or forgone, chances taken or lost, balancings of greater and lesser evils—the tears, the fears, the migraines, the injustices, the censorships, the quarrels, the lies, the angers, the cruelties it involved—is all that to be swept away, brushed under the carpet by the brisk broom of a silly phrase, ‘a happy family’?

As a fiction writer, Le Guin is perhaps especially attuned to the family’s psychic life, its ‘greater and lesser evils’. ‘Abolition’, however, was not part of her critical vocabulary, perhaps because her work continuously registers the family in its complexity, even in her speculative fiction.

It’s a complexity that cannot simply be leapfrogged. Eager to resist any language that might be tainted with reformism, Lewis opts instead for the maximalism of abolition and looks to a horizon in which the ‘enclosure’ of the family—be it nuclear, non-normative, queer, Black or any other kind—will no longer be needed. In its insistence that the private, incomplete, pressurised nuclear households that persistently define our time are inadequate to our social needs, Abolish the Family is a welcome contribution pushing against a renewed social conservatism on both Left and Right that promotes the family in contrast to neoliberalism’s dissolution of gendered norms and family values.

As a manifesto, however—the generic convention of which is to spotlight some pathway towards the future—Lewis’s work offers the reader few resources. Perhaps this is because the work of overcoming the narrow constraints of a society in which we are cordoned off into self-protective family units will require deeper analysis of how these families work, what their appeal is and what social reorganisation will be needed for them to more generously support a diversity of needs and wants. Crucially, it will entail some contestation with not only the politics of the family but also the broader social organisation in which it is embedded, which, as Lewis rightly recognises, positions the family unit as the single refuge in an otherwise predatory world. Lewis quips that it is easier to imagine the end of capitalism than it is to imagine the end of the family. Trying to imagine the latter without joining it to a thoroughgoing analysis of the dynamics of the former, however, only gets her so far.

About the author

Emma Fajgenbaum

Emma Fajgenbaum is an editor at Jacobin and Phenomenal World.

More articles by Emma Fajgenbaum

Categorised: Arena Quarterly #13

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