This article is one in a series of arguments on the family in our summer issue.
Ever since the long 1960s, the vast majority of Western feminists and leftists have tried to walk back the demand to “abolish the family”—that is, to fully deprivatize care. We have hastened to reassure our distressed and outraged audiences that we aren’t anti-family; in fact, we want more family, not less! Perhaps this capitulation, this rhetorical sleight of hand, is understandable. After all, distinguishing families from “the family” is an unfamiliar maneuver. Families may be where capitalism gets resuscitated each day for free, and where the vast majority of queerphobic and sexualized violence takes place, but they are also often the only bulwarks against racism and alienation many people have. To criticize the family in the contemporary political landscape is to be understood as nihilistically anti-relational at best and, at worst, racist—presumably because nonwhite groups are more dedicated to (or dependent upon) family than white.
It’s true that the regulatory fantasy of the nuclear family is upheld zealously, even religiously, as a cultural value by almost every existing ethnic group (certain Indigenous peoples are a notable exception to this). But that doesn’t mean that the family isn’t structurally implicated in ethnic and class hierarchies. Far from “just” harmful to women and children, the family as such, with its exclusions, extortions, and arbitrary rationings of care, is spiritually deleterious for all. But it has especially (and materially) lethal consequences for Black and brown, im/migrant, Indigenous, poor, and working-class queer, trans, feminized, sex-working, and gender nonconforming people—whose needs, desires, and modes of survival it pathologizes and devalues.
The privatization of care into the family household, like the state-imposed norms of the couple-form and the biogenetic model for registering responsibility and rights over children, should be seen as a continuation of an older project of advancing whiteness and producing a well-ordered productive labor force. Understanding this might help us see through the false universalism of “family values,” whereby America purports to stand for “keeping families together” (a flawed principle in itself, especially for queer youth whose biological kin want to kill them) but then tortures and rips apart the nonwhite family at the border.
Since at least the late 1970s, a rich tradition of radicalism in America has emanated from these marginalized spheres, including movements of lesbian welfare recipients and domestic workers in a struggle for families but also against and beyond the family. Many participants at the first National Conference of Third World Lesbians and Gays in 1979, for example, boldly rejected the premise that children are the property of one or two or any number of parents, advancing instead the notion that everyone already has—yet at the same time needs and deserves—many mothers. One caucus announced, unforgettably, “All children of lesbians are ours.” In practice, then, family abolition has been defined as the simultaneous preservation and destruction of the survival practices and domestic intimacies of the present. This dialectical method is well-expressed by feminist scholar Tiffany Lethabo King: “While I critique the family and am committed to addressing its limitations—even its elimination—I celebrate the creative ways that Black descendants of captive communities continue to reinvent and conceptualize relationships.”
On a different continent, 100 years ago, the Bolshevik leader Alexandra Kollontai understood very well how unpalatable a revolutionary agenda of family abolition seemed to most workers, in a context where capitalism had already eroded the family significantly. In her treatise Communism and the Family, Kollontai compassionately acknowledges that it is existentially petrifying to imagine relinquishing the organized scarcity we have in favor of an abundance we have never known and have yet to organize. Nevertheless, abolition of the family was—“infamously,” in Marx and Engels’s phrase—a central part of the “proposal of the Communists.” As early as 1808, the French feminist and utopianist Charles Fourier, whose writings Marx read closely, speculated that the solution to the horrors of the market lies partly in the replacement of the bourgeois family with a much larger open unit he called the “phalanstery.”
How would this large-scale commune structure function? The Brooklyn-based parent, writer, and teacher M.E. O’Brien paraphrases:
Children could pass through multiple households and living arrangements as they grow up—including time in children-centered group housing—always within a building or short walk from the original group of adults who they may identify as their parents.
In the 1970s, the radical feminists Shulamith Firestone and Marge Piercy’s respective speculative blueprints for a post-familial future echoed this central premise of Fourier’s: children should be parented plurally and not as property, and they should be free to transfer out of households if they wish. In other words, family abolitionism puts children’s freedom at the heart of society.
Survival is not to be sniffed at. Even within straight bourgeois biological families, liberatory practices of love can sometimes be found and learned from. However, the puniness of contemporary left ambition, which dares not target or even criticize the family, should be recognized for what it is. The family was a prime target of socialist rhetoric fifty years ago, and arguably the prime object of feminist and queer critique (feminism identifying it as a thief of love’s labors, a social factory; queer liberation as a site of violence and death). I believe the time is right for us to make it so again. Why should all housing, healthcare, elder care, child care, and education be universally free, decommodified and democratically run? Not least because we all deserve, as both providers and beneficiaries of these things, more than the lottery that is family. We deserve a “feminist city,” as utopian geographers once called it; an end to birth certificates, surnames, inheritance, private insurance, and all privileges afforded by legal marriage. These are some of the ideas that could help our racially and class-stratified societies transform into comradely ones, such that they no longer need, nor even understand the bizarre premise of, the family.
Sophie Lewis is a writer living in Philadelphia, an unpaid visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, and a teacher of short courses at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research (anyone can enroll). She is the author of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, out in paperback from Verso in August 2021. You can support her writing at patreon.com/reproutopia.