What if we could do better than the family?


See our 10 essential reads for International Women's Day here!

Abolish the family? You might as well abolish gravity or abolish god. So! The left is trying to take grandma away, now, and confiscate kids, and this is supposed to be progressive? What the fuck!?

Many people experience a reaction something like this, upon first encountering the phrase “abolish the family.” And that’s okay. I will neither deny nor shy away from the slogan’s explosive emotional freight. My purpose in it is partly, to be sure, to clarify and correct the many possible aghast misapprehensions one can easily form about family abolition; for example, that it means forcibly separating people. But ultimately, I don’t want to deny that there is something “scary” (psychologically challenging) about this politics. This same scariness is present in all real revolutionary politics, in my view. Our trepidation is our reflexive response to the premonition of an abolition of the self. All of us—even those of us who own no property, who receive no guaranteed care, and who subsist at the blunt end of empire, whiteness, cis-hetero-patriarchy, and class— will have to let go of something as the process of our collective liberation unfolds. If the world is to be remade utterly, then a person must be willing to be remade also.

We sense this. And it is difficult, perhaps impossible, right now, to imagine not being manufactured through the private nuclear household and the oedipal kinship story (mother figure, father figure, child). Yet personhood was not always created this way, which means we could, if we wanted to, create it otherwise. In the meantime, if your kneejerk reaction to the words “abolish the family” is “but I love my family,” you ought to know that you are one of the lucky ones. And I am happy for you. But everyone should be so lucky, don’t you think?

Loving the people in your family, mind you, is not at odds with a commitment to family abolition. Quite the reverse. I will hazard a definition of love: to love a person is to struggle for their autonomy as well as for their immersion in care, insofar such abundance is possible in a world choked by capital. If this is true, then restricting the number of mothers (of whatever gender) to whom a child has access, on the basis that I am the “real” mother, is not necessarily a form of love worthy of the name.

Perchance, when you were very young (assuming you grew up in a nuclear household), you quietly noticed the oppressiveness of the function assigned to whoever was the mother in your home. You sensed her loneliness. You felt a twinge of solidarity. In my experience, children often “get” this better than most: when you love someone, it simply makes no sense to endorse a social technology that isolates them, privatizes their lifeworld, arbitrarily assigns their dwelling- place, class, and very identity in law, and drastically circumscribes their sphere of intimate, interdependent ties.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Most family abolitionists love their families. It is true of course that it is usually the people who have had bad experiences within a social system, and who feel things besides love for that system, who initiate movements to overthrow it. But loving one’s family in spite of a “hard childhood” is pretty typical of the would-be family abolitionist. She may, for instance, sense in her gut that she and the members of her family simply aren’t good for each other, while also loving them, wishing them joy, and knowing full well that there are few or no available alternatives in this world when it comes to providing much needed care for everybody in question.

Frankly, loving one’s family can be a problem for anyone. It might put extra weights around the ankles of a domestic battery survivor seeking to escape (especially given the economic punishments imposed by capitalism on those who flee commodified housing). It might hinder a trans or disabled child from claiming medical care. It might dissuade someone from getting an abortion. Right now, few would deny that reproductive rights—let alone justice—are everywhere systematically denied to populations. Austerity policies purposively render proletarian baby-making crushingly unaffordable, even for two or three or four adults working together, let alone one. Housework is sexed, racialized, and (except in the houses of the rich) unwaged. It is unsurprising, in these global conditions, that large numbers of humans do not or cannot love their families. Reasons range from simple incompatibility to various phobias, ableism, sexual violence, and neglect.

Let me tell you a secret: people get really angry when you suggest to them that they deserved better than what they got growing up. And I’ve noticed that a lot of people have the “but I love my family” reaction with the most startling vehemence immediately after they’ve spent a long time talking freely to me about the strain, tragedy, blackmail, and care-starved frustration that characterized their “biological” upbringing. Angry opposition to the idea that things could be different comes, I’ve found, right after we have voiced the wish that relatives of ours could have been less alone, less burdened by caring responsibilities, less trapped. Those people are quite another matter, this defensive spasm seems to say: I, myself, don’t need any family abolition, thank you very much. Sure, it may be a disciplinary, scarcity-based trauma-machine: but it’s MY disciplinary, scarcity-based trauma-machine.

Listen. I get it. It’s not just that you’re worried about your dad getting all upset if he sees you with this book. It’s that it’s existentially petrifying to imagine relinquishing the organized poverty we have in favor of an abundance we have never known and have yet to organize.

- the above is a short excerpt taken from Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation by Sophie Lewis. See our Abolish the Family reading list.

What if family were not the only place you might hope to feel safe, loved, cared for and accepted?

What if we could do better than the family?