THE NEW STATESMAN - Erin Maglaque - SEP 23, 2022
Family is a terrible way to satisfy our desire for love and care, according to the writer and academic Sophie Lewis. The solution? Abolish it.
Let us begin by abolishing our kitchens. For the 19th-century silk merchant and socialist philosopher Charles Fourier, utopia was the kitchenless house. Men and women would live collectively, cooking instead in open common kitchens and free canteens, serving up marmalades and pastries and lemonades in abundance. The Fourierist communities that arose in the mid-19th century US built their homes just as he imagined. Their communal life would relieve women – in the words of the radical feminist and utopian architect Alice Constance Austin – of “the thankless and unending drudgery of an inconceivably stupid and inefficient system by which her labours are confiscated”. By Austin’s calculation, those labours amounted to the preparation of 1,095 meals a year for their husbands and children.
If we begin by abolishing our kitchens, what else might we get a taste for destroying, and for creating? A bit of self-governance here, some collectively organised childcare there: begin with the kitchen, and we might end up with a whole new society. This is the premise of the revolutionary politics of family abolition. The US-based writer and academic Sophie Lewis is our most eloquent, furious and funny critic of how the family is a terrible way to satisfy all of our desires for love, care, nourishment. Her new book, Abolish the Family, offers a powerful introduction to the world beyond the nuclear family. Lewis is the author, too, of the incendiary Full Surrogacy Now (2019), which explored the abuses of the surrogacy industry as a lens into radically expanded concepts of kinship.
The family, Lewis and other abolitionists and feminists argue, privatises care. The legal and economic structure of the nuclear household warps love and intimacy into abuse, ownership, scarcity. Children are private property, legally owned and fully economically dependent on their parents. The hard work of care – looking after children, cooking and cleaning – is hidden away and devalued, performed for free by women or for scandalously low pay by domestic workers. Even the happiest families, in the words of the writer Ursula Le Guin, are built upon a “whole substructure of sacrifices, repressions, suppressions, choices made or forgone, chances taken or lost, balancings of greater or lesser evils”. If we abolish the family, we abolish the most fundamental unit of privatisation and scarcity in our society. More care, more love, for all.
Lewis is clear-eyed and witty about the inevitable knee-jerk reaction to calls for family abolition. (“So! The left is trying to take grandma away, now, and confiscate the kids, and this is supposed to be progressive? What the fuck?”) And it’s true that family abolition, like other abolitionist movements, presents certain discomforts. Maybe you love your family! Or maybe you just like cooking in your own kitchen. Lewis acknowledges these discomforts, and asks us to imagine beyond them. The family isn’t actually any good at creating intimacy, Lewis argues; the family creates, in fact, a dearth of care, with shreds and scraps of intimacy fought out between overworked parents and totally dependent kids, hidden behind the locked doors of private property.
Family abolition asks us to take seriously the idea that children are everyone’s responsibility – not just that of their parents. This is an idea with a long genealogy, which Lewis traces in the messy histories of the activists who have tried to live according to a more emancipatory family politics. We meet the Russian revolutionary thinker and activist Alexandra Kollontai, who demanded that “society will feed, bring up and educate the child”, and that, “The narrow and exclusive affection of the mother for her own children must expand until it extends to all the children of the great, proletarian family.” This was a red love, a social love, that broke open the narrowly bourgeois love of biological parenthood.
In the 1960s, the radical feminist Shulamith Firestone argued that women’s and children’s liberation were inextricably linked, and could only be achieved through “the diffusion of the childbearing and childrearing role to the society as a whole”. The gay liberation movement organised a leafletting campaign at the US Democratic National Convention in 1972, demanding that legal rights parents hold over their children should be dissolved, and “free twenty-four hour child care centres should be established where faggots and lesbians can share the responsibility of child rearing”. Between 1966 and 1975, the National Welfare Rights Organization – made up mostly of working-class black women activists – reshaped and expanded welfare programmes outside of the structure of the male-breadwinner household. Though these activists each began from distinct critiques and advanced their own agendas, children’s liberation – from the patriarchal family, from legal ownership, from economic dependency – was central to their ideas of social transformation.
The political imaginary of abolition is framed by difficult questions about destruction and creation, and ultimately about the nature of social change. Lewis takes her cue from the prison abolition activist and theorist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who argues that the prison abolition is not only an ending, but the creation of something new: real justice. The family, like prison, seems an inevitable part of our social fabric; and yet we do not necessarily want to know what happens within them. Abolitionist politics means thinking hard about the realities of those institutions – the police, the monarchy, or immigration enforcement, or the family – that we take for granted as most natural and inevitable in our lives, and then working for something better. Abolition brings a new world into being that couldn’t have been imagined before the struggle to abolish the old one; abolition, in Gilmore’s words, requires us “to change one thing: everything”.
And yet the question of what we ultimately want from family abolition is a difficult one. Do we want to refashion or repurpose those ideals of kinship and care that undoubtedly provide a source of pleasure and refuge now? Is anything of kinship redeemable? Does the positive, affirming side of kinship actually “spring from the family”, Lewis wonders, or “survive in spite of it”? She argues for the latter. But the history of the family complicates any straightforward account of social transformation. As Lewis explores, black feminist writers have long recognised the ambiguous place of care within families subject to the historical violence of slavery and racial capitalism.
In her 2016 essay “The Belly of the World”, the American scholar Saidiya Hartman writes about this paradox: that the black woman’s caring labours are both the product of slavery and a means of survival; a refuge, a creative source of sustenance, in the face of that same violence. “This brilliant and formidable labour of care,” Hartman writes, “paradoxically, has been produced through violent structures of slavery, anti-black racism, virulent sexism, and disposability.” Lewis handles this complexity with sensitivity, and yet comes to a stark conclusion: even when the family is a “shield that humans have taken up to survive a war”, we still must come to believe that the war does not have to go on forever. “What would it mean not to need the Black family?”, she asks, by which I think she means: how might we imagine a world in which we don’t need to take refuge from each other?
In her history of abolitionism, Lewis writes of a 30-year period between 1985 and 2015 when family abolition was largely ignored as a political aim. Fellow millennials might recognise our own lifespans in that 30-year bracket, and might justifiably wonder why our parents’ generation abandoned such politics. Lewis gestures towards a number of possible explanations. When the radical demands of the 1960s failed, feminists retreated into nostalgia and a reaffirmation of the family (the late activist Barbara Ehrenreich demurred: “We just thought the family was such a good idea that men might want to get involved in it too.”) The reactionary propaganda campaign that associated gay life with paedophilia during the Reagan era summarily extinguished the gay liberation movement’s politics of collective childcare and replaced it with a narrowly rights-based agenda. Certainly, in my own middle-class childhood, the running of the family as a population of high-achieving, high-investment tiny entrepreneurs (“via violin-playing and other forms of so-called human capital investment,” as Lewis has it) was antithetical to any kind of collective politics or an emancipatory reimagining of childhood.
Lewis acknowledges, too, that there is something psychically challenging about family abolition. As with all abolitionist politics, family abolition calls into question some of our most deeply held notions of ourselves: about kinship, belonging, identity; about what we consider natural, about what can be lived differently. But I wonder if Lewis overestimates just how terrifying her audience will find the idea that the family is a “scarcity-based trauma-machine”; that is, a way of organising society that encloses care within the household, and shuts all kinds of abuse, neglect and lovelessness behind a locked door. Burned out from pandemic parenting, facing immense childcare shortages and costs, women are leaving the workforce in record numbers, and in the US, forced birth and baby formula shortages are making crisis-parenting the rule, not the exception. The call for a revolutionary way of reconfiguring how we care for each other is more essential than ever, and Lewis’s manifesto is an irrepressible spark to our very tired imaginations.
And yet Lewis is right, too, that a critique of the family remains essentially unthinkable in our political climate. The list of demands made by earlier family abolitionist movements – free 24-hour community-organised childcare; breakfast and after-school clubs; community kitchens; expanded food stamp programmes; the freedom from work – these were middle-of-the-road demands that now appear on the farthest possible horizon of progressive feminist politics. The Labour Party is, after all, currently campaigning on a platform for “a future where families come first”, which seems to begin and end with the dream of your very own mortgaged kitchen in which to degrade yourself.
In her 1977 book of poetry Marxism for Infants, Denise Riley writes: “today it is all grandiose domestic visions truly,/in St Petersburg now Leningrad we have communal kitchens/the cooking is dreadful but we get to meet our friends”.
Both feminism and abolitionist politics ask us to imagine the unimaginable: “To transform the world”, as the philosopher Amia Srinivasan has written, “beyond recognition.” A daunting task. Easier, perhaps, to begin on a domestic scale; easier to begin by exchanging the loneliness of our own private kitchens for cooking with our friends, and then see what happens next.