A Happy Ending for the Capitalist Family

Door Sophie Lewis, op Fri Feb 09 2024 09:59:00 GMT+0000

'Familism' is preventing us from imagining different ways of organizing care. It is not the antidotum to individualism, it is its cause, Sophie Lewis argues. 'Idealizing it is madness: the family is barely working.'

You! You there. You are letting your family down. Especially if you don’t have one yet. The weak link in your domestic partnership is you, probably. Or maybe you aren’t coupled yet, and surely you ought to be (maybe you have commitment issues, or don’t have enough to offer). Either way, you surely aren’t making your parents proud. Not really. Also, you don’t look after grandpa as you should, do you. In any case, you definitely aren’t a good enough son, daughter, or grandchild. If you have children, you definitely aren’t a good enough parent to them. Can you really guarantee their safety? Didn’t you potentially traumatize or accidentally poison them, that one time? Perhaps you ought to be a parent by now and aren’t. Or, possibly, you don’t want your ‘own’ children, which makes you a kind of murderer (of your family line, not to mention your mom’s heart). Otherwise, clearly, there’s something wrong with you if motherhood isn’t fulfilling you; if marriage is a disappointment; if you’re estranged from your relative or dissatisfied with a life devoted to your kids; if you can’t stand your in-laws. Alternatively, you’re too devoted, too family-oriented, in which case, what kind of career role model are you setting in this cut-throat market society? You should feel guilty. Don’t you feel guilty? If you don’t feel guilty, you ought to feel guilt about that.

If you live in an over-developed country, you’ve heard all of the above a million times, explicitly or not. Call it ‘familism’. Call it ‘family values’ ideology, whose exponents are always decrying a ‘breakdown of the family’, even though no such breakdown has really ever occurred, notwithstanding the decline in marriage rates and demise of the Fordist ‘male breadwinner’ household. (In 2024, more people than ever depend on the family. For many, there’s only one thing worse than having a family under late capitalism, namely, not having one!) Or call it ‘human nature’, because the romantic couple-form, imagined as biologically innate, remains the gold standard for full global citizenship – not to mention a normative standard enshrined in welfare programs and tax policies that emphasize uniting with a romantic partner as the way to marshal the resources to get by. Call it, finally, the reigning economic regime, because scarcity is the motor of the whole system of privatized care (by which I mean ‘the family’).

Actually, familism is individualism. By compelling us to get our needs met via private channels, the family functions as an anti-social machine.

Organized care-scarcity is diabolical. It makes us cling the more tightly to that which we have, forgetting to demand that which we deserve. For conservatives and nostalgics, in particular, the end of the family is an anxious fantasy, imagined as already upon us. And this revanchist narrative about ‘kids these days’ – supposedly they aren’t forming families as they ought – was already prevalent in Antiquity. Nowadays, the updated version pits neoliberal atomization against the family, and paints the family as an antidote to individualism, a bastion of resistance to the marketization of the world. But actually, familism is individualism. By compelling us to get our needs met via private channels (i.e., receiving care from kin – parents, wives, adult children – or buying goods like food and services like home-cleaning privately), the family functions as an anti-social machine. Let me be clear: the family feels and is non-negotiable for most people right now; indispensable especially to many marginalized and criminalized people’s survival. Yet idealizing it is madness: the family is barely working. In the process of fulfilling its economic function, it is killing and harming a lot of queer youths, women, and kids. (It’s no less than the primary source of violence and sexual abuse for these groups, a permanent crisis compounded by the material inability of so many battered children and feminized people to flee.) In pure economic terms, too, the family is crazily labor-intensive, resource-inefficient. Why do we accept all this? What does familism prevent us from doing or desiring?

Too Much From Too Few

Strangely enough, western popular culture is very critical of the family: think of the horror of families in recent TV shows Succession or The Crown, for example. From War and Peace to Festen to The Simpsons, our culture is obsessed with depicting the disappointments, traumas, shortcomings and even violence of the nuclear household. My suspicion is: this ubiquitous literary and cinematic theme serves as a safety-valve that prevents us from imaging that life can be reproduced and produced in a fundamentally different way. It’s a way of venting frustration about the family only to naturalize the family.

Denaturalizing the family can also be the task of artists.

Denaturalizing the family can also be the task of artists. A person from the future, Latif Timbers, interviewed in the year 2069 in the novel Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, 2052–2072, by M. E. O’Brien and Eman Abdelhadi, summarizes the ‘old’ situation in the early 21st century as follows:

Reading more and more about how people lived before, I’ve been realizing that family was usually blood, and that’s who you lived with. And who you lived with was really tied into what you got. So, like, if your blood had food, you had food. If they had a nice house and heat, you did too. If they didn’t, well tough shit for you. You were fucked. … And people only had two parents who were expected to take care of everything! So inefficient! Like, why wouldn’t you collectivize things like childcare? It makes no goddamn sense!!

A fictional ethnography of the future, Everything for Everyone was published in 2022 and is co-authored by two U.S.-based activists and feminist sociologists (O’Brien is based in New York, Abdelhadi in Chicago). In their ‘oral history’ of the revolution to come, they appear as older versions of themselves conducting all the interviews. The testimonies of ecologists, hackers, organizers, educators, carers, and teenagers, all of whom have lived through the beginning of the end of capitalism, are remarkable not least for their insistence on how long it takes for trauma to fade.

The family functions as an ideological microcosm of the nation-state, replete with all of nationalism’s typical forms of sexual, racial, and class violence or discipline.

O’Brien has additionally published many texts on the subject of ‘care communization’ – including in her book Family Abolition: Capitalism and the Communizing of Care (2023) – a brilliant companion to my own much shorter Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation (2022). For family-abolitionist thinkers and speculative writers like Abdelhadi, O’Brien, and me – plus Kathi Weeks, Madeline Lane-McKinley, Jules Joanne Gleeson and Tiffany Lethabo King – one definition of the capitalist family might be, simply: the means by which the responsibility for lifemaking is privatized in a class society. Further, key ingredients seem to include the couple-form, plus some kind of biogenetic-centred concept of kinship. Centrally, the family functions as an ideological microcosm of the nation-state, replete with all of nationalism’s typical forms of sexual, racial, and class violence or discipline. And, right now, the reproduction of workers, of cisness, of private property, and of whiteness, falls in no small part to the family. But perhaps the foremost unique feature of the family is its insistence that the responsibility for health, shelter, food, clothing, childrearing, and primary emotional repair should fall to individuals. An even shorter formula would thus be: too much is being asked of too few.

Instead of limiting our ambition to simply mitigating and supporting the basic blueprint of family economy, what if we started, afresh, from the old, 1960s women’s liberationist insight that mothers deserve more than the family? that children deserve more than the family? that all people deserve more. It is not necessary or inevitable that we should be the reason why our parents gave away their lives in work. This unpayable debt, as we all know, makes everyone involved resentful at least some of the time. Witnessing our care-givers’ sacrifices, we feel guilty for wondering whether we nevertheless maybe deserved more than we got, care-wise. We feel guilty that we don’t want to put our family-members over all other human beings. Or guilt about the patently anti-social fact that we do.

This type of cascading guilt – guilt about guilt – hampers our very ability to dream of other ways of relating, other ways of living, and other ways of organizing shelter, food production, leisure, laundry, and education. It binds us to familism; to the given. The amazing thing is, this anti-utopianism often stems from compassion! It can be an empathetic response vis-à-vis loved ones’ thwarted desire for a better life. But here, our love for people in our family paradoxically becomes a cause of our inability to see the family as a source of harm to them. Instead, we can practice acting as good ‘death doulas’ for the good death of the family by acknowledging the family as the impossible demand that it is.

Love Held Hostage by Guilt

Those of us who advocate family abolitionism are backing up our core claim (that the family is impossible) with reference to history. For instance, back when markets first started replacing feudalism, the invention of the housewife took place in the context of witch hunts, peasant wars and enclosures. It was ‘housewife-ization’ that made possible the transformation of the domestic sphere into a miniature contractor/supplier for the state. Each private household became tasked with reproducing the human beings (workers) that the new proto-industrial cities demanded. Legislation called ‘Poor Laws’, to this end, helped enclose the ensemble of natural and relational commons on which many people depended, and the resources through which communities were collectively sustained. These laws stated that ‘kin’ would henceforth be responsible for the debts, and for the care, of vagrants, disabled people, the young, the elderly, the neurodivergent. The family displaced and replaced the commons as a care contract.

Back when markets first started replacing feudalism, the invention of the housewife took place in the context of witch hunts, peasant wars and enclosures.

In Everything for Everyone, Latif tells his interviewer (who is, as mentioned, a future version of the co-author, Abdelhadi), that in the 2069 version of New York, following two decades of mass anticapitalist insurrection, love is no longer ‘held hostage by money, or food, or shelter, or education’. Latif turns the interview around, asking how on earth people tolerated the family in the olden days. His incredulous questions about ‘how we lived for a long time’ suggest that norms around kinship can change rapidly when there are material transformations of the infrastructural context in which people live: food provision, healthcare, decommodified shelter, and so on. He also casts serious doubt on the premise that blood comes first is a harmless edict with zero casualties. According to the author of Family Values, historian Melinda Cooper, it’s no accident that individualist ethics emerged as a key component of the idea of ‘family values’. Familism was, in many ways, the movement that enabled personal or ‘private life’ and private advancement to become a morally acceptable bourgeois priority. As such, Abdelhadi and O’Brien show, ‘how might we bring an end to care scarcity?’ is not a question that can be answered separately from the question of how to end capitalist society. But their literary visioning does prove that we can – without knowing all the answers to the wider question – do something to combat the terror that many people feel in response to the 200-year-old anarchist or socialist criticism of the family-form.

Love for one’s family is a great starting-point for recruitment into family-abolitionism.

Utopian thinkers, including Charles Fourier, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels, Alexandra Kollontai, and Shulamith Firestone, but also 1970s-era black anti-imperialist feminists in the US, have raised the possibility of ‘abolishing the family’ for over two centuries. Now, after Covid lockdowns showed us how untenable families are under pressure, there is everywhere resurgent curiosity about non-capitalist ways of organizing care. I would even venture to say that love for one’s family is a great starting-point for recruitment into family-abolitionism. I think it will be in part by thinking about the people currently ‘in’ our families – i.e., what do they really need? and how might those needs really be met? – that we will figure out together how to bring about a happy ending for the capitalist family. As a mantra, in our present, ‘family first’ automatically demands a prioritization of the self (i.e., of the little team of self-support, carers, heirs, and property-like dependents), over the wider collectivity. Let us learn to love each other better by starting a revolutionary movement, communizing care in the process. Just beyond the horizon, beckoning us, hovers a logic of kinship no longer strangled by scarcity, nor ‘held hostage’ by guilt.

This text was created at the request of rekto:verso and Studium Generale Gent, for whom Sophie Lewis gave the lecture 'Born in 1991' on March 12 2024, as part of a lecture series on 'the end'.

This article was published in the context of Come Together, a project funded by the European Union.