Part 4: Abolish the Family
Angel White (any/all)
TW: Discussions of Ageism, Arophobia, Child Abuse/Neglect, Classism, Domestic Abuse, Homophobia, Misogyny, Pedophilia, Queerphobia, Racism, Sexual Violence, Transphobia
During the Covid-19 pandemic, both parents and children had to quarantine at home. This meant that there was an unprecedented amount of family interaction. This was especially true between parents and children, as families were more likely to have dinners together or read to one another. If you are American, there is a good chance that you would find this a cause for celebration. Americans are conditioned to see the family as essential to society. This assumption of the family's importance is everywhere in American politics. “Families” is one of the most used words by both political parties. And its associated institution of marriage is just as common in politics. For example, just look at the recently passed “Respect for Marriage Act,” which repealed the “Defense of Marriage Act.” It seems like, no matter what side of the political spectrum you are on, finding some way to praise marriage and family is prioritized.
But unlike what our general mythology of the family would claim, this increased family interaction wasn’t a good thing. Studies in both Spain and the United Kingdom found that domestic violence increased during Covid-19. A different study on intimate partner violence (IPV) in Michigan found that IPV increased for many marginalized groups such as the poor, unemployed, and transgender people. It also found that a significant number of victims hadn’t experienced abuse prior to the pandemic in their relationship. But partners were not the only ones hurt by violence in the family during Covid-19. Studies have found that child abuse increased in countries as diverse as the United States, the Netherlands, and Uganda. Although child abuse has increased in the United States, reports of child abuse and neglect to child welfare services have gone down. It should further be noted that the Covid-19 pandemic didn’t cause these issues, but just made them worse. Already, in pre-Covid 19 times, intimate partner violence was extremely common. A result of this was that one in six homicides were the result of IPV. Beyond IPV, child abuse and neglect was also common, with one in seven youth being victims of one or both.
All of this paints a very different picture of the family than what we have been taught to see. Instead of being a place of safety, the family is a place of abuse. And it is also a great place to hide abuse. Families are often isolated, making it hard to reach out and tell anyone about abuse. Also, given the previously mentioned mythology of the family, it can be hard to convince people that domestic violence has occurred. This has been an issue for child custody cases, as studies suggest that custody evaluators often believe that cases of domestic violence are false.
In this part of the article, I want to look at the family, focusing first on marriage, then the nuclear family, and finally on calls to abolish the family entirely. Through this analysis, I want to show the oppressive nature of the family, especially for queer youth. I hope that this can make us again realize that the family isn’t an apolitical entity, but is an inherently political creation that controls much of our lives. Further, I hope to push us to think beyond the boundaries we often put up for ourselves, and ask what more radical options for living and relationships we could have. Through this discussion, I hope to map out what a world where queer youth don’t have to expect abuse from those closest to them could look like.
In her 1914 essay “Marriage and Love”, Emma Goldman argues against marriage, explaining that marriage and love are not synonymous, but in fact antagonistic. To show this, Goldman points out that for many women, especially lower-class ones, marriage takes their dreams of romance and love, and turns them into economic considerations. Instead of asking if their partner will love them, they ask if their partner can have a stable job. She further notes that marriage is really a patriarchal solution to a patriarchal problem. Women are restricted by patriarchy, made to think less of themselves, and then told that they can be protected by marriage. Beyond this, Goldman identifies that marriage isn’t just an issue of women’s rights, but also a working class and youth liberation issue. After all, marriage provides protection to rich children, not poor children whose families lack the resources for them, and especially not for houseless children. Instead of providing resources, communal care, and other essentials which might solve the underlying problem, these families are told that marriage will fix their issues. Against all of this, Goldman proposes we embrace a love that is free, not restricted by legal institutions like marriage.
What strikes me about this essay is that, for being over 100 years old, its points and recommendations still feel relevant. But I want to dig deeper than Goldman does on some of her points. For instance, I think it is important to emphasize that marriage being about economics isn’t by accident. Marriage, historically, has been about economic and political power. And, as things like wealth inheritance show, this hasn’t gone away. Women have historically been viewed as part of the economic transference that goes on during marriage. It is interesting that many of our modern marriage practices still reference this. For instance, fathers still “give away” their daughters, symbolizing the transference of a woman from the domination of one man to another. This gendered control leads directly into gendered divisions of labor, which haven’t disappeared. Evidence even suggests that self-described “feminist marriages” are generally marked by women doing more traditionally feminine roles such as childcare and domestic labor within the family than their male counterparts. All of this suggests that marriage is still very much an economic contract, just that it is no longer as explicit as it was in the past.
And this economic contract called marriage has awful effects for those who participate in it. Sexual violence is extremely prevalent in marriages. Somewhere between 14 to 25 percent of married women are victims of sexual violence. And, in general, a marital partner is four times more likely to commit sexual violence against their partner thana stranger is. Yet, marital violence isn’t recognized as a serious crime by the state. In states like California and Virginia, people found guilty of “marital rape” can be given probation or sent to counseling respectively. I want to be clear that I’m not advocating for more people in prison, just that it is unacceptable that sexual violence isn’t being considered serious solely because it happened between people who are married. It should be noted that the cause of this distinction is the history of Christian & Greek legal cultures, both of which considered being married as implying consent with regards to sex. 17th and 18th English and American laws made similar presumptions. All of this is to say that marriage does not prevent sexual violence, and even actively encourages it.
Marriage is also isolating. Married people are less likely than unmarried people to visit, call, talk with, or help out their relatives. Further, married people are less likely to have connections to their broader community or socialize with neighbors and friends. Finally it should be noted that married people, especially women, are less likely to be involved in political activism or generally engage with politics. This is to say that marriage is, literally, a way to push people into accepting the status quo. This social isolation has a number of troubling consequences. For instance, social isolation is directly linked to people being more at risk of sexual violence. It can also create stress for partners, as they become over-reliant on one another. Overall, marriage does not prevent loneliness, it causes loneliness.
Beyond its general harms, marriage also contributes to discrimination against marginalized groups. One example of this, and one I think is too often forgotten, is that of aromantic people. Many aromantic people don’t have an interest in dating and getting married. This can be a problem as getting married is required to receive many important legal benefits, including employment benefits, adoption rights, social security benefits, tax benefits, the right to visit your partner in the hospital, and many more. It is important to recognize that these benefits are reserved for married couples so that only people who are in committed romantic (& sexual) relationships can access them. This is based on the belief that romantic relationships are inherently more important than non-romantic ones, which is called amatonormativity. It should be noted that there are interesting links between amatonormative beliefs and the mythology of marriage. Aromantic people are often stereotyped as being lonely, sad, and incomplete- the exact opposite of the married family who are supposed to be happy, never lonely, and complete each other. This underlines the importance of deconstructing marriage - not only for opposing patriarchy, but also for opposing amatonormativity.
In addition to amatonormativity, an even more centrally connected form of institutional oppression to marriage is white supremacy. The American government has tried to coercively control the family structures of African-Americans since its inception. This is seen through the denial of family ties between slaves and their children, which was used to justify breaking up of Black families. After the emancipation of slavery, marriage became one of many tools for the government’s continued oppression of Black people. Black people were forced to get married - allowing the government to use adultery as a justification for imprisoning and re-enslaving many Black people. Also, according to Sophie Lewis in “Abolish the Family”, this push for marriage was a response to the large number of queer, non-monogamous, and sex-positive relationships within Black communities. Lewis continues, connecting this to the oppression of Indigenous Americans. Often, when tribal land was privatized, only Indigenous families that were heterosexual, monogamous, and male-dominated were given land. All of this shows that marriage has a white supremicist framework.
In addition, returning to the topic of youth, we can see the harms of marriage. The most obvious is child marriage. 650 million women were married before 18, and this continues to this day, as about 20 percent of girls worldwide are married. In the United States specifically, child marriage is still fairly common and is still legal in 43 states. These cases of child marriage are harmful, and children who are married experienced increased isolation, depression, risk of STIs, and mothers under 18 have higher infant mortality rates. While child marriage is particularly harmful, I do want to note that marriage is harmful for everyone - not just children. Youth, being specifically vulnerable, experience many of the harms of marriage to a greater extent; but as we noted with issues like isolation and mental health, similar harms are true for adults who are married. This is all to say that while child marriage is an issue and deserves to be criticized as a horrible practice, marriage itself is one of the root problems. Therefore, marriage in its entirety is what we should be focused on eliminating.
Marriage also harms the children of married couples. Child abuse is common in the United States, and that child abuse is most often committed by parents. Child abuse is also correlated with a large number of physical and mental issues. It is further correlated with becoming an abuse victim as an adult. As we already discussed in the first part of this article, this abuse is caused by the power held by parents over their children. Such power is only increased by marriage, as married couples gain additional power over their children, especially with regards to custody rights, that unmarried couples lack. This power is directly connected with the mission of marriage. Marriage is connected to imperialism as marriage can lead to more births, leading to more subjects for empires. It also is connected to capitalism and the need for new laborers, which is why marriage and childbirth are often discussed in terms of productivity. Further, this imperial idea of marriage is used to justify child abuse as the empire needs “well-mannered” and “docile” citizens. All of this shows how marriage is linked to the oppression of youth and many other oppressive systems.
I think that everything above shows how abusive and horrible marriage is as an institution. But, before we conclude, I think we need to talk about the controversial topic that I’ve ignored up until this point: gay marriage. If marriage should be abolished, then we need to rethink our support for gay marriage. Marriage is inherently oppressive and, therefore, expanding it to include gay people some gay people to become the oppressors. This is shown by the fact that gay marriage doesn’t fix issues facing the queer community - it just benefits wealthier gays, leaving people who can’t get married, notably poor or immigrant queer people, without help. It also should be noted that, given the above mentioned critique of marriage and amatonormativity, advocacy for gay marriage is just another way for LGB people to get benefits while not benefitting the rest of the community. I think we all need to remember that being queer isn’t about being accepted by the oppressors, it is about overturning and smashing oppression.
It also should be noted that queer marriages aren’t much different than their cishet counterparts. For instance, when it comes to children raised by queer families, they have similar health and education outcomes as children raised by cishet families. While some studies have found that youth with same-sex parents do better at school than those with different-sex parents, most of this difference can be accounted for by same-sex parents being from a higher socioeconomic class on average. On the other hand, it also seems like LGB relationships are either equally or more likely than their cishet counterparts to have intimate partner violence. This is caused by a number of things. For one, victims often don’t want to stigmatize the queer community or give ammunition to queerphobes by mentioning IPV. Another issue is that mental health resources for IPV victims tend to be heterosexist. On top of this, depictions and discussions of IPV are almost always from the perspective of cishet people, meaning that queer people can have a harder time recognizing when they are victims of abuse and violence. And it should also be noted that bi people, due to having less community support than other identities, are even more vulnerable to most of these issues. All of this is to say that differences between cishet and queer marriages, whether in education for children or IPV, are caused by outside factors. Overall, there isn’t much of a difference between cishet and queer marriages. This shows that gay marriage isn’t benefiting queer people, and is only contributing to lessening the liberatory potential of queerness.
Simone de Beauvoir once said about marriage that “any institution which solders one person to another, obliging people to sleep together who no longer want to is a bad one.” I agree with Beauvoir, and think that she is getting at something very important. Marriage, by nature of forcing together people who don’t want to be with one another, creates violence. But from the standpoint of the state, that is okay because if people are married and in their family units, they are easier to control. Remember, when marriage isolates, hurts, and traumatizes people, it is working as intended. When children are abused and forced into subservience, it is working as intended. All the horrors which we are told are “issues” with marriage are the system working as intended. Marriage, after all, is the way the government can pick and choose which types of relationships it will allow. And, unsurprisingly, the authoritarian institution of the state has picked an authoritarian model of family to support. Due to this, there is no liberation without the abolition of marriage.
The Nuclear Family
In the first part of this article, we discussed the nuclear family. Specifically, we discussed its origins and how it rose to prominence in the early 20th century, reaching its most dominant in the 1950s. All of this showed that the nuclear family, far from being the natural way in which people arrange themselves, is a specific, modern family arrangement. After discussing this, we turned towards looking at the consequences of the nuclear family. Specifically, the ways in which the nuclear family promotes obedience to authority and represses freedom and curiosity. Finally, these harms of the nuclear family were connected to anti-queerness, demonstrating the necessity of queer people being opposed to the nuclear family. In this section, I want to build upon what we have previously said about the nuclear family to try and figure out what we could do instead. To do this, I think we need to first look more specifically at the harms of the nuclear family, and then we can turn towards what possible alternatives there are.
While we have previously discussed the United States’ promotion of the nuclear family domestically, this is only one part of the story as the nuclear family also has an intertwined history with colonialism. Settler colonial societies were the birthplace of the modern nuclear family. This was due to settlers not having to follow traditional European norms and the nuclear family model becoming a popular way to organize family farms. This was especially true of mercantile colonies, as the nuclear family was directly connected to the rise of capitalism (which is also a consequence of colonialism). While the nuclear family took longer to become hegemonic than capitalism did, this does explain the connection between industrialization and the rise of the nuclear family. This change in family dynamics was also supported by the state, as laws and court decisions concerning marriage were extremely common in the colonies.
This connection between colonialism and the nuclear family isn’t just historical, but still continues to this day through modern American imperialism. American foreign policy, especially policy pushed by Christian conservatives, has promoted the nuclear family in places like Africa. Ironically, these Western institutions push the message that the nuclear family is natural to Africa and that other family styles are a result of Western imperialism. It should be noted that these groups’ influence on African politics isn’t limited to family structure, but also pushes anti-queerness, abortion bans, and opposes sex education. This colonial mentality also reproduces itself in how people of color in America are treated. As noted by Indigenous scholar Kim TallBear, many Indigenous American cultures practice polyamory and extended family living arrangements. But, in opposition to this, the American government pushes people of color towards marriage through mass advertising, which attempts to break up these traditional practices. This propaganda has also been connected to negative economic outcomes for people of color. All of this should show that the nuclear family is deeply tied to colonialism.
The nuclear family is also harmful to the people within it. This is because isolation caused by the nuclear family creates pressure, stress, and anxiety. This can negatively impact health, especially for people who already have mental health disorders. This connection is especially true for women, as being a part of the nuclear family is associated with decreased prenatal care and delivery assistance while giving birth. In addition, women in nuclear families are more likely to be physically abused. Nuclear families also tend to prevent assistance from reaching the most vulnerable people as houseless people tend to lack support from their nuclear families. Opposingly, extended families are often a part of the social networks houseless people build to support them. Such results are, unfortunately, unsurprising given the harmful environment created by the nuclear family.
The nuclear family creates a situation where parents have extensive powers over their children. For instance, a majority of children globally have experienced corporal punishment with parents being the most likely to physically abuse their children. In America specifically, corporal punishment is legal to some extent in every state and nearly half of Americans believe that spanking is important to raising children effectively. It should be noted that this is a false belief, as corporal punishment decreases physical health, worsens mental health, impairs brain development, leads to an increase in educational gaps, and increases aggression within children. In addition to this physical abuse, abortion access is another thing regulated by the nuclear family. In 37 states, people under 18 need parental approval to get an abortion, unless they can get a “judicial bypass” from a judge. These judicial bypasses are often very arbitrary. For instance, a 17 year old in Florida was denied the ability to get an abortion because of “poor grades.” Further, this system of judicial bypasses is intimidating, pushing people away from getting abortions who want to, and delays abortion care for those who have to go through this system. This connection between the nuclear family and abortion doesn’t end with youth’s right to abortions as anti-abortion positions are fundamentally about upholding the nuclear family.
I think the most obvious place to see the power of the nuclear family is with the question of children’s privacy. Issues of youth privacy are more important than ever with the rise of social media. Parents often post information and photos of their children, with 92 percent of youth having some digital footprint by age 2. Most of the time, this sharing is done by parents who don’t care about the consent of their children when sharing their information to the world. This violation of youths’ privacy isn’t without consequences. Sharing children’s photos has been linked to identity fraud, facial recognition tracking, and pedophilia. It should be noted that I’m not saying youth shouldn’t be on social media, especially queer youth who often need social media for community and mental health reasons, just that consent and privacy rights are important here. Unfortunately, these privacy rights are being denied by governments. For example, in Britain, court decisions have decided that youth do not have a “reasonable expectation” of privacy from their parents. Instead, youth privacy rights would only be taken into account if one of their parents tried to assert them. This means that in cases when parents abuse youth privacy rights, children lack protection. Overall, these privacy concerns, as well as the corporal punishment and abortion concerns mentioned in the previous paragraph, are just more examples of how the power of parents and the state over youth are linked and uphold one another.
What I think all of these issues reveal is that the nuclear family, at its core, is a structure meant to prevent community. In the first part of this article, we discussed Ashanti Alston’s “Childhood and the Psychological Dimension of Revolution”, which explained how the nuclear family beats out our freedom and creativity, and replaces it with obedience so we can “Fit In and Make It in this society.” Alston also notes that this is detrimental for radical organizing, as the Mask we develop to exist within our society limits our ability to dream of possibilities and push towards a liberated future. If we push this concept further, it becomes apparent that what Alston is describing is the destruction of supportive communities and their replacement with a repressive, hierarchical society. This can be seen by the fact that non-nuclear families are more likely to protect from the negative consequences of family disruption than nuclear families. And if we look at non-human animals, alloparenting - defined as care given by non-parents to youth - is associated with decreased anxiety and increased survival rates. Further, with humans, alloparenting is connected to our evolutionary development and brain capacity. All of this shows that, unlike what is often argued, the nuclear family doesn’t promote community, but actually seems to be in the way of it.
This reality, that the nuclear family is opposed to community, isn’t lost on those with power. Conservatives have often used the argument that the nuclear family makes community care unnecessary. To quote the 1976 Republican Party platform, “Families - Not Government Programs - are the best way to make sure our children are properly nurtured, our elderly are cared for, our cultural and spiritual heritages are perpetuated…” The ideas voiced in this platform would eventually be implemented in 2001 by the Bush administration through the “Healthy Marriages Initiative.” This program mostly targeted poor people of color and was a complete failure as it both had no noticeable effect on the issues like poverty facing these couples, and had a negative effect on the relationships of participants. This program’s failure demonstrates that the nuclear family and marriage are often promoted as a way to gut community care. And connecting back to colonialism, this is what is happening currently in places like Africa, as promoting the nuclear family has been a way to break up the important kinship networks which provide support and can resist imperialist control. Finally, I want to point out that while conservatives deserve the majority of the blame for pushing the nuclear family, these positions aren’t exclusive to them. Historically, unions have promoted a white, nuclear family as the ideal and argued that they need increased wages so their members can achieve a nuclear family. This argument still exists today and is seen when progressive politicians like Bernie Sanders promote benefits for “working families.”
This problem with the nuclear family suggests some basic changes we, as both individuals and as a society, need to make with regards to family structures. In her paper “The Liberation of Young People”, Amy Glaser offers a few suggestions for ways to get away from the nuclear family. First, we need to expand the number of adults raising children. This could include extended family, local community members, activists, or others. This provides a number of benefits to youth as it allows them to have more perspectives and gives them adults to easily reach beyond their parents. It also benefits parents as they no longer have to take on the burden, stress, and anxiety of child raising alone. Beyond just expanding and diversifying child raising, we also need to create alternative living arrangements for youth to go to if they want to. This requires changing laws so parents don’t have so much power over their children and, instead, youth can decide their own fate. Another important legal change would be changing child custody so that youth can decide which parent they want to live with or decide they don’t want to live with either of their parents. Finally, I would suggest that we need to respect a diversity of family structures, or we risk recreating the current imperialist environment where one family structure is hegemonic. While these may seem like lofty goals, we, as queer people, already do much of this work through creating chosen families which often oppose the structure of the nuclear family and create structures that can resist oppression. I think if we can become more intentional in our actions, we can push this even further, embracing a better way of living.
Finally, I would like to point out that, while I’ve talked about them separately, marriage and the nuclear family cannot be separated. As we’ve discussed, both marriage and the nuclear family are ways in which the state controls family structure, sexuality, and promotes gender/racial inequality. The difference, to use some terms from Michel Foucault, is that marriage is a tool of sovereign power while the nuclear family is a tool of disciplinary power. In other words, they are two sides of the same coin. Therefore, we must realize that only through a combined effort to get rid of both of them can we achieve liberation.
When I originally planned this discussion of the Family and its relation to adult supremacy, it was going to end with the above call to abolish marriage and the nuclear family. Since then, I’ve been able to read Sophie Lewis’ “Abolish the Family”, a book which has fundamentally changed how I’ve approached this topic. Throughout this section, I’m going to explore the contributions Lewis makes to critiquing the Family, especially her argument that we need to abolish the Family entirely, not just one form of it. I’m also going to look at some criticisms of Lewis’ arguments as, unlike the previous issues of marriage and the nuclear family, I think it is less clear-cut whether or not we should abolish the Family. While I’m not able to answer the question of whether or not we should abolish the Family here, I hope to explore the arguments made about this topic and encourage all of us to bring the question of family abolition to the forefront of radical discussions.
I think it is important for us to be more specific about what we mean when we say family abolition. Kathi Weeks, in her article “Abolition of the Family”, argues that the Family has three key components: social reproduction, the couple form, and bio-genetic kinship. Social reproduction is the acknowledgment that the Family is a specific institution with the goal of making youth reproduce society’s expectations. This happens because the Family, as one hierarchical institution, reinforces others. Also, as the Family is about privatized care, it upholds individualistic ways of thinking which inform our ideas of self. The couple form is the idea that all families tend to emphasize a relationship between two people as a couple. This isn’t to say that families are couples, just that the Family, as an institution, pushes people into couples instead of other types of relationship structures. Bio-genetic kinship is the idea that the Family is generally based on biological relationships and, even when families aren’t based on genetics, they try to reproduce the structures of bio-genetic relationships. All of this suggests that the Family, as an institution, pushes people towards hierarchical, bio-genetic couples.
In “Abolish the Family”, Sophie Lewis argues that this institution of the Family should be abolished. Lewis emphasizes that the Family is “the name we use for the fact that care is privatized in our society.” This idea of the Family as privatized care is essential to Lewis’ argument, as she is suggesting that we should prefer collective care, something which the Family doesn’t provide. Lewis argues that this privatized care system is problematic as it promotes unfair labor practices. This is seen through how much work we expect out of parents, especially mothers. Further, Lewis notes that the Family, given its reliance on parenting, upholds despotic power over children. Lewis uses these two issues to demonstrate problems with the Family and argue for its abolition.
Instead of the Family, Lewis argues that we should try and rethink of care as a collective experiment. This suggests two main changes that need to be made to how we care for one another. First, Lewis is asking for collective care. This is an old idea, one that was popular with the Utopian Socialist communes of the 19th century. Fourier and other Utopian Socialists had their communes live in collective housing, with no specific designations for families. Given that in “Abolish the Family” Lewis begins her timeline of family abolitionist efforts with Fourier, I think it is likely that this is probably what Lewis has in mind for collective living. But even if you don’t want to have such a radical position, I think the general point that we should expand care beyond the Family, and make sure no one has to rely on their families for support, is very appealing. The other part of Lewis’ suggestion that is important is her emphasis on experimentation. Care isn’t likely to have one method that does it best, so we need to be willing to try new ideas and figure out what works best for each group of people. Lewis concludes this vision by mentioning that, in Middle English, kin had a complementary term kith, which meant someone as close to you as kin, but not of biological relationship. Lewis asks us to try and build a world based on kith relationships instead of kin relationships, where one’s biological connection to us isn’t a determining factor in whether or not we want to be with them and have them in our lives.
This argument that the Family, in any of its forms, is harmful is supported by looking at the problems with non-nuclear families. Larger, extended families often expose young men to violence among family members, and often leads to these men accepting violence within the Family as being normal. These non-nuclear living situations can be harmful as they create more possibility for family conflict, something which often ends in gendered violence. Further, it should be noted that while many studies find non-nuclear families to have less violence, these findings are influenced by Western conceptualizations of family violence which emphasizes husbands’ violence against wives. This makes it hard to get a good idea of what exact effect being in a nuclear vs. a non-nuclear family makes on the likelihood of violence.
Non-nuclear families have also been shown to be abusive towards youth, especially orphaned youth. This has become a specific issue in Africa where a large increase in the number of orphans, mainly caused by AIDS, has overwhelmed kinship support networks. For many orphans in Africa, these kinship networks have been more harmful than helpful, leading to issues of child neglect and child labor. Also, the main factor determining quality of care for orphans is the economic status of those assisting them, meaning that this system of non-nuclear families is directly benefiting the rich over the poor just as the nuclear family does. Further, as these kinship networks have had to deal with all of these orphans, this has pushed more women into having to do caregiver duties, reinforcing gender roles. I want to be clear that what we can learn from this is that families, regardless of their makeup, seem incapable of dealing with these issues. Therefore, it seems that as it comes to caregiving, the Family is an ineffective institution. Due to this, when looking for solutions to issues like the orphan crisis in Africa, creating care networks outside the Family seems to be the solution.
Beyond just economic issues, there are also other issues which it seems like non-family networks could be better at solving. An example is loneliness. Children’s feelings of loneliness are more connected to their relationships with friends than those with family. This would suggest that, when it comes to comfort and community, family is again not the answer. Another example is that family, because of its connection to romantic relationships, upholds the importance of romance within our society. This, then, upholds amatonormativity, contributing to the oppression of aromantic people. These, and other examples, all point to one conclusion: that the Family is an ineffective and harmful way to care for each other.
While everything above may make a good case for family abolition, there are some reasons to be critical of this conclusion. One important issue with Lewis’ argument is its scope. In his critical assessment of “Abolish the Family”, Tom Whyman points out that Lewis’ focus on socialized care isn’t as opposed to the Family as she often portrays it to be. Many times, politicians actually use pro-family positions to justify welfare expansions. Further, Whyman notes that the Utopian Socialist communes, the ones Lewis and other contemporary family abolitionists take influence from, didn’t abolish the Family. Instead, they actually used the rhetoric of family, describing their communities as large families. What the Utopian Socialist actually supported was the abolition of the privatized home in favor of communal living, not the abolition of the Family. And I think Whyman’s argument is supported by us returning to Week’s definition of the Family. As previously stated, Weeks defines the Family as having three components: social reproduction, the couple form and bio-genetic kinship. But we can find counterexamples for this definition. For instance, the majority of societies worldwide practice polygamy in some form. For another, bio-genetic kinship isn’t always the basis for families, with some societies even normalizing biological parents giving up their children to promote cooperative care. Further, the (non-nuclear) Family is an old institution, one which likely predates the state or currency. Due to this, it is hard to believe that the Family, with all of its forms, can’t find one which can exist without things like capitalism, patriarchy, or the state.
I think this critique is a lot more major than it may look on the surface. Lewis’ account of family abolition holds that the Family is a privatized care system, antithetical to the socialized care Lewis wants. But, if we accept that what Lewis supports isn’t really a non-family system, but just a different family system, this basic assumption seems to fall apart. No longer does it seem that abolishing the Family is actually necessary for having a world where care is socialized, not privatized. Now this critique, at least by itself, wouldn’t necessarily mean that Lewis’ arguments are not important to the question of what we should do with the Family. What it does suggest is that Lewis’ argument is more accurately described as saying we should abolish the privatized home along with the nuclear family and marriage, and that forms of the Family without these components are what we actually need.
Another important critique of family abolition to discuss is whether or not family abolitionist principles people like Lewis defend actually solve the issues at hand. It should be noted that I don’t think Lewis is arguing that family abolition is going to solve the issues like gender inequality or adult supremacy by itself, but it is clear that Lewis believes family abolition is important to dealing with these issues. There are reasons to question this conclusion, though. For one, it is hard to say that abolishing the Family would actually help deal with issues of gendered labor. When we look at the field of childcare, women - especially poor women - are both overrepresented and underpaid compared to their male colleagues. I think seeing that gendered labor is so widespread should make us ask what getting rid of the Family would really do to help fix this issue. I also think we see a similar problem when it comes to power over youth. In the previous part of this article, I discussed the problems with the foster care system and child protective services. These issues with government power not only show ways in which youth can be abused outside of the Family, but also demonstrate how ideas about issues with the Family can be weaponized against youth and for adult supremacy.
To see the full extent of these issues we need to turn to one of the earliest family abolitionists: Plato. In his famous work the “Republic”, Plato outlines what he thinks a perfect society should look like. For Plato this requires the abolition of private property. And he believes to achieve this the Family must be abolished. This is because the Family promotes caring about a small number of people over the community, which is antithetical to the elimination of greed within a society. It is interesting to note that this argument shares a lot of similarities with those of modern family abolitionists. For instance, Plato’s connection of the Family to private property is also found in the writings of Marx and Engels. Further, returning to “Abolish the Family”, both Sophie Lewis and Plato are concerned with the Family’s connection to gendered power dynamics and both argue that the abolition of the Family will lead to greater gender equality. While Plato’s critique of the Family may seem appealing, his counter proposal for it is not. Plato argues for a totalitarian state that replaces the Family with state control of reproduction, education, and sexuality. This state would have so much power it would even be given the authority to determine when people should procreate and with whom. Given the similarities between Plato’s “Republic” and the ideas of contemporary family abolitionists, I think it is reasonable to wonder if what they are asking for would (against their wishes) lead in a similar direction.
One important thing to focus on in Plato’s argument is his lack of focus on issues of power. While Plato makes many arguments against the Family, none of them have to do with it being authoritarian, just with how it limits community and reproduces private ownership. I think, to a lesser extent, a similar thing can be said about scholars like Lewis. Lewis’ account does a great job pointing out the gender dynamics of the Family, but lacks a focus on the power dynamics behind it. This means that when Lewis proposes solutions, she discusses changing to communal living and other things which would get rid of the privatized home, but misses the power dynamics which also define the Family. In other words, if what we want to get at is what family abolition should actually look like, I think we need a greater incorporation of youth liberation and other perspectives that focus on the power dynamics of the Family. It is not enough to transition to a communal living model if all we are doing is trapping youth, just this time with a larger number of adults around them. A society needs to be built where children aren’t restricted to one living arrangement, no matter how egalitarian it may seem.
While I think the points above are important, the most important critique, and the one that makes me the most hesitant to support family abolition, is in how this would affect marginalized people. While this critique could apply to any marginalized group, I’m going to focus on the Black family because it is one that most clearly outlines the issues here. The Black family is extremely important for Black welfare. It has created a place for Black youth to resist racist ideology and allowed Black people to destress, which is especially important for queer Black people. Along with this, the destruction of the Black family has been something pushed by the American government, especially with its child welfare policies. All of this seems to indicate that abolishing the Black family isn’t something we should do. This seems even more true when we consider the ways in which the Black family has been queered in ways which resist the respectability politics of the neoliberal, white family.
In opposition to the points mentioned above, Black feminist Tiffany Lethabo King, in her article “Black ‘Feminisms’ and Pessimism: Abolishing Moynihan’s Negro Family”, argues that the Black family is an extension of slavery. King does this by focusing on Black authors’ responses to the Moynihan report, a 1965 document on Black poverty which claimed that the deterioration of the nuclear family, and the rise in single Black mothers, was the cause of Black poverty. King brings up Kay Lindsey’s 1970 essay “The Black Woman as a Woman” which argues for the abolition of the Family, linking the Family to capitalism, imperialism, and anti-blackness. This is combined with Hortense Spillers’ “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” which argued that, due to the continuing surveillance and slavery-like conditions of Black people, the Family isn’t possible. King places these works in the context of the rise of studies of the Black family after the Moynihan Report, which they note were a way for white people to surveil Black people, especially single Black mothers. Taking all of this together, King suggests that the Black family isn’t something which can exist outside the context of a white supremicist society and, further, argues that the Black family is really an attempt to recreate a white institution, not to oppose white supremacy. Instead, she argues that the model of fugitive slave communities, who rejected bio-genetic relations and traditional families in favor of diffuse kinship networks should replace the Black family.
I think that both of these positions have strong points for and against them. While Black families do seem like an important method of protection for Black people, I think King could argue that they are only that. Their model from fugitive slave communities seems to suggest a more radical approach to living and embraces the already common practice of Black mutual aid networks. Further, as King mentioned, the Black family seems to reproduce a lot of the problems of the white family, which isn’t likely to help anyone towards a better world. While these are important considerations, it also seems like King’s account has problems. For instance, her definition of the Family seems very narrow. In her critique of the Moynihan Report, Patricia Hill Collins notes that the report assumes that the Black household is the same as the Black family, which Collins argues isn’t true. Since many of the authors King uses are responding to the Moynihan Report and its view of the Family, this critique could also extend to the way in which they are using the term. This suggests that King’s argument may not encompass all forms of the Family, especially the Black queer forms that exist. Due to this, one could argue that while King provides a useful critique of the neoliberal and white biases within certain versions of the Black family, her account doesn’t necessarily make an effective argument for the abolition of the Black family. Being honest, I’m not sure which of these positions is more accurate and, as a white person, I don’t think I have the perspective to know which account of the Black family is more likely to be true.
In conclusion, we’ve seen the harms of the Family, and the arguments about whether reform or abolition is the answer. As I said in the introduction, I’m not sure where I stand on this issue. What I do know is that this is an issue which deserves more attention from people working towards liberation. It is clear that many of the most bigoted institutions in our society are connected to the Family in some way, and therefore finding an answer to what to do with the Family is important. I’ve tried to provide an outline for this type of conversation and hope that others will continue it. Now that my discussion of the Family is done, I plan to move towards the connections between activism and childhood in the next part of this article.