by Angela Nagle
The call to abolish the family has recently been revived by cultural revolutionaries who are getting their way on a number of issues to which most people had never given any consideration. Why is it being revived now, when the family has already been in decline for decades? And why is it being demanded as part of an avowedly egalitarian project when decades of research have proven that family breakdown has not only been caused by growing economic inequality but that it in fact exacerbates that inequality?
First, for those who might wish to explain away what I am about to say, the call for the abolition of the family is not a fringe demand, but something that is widely discussed in media, in academia and other elite institutions, and in activist organizations. Anarchists are only its vanguard. The official Black Lives Matter organization, which has received vast sums in corporate funding, has listed the abolition of the family among its demands. Left-wing publications like the slickly produced anarchist Commune magazine have explicitly advocated for it. Last year Verso Books, the influential leftist publishing house, released Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against the Family, which made the case for family abolition amid glowing reviews in Vice, the Nation, the Outline, and elsewhere. The Open Society Foundation and Ford Foundation-funded publication Open Democracy recently published an opinion piece by Lewis headlined “The Coronavirus Crisis Shows It’s Time to Abolish the Family,” while the Nation ran with “Want to Dismantle Capitalism? Abolish the Family.” “Socialism is about democratizing the family to get rid of patriarchal relations,” Jared Abbott, a national steering committee member of the Democratic Socialists of America, has told Vox. At the Socialism 2019 conference, organized by Jacobin magazine and the D.S.A., a panel on “Social Reproduction Theory and Gender Liberation” advocated abolishing the family as a remedy for patriarchal capitalist relations.
How do these people, in their own words, imagine an alternative to the family? Commune, which was recently forced to disband because of rape accusations against its editorial board, laid out six steps. The first is a “massive insurrection” followed by setting up “liberated zones.” This concept of the temporary autonomous zone (T.A.Z.) theorized by the anarchist and avowed pro-pedophilia activist Hakim Bey is central to the vision of the contemporary American left, which was realized briefly at C.H.A.Z. in Seattle. We all know how that ended, in murders and shootings (with two black teenagers among the victims) and nakedly authoritarian rule by a warlord.
The next step, we are told, is to “Set up cooperative childcare.” This for some reason will involve the establishment of “syringe exchanges and other harm reduction practices to welcome active drug users.” (Never mind the well-established connection between drug addiction and child abuse.) Then we must “build communes” with collective canteens where everyone eats and works and the children play collectively in crèches with some private rooms offered for those who wish to form family-like units. “Homes” as we know them, however, will be “ended.” Next it will be necessary to “combat the return of the family” by uniting all the “refugees” from this atavistic institution until “those seeking a return to the family as an isolated economic unit are counterrevolutionaries.” Thence a new society will emerge in which “everyone is called upon to creatively and collectively intervene into abusive parental relationships,” at which point we will have “freed queer love and feminist care to create a basis for human flourishing.” All of this is a prelude to the final destruction of “the states which reinforce the violence of the family,” which is to say, virtually every society hitherto observed in human history.
Reader, I know what you’re thinking. This must be cherry picked from the pages of that scandal-ridden anarchist magazine. (It is actually a straightforward summary of a popular article.) Let’s look at what other proponents of abolishing the family have to say in their own words. “We know that the nuclear private household is where the overwhelming majority of abuse can happen. And then there’s the whole question of what it is for: training us up to be workers, training us to be inhabitants of a binary-gendered and racially stratified system, training us not to be queer,” says Sophie Lewis. For her among the most important steps is to “denaturalize the mother-child bond… the idea that babies belong to anyone — the idea that the product of gestational labor gets transferred as property to a set of people.” Children — excuse me, the “products of labor” — being attached to the women who gave birth to them and being raised by them along with their fathers? Whoever thought of such a ridiculous idea.
Lewis’s notion that “children should belong to no one but themselves” seems like a particularly dark and troubling road to go down. Every sexual taboo imaginable has disappeared in recent years with the sole exception of that which surrounds pedophilia. The only thing that keeps it intact is the sacrosanct notion that children cannot make decisions for themselves. “Liberating” children from their parents, legally, morally, and culturally, would break the very last and final line of defense the besieged family has left.
Lewis goes on to offer more practical advice. “States should immediately meet gestational workers’ [i.e., pregnant women’s] demands for more control over their obstetrics, higher pay, and the right to remain involved, if they wish, with client families,” she says, and “implement a sense that it is normal for us to think about babies as made by many people.” Lewis claims to draw upon the influence of black feminists. “Family doesn’t mean what it means in the bourgeois settler imaginary [sic] when you’re talking about black life.”
In the Eighties, the wealth gap that opened up between the educated and less educated due to offshoring and the decline in opportunities for the working class is considered one of the primary causes of family break-ups by sociologists such as Andrew Cherlin, the author of Love’s Labour Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class Family in America. While the working-class family suffered under these economic conditions, family stability increased among the educated. This disparity has in turn exacerbated the wealth gap further. The many demonstrable positive benefits of growing up with two parents are among the many evils of the past from which the working class and the less educated appear to have been liberated.
An abundance of research tells us that the negative effects of family break-ups include emotional and behavioural problems for children, the increased likelihood of mental illness (including depression) later in life, receiving less education, earning less money, holding fewer assets, an increased chance of getting divorced in turn. Children in such situations receive less affection from either parent. They are likelier to trust neither and to have similar feelings toward their future spouses, to be less optimistic about their own marriages, to have a more negative view of people in general. They are forty times more likely to be physically or sexually abused and fifty times more likely to be killed by the step-parents or male partners who are not their fathers. Most, indeed all of these things are absent in many traditional families, but the general statistical trends are undeniable. These are the actual results of the policies that are being pushed by those unlikely ever to experience them upon those who have been lucky enough to have avoided them so far.
Proponents will argue that these and other evils are the predictable consequences not of the family’s abolition but the unfortunate results of its continued survival, and that they would disappear if their utopian schemes were implemented. Only then will the village be allowed to raise the child. But where will the village, this hypothetical replacement network of solidarity that will recreate and even improve upon the intense loyalty and selfless caregiving of parents and their children in the family unit come from? All the social trends are moving in the other direction, from the village to the individual. Robert Putnam’s famous work, for example, documents the steady decline of social trust, community, and cooperation in the same time period during which the family has declined, with loneliness and isolation increasing by every statistical measure to a greater extent now than at any point in American history. The long-term implications of the coronavirus point toward an acceleration rather than a reversal of these trends.
Nobody would have believed just a few months ago that, say, abolishing the police would become a tenet of mainstream American liberalism. Even rightwing politicians have been cowed more or less overnight into publicly agreeing with things beyond the wildest dreams of the most radical anarchist of just a few years ago. If the abolition of the family is the next demand of our successful cultural revolutionaries, it is easy to imagine how the legal infrastructure undergirding could be dismantled; its moral and cultural foundations are already vulnerable old structures just waiting to be tipped over. Who exactly is going to stop them? As far as I can see there is no reason to think that you or anyone else will care more about anything on earth, including your own children, than the desire to avoid being seen as enemies of progress.
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the city in which a warlord took over a leftist commune. We regret the error.
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