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Family Abolition – review

O’Brien offers a radical and exciting argument for a liberative approach to care, writes Matt Seidel

5 to 6 minute read

A black and white photo of a sculpture depicting a family of four holding hands, with both parents at either side

Title: Family Abolition: Capitalism and the Communizing of Care

Author: M. E. O’Brien

Publisher: Pluto Press

Year: 2023

Family Abolition: Capitalism and the Communising of Care is an audacious and unapologetic book. By the author’s own admission, the notion of abolishing the family is ‘a provocation’ that ‘though not meant to enrage… unfortunately will’.

It is easy to understand the far right’s opposition to family abolition – the heteronormative nuclear family as the economic unit of society is central to their political agenda. At the same time, the family as it is traditionally conceived has also been a site of refuge for marginalised communities. Consequently, leftists might also be resistant to O’Brien’s arguments.

Given that family abolition is not ‘a platform that will easily win people over’, it is tempting to think that the left should only try to improve the family structure. This softer approach is certainly an easier sell rhetorically, particularly when it comes to advocating for the welfare of individuals. O’Brien argues that settling for a less assertive stance would be a mistake for two reasons.

The family and reproductive labour

The first is that real solutions to the crises suffered within private, atomised families cannot be achieved through piecemeal reform. This is because ‘under capitalism, care is alienated’, with care being defined by O’Brien as ‘those activities that directly help us reproduce our physical health and development, our psychic well-being and our capacity for rich relationships and pleasures’.

Most importantly, care ‘is a material relationship, a set of forms of labour’. Within capitalism, access to the kind of care we all need to survive (food, shelter, physical therapy) requires submission to the exploitative system of wage labour. This results in individuals staying within horrific family situations simply to avoid deprivation. A trans child with bigoted parents or a wife with an abusive husband will feel justifiably trapped if neither has the means to support themselves economically independent of their families. And even if they can sell their labour and live alone, the workplace is itself rife with sexual assault, transphobia and other similar injustices.

The fundamental problem, O’Brien explains, is that ‘people may love those they consider their community, but the priority must be finding a way to sell their capacity to work’, or rely on others selling theirs. Family abolition is rooted in the conviction that ‘who you love should not determine the material conditions of your life’. Far from being about losing anything, it is ‘our capacity for care and love becoming the basis for radical new social forms, made universal in the overthrow of class society’.

O’Brien’s materialist analysis allows her to get to the heart of the injustices produced within nuclear families, enmeshed as they are within capitalist logic. It also allows her to recognise how conservative and liberal defences of the family both understand it as a part of the labour market.

But just as the family continually reproduces capitalism, capitalism continually reproduces the family based on its needs. In the 19th century, the sanctity of working-class families was certainly not a priority. Due to child labour, unsanitary living conditions, low wages and other features of industrialisation, the working class was unable to achieve the kind of stable living conditions enjoyed by the bourgeoisie.

Black families in the US faced particularly brutal challenges. In past centuries, enslaved people had their children sold away and were themselves paired off with different men or women based on the whims of their owners. The precarious nature of black family life necessitated the formation of various kinship relationships.

O’Brien has the courage to imagine what a world where the family has been abolished might look like

O’Brien emphasises that these arrangements, which placed childcare within the community, demonstrated that the nuclear family is not the only model possible. But these new kinship models ‘horrified white observers’ after the civil war, who went to great lengths to impose a white heteronormative structure on family life.

Some members of the workers’ movement were able to approximate the bourgeois ideal of ‘respectability’. O’Brien, whose analysis focuses on the US and Europe, concedes that this effort was vital to the ‘ultimately effective struggle… to achieve the right to vote and participate in government, to legalise trade union activity’ and more.

However, it also divided the working class, with more privileged (predominantly white) families adopting the ‘respectable’ model with a husband who worked and a housewife whose reproductive labour was uncompensated. The economic crises we face today have expanded our imaginations as to what a family can be by making this mid 20th-century model unattainable.

Crushed under student, medical and other forms of debt, many workers cannot afford even to buy homes, let alone start a family of their own. There is far more acceptance of spaces ‘for queer and trans life [and] more people able to choose living alone’, but it has come at the cost of ‘stagnant wages… collapsing public healthcare infrastructure’ and in many ways ‘intensifying dependency on the private household’.

Family abolition versus respectability

A second problem O’Brien sees with softening one’s stance on family abolition is that leftists ‘exclusively focusing on defending the family betray the working class in its full rich diversity’. The fight for gay marriage is emblematic of this. In the early 2000s, LGBTQIA+ groups wanted to address the needs of ‘queer and trans people facing poverty, police violence, incarceration and the violence of state immigration policy. Some pointed to the need for labour unions and worker protections to substantively challenge anti-gay employers.’

But ‘these progressive queer voices were drowned out’ because gay marriage became the top concern for ‘the movement’s wealthiest donors’ and ‘signalled the acceptance of gay and lesbian people into the fantasy of the normative family… one rooted in property and whiteness’. Here again, the desire for respectability divides those who should be allies and exacerbates the worst aspects of the nuclear family.

On a more abstract level, this lack of ambition to move beyond the family structure severely limits the futures we can imagine beyond capitalism. O’Brien admits the deficiencies of failed past utopian visions condemned by many Marxists. Still, she has the courage to imagine what a world where the family has been abolished might look like, and this is what makes Family Abolition so powerful.

In the final section of the book, O’Brien offers possible alternatives based on protest movements, present-day insurrections and the core values that inform her material analysis. These visions of what commune life might be like for individuals, communities and the entire world are not presented as perfect solutions but outlines on a horizon we can work toward.

Family abolition has been and remains an off-putting concept to many across the political spectrum. But it is critical to not only point out the flaws of the family but offer inspiring alternatives. This is what O’Brien offers: an understanding of family abolition as ‘a collective potential between us all yet to be discovered’.

This article first appeared in Issue 241, Pan-Africanism. Subscribe today to support independent socialist media and get your copy hot off the press!

Matt Seidel is a writer and musician based in Rochester, New York

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